The Dark Side of the Twentieth Century: Between Auschwitz and the Gulag

Course Code
SLAV 2250
Dariusz Tolczyk

The twentieth century was a period of humanity's unprecedented progress as well as its greatest recorded downfall into barbarity, genocide, and mass oppression.  This course enables students to study and reflect on the latter. For this purpose, we will read a selection of outstanding literary testimonies to the most extreme experiences of institutionalized evil perpetrated by twentieth-century totalitarian regimes – genocide and dehumanization in concentration camps.  The readings explore horrors of Stalinism and the Gulag (Lydia Chukovskaya and Varlam Shalamov), the Holocaust and Nazi concentration camps (Elie Wiesel, Tadeusz Borowski, and Hanna Krall), and Chinese Communist labor camps (Zhang Xianliang).  All readings will be analyzed and discussed in an interdisciplinary context – historical, philosophical, psychological, literary, cultural, and political.  We will study the history of totalitarian evil and its intellectual, cultural and psychological roots (racism, colonialism, anti-Semitism, radical nationalism, and radical utopianism).  We will ask, What lessons about human nature can we learn from these accounts of humanity in extremis?  Do humans possess a unique capacity to be motivated by moral values even under the most dehumanizing conditions? What were the greatest challenges to humanity, posed by twentieth-century totalitarianism?  How do we construct cultural memories of traumatic experiences?  Why do we want to remember them? Do we?