An Age of Extremes? 20th Century image

The aim of this course is to offer an introduction to the main historical events of the last century in Europe, and how they interconnect. The focus is on the Second World War, its causes and consequences. We will examine aspects of the rise of socialism and communism and the impact of the Russian Revolution.  How are the aftershocks of the Russian Revolution linked to the advent of Fascism and Nazism? Why are the causes of the First World War still a matter of debate? Students will be encouraged to investigate and discuss the links between these important historical events and their consequences. Aspects of the Second World War, especially the way it affected peoples’ lives during and after the conflict, will be analysed and discussed. The relation between the Cold War, the breakup of the Soviet Union and its aftermath will be examined.

Taking the historian Eric Hobsbawm’s book ‘The Age of Extremes’ and  Mark Mazowers’s  ‘Dark Continent’ as a good point of reference, other historical and literary sources will also serve to bring these events alive. Our discussions will be illustrated by relevant films and part of each class will be devoted to viewing clips from the most striking  film footage about the period. Students will be encouraged to read up on the debates so as to be able to participate in class and to work out for themselves how historical events are connected.

About the tutor
Dr Sheila Lecoeur has specialised in Italian studies and is a social historian of Europe in the twentieth century, with a particular interest in Fascism and the Second World War. She is currently Coordinator of Italian in the Centre for Languages, Communication and Culture, is engaged in historical research and has produced a documentary film about Greece in World War II for television. Her book on the Italian occupation of Greece: ‘Mussolini’s Greek island’, has also been translated into Greek. She is currently working on a second documentary film on the present crisis in Greece.

Course syllabus
Please note that this syllabus is subject to change, depending on time required and specific areas of interest arising from our discussions.

Week 1
  • Defining history and social history
  • Ideas and ideologies of the 19th century leading to the spread of socialism, communism and the International Movement
  • Proposed film clip (PFC): BBC documentary
Week 2
Week 3
  • The reaction to the war and the impact of the Russian Revolution
  • October 1917: Ten Days That  Shook The World (Sergei Eisenstein)
Week 4
  • The aftermath of World War I spread of communism, fascism and Germany’s reaction to the Versailles Treaty
  • PFC: The Versailles Treaty BBC
  • Cabiria by Giovanni Pastrone
Week 5
  • The economic recession of the 1930s and the rise of Hitler
  • PFC: Hitler’s charisma BBC
Week 6
  • The Spanish Civil War and German and Italian involvement
  • C4 Documentary
Week 7
  • Chamberlain and Appeasement. The outbreak of World War II
  • PFC: BBC documentary
Week 8
  • Churchill’s actions and policies. The blockade on food and raw materials to Europe
  • PFC: BBC documentary
Week 9
  • Occupied Europe. Coping with military occupation, starvation and survival
  • PFC: The Forgotten Greek Famine (S. and J. Lecoeur)
   **** CHRISTMAS BREAK ****
Week 10
  • Turning the tide of war, campaigns in Italy, Russia, France and Germany
Week 11
  • The Final Solution and the fate of the Jews across Europe
  • PFC: The Longest Journey
Week 12
  • The aftermath of war. Dealing with the consequences: collaboration and war criminals
  • PFC: Le chagrin et la pitié
Week 13
  • Resistance movements and the impact on post-war France, Italy and the Balkans
Week 14  
  • The long-term consequences of war. Populations displaced. Germany reconfigured
  • PFC: Germania Anno Zero (Rosselini)
  • The Labyrinth of Silence
Week 15
  • The post war, the welfare state and women's lives. Coping with austerity in Britain
  • PFC BBC documentary
Week 16
  • Reconstruction, The Marshall Plan, post war boom
  • PFC: La Dolce Vita (F. Fellini)
Week 17
  • The Cold War, espionage and the Iron Curtain
  • Das Leben der Anderen (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
  • BBC documentary on British spies
Week 18
  • The Suez Crisis and the impact of decolonization on Britain
Week 19
  • Khruschev and destalinization. The consequences of ‘glasnost’, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union
Week 20
  •  A changing world: the impact of the technological revolution on daily life. Summing up the 20th Century and its legacy

Provisional reading list for the Autumn term

Core reference:

  • Eric Hobsbawn,  Age of Extremes: The short Twentieth Century  (Abacus, 1994)
  • Mark Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century  (Allen Lane, 1998)
  • Mark Mazower, Hitler’s Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe (Allen Lane, 2008)
  • Konrad H. JarauschOut of Ashes: A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century (2015) Timothy SnyderTony Judt, Thinking the Twentieth Century  Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914-1949  (2015)

Reference books for defining history:

  • E.H. Carr,  What is History?  (Penguin, frequent reprints)
  • Eugen Weber,  Peasants into Frenchmen

Definition of social history:

Background to the 20th century:

  • James Joll,  Europe since 1870  (Pelican, many reprints)  NB See  Chapter 6: The Industrial Society and its Critics

Socialism and Communism:

First World War:


  • Ernest Hemingway,  A Farewell to Arms  (Re Caporetto 1917)
  • Erich Maria RemarqueAll Quiet on the Western Front   (1996) Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That  (Penguin Modern Classics 2000)Pat Barker, Regeneration (Trilogy about the war. Viking Press 1991)

Nationalism, proto fascism and Nazism:

The Wall Street crash and its consequences in Europe:


  • George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

The League of Nations:

  • Susan Pederson, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (Oxford 2015)
  • Interwar Period. Culture, Society and Politics

The Second World War:

  • AJP Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War  1961
  • NB See core references above.
  • Paul Dowswell, The Usborne Introduction to The Second World War: (Internet-linked 29 Apr 2005)
  • Fiction: Irene Nemirovsky, Suite Francaise (Vintage, 2007) See film.

The consequences of war:

  • Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945
  • David Kynaston, A World to Build. Austerity Britiain 1945-48  (Bloomsbury, 2008)
  • Collaboration and the pursuit of war criminals:
  • Robert O. Paxton, Vichy France. Old Guard and New Order 1940-44. (1975)
  • Julian Jackson,   France: The Dark Years, 1940-1944 (2003) 
  • Visual sources Pierre Sorlin, European Cinemas, European Societies, 1939-1990 (Studies in Film, Television and the Media) 1991

Questions regarding the content and teaching of the above course should be addressed to the tutor, Dr Sheila Lecoeur,

Imperial College undergraduates and postgraduates may, if they wish, acquire 2 ECTS credits after successfully completing their Evening Class. To qualify, a student must attend the classes regularly and pass a test at the end of the second term. In late January, students will be invited to apply to take the test.

Please carefully review the Programme TimetableTerm Dates and Fees & Enrolment information.