Saturday, November 1, 2014

European History, Day 19

On Tuesday in European History Since 1648 at UNLV, we tackled our biggest book of the semester, Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk. The theme for the day was nationalism in late-19th and early-20th century Europe, so in addition to providing the bridge to the 20th century, and an opening to Thursday’s discussion of the First World War, the novel provided an opportunity to discuss the idea of nationalism in greater depth than before.

We began by thinking about different versions of nationalism (“civic” vs “ethnic”, for example), and different variants in the European nations and empires we had been examining in the past several weeks.

But for most of our class the focus was on the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where the book’s eponymous protagonist and his hapless encounters with the authority figures in the Empire provide many examples—some explicit, others more subtle—of the role that nationalities played in creating the structure for and contributing to the demise of the Empire.  

Students were successful in picking up on a variety of these instances, and we had a good conversation about the novel.  Not everyone had finished reading it—it was really a long novel, but one that I remembered fondly from my first encounter with it—but hopefully some of them will continue to plough through.  

The novel also provided an opportunity to think about literature as a source, and consider the motivations of the author as an historical actor who produced this source for a particular reason, things that will come in handy when, in discussing decolonisation, we read Ngugi wa Thiong'o's memoir.

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