We’re going to finish the course with another of my all-time favorite books to teach. Heart of Darkness is not long, but it is dense, intense, and has impacted literary history far beyond its short length. You may have even encountered the story before, filtered through other media!)

So who is the mind behind this darkness? Read his biography here. As you see, he was born to Polish parents — which means that he too knew what the colonized felt like. At this time, Poland had been annexed by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. In Russia especially, the Polish language and culture was under attack, and in Prussia many Poles were increasingly displaced into low-wage agricultural serfdom. So perhaps this experience made Conrad more sensitive to issues of how Europeans administered the worlds they conquered.

I don’t want to lead the discussion on too much before you have a chance at your own questions. But when I teach this, I do always ask one:

What is….. THE HORROR………?


As our lens into the conflicted era at the end of the century, we’re going to look at the most important and divisive political controversy, the Dreyfus Affair in France.

For our main reading on this, use the web site on the Affair made by the French Ministry of Culture. It’s sort of like an online museum exhibition, walking you through the controversy, presenting documents, photos, and images, and giving you all sides of this important case. There’s even some audio.

Dreyfus Rehabilitated

Take the following pages in order, with their sub pages:

  • France on the threshold of the 20th century
  • The French and the Dreyfus Affair
  • Alfred Dreyfus and his family
  • The long road to justice
  • The aftermath of the affair

When you get to the appropriate part in the story, read the full version of Emile Zola’s J’accuse! (“I accuse!”) It is perhaps the most famous work of journalism of its era, indeed of any modern era.

As you read all this, your main assignment (in addition to generating your own questions as usual) is to try and connect all this to the other themes we have explored in the course. One reason this is such a good case study is the way it sums up all the developments of the century: political, social, economic and imperial, intellectual. There are echoes of a lot of our other content here. What are they?

We’ve come a long way since the French Revolution! Those first stirrings of radical democracy have since broadened and become systemic. Though many of the attempts we have seen at establishing liberal democracy and republican forms of government have failed, in general the march of progress (which is how they understood it at the time) had one direction: strong, democratic states as the Great Powers of Europe and the world. As we have seen, political advances went hand in hand with economic development, both at home and abroad. And so for all the promise of democratic capitalism, and all the benefits those forms brought many people, they were still tied up with systems of imperialism, class conflict, and racism.

This duality is the most important thing to understand about the final decades of the 19th century. Two mindsets reigned, a fundamental difference of perspective on whether things were positive or negative, progressive or degenerative. Was the world getting better? Or was it hurtling down toward the abyss?

We can look at this through two different terms:

The Belle Epoque: A French term (“beautiful era”) referring to the governmental stability, economic prosperity, and incredible technological innovation that marked the time between the Franco-Prussian War and the outbreak of World War I. Both science and art prospered and flourished, bringing new wealth to European peoples. Even political tensions were reduced–France had its most stable system of government since before the revolution, the Third Republic.

The fin-de-siecle: Underneath all that surface prosperity and stability, however, tensions lurked. Prosperity in fact covered over significant class tensions and ethnic strife. An essential part of that prosperity came from the increasingly frenzied race for imperial colonies, which played a key role in modernized, industrial-capitalist economies. And so underneath all that prosperity, danger was brewing. The word fin-de-siecle literally means “end of the century,” but the key thing to understand about the term is its emotional connotation. Things are ending. Things degenerate… there is anger and dissent and hatred underneath the surface. The beautiful era of rational government and technological advancement hides a property of doom. “Things fall apart / the center cannot hold.” Something bad is coming…

This is the setting for our major case study of the week, the Freyfus Affair in France. More on that in the next post. In this post, please discuss the two main strains of interpreting this period. Positive or negative? Progressive or degenerative? Belle epoch or fin-de-siecle?



Hi everyone! We are doing things a little differently this week, with a dedicated week to start researching your final papers. Your assignment this week is to:

  • Either here in the comments, or in a personal email to me, propose your topic for the final paper. Take a look around the web to see what sources you can muster, and include these in the email.
  • Over the course of the week, we will email, or discuss here on the blog, to further refine your topics and sources.
  • When we meet online next Thursday, you will all have decided on your topics.

Remember my words of general advice:

  • This paper gives you the chance to choose your own assignment. In the first two papers, I asked a question and you answered it. Here, you will ask your own question, then answer it.
  • The reason I do it this way is to allow you space to explore areas of the course that you’d like to know more about. I recommended in our first week to keep a running list of “hey, that’s interesting, I’d like to know more.” Now is the time to consult that list, or if you haven’t done it, to go back and retroactively consider what topics that might be.
  • You can use any of our authors as a jumping off point, but if so, try to broaden your scope to other works.
  • You can also take advantage of the stunning array of primary source materials now available on google books, project Gutenberg, Victorian Web, Internet Modern History Sourcebook, and the every-growing array of sites that offer primary sources from the 19th century. It is actually easier in some ways to research periods before the 1920s, when modern copyright laws kick in to ensure a certain Mouse will never go public domain.

As a final word, I have seen time and time again that the earlier a student gets started on this, the better the final result. DO NOT wait to get started on this. That’s why I’m making sure you’ve chosen the topic by next Thursday.

Happy hunting!

We talk a lot in this class about a pendulum of reason and emotion, rationality and irrationality, Romanticism and Enlightenment or industrialism. That’s a pattern in all human history, but one that is especially prominent in our period.

As we near the end of the century, we can observe several competing trends all coming together into a chaotic mix of opposites. One historian famously called the era of 1848-1914 The Crisis of Reason: an era when new ways of looking at humanity began to undermine the claim to rationality that supported so much of the Enlightenment and industrial eras. Use amazon’s “look inside” feature to explore a bit of the book if you like. The summary version is: as an ironic byproduct of increasingly rational and scientific approaches to looking at human behavior, social scientists and philosophers began to focus on the irrational, chaotic, and animalistic forces within human minds. Let’s consider an example:

Charles Darwin and evolution

Charles Darwin’s 1859 work The Origins of Species was what introduced the concept of evolution into popular consciousness. It itself evolved out of several competing and mutually stimulating ideas in biology at the time — in fact, Darwin himself rushed to publish when he heard that someone else had a very similar theory. A much younger scientist, Alfred Wallace, had already been working on the idea for years. So why was it that Darwin is the famous name we associate with this? Read up on the origins of Origins and leave your thoughts in the comments.

It should also be interesting to consider why Europeans at this time began to think of human development in this way. Any ideas? Consider what we had discussed about the environmental changes that industrialization unleashed. This had an array of interesting effects on local species that scientists could observe. So how do you think it could have been linked to ideas about species evolution? Give your thoughts in the comments. (Of course, in both Darwin’s and Wallace’s cases, British imperialism had something to do with it as well. This is a subject for our later class, but you can start thinking now about imperialism’s relationship to science and knowledge.)

Once published, Darwin wrote and rewrote his work into many editions. In other words, it too evolved as it was challenged and questioned by his fellow scientists. (People have done some really interesting visualizations of this – you can see the work change over time.) So, as with other inventions and discoveries by the great men of the 19th century, the discovery of evolution was in fact less the work of a single man of genius than it was the result of a long process of cooperation and discovery. The conflict between lone geniuses and society became one of the enduring themes of the century’s last decades. This is the era of mass political mobilization, as well as the conflict between inventors and society that became memorialized in the budding genre of science fiction (but more on that when we meet online…)

Given this context, one important consequence of Darwinian thought was that people soon applied this strictly biological theory to human society more broadly. So after just one generation, new theories of “Social Darwinism” emerged as well. These argued that just as organisms competed for survival, so too did human groups and individuals. The idea had profound political and social implications, and soon became among the most important ideologies to understand the Anglo-American political world — not just then, but in some ways even today. Read up on the ideology (as with the moths above, the wikipedia page actually does a stellar job of describing the origins and development, so for once you can start there), and discuss in the comments how this was related to the other political and economic developments we’ve discussed. If you want to think ahead as well, how do you think it developed an influence on later events?

Friedrich Nietzsche

The era thus naturally birthed a lot of discussion of the relationship between individuals of genius and the societies around them. And the one name that stands above all thinkers in this way is Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche is one of the most influential European philosophers of the modern era. Though his own work grew out of the philosophical debates of the 19th century, his work is just as connected to the most important developments of the 20th century. He is often seen as a key figure in the development of existentialism, nihilism, atheism, and the concept of “genealogy” of ideas (that ideas and social behaviors have a history that can be discovered).

For his complete story, read his entry in the Stanford encyclopedia linked here. You can also find an interesting collection of some of his most famous quotes at this site. Here you can read in his own words on several of his most famous concepts, including atheism, the “eternal recurrence” of events, and the infamous “will to power.” The site is a fitting tribute, since Nietzsche is quite famous for his pithy phrases, cutting jokes, and short aphorisms. You may have heard some:

  • “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” (A much abused phrase in recent popular music)
  • “He who fights monsters must make sure he does not become a monster.”
  • “When one looks into the abyss, the abyss looks back into you.”

These pithy phrases exemplify the wit and cutting attitude that made him so popular. They also tied into his philosophy, which he called “philosophizing with a hammer.” In other words, philosophy should be active, smashing of old idols, a force destructive to the things that would hold a great person back. Over the years, this attitude has made him popular with a variety of unsavory characters (basically: famous murderers, recent mass-shooters, and Nazis), who feel that their individual genius or superior heritage grant them entitlement to make their own rules. Most of these types can be accused of not understanding Nietzsche properly, and certainly his sister played a role in encouraging such misappropriations. However, there is still something about his philosophy that in the wrong hands can be quite dangerous. Here is a more neutral account of how his influence persisted. Even today, debates about Nietzsche still rage in the guise of discussing Objectivism. And then of course there is the Family Circus.

For our major reading this week, we will consider Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the work in which he explained more fully than anywhere else the idea of the Ubermensch (Superman). Concentrate on the prologue, book 1, and book 4. Make up your own discussion questions, but also answer mine:

  • What does the superman represent? How is it related to other philosophical developments of the time?
  • Zarathustra meets a lot of people in Book 4, and invites them back to his cave. Many scholars have understood all these people as candidates for the Ubermensch — but they are all flawed in some way. If we take them as failed- or near-Ubermenschen, what does that imply about what the Ubermensch is?



For our session this week, we will discuss issues of gender, the family, and women’s (dis)empowerment during the era of high bourgeois culture. The industrialized and fully capitalist societies in northwestern Europe (primarily Britain, France, the low countries, Germany, Scandinavian countries) by the mid to late 19th century were basking in the confidence of increasingly rich and prosperous economic conditions. Of course, these conditions were not shared through all in society, but those at the middle and top felt comfortable as never before. This was the era of the bourgeoisie — the middle class in the sense we use the term, but even more properly in the Marxist sense of increasingly rich and powerful professionals. This week we consider power in a less political sense, however, and in more of a social, cultural, and relational sense.

Henrik Ibsen is not as well known in America today as he used to be, and one reason might be that we’re not as focused on a canonical list of high cultural products. Because he certainly was on that list of canonical dramatists: his plays about upper-middle class family life and interpersonal drama represented a leap forward in presenting the reality of bourgeois life. Not everyone was comfortable with this — the bourgeoisie, of course, liked to present itself as a morally superior sphere, compared to the degenerate aristocracy and the dissolute working class. Ibsen (and others) pulled the curtain back on these assertions, and showed how family relationships in the middle class could be controlling, patriarchal, manipulative, and even cruel (cruelty conducted, of course, in the dispassionate and restrained fashion that the middle class prided itself upon).

For full background on his life and work, please read the materials at the National Library of Norway. Then read A Doll’s House, about which I will say no more so as not to spoil it. But rest assured, it was scandalous at the time. In the comments section, please post your required discussion questions for the week. Responses during the week are required. (As well as continuing responses to last week’s posts, which I have agreed to leave active for anyone who wants to make up last week’s lost ground.)

Here is a link to the story I mentioned tonight, the Pullman strike.

Professor Loomis is great on labor issues; you can explore the site to find other links to his ‘this day in labor history’ series. It can be kind of crazy to encounter stuff like this for the first time — the military, the national guard, and private security companies brutally suppressed labor actions for much of the period. People died all the time.

To finish my experiment with spacing the posts, I bring you at last…. Richard Wagner. He is such a monumental figure that it’s easy to find information on him – check this official site for a variety of biographical material, interviews, and information about his works. But he is also a very problematic figure as well, because of the use to which his operas were put. Having achieved his dream of a unified Germany, that country’s path went to some obviously very dark places in the 20th century. The Nazis happily appropriated Wagner as their patron composer, both because of his seeming ideological affinity and because of Hitler’s personal liking for the works. As legend goes, his works were played over the loudspeakers at concentration camps, or were played live by Jewish musicians held captive and forced to perform. This experience led to a longstanding ban on Wagner in the state of Israel.

Later generations therefore have to grapple with the question of whether or not it is okay to like and appreciate his work. Stephen Fry, the cultural treasure and very respected public intellectual in his native Britain, made a masterful hour-long documentary on this subject. Here is a link to Wagner and Me on youtube: it can serve as a primer to Wagner, as well as a visual illustration of many of his works.

For now, however, let’s remain in the 19th century. Remember from our other thread, the common experience of cultural nationalism: in the early phase, cultural nationalists worked to recover or re-invent traditional cultural stories in order to argue for the importance of their people’s cultural experience. Then they used this unified canon (an established past) as a point to rally their people (an activist present) to forge a united nation (a proposed future). We see this pattern in Wagner as well.

Almost all of his works draw from Germanic myth, which he wanted to transmit to a new generation in exciting ways. Perhaps most important in this respect are his middle and late period works:

  • The Ring of the Niebelung (aka the Ring Cycle): An epic four-night long drama of ancient Germanic myth, in which the gods build the world, introduce evil, try to preserve their authority against humanity’s challenge, and are eventually overthrown and destroyed. (Also use the PBS site on the Ring for its Great Performances series as a resource — every 20 years or so, PBS airs the current definitive version of the Ring Cycle. They just did so last fall, for the Met’s awe-inspiring production.)
  • Tristan and Isolde: A German Romeo & Juliet.
  • The Meistersinger of Nuremberg: A singing contest in Germany’s most prototypical medieval city shows the organic Volk (people’s) community. The concept of the Volk became of foremost importance to the conservative-nationalist movement in Germany.
  • Parsifal: In his final opera, Wagner presented a German version of the Holy Grail legend of the Fisher King, a sick king whose illness then causes the land to be sick. An innocent youth steps forward to take up knighthood, recover the grail, and heal the land. It ends with a ceremony of holy communion, everyone brought together in a common religious experience.

So one way to approach this is to consider its content: themes, characters, settings. How are they Germanic? How are they nationalist? Just as we did with Verdi’s Nabuco, we can read the content as metaphor for nationalism. Consider this opening scene of the Ring Cycle’s first night, where the curtain rises upon the Rhine. Three maidens swim there guarding its gold, when a greedy dwarf arrives to steal it. He tricks them into divulging the secret of how to obtain it: renounce love. Watch the scene here, from the Met’s recent production. What might its nationalist or volkisch message be?

So, many people have written many books and articles analyzing Wagner in that way. And that’s totally fair. But Wagner was operating on another level as well. Start the opening scene again and take a listen to the beginning as you read on. Imagine yourself in a theater with many other Germans. All of you are listening to the famous opening note, a sustained single note that then turns into variations as the orchestra mimics the creation of the world. As PBS’s site for the above performance explains:

It’s a musical depiction of the creation of life, growing from a single cell. At the climax, the Rhinemaidens suddenly break into song—representing joyous, unspoiled nature itself.

As the music rises, everyone has the same experience, gets the same messages and the same emotions. And isn’t this the same argument made by Renan and other nationalist theorists we read — nationalism is a heritage of common experiences. Opera can be that experience. This is part of his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art. On the one hand, it means the theater becomes a medium that unifies all art: lyric- and music-writing, singing, acting, fashion (costuming), painting (set design), makeup… everything. And then it carries a political side as well: All these professions working together become a metaphor for the nation.

This week’s “readings” are more like “listenings.” Music played a powerful role in 19th century nationalism, and this week we are going to consider how. In one way, we’ll use music as a stand-in for a whole variety of cultural products: novels, plays, poems, songs, and all. So how would culture influence nationalism?

Consider the IMHS page for Musical Nationalism, which identifies the following process as holding generally true:

generally from a “cultural nationalism” to a more overtly political “liberal nationalism”, and then, all to often, to an exclusivist “triumphal nationalism”.

Of course, it goes on to note, this is a slight simplification, and did not hold true for all emerging nations. As a framework, it bases itself on the experience of Italy and Germany, then spreads east/southeast to the Slavic countries then under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The emerging nationalist impulse there threatened the AH Empire, as well as embroiling it in conflict with the Russian Empire, which saw itself as the protector and promoter of its “little brother” nations in Slavic SE Europe.

Note how in the first phase, cultural nationalism expresses itself as a kind of anthropology: recovering (or inventing!) folk traditions in music and story, claiming to document a people’s organic and independent culture.

In the second phase, this cultural assertion then moves from defensive to assertive, and connected to politics. This brings us to our first main subject of the week, Guiseppe Verdi, the composer of Italian liberal nationalism. His very name is connected to nationalism: V.E.R.D.I. = Victor Emmanuel, Rei de Italia (King of Italy). Verdi used his operas to argue for an Italy united under a common constitutional monarch, with a constitution, parliament, and a common economic policy that allowed everyone of Italian language and culture to work together for their own interest. We will consider how two of his works reflect this theme:

Nabucco (1842):

As the Philadelphia Opera tells us, “On its surface, Nabucco is about the epic struggle of Zaccaria and the Jews suppressed by Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar and his vengeful daughter, Abigaille. But to Italians fighting for their freedom from Austria, Verdi’s first great opera was an inspiring call to arms.” So how would the two be connected? Consider the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.” QUESTION: If we read this as about Italy, rather than Israel, what are Verdi’s thoughts about the need for nationalism?

Tosca (1900)

This one is far more overtly political. QUESTION: How do the plot, themes, and lyrics argue for nationalism? Notice how this is after the fact of unification, so it is less arguing for something unachieved, as showing in retrospect why it was necessary.

You might be interested to watch its most famous aria, “Vissi d’Arte”, in which the protagonist mourns where her life has led her, and asks what she has done to deserve her fate. Watch this video here of the Met’s recent production, which I loved because it preserved a Napoleonic setting rather than what many companies do, change the setting of an opera to something like post-industrial punk, Japanese neo-kabuki, space opera, etc.  You don’t get a good sense of the scenery from this clip alone, but here are some pictures.


Notice the map of the military situation at that point in the Napoleonic Wars:


Napoleon’s army nears, to end the outmoded monarchy that has oppressed Italians for too long. But it is not in time to save Tosca herself. As you watch, reference the lyrics found here. So what has she done to deserve this? As an individual, nothing. Rather, it is the state of the nation that has caused this. In the 19th century, women and women’s fates became metaphors for national fates.

consider the WWI-era poster showing the Entene powers: Marienne (France), Brittania, and Mother Russia:


Brittania is much older than the 19th century, but in the 19th century feminized images of the nation became even more popular. Here’s Marienne again, in “Liberty Leading the People“:

File:Eugène Delacroix - La liberté guidant le peuple.jpg

As well as Columbia, which was the pre-eminent metaphorical embodiment of the American nation until WWI, when Uncle Sam took over:


That gets us a bit off track of our main subject of music, but if you’re interested, there is a lot of historical literature on it. (It’s the type of thing that could make a good final paper, hint hint!) For now, let’s return to music, and our next subject:

Richard Wagner… coming up in your next post!



So far in the course we have tended to concentrate on England and France — two of the most solid and successful states of the 18th and 19th centuries. Both of these states achieved early on a unified state and society: uncontested borders, coherent and rationalized language, single state-sponsored religion, and a culturally influential capital city that could direct the intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and economic lives of the now-unified people. Of course there were tensions and even widespread violence in this process, but in the end both states achieved a unity that then seemed like a model for all others. The two other strongest states, Russia and Austria-Hungary, were both vast monarchies that united many different peoples under one common ruler. In that way, they were less similar to the modern nation-states of Britain and France, and more similar to past models.

So what makes a modern nation-state different? You can look to the term itself: not just a state, but one that exists in connection to the population’s identity. Consider some of the following influential writings on the concept of the nation:

QUESTION NUMBER ONE: Use the comments section to discuss Renan’s question: What is a nation? What constitutes it, what unifies it? How is it different from other states?

In our virtual lecture for this week, I will take you through the German and Italian experiences. This will show the processes we alluded to yesterday: failed attempts at liberal revolution are unable to overcome the conservative order, until finally in the 1860s and 70s both Italy and Germany become the united nations that we know them today. It’s a long political, intellectual, and cultural struggle. In this post, we can discuss the intellectual and political side using the above documents. In the next, we’ll look at the cultural side.

QUESTION NUMBER TWO: Using the documents on German and Italian unification at the IMHS, discuss in the comments how these countries’ paths to unification built on or diverged from the theorists we discussed above.

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