HL90 FK: Europe After the Cold War

Do you know what you’re taking this fall? Bri Smith’s new HL90, “Europe After the Cold War,” is one you won’t want to miss! Bri told us more about the class, Europe after 1989, and even the World Cup!

What inspired you to teach this class?

This class was inspired by my frustration with Cold War classes that end in 1989. The final week of my Cold War history classes typically features a whirlwind tour through the revolutions of 1989, the “Fall of the Wall,” and the demise of Soviet Union. I have always found this incredibly frustrating, because the question “what happens next?” was so important and fascinating to me! Thus, devoting a whole semester to Europe after the Cold War is really a dream class.

Making 1989 the starting point rather than the end, this class focuses on the ambiguous aftermath of the world historical events of 1989-1991 in Europe, and their longer-term consequences in the twenty-first century. We will examine how Europeans attempted to re-organize their social and political lives in a world no longer determined by Cold War divisions, how they addressed the traumatic and violent legacies of the 20th century, and how they confronted long-neglected racisms, xenophobia, and the definition of what it means to be European.

Is there anything in particular you’re especially excited to share with students?

I am really excited for students to watch the 2002 documentary Foreigners Out! Schlingensief’s Container, directed by Paul Poet, which chronicles notorious performance artist and filmmaker Christoph Schlingensief’s provocative public art action and television show Foreigners Out!/Please Love Austria. The project was a response to the 2000 Austrian elections that saw far-right politician Jörg Haider and the Freedom Party join the country’s ruling coalition, bringing the openly xenophobic party to power. During the action, Schlingensief staged a satirical reality-TV show that featured a group of asylum seekers (played by actors) living in a shipping container in a Big Brother-esque setting in the center of Vienna. The documentary captures the massive public outcry and debates triggered by the action, as well as Schlingensief’s use of the reality show genre to lambast the Freedom Party and its supporters. It is a disturbing, sometimes humorous, and fascinating document of Schlingensief’s stunt and the power of art to provoke and critique.

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

Students might be surprised to learn about the phenomenon of “Ostalgie,” which is a German term translating to nostalgia for the East. The events of “1989” and the dissolution of the Communist Eastern Bloc are typically framed from a West-centric perspective. In these narratives, the “former East” is positioned as having to catch up with the victorious—“normal”—West through the adoption of a competitive liberal market economy and the replacement of a collectivist culture with something more individualist and entrepreneurial. Many from the “former East” did not experience these changes positively.

In the 1990s, forms of Ostalgie emerged among Eastern Germans who felt German reunification had not provided the better life that was promised and who longed for aspects of the lost East German socialist state. Ostalgie manifested in many different forms, including consumption habits as well as in art and film. In this class, we will examine the 2003 film Goodbye, Lenin as an example of Ostalgie. In the film, main character Alex convinces his loyal socialist mother, who was in a coma as the socialist German Democratic Republic disintegrated in 1989/90, that East Germany not only still existed, but that the footage of people pouring through the opened Berlin Wall was actually showing West Germans fleeing from the West to the East!

What kind of assignments will you be doing?

This class is all about helping students become better writers. Students will start the semester writing a series of three VSEs. (VSE= Very Short Essay). The VSE format challenges students to write in clear and concise prose, and to learn how to distill their ideas. The skills learned from writing the VSEs will then be applied to a longer midterm essay and a research paper on a topic of their choosing.

What do you want students to take away from the class?

By focusing on the history of Europe since 1989, this class invites students to call into question the division between past and present or history and current events in order to examine how they are intimately connected. By focusing on a roughly thirty-year period, students will also gain a contextually-supported understanding of the contemporary moment in European politics, including the Russia-Ukraine War, the American GOP’s love affair with the “illiberal democratic” Hungarian Fidesz party and Viktor Orbán, and ongoing debates on European security and the future of NATO, the EU, and liberal democracy worldwide. As a result, we will spend a portion of our classes discussing contemporary events taking place in Europe in the fall of 2022.

One cool thing about studying contemporary history is that you might get to live through it. Were you ever a witness to historical events while doing research in Europe?

Yes! I was living in Berlin during the 2014 World Cup, and had the pleasure of witnessing Berliners celebrating the now infamous 7-1 victory over Brazil in the semi-finals. Though the German team went on to win the World Cup that year, the 7-1 victory was much more surreal and euphoric. People were positively giddy. I’ll never forget the conga line that spilled out of the corner bar below my apartment with participants chanting: “Sieben-Eins!” “Sieben-Eins!” followed by a burst of firecrackers going off in front of a city bus. (The historian in me made sure to make an audio recording of the moment, which I am happy to share!)

How can students learn more?

Students should join me in my breakout room at the HL90 Preview event on Thursday August 24th from 2-3pm on Zoom. Otherwise, please email me with questions at: bjsmith@fas.harvard.edu and visit my Canvas site to sample the readings.

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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