HIST 202: European Civilization, 1648-1945

Lecture 1

 - Introduction


The course will concern European history from 1648 to 1945. The assigned readings include both standard historical texts and works of fiction, as well as films. Although the period in question encompasses many monumental events and “great men,” attention will also be paid to the development of themes over the long term and the experiences of people and groups often excluded from official histories. Among the principle questions to be addressed are the consolidation of state power, the formation of identities, linguistic and national affiliations, and the effects of economic change.

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European Civilization, 1648-1945

HIST 202 - Lecture 1 - Introduction

Chapter 1. Course Structure and Requirements [00:00:00]

Professor John Merriman: I’m John Merriman and this is History 202. I’m here every Monday and Wednesday, 10:30 a.m. to 11:20 a.m. The way this course is, these are all really major themes. I’m going to go over this a little bit, and I’m going to talk about some of the themes. I kind of lecture on things that I think that complement what you’re doing. Let me give you an example. When I talk about the New Imperialism, why it is that Europe basically took over the entire world between the 1880s and 1914, you can read the chapter in A History of Modern Europe, which I had fun writing, but I lecture on the Boy Scouts. I often say that I lecture on the Boy Scouts because I was thrown out of the Boy Scouts in Portland, Oregon, when I was a kid, because I didn’t manage to accumulate a single badge and was totally useless after sports seasons ended. But that’s not why I do it.

To understand the New Imperialism, why Europe took over essentially all of Africa, where they had places that were totally uncharted that suddenly became highly contested between British, French, German, and Italian conquerors, one has to understand the culture of imperialism. The ordinance of the Boy Scouts in Britain has a lot to do with that. Why generations of British youth and their counterparts in Germany, and even Australia, New Zealand, and other places, began to think that it was important to be able to look at a map in their schoolhouse that had the color red for Britain increasingly taking over the map of Asia and Africa, and lots of other places as well. So, instead of — at the very beginning of that lecture, I’ll say, “Look, there are three things you really ought to know about the New Imperialism, why they did this.” Then I talk about the Boy Scouts, so that those two things will fit together.

Or, when I talk about World War I, and we’ll have two lectures. My friend and colleague, Jay Winter, is doing one of them on the Great War and modern memory. Instead of trying to do the entire war, and there is, I think, a quite sporty chapter on that in the book, I’ll talk about trench warfare. You’ll see a film called Paths of Glory. That’s an early Kubrick film about the mutinies in 1917. I’ll talk about the mutinies in 1917 when people just said, “Enough is enough. There’s no sense dying for nothing. We won’t go over the top.” Which is to say that it’s important to come to lecture, and it’s important to come to sections.

I’ve cut back on the reading. I used to use about four more books than I use now, but it’s better to concentrate on what you’re doing. The books are A History of Modern Europe, second edition, which I wrote for people like you. Then you’ll read Persian Letters, not all of it. That would be a rather lengthy day or so. You’ll read excerpts in Persian Letters, and Montesquieu talks about relations between West and East, and it’s a phenomenal moment in the history of the Enlightenment. Then you have a pause where you’re basically just reading me, for better or for worse, but I hope for better, until you get to Émile Zola, his great novel, Germinal, which is a classic. Zola was the first sort of naturalist novelist, at least in France. When he wrote Germinal, germinal means budding, like the budding of trees. But he means the budding of people being aware of themselves as workers. He went down to the mines in the north of France in the Anzin. One of the heroes of the book is a woman called Catherine, who is fifteen years old, but has seen a lot of life for being fifteen years old.

When Zola wrote Germinal, he went down into the mines to look at fifteen-year-old young women, barely older than girls, working in the mines twelve hours a day. It’s a book that resounds with reality. It’s really kind of an amazing book, and I think you’ll like that. I hope you will. Then Helmut Smith’s The Butcher’s Tale is about accusations of ritual murder in a German town. It’s about the second German Reich, and it’s about anti-Semitism in a small place with bigger consequences. George Orwell went off to fight the good fight in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, where it was sort of a dry run for an even more horrible war, and even more horrible fascists. It’s about his engagement and disillusionment in the Spanish republican forces, the loyalist forces, and about the tensions and the duplicity of Stalin’s folks undercutting the Trotskyites and undercutting the anarchists. It’s one of those classics that’s a classic for a very good reason. It’s really a marvelous read.

Finally, there’s Ordinary Men. I go to Poland a lot. In the last couple of years I’ve been there four or five times for various reasons, and I’d never been to Auschwitz. I went to Auschwitz a year ago. I don’t know, some of you have probably been there. As you’re going through the horror of it all, and as you’re seeing empty suitcases with people’s names on them that the people don’t exist anymore, and you’re seeing baby shoes and things like that. You think, “Who could have done this? Who could have gone out and simply, in an assembly line way, killed people?” Or in fields around Lodz, which was a large industrial town and still is in Poland, simply gone out and blown the brains out of mothers, babies, grandmothers, and anybody they found. Who could have done it? Well, the answer that Chris Browning has is ordinary men. And he had the quite brilliant idea of looking at a German unit, essentially policemen from Hamburg, the port town of Hamburg, an old important Hanseatic port. And he follows them from the lives of very ordinary people into the killing fields, it was nothing less than that, of Poland. It’s also short. Germinal is long, but these other ones are short. It’s gripping. It’s quite amazing. So, those are the books.

I think that A History of Modern Europe — I hope — is fun to read. I think you will enjoy that. The lectures kind of — you see the themes speak for themselves. Sections, everybody likes Wednesday night sections. One of my colleagues has only Wednesday night sections. We’ve gone increasingly to that, because sometimes you don’t find a large audience even on Friday morning 10:30 slots. We’ve abandoned that. So, tentatively, we’re going to have two at 7:00 p.m., two at 8:00 p.m., then Thursday at 1:30 p.m., and Thursday at 2:30 p.m. I don’t know. When are we starting sections? Sometimes we don’t do it until the second week. It depends on what day. What day is this? Wednesday. I don’t know. Maybe we’ll start them next week. Maybe we won’t. Who knows? But they will happen, and there’s also a short, sporty paper assignment. By short I don’t mean two pages, but something like seven pages, eight pages on something that you want to write about.

Now, let me give you some examples just off the top of my head. If you have any interesting in painting, for example, it would be interesting to take looks by, say, two Impressionist painters like Pissarro and Renoir, and to see how they viewed the transformation of nineteenth-century Paris, the big boulevards and all of that. Or you could take another novel. Germinal, one of the interesting things about it is that it’s a document of history. It’s a novel, so these are invented people, but it’s a document of history in some ways, as is lots of the great literature of World War I. There isn’t any period in modern history that has so much gripping literature about it as the Great War, the British war poets like Siegfried Sassoon. And a lot of these people were dead after they wrote. Sassoon wasn’t, at least not immediately. I can’t remember if he dies in 1918 or not. But to take some of the poetry, or the writing of the war, and write a paper about it.

Or, if you’re into diplomatic history, or something like that — I don’t know, a paper re-evaluating the origins of the Crimean War. That might put you to sleep before it puts your TA to sleep. But you can imagine a good paper on that. You can do whatever you want. When I do the Enlightenment, borrowing from my good friend Bob Darnton, I’ll do a thing at the beginning about why the Enlightenment was important, what it is. There’s secularization, rational inquiry, and all of that, stuff that you may already know, maybe not. But it’s in the book. But then what I do is I look at some of the third string, or the third division in the European football sense, of Enlightenment hacks, and what they wrote about royalty, and about aristocrats, and the way they kind of undermined those traditional hierarchies that would be swept away, to a large extent, by the French Revolution. Or you could take somebody out of the French Revolution, such as the steely Saint-Just, who ran off with his mother’s silver at age sixteen or something and went on the grand tour of France, and talk about him on the Committee of Public Safety that signed away the lives of lots of people, but may have also saved the revolution.

You can do whatever you want. Well, it should have something to do with the course and in the time period we’re talking about. Nothing on the Red Sox or something, but you would work with your teaching participant. I’m an email animal. I’m always available on email, and I have office hours as well, but people don’t come much anymore. They’re doing NBA.com, because email has made office hours sort of oblivious. I mean, irrelevant, not oblivious. But people are oblivious to my office hours. But, anyway, they are Mondays, 1:00 to 2:30 p.m. It used to be 3:00 p.m., but I just sit there by myself, 1:00 to 2:30 p.m. in Branford College, K13.

There are also two other movies when we get to fascism, when we get to Adolf Hitler. He was only one of a whole bunch of dictators. There were hardly any parliamentary regimes left in continental Europe by the time 1939 comes. A woman called Leni Riefenstahl, who just died in 2002 at age 102, when she was a young woman did a propaganda film for Hitler. Hitler, like Mussolini, believed in high tech. He was one of the first people to use the radio. Franklin Roosevelt used the fireside chat of the radio. But Mussolini was already there piling falsehood upon falsehood, and Italians who could barely afford to eat all had their radios. The same thing happened in Germany as well. She did a movie, a documentary called Triumph of the Will, about Nuremburg. It is truly chilling. It’s amazing, it looks like a political convention or something in some ways.

All of these movies you can see in the privacy of your luxurious suites in Branford or Pierson College or wherever, because they’re available now in ways I don’t even understand, but on your Internet. We used to actually show them here. I used to use a great movie called The Sorrow and the PityLe Chagrin et la pitié. It was four hours long. People described it as a two six-pack movie. The janitors complained because there were so many beer bottles rattling around. But, of course, this was before the drinking age was raised. So, of course, I don’t show that movie. I take that back. I don’t take that back, but what the hell. Anyway, I don’t show that movie anymore. But I do show Triumph of the Will, and you can watch that at home.

The other one is Au revoir les enfants. Because one of the last lectures I talk about resistance and collaboration in Europe, and because I live in France much of the time, I talk about France. Au revoir les enfantsGoodbye Children, some of you have probably seen. It was made by Louis Malle, who just died a couple of years ago. It was about when he was in college, so he was the equivalent of 7th and 8th grade. There was a new boy that shows up at school during World War II in Fontainebleau, which is just southeast of Paris. He’s a boy who hadn’t been there before. He’s a Jewish boy. It’s about his friendship with this boy, and what happens. At the end, it’s not a happy film, but it’s a great, great film. What else? What to say?

There’s a midterm. I don’t like to waste a lecture giving a midterm. I would rather give a lecture, but we have to have something to report to you. If you tube it, if you don’t do very well at all, we don’t count it as much as if you do well. People ask these questions, I know. How much is it worth? Geez, there’s more to life than grades, but it’s something like twenty-five percent and the paper is twenty-five percent. Section participation is ten percent, whatever we work out, then the final. It’s an exercise in seeing how you’re doing. It really is no big deal, but it will help you pull the themes of the course together. It’s no scary situation. We all live in this sort of A-, B+ range.

I’ll tell you, a couple of years ago I ran into this student. When I run into students, I’m a friendly guy and I see people, and I say, “Hi, how are you?” I ran into this one person. I said, “Hi, how are you?” And she went, “Oh, hello.” Oh? I remembered her name and I went and looked it up, and there was the B+. It wasn’t that, “Hi, how are you? A- or A,” but whatever. I’m sure she had all A’s in the other courses, and a B+ is not the end of the world, and most people get A’s, but whatever. You have to take the midterm. That’s the way they run it here. That’s not my idea, so that’s what we’re going to do.

Chapter 2. Major Themes: State-Making, the Rise of Capitalism, and War [00:14:38]

Okay, now I’m going to talk about some of the themes. At the end, I’m going to read you a poem. I started history in a serious way because I read this poem. So, I’ll leave that until the end of it. I didn’t got to Yale. I went to the University of Michigan, maize and blue forever, very sad since last weekend. I came from Portland, Oregon. I don’t know if any of you come from Portland, Oregon, but that’s where I’m from. When I went off to Michigan, I’d been at a Jesuit high school. Jesuit high school was a sports factory, in part, but it was a very good school, but it was very repressive. I went off to the University of Michigan after having been in Jesuit school for four years. It was wine, women, and song. There weren’t enough in the middle and probably too much of the first. My first semester I got a 1.93 grade point average, and my mother asked me if that was on a two-point scale. I’m serious. I had an F. I shouldn’t laugh at myself. My kids say, “Oh, my god, not the same story again.” But I got an F, and I got two C’s, and I got a B.

The people I hung around with in Ann Arbor were so unaccomplished, some of them anyway, that they thought I was smart because I got a B. I’d go by in the dining room and they’d say, “He got a B.” They asked me to tutor them. Can you imagine that? Some of the people that I hung around with were amazing. You may even know people like that, but I don’t think so. But one of the guys that I knew, I’ve got to get back to the topic in a minute, but I just thought of this, was sort of the king of malapropisms. One day he was going on and on. These are the people I hung around with. He was going on and on about this good meal that he had of one course after another, and it was fantastic. It was a really good restaurant, and somebody snuck him some wine. Finally, I’m tired of the whole thing and I said, “Was it gratis?” He said, “No, it was chicken.” Those are the people that I hung around with at the University of Michigan. But I’ve taught here a long time and I stand by maize and blue, but I love Yale.

One of the things I love about Yale is being able to teach people like you. And I mean it, and I love this course, so I hope that you will enjoy it, if indeed you take it. What about some of the themes? What kind of stuff are we going to do? Could you get some syllabi for some of those folks back there? They’re up on the thing. Thanks a lot. A couple of themes. I don’t believe, and I’ve never believed, that history is a series of bins. I guess I wrote that in the book, but that you open up and you say, “Well, there goes the Enlightenment. Shut that baby down.” Then you open up the next one, and here comes eighteenth-century rivalries, and you shut that baby. Then the French Revolution, “Oh, I know all about that now.” Pretty soon you go on to Russian Revolution eventually, and all that. To do a course like this where you’re going to learn much of what is important to know about western civilization, I do believe, if you do the reading and stuff, and if you enjoy the lectures, there have to be some threads that go all the way through that make it worth it so you learn something. One is certainly state-making.

Even if you take a sort of federalized, decentralized state like with this very bizarre electoral system like the United States, that the growth of modern states, it doesn’t really just come in the twentieth century with the welfare state beginning in England, and even before that in some other places, insurance programs and things like that. It begins with the consolidation of state power in the late Middle Ages with territorial monarchies, the Spanish, and the French, and the English monarchies. It has a lot to do with the growth of absolute rule. That’s what I’m going to talk about next time, absolute rule, absolutism. The growth of standing armies, huge standing armies, never seen before, of big forts built on frontiers. It has a lot to do with bureaucrats who could extract resources from ordinary people. A lot of the rich didn’t pay anything or hardly anything at all. It has to do with an allegiance, a dynastic allegiance that could be transferred later to a nation, the idea of nation. That starts in the eighteenth century. It doesn’t start in the nineteenth century. It starts in the eighteenth century, at least in Britain. That’s an argument that we’ll make also.

In 1500, which is kind of when that book gets rolling — they only start in about 1648 — there were about 1500 different territorial units in Europe. Some were no bigger than Archbishop’s Garden in Germany, and some were larger states — not yet what they are now in terms of size, such as France, which expanded under Louis XIV into Alsace and Lorraine, and various other places. But there’s about 1500 territorial units. In 1890, there were thirty. So, the consolidation of state power, which is looking at it from the state out, or the emergence of an identity where you see yourself as German as opposed to Bavarian, French as opposed to Gascon or Provencal, Spanish as opposed to Castilian or as opposed to Catalan. The Catalan language was illegal until 1975, until Francisco Franco finally croaked in 1975, in November.

This is a great phrase; I wish I’d said it originally. I don’t know who said it, but someone once said that a language is a dialect with a powerful army. That’s it. That’s true. France at the time of the French Revolution, half the people in France knew French. There was bilingualism. You could know Catalan. You could know Auvergnat patois. We live in the south of France where a lot of old people still speak a patois, though that’s mostly dying out. How does it come that identity, a sense of allegiance to a state or a country? Not everybody, but how does it come to 1914 when people go marching off to get killed singing the Marseillaise, the French national anthem, in pretty good French? How does that happen? How does a state increase its reach? How is the modern world created? We call this process, it’s a clumsy word, but state-making. How do states form?

The other side of this is how do identities change? In the sixteenth century, seventeenth century, ask somebody they were. Say, “Who are you?” They’d say, “I’m so and so. I’m of this family.” Or, “I am Protestant,” if it was the sixteenth century or late sixteenth century, any time after 1520s or 1530s in parts of Germany. “I’m Protestant. I’m Jewish.” In much of the Balkans, “I am Muslim.” In most of Europe, “I am Catholic.” In Eastern Europe, “I am Russian Orthodox. I live in a mir (village) in Russia.” How does that happen by the end of the nineteenth century that people have, even Russia as they’re starving to death, starving in the famine that Tolstoy, the great writer, called the world’s attention to. A lot of them died in fields thinking, “only if the czar only knew that we were starving, and that his ministers were treating us bad, how angry he would be.” Well, they didn’t get it. They didn’t know that the czar could have given one damn. But the allegiance to the czar, the sense of being Russian or being dominated by the Russian czar, is something that had to be constructed.

So, the state constructs its ability to extract taxes, extract bodies for national armies, also to provide resources, but identities are transformed. So, I give this as an example, because state-making is one of the themes that kind of ties everything together. This course ends in 1945, but look at the problems in the post-communist world of state-making. Look what’s going on in Georgia, which is more complicated than the newspapers present in very many ways. Look at the horror show of the Balkans in the 1990s. A lot of the issues, religious hatreds that we thought only would be limited to Northern Ireland. That’s another theme that’s very important to the whole thing. Another, of course, is economic change.

Obviously, this is not a course in economic history, but the rise of capitalism, that’s what it’s called, capitalism or large-scale industrialization. It changes in ways that we’ll suggest in the reading, and then I’ll talk about a little bit, the way people live in very fundamental ways. There’s lot of continuities, but there’s lots of big changes. Everybody doesn’t end up in the assembly lines right away. There are other ways of rural production. Women’s work remains terribly, terribly important. I’ll spend some time doing that.

A very dear friend of mine, my mentor indeed, Chuck Tilley, who just died a couple months ago, to my great sadness, once said that “it’s bitter hard to write the history of remainders.” Lots of people were left out of all of this. I’ll do one lecture when I talk about popular protest. I’ll take three examples of people rebelling. I stand back and say, “What does this mean? What is going on here?” I take the example from the Pyrenees Mountains, a place called the Ariège. You’re not responsible for that name, would never be. But where suddenly men dressed as women carrying guns, or carrying pitchforks, came down out of the mists, out of the snow and drove away charcoal burners and drove away forest guards. Why? Because they’d lost access to glean, to pasture their miserable animals. Because the wealthy, big surprise, got the law on their side as the price of wood goes up. They didn’t walk around saying, “Well, I’m a remainder. Eventually, I’m going to have to move to Toulouse and my great-great-grandchildren will work in the Aero Spatial, in the air industry there.” They didn’t say, “I’m remainder number 231.” But they fought for their dignity, and for a sense of justice they thought existed at one time that had been taken away by these economic changes they couldn’t control.

Then I take an example from the south of England, from the same time, 1829, 1830, when they find people dead with only dandelions in their stomach, dead of hunger. Then these people start marching the poor, the wretched poor. Rural laborers start marching and threatening people with threshing machines. Why threshing machines? Because threshing machines were taking away their work as harvesters. And one day they found a sign that said, “Revenge from thee is on the wing from thy determined Captain Swing,” suggesting that they were many. They were righteous. They were just. They were armed. They were ready. Did Captain Swing exist? Of course not. They were weak and they get lost. They get defeated. Some of them are hung. Lots of them are sent to Tasmania to the prison at Port Arthur, Tasmania. They’re sent to Australia. That’s why when the Australians play the English, a lot of the Australians sing that old Beatles’ song, “Yellow Submarine,” which you don’t remember, which I vaguely remember. “We all live in a convict colony, a convict colony, a convict colony. Captain Swing, they lost, but they went down fighting. It’s bitter hard to write the history of remainders. But when you look up from that and you say, “Look what’s going on here.”

When you look at people fighting for grain, fighting for food, they’re fighting a larger process that they can’t control. But it tells you a lot of what’s going on over the big picture. That’s another one. Then there is, I’ll just take one more, maybe another ten minutes. I’m going to read you my poem. Then you can go. But I hope you come back. War — war as a dynamic of change. Warfare changes with Napoleon. There were already changes in the eighteenth century, but it’s still basically professional armies or people getting conscripted in the British navy, because they were drunk at the wrong place at the wrong time outside of a tavern in Portsmouth or something. The next thing they know, they’re throwing up on a ship bobbing off toward the English empire. But warfare changes with the nation’s state. The French called it leveé en masse, that’s mass conscription, the sense of defending the nation. There’s this magic moment where the artisans of Paris defeat the highly-professionalized army at a windmill called Valmy in the east of France. It changes the way things were.

Napoleon is arguably the first total war, because of a war against civilians where there are no longer the traditional limits between fighting against civilians and fighting against armies. Those limits hadn’t existed in the Thirty Years’ War. I’ll talk a little bit about that next time around. But the wars are very different. There’s famous Goya paintings of peasants being gunned down by French soldiers, and atrocities against peasants in Calabria in the south of Italy. So, warfare really changes, but it becomes a dynamic of change. If you think about the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Russian Revolution was not inconceivable without World War I, but it was sort of inconceivable without the Russian Revolution of 1905, and the defeat by the Japanese in an extraordinary shocking event, at least for Europeans in 1904 and 1905. And World War I provides opportunities for dissidents in Russia to put forward their claims.

So, when the whole thing collapses on the czar’s head in February 1917, and the Bolsheviks come to power, the war itself was a dynamic of change as well. And what a war. What wars. There have been nothing ever like it. A few journalists who had been in the Russo-Japanese war had seen trenches in Manchuria that had been built. But nobody could have imagined that the war that was supposed to be over in six weeks was going to destroy four empires — the Ottoman empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, the German empire, and the Russian empire, and, arguably, we can talk about this and we can debate this, the British empire. Because lots of people who had fought in India, Indians who had fought in the war, or people now we would call Pakistanis who’d fought in the war, or people from Kenya who’d fought in the war are no longer going to be satisfied with simply arguing that they’re part of the great empire, even though they have hardly any rights and no money, and simply work for the big guy.

So, the war transforms Europe by destroying these empires. What it also does, and it’s very possible to argue this, and my friend, Jay Winter, who is a great expert on World War I, and Bruno Cabanes also, who’s on leave this year, would agree with this. You could see the whole period in 1914-1945 as a new and more terrible Thirty Years’ War. Because Europe is in depression all through the 1920s and ’30s, agricultural depression the whole time. Only between 1924 and 1929 is it not a big industrial depression. The poisoning of the political atmosphere — I’m going to do a whole lecture on Hitler and the national socialists. World War I created Hitler. He was already just this pathetic guy with grandiose plans, no friends, and sort of a sad sack going to the theatre and droning on and on about all he knew about Wagner, whom he loved, and the theatre, and in a threadbare coat. But World War I transforms him into an anti-Semite. He was already an anti-socialist. It transforms him into an anti-Semite.

The troops that came back, many of them simply kept on marching. They’d survived the war and they kept on marching. The poisoning in the political atmosphere was something that was simply extraordinary. To understand fascism, this is terribly, terribly important, you have to understand what happens in World War I. Great expectations dashed the Treaty of Versailles, which only the great British thinker, John Maynard Keynes, really got right, predicting the disaster that came out of it. There’s no more fascinating period in history, in my mind. It’s absolutely fantastic. What a war. It’s all obvious. Everybody’s seen these films from Imperial War Museum — which has been kind of wrecked the way they’ve done it now, it’s sort of too high-tech — in London. But I leave you with just a couple thoughts. The Battle of the Somme in 1916 that started on July 1st when they blow the whistle and say, “Over the top, guys.” There are more British soldiers killed and wounded in the first three days of the Battle of the Somme, S-O-M-M-E, three days, three days, than there were Americans killed in World War I, Korea, and Vietnam combined. In three days.

Where are the great British leaders of the 1920s and the 1930s? They’re all dead. They’re hung up on that old barbed wire, as one of the war poets put it. They’re hung up on that old barbed wire. One guy, a soccer player, said, “We’ll get some enthusiasm.” He tried to dribble a ball across these trenches, across the craters. He doesn’t make it. He’s killed. In 1914 on Christmas Day, the Germans and the British soldiers, some would say, “Enough of this stuff” for the day. They sing to each other. They actually play soccer; they play football. In 1915, a British soldier said, “Let’s do the same thing.” They put him against the wall and shoot him. The horror of the war transforms Europe, every aspect of Europe.

It’s impossible to understand the growth of the agrarian sort of semi-fascist regimes in Eastern Europe, very much under Nazi influence, without understanding World War I. The war that was supposed to end all wars; of course, it doesn’t do that at all. That’s a big stop on our agenda as well. We did used to read All Quiet in the Western Front, but everybody’s read that. Then we read Robert Graves’ rather long and self-indulgent Goodbye to All That. That was pretty long, so we don’t do that. But we will try to rock.

Chapter 3. Brecht, “A Worker Reads History” [00:33:27]

Let me just read you my poem and then you can go. Well, you can do whatever you want, but anyway. I remember this. I remember reading this poem back at University of Michigan at 2:00 on a Saturday, trying to figure out what I’d done the night before. But, anyway, no.

This is Brecht, the great East German poet. It’s called “A Worker Reads History.” Let me begin by saying that we’re going to study “great,” I mean really “great” men, “great” women. Hitler is obviously not a great man. He’s awful, just awful. But the people who are thought to have made history: Napoleon, Peter the Great, other people. I do talk about the folks that you read about in textbooks, including mine. But I ask the same question and pose to you the same question that Brecht poses. It’s a short poem, so just hang on.

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with the names of kings.
Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
The city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the sea rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Philip of Spain wept as his fleet
Was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years’ War.
Who triumphed with him?
Each page a victory.
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the piper?

So many particulars.
So many questions.

If you hang with us this semester, we’ll get at some of those. See you. Thank you. Thank you.

[end of transcript]

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