West European Studies | Problem of Evil in Modern Europe
W405 | 0683 | Canoy/Crouthamel
Meets with HIST B300
Obtain Online Authorization from Department
How can absolute evil exist in a world that has declared God dead?
Over the past three hundred years, “enlightened” European
civilization has attempted to move beyond a set of originally
religious values and revealed notions of absolute truth, good, and
evil. However, despite the spread of secularism, moral relativism
and faith in human perfectibility, the stubborn puzzle of cosmic evil
has not disappeared. Instead, it has grown in intensity.
Technological alienation, political demons, death camps, total war
and paralyzing cultural despair are modern phenomena that have driven
an urgent search for meaning in what is arguably Europe’s most “evil”
age. This course examines an age-old religious, philosophical, and
moral problem that has persisted to haunt the comfortable certainties
of 19th century modernity, and shaped 20th century civilizational
The course takes the persistent problem of evil as an analytical
framework to confront students with key issues in modern European
cultural, social and political history. We will begin with
the “disenchantment” from religious evil and the subsequent spread of
Enlightenment claims of toleration, progress/perfectibility, and
universal humanitarianism by the early 19th century. We will then
cover the rise of new, secularized conceptions of absolute
adversaries and evils, which reveal the enduring potential for
demonizing, excluding, condemning and ultimately
exterminating “enemies.” In the increasingly polarized cultural,
social, and political environments of the 19th and 29th centuries,
secularized concepts of evil persisted as a paradoxical consequence
of Enlightenment thought about science, race, culture and society.
From 1914 to the end of the millennium, the persistence of
secularized evil as a category contributed to an outpouring of
material and empirical “evil” on a scale the world has never seen.
Faced with phenomena such as the Holocaust, nuclear Armageddon and
the increasingly desperate relativization of “body counts” that
define the 20th century, we ask: Are historians who study and are
products of European modernity morally obligated to acknowledge that
absolute evil exists?
Class Activities/Grading Policy
The readings in this class cover a wide range of formats. We will
supplement lecture with discussion (debates and in-class group
projects, student presentations), including in-class critiques of
primary documents, film and art.
Student performance will be evaluated on the basis of the following
Class participation 10% of grade
2 in-class pop quizzes on the reading 10%
2 reading journals (see explanation below) 20%
1 in-class midterm exam 30%
1 final take home paper 30%
The two in-class pop-quizzes will consist of several brief questions
on the reading. For each of the two reading journals, students will
have the chance to generate their own questions (with the help of in-
class discussion and lecture) on a reading of your choice. Each
journal is to be one page, typed, double spaced, and can be turned in
at any point in the semester. The due dates for the final paper
(typed, double-spaced) and the midterms exam are listed on the course
schedule. For these assignments, students will respond to questions
given by the instructors concerning the readings and lecture.
IMPORTANT: No late papers will be accepted without prior arrangements
with the instructors.
The following texts are to be purchased:
Hannah Arendt, "Eichmann in Jerusalem - - A Report on the Banality of
Jack R. Fischel, "The Holocaust"
Albert Camus, "The Stranger"
Bram Stoker, "Dracula"
The packet available for purchase includes excerpts from the
Sigmund Freud, "Civilizations and its Discontents"
Käthe Kollwitz, "Diaries, 1914-1945"
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, "Faust, Part I"
Baudelaire, "Flowers of Evil"
Maria Tatar, Lustmord - "Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany
Viktor E. Frankl, "Man’s Search for Meaning"
Nietzsche, "Beyond Good and Evil"
DeSade, "120 Days of Sodom"
Protocols of the Elders of Zion
“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, “Nosferatu”, “M” (Weimar Cinema of the
grotesque), “Schindler’s List”, “The Night Porter”, “Un Chien
Andalou”, “One World or None” (film by the Council of Atomic
Scientists), “Hearts and Minds” (doc. On Vietnam), “Silence of the
Lambs”, “Sophie’s Choice”