HL90 EU: The Rise of the Far Right in Europe

The deadline to apply for an HL90 seminar is Tuesday, August 24. Do you know what you’ll be taking? Check out John Boonstra’s new course, The Rise of the Far Right in Europe, which meets Mondays, 3-5.

What inspired you to teach this class?

In April 2002, I was living in France on an exchange program, when Jean-Marie Le Pen, the demagogic leader of the far-right National Front party, shocked the country by placing second in the first round of presidential elections, marking the first time a fringe party candidate had advanced to the run-off for the presidency.

While it would be a stretch to suggest that I had this class in mind nearly two decades ago, these elections did signify a watershed moment for the rise of the contemporary Far Right in France and in Europe—or at least for its apparently sudden entry into the political and cultural mainstream. Even more recently, of course, we’ve seen extremist movements across—and beyond—the continent seemingly advance ever further into the realms of politics, society, culture, and ideology, inspiring fearful invocations (some seemingly hyperbolic, others uncannily prescient) of several countries’ fascist pasts.

By juxtaposing today’s incarnation of the Far Right with its historical predecessors of nearly a century ago, I’d like for this class not so much to trace right-wing movements’ rise and fall (and rise) as to query how their effects are remembered and forgotten, their legacies rehabilitated and distorted, and their ideas reanimated and remolded. The question, then, becomes less about whether a given movement can be considered “fascist,” than about what this designation means, at different moments, in different contexts, and as refracted through different cultural sources.

What kind of texts are you excited to share with students?

I’m looking forward to reading works like those of Natalia Ginzburg and Irène Némirovsky (Family Lexicon and Suite Française, respectively). We’ll approach these books not only through the lens of their authors’ tragic experiences—the husband of the former was tortured to death by Italian Fascists, and the latter was sent by Vichy French authorities to die at Auschwitz—and their status as Jews, as women, and as resistants, but also as windows into how Italian and French societies had turned toward collaboration and coexistence with extremism.

I’m also eager to look at the monuments, films, and artwork we’ll be considering—in the case of Spain alone, these range from Francisco Franco’s ostentatious tomb (out of which he was disinterred just this past year), to Guillermo del Toro’s fantastical take on the Spanish Civil War in Pan’s Labyrinth, to Picasso’s iconic representation of violence in Guernica—as well as novels that transport the reader between past and present, between memory and mystery, and (aptly enough) between genres of history and literature, such as Javier Cercas’s Soldiers of Salamis and Patrick Modiano’s Dora Bruder.

What’s something surprising students might not know about this course?

I first came across at least two of the sources we’ll be reading—Soldiers of Salamis and Pap Khouma’s I Was an Elephant Salesman—thanks to…Hist and Lit students! You are often our best resource, and I’ll be happy to encourage creativity and exploration in developing your assignments for this class.

How should interested students learn more about the class?

I’d be happy to connect with interested students by email (jboonstra@fas.harvard.edu) and/or to meet over Zoom (or in person!) at their convenience. I’ll also be at the exciting Hist & Lit HL90 Course Preview on Monday, August 23 at 2 pm EST, and would be thrilled to talk with anyone who might be interested then.

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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