Modern European History 1850 to the present

This strand of our one-year MSt or two-year MPhil in History is the equivalent of a free-standing Master’s in the history of Europe post-1850. 

Paris Commune 18 March 1871

Other Masters Strands

Street Children during the Russian Revolution

 

Poster for Women's Day, March 8, 1914. Claming voting right for women.

 

Germany after WW2: Cellar dwelling in Hamburg for two families, July 1947.

Oxford has a unique concentration of academic expertise in modern European history, with the largest number of permanent postholders working in the field of any university in the western world.

It has particular strengths in cultural, intellectual, transnational and social history. But above all it encourages diversity and asking new questions, from how peasants told folk tales in nineteenth-century France to the emotional commitments of activists in the 1968 protest movements on both sides of the Iron Curtain; from the rise of liberal humanitarianism in the mid-nineteenth century to the persecution of gay men sent to the Soviet Gulag; from the persistence of religious belief in the French Third Republic to the nature of patriotism in Nazi Germany. In this spirit, Oxford encourages graduates to follow their own intellectual interests within the degree and equip them with the best supervision and skills to do so.

Course Organisation

Alongside the Theory and Methods course, students spend their first term studying Sources and Historiography. While the Theory and Methods course focuses on key approaches relevant to all areas of historical scholarship, the aim of the classes in Historiography is to acquaint students with some key approaches, often elaborated in disciplines allied to history, on subjects -- such as the oral history of protest movements, the subjective experience of war and violence, photographs as a form of global politics -- which provide modern European historians with a critical theoretical framework for their own empirical research. There will be five classes on Historiography in the first term, for which there will be some assigned reading. There will also be opportunities for students to consider the application of particular theories and methods to topics of special interest to them. Great emphasis will be placed upon class discussion, and on the creation of an intellectual community among students. 

In the first term,  additional Skills training is provided in order to help students identify and gain basic familiarity with key sources and resources relevant to their specialist research period. Students are encouraged to improve their reading knowledge of European languages in particular via the courses run by the Oxford University Language Centre. They  must attend appropriate Library/IT introductory sessions and may want to explore further sessions organised by the Oxford University Computing Service, e.g. text analysis software or statistical packages. Likewise, students are expected to attend the Graduate Research Fair to familiarise themselves with locally-held archival collections.

In the second term, students take one of a wide portfolio of Option courses.  Those particularly relevant to Modern British and European History typically include:

 

Interest in human rights has exploded in recent years, as human rights has emerged as one of the most prominent international trends following the end of the Cold War. The early 1990s sparked renewed debate about the role and mission of the United Nations as a global mediating force in matters of war and peace, and human rights became for many a new yardstick with which to assess post-Cold War international politics and proper state formation. Yet this idea of what Hannah Arendt has called "the right to have rights" is a relatively recent historical development. This course endeavours to trace the origins of human rights as a modern political ideology from the French Revolution to the present day.

It will explore the extent to which the idea of human rights underwent radical transformation over the 19th and especially 20th centuries, entangled as it was in shifting notions of civilization, empire, sovereignty, decolonization, minority protections and international justice. It will also investigate to what extent human rights arose as a direct response to the legacy of man-made mass death associated with World War I and World War II, and in particular to the Third Reich's genocidal politics and destruction of unprotected civilians.

What is more, the course will also pay particular attention to how these new norms of justice were globalized over the course of the second half of the century. Just as non-Europeanists interpreted Wilson's notion of self-determination in broad ways to suit various emancipatory causes beyond Europe in the interwar years, rights activists from India, South Africa, the United States and later Eastern Europe seized on human rights after 1945 as something that went far beyond simply internationalizing American New Deal policies. From this perspective, this course aims to locate the history of human rights at the very heart of the broader story of modern moral politics and changing international perceptions of the relationship between law and citizenship, war and social justice.

 

Time and acceleration are among the defining features of the long nineteenth century. They are also, in fundamental ways, interlinked. As the pace of life quickened due to a series of technological innovations (among which the telegraph and the railways take pride of place) the need for shared time conventions (whether regional, national, or global) and for greater accuracy of timekeeping, grew accordingly. By the century’s end, standard time set on the Greenwich meridian had replaced local (solar) time in Europe, North America and many other parts of the globe. The spread of a world time standard has commonly been portrayed as a logical, and even an inevitable, by-product of modernization.

This MSt/MPhil option foregrounds a problem that has received much less attention from historians – namely, how nineteenth-contemporaries experienced time and acceleration, and how they constructed temporal schedules in accordance with their own needs and expectations. Its main concern is thus not with time as formal homogenization, but with the surprises, conflicts, and emotions that rendered time the central referent of modern life. While most of the empirical examples to be discussed relate to Europe and Britain, the focus of the eight classes is thematic and transnational. The weekly readings will consist of two essential texts of secondary literature, an extract from a primary source, and a series of further secondary readings. Other types of documents to be used include cartoons, images, and songs. The course combines the close study of particular phenomena (including the social and cultural significance of clocks, telegraphs, and railway communication) with theoretical reflections (on, among other things ‘modernity’, ‘time’, and ‘emotions’). The eight classes address the following topics:

  • The nineteenth century as an age of ‘modernity’
  • ‘Time’ as concept and experience
  • Speeding up: from the stagecoach to the railways
  • One time fits all: the spread of standard time
  • Time-keeping: clocks and the telegraph
  • Time-tables and other kinds of schedules
  • Competing social rhythms
  • Time: a nineteenth-century emotion?

 

 

This option approaches the history of 20th-century Europe by testing the concepts of national, transnational and international history and their possible interactions. It will not compare the history of individual European countries, but rather explore how notions of regional, national, transnational and international history have been used to organize and interpret the history of 20th-century Europe. While the course is firmly rooted in the empirical history of Europe and its relationships to the wider world in this period, it will foreground questions of interpretation. These will include exploring the scope and limits of approaches to political, economic and social history based on concepts of the national, transnational and international, and assessing the advantages and disadvantages of destabilizing the dominant conventions for writing the history of Europe in the last century. The course is intended both for students who want an introduction to this history and for those who want an opportunity to extend and reconsider their existing knowledge of it. Among topics that may be covered are: 

  • The History of a Transnational Continent 
  • Political Geographies: Regions, Nations, Empires 
  • Internationalism and Rights
  • Varieties of Political Representation 
  • Consumption Regimes 
  • Boundaries and Identities 
  • Environmentalism and Transnationalism 
  • International wars and Civil Wars

 

 

The study of belief in the modern world is amongst the most dynamic and interesting fields of research currently being undertaken by historians. It draws on a huge range of sources and intersects with the work of sociologists, anthropologists, theologians, and other disciplines. This option will thus be of interest both to students researching the history of religion and those who work more generally on social, cultural and intellectual history. It will give a good grounding in the various theoretical approaches to, and methodological problems presented by, this type of research and will draw on the work of participants in seeking to define new and interesting areas of analysis. This course is explicitly global in its focus and will draw comparisons between different faiths, escaping the narrow, Eurocentric models so often adopted by writers on this theme. The option is intended for those who have no background in this area of research as well as for those who are already engaged in it.

Topics to be covered will include:

  • Modernism
  • Nationalism and Transnationalism
  • Fundamentalisms
  • Consumerism
  • Gender, Generation and Sexuality
  • Contesting religious authority
  • Postmodernity
  • Declines and Revivals

 

Everyone is familiar with the iconic images of young men throwing stones at riot police in Paris in May 1968. But what was the significance of these images, what was their place in postwar politics and culture, and how did what was happening in Paris relate to developments in Great Britain, Europe and the United States?

This option will explore a number of interlocking themes using conceptual, comparative and transnational approaches, and a range of documentation, including memoirs, oral testimony and film. These themes will include:

  • the concept of generational revolt/conflict, and whether this is a helpful way of understanding cultural and political changes after 1945
  • the youth culture which developed in Britain, Europe and the United States after the Second World War around music, fashion, drugs and attacked on the conventional nuclear family, and the notion of cultural or lifestyle radicalism
  • the political radicalism which exploded in Europe around 1968, in the context of wider struggles such as the Cold War peace movement, the Civil Rights movement in the USA, the Algerian and Vietnam Wars, revolution in Latin America and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, asking what the relationship was between political and cultural/lifestyle radicalism
  • the link between faith and political radicalism, since many political radicals came from a religious background – Catholic or Protestant, Jewish or Muslim – and recast their religious aspirations in political guises
  • the issue of violence and non-violence, civil disobedience or armed struggle, hotly debated in radical circles as alternative ways of achieving their ends, and how different approaches were adopted in different contexts
  • the sexual politics of young people in Europe and America, especially the emergence of feminism and the gay rights movement
  • ways in which transnational connections were made between activists in different countries, from study abroad to revolutionary tourism, and from political exile to the work of political intermediaries
  • the significance of these years of revolt, explored through the subsequent trajectories of activists and how they remembered this moment, both individually and collectively, in a variety of media.

 

The field of this paper is the history of 19th and early 20th century Europe and America, as seen through the eyes of leading political and social theorists. The central intellectual tradition represented here is that of 19th century European liberalism. It is central because it enjoyed an undoubted cultural hegemony — although Anglophone liberalism, a rather different set of ideas, also comes into view. It hinged around the development of ideas of ‘reason’ and ‘rationality’ in constitutional, political and civil law; in religion; and in academic ‘science’. Concomitantly it promoted all that was ‘bourgeois’ at the expense of what was ‘feudal’. This major tradition is represented above all by Hegel, Durkheim and Weber. Standing outside it there were of course a number of alternative points of view: most obviously radicals, romantics and socialists who dissented from, but inevitably engaged with, the hegemonic liberal position, as well as the semi-detached Anglophone tradition already noted. Notwithstanding the hiatus inflicted by Fascism, Nazism and world war, and later talk ca.1990 about ‘post-modernity’ and the ‘death’ of Marx, attempts by later 20th and 21st century writers to theorise society and politics without substantial reference to their 19th and early 20th century forebears have proven largely unsuccessful hitherto. The period covered in this course remains the starting point for an understanding of modern social and political theory.

So far as the method of study is concerned, the paper is designed for theoretically concerned historians rather than pure theorists. This historical approach should not be seen as anti-theoretical – quite the reverse – but it should be understood as a distinctive and (as we like to think) more accurate, more realistic and lifelike path to theoretical understanding. Its outer limit is the understanding of the place of ideas and intellectual tradition within societies taken as a whole, i.e. something much larger than the world of texts alone. However, its pragmatic starting point is the study of individual texts and authors deemed to be of outstanding merit and rich in meaning. The class programme tries to capture both the macro- and microscopic perspectives.

 

 

How have people understood the self in the past? How have they conceptualized emotions? Is there a self before 1700? How do different cultures conceive of the self and how do they understand spirituality? What is the relation between the individual self and the collective? This course seeks to understand ways of approaching the self and psychology in different times and places. It also seeks to explore ways of incorporating subjectivity and emotions of people in the past in how we write history; and to question the sociological, collective categories of analysis that historians often employ. Each session will take a particular example of a cultural context and explore how historians could write the history of subjectivity. The sessions will draw on different types of source material – diaries, letters, visual sources, material objects, travel writing, memoirs, court records, micro-historical material, oral history – and consider the problems and possibilities they offer. Four of the sessions will be on the early modern period; four will be on the modern period; however, in their assessed essay, students may concentrate on either the early modern or the modern period. The course deliberately bridges the early modern and the modern because the historiography itself does. This enables productive comparisons.

 

Throughout the degree, students work towards a dissertation.  Recent topics have included: 

MSt: Free French Pilots' Memories of the Second World War; The Censorship of Queer Culture in inter-war Britain and Weimar Germany; Spanish anarchists; The rescue of Danish Jews and political negotiation with the Nazi occupiers; Myth, theory and anti-democracy in George Sorel’s writings

MPhil: Popular perceptions of Garibaldi in Sicily; German Spa town as a Russian-European cultural meeting point, 1814-1914; Writing life stories in Moscow's institutions for homeless children and youths in the early 1920s; Veterans of the Great War in interwar Czechoslovakia; Red terrorism in the 1970s in Italy and Germany; The Emotional Experience of Fleeing France during the Second World War; The Belgian Congo at War, 1940-1945.

Faculty and Research Culture

Oxford History brings together the largest number of historians of modern Europe in the world. It has particular strengths in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, offering coverage of western and eastern Europe, culture and politics, national and international history. Among those currently in post at Oxford are:

More information on our academics and their subjects, please search within our people section.

Faculty Research Seminars like the Seminar in Modern European History (Michaelmas Term) and the Modern History Seminar (Hilary Term) bring together academic staff, doctoral and master’s students on a weekly basis to hear a wide range of speakers and are an important part of the research culture at Oxford. There is also an in-house Modern European History Graduate Workshop run by and for graduates across the year in which work in progress is presented and discussed in an informal atmosphere.  In addition, Students can also benefit from the lectures, events  and seminars held under the aegis of its specialist research research centres, such as:

Admissions Questions

We normally take about 10-12 MSt students and one or two MPhil students in this area, but numbers vary from year to year and we are able to be flexible.  If you have any questions about our admissions procedure, please check the University admissions pages and/or contact Graduate Admissions. If you have any questions about studying this topic at Oxford, please contact the Convener.

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