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How Not to Write the History of our Times

Professor Bernard Wasserstein, Harriet and Ulrich Meyer Professor of History, University of Chicago and author of 'Barbarism and Civilization: A History of Europe in our Time'

A lecture in association with Oxford University Press

Date: 23rd October 2007

Time: 17:30

Venue: Curtis Auditorium, Herschel Building, opposite Haymarket Metro

Bernard Wasserstein’s new book Barbarism and Civilization: A History of Europe in Our Time, is a story of cruelty and tenderness, of technological achievement and environmental blight, of imperial expansion and withdrawal, of authoritarian repression and of individualism resurgent.

Wasserstein argues that barbarism and civilization were not polar opposites: rather they marched hand in hand. Twentieth-century Europe saw incontestable improvements in living conditions for most inhabitants of the continent: average life span was extended; real incomes increased; illiteracy was all but eliminated; women, ethnic minorities, and homosexuals advanced closer to equality of respect and opportunity.  Yet the century also witnessed some of the most brutish episodes in the recorded history of our species. Hence Wasserstein's conclusion that “greed, selfishness, lies, and cruelty are the stuff of the history of Europe in our time.”

In this lecture the author takes us into the historian’s workshop.  He will describe the almost insuperable problems of writing contemporary history, his conception of what Europe is and how its history should be written, and the moments of despair and elation that he experienced between the book’s conception and publication.  He will also discuss the book’s argument, in particular its stress on the evolution of values and sensibilities in a period when, for the first time, God disappeared as a living presence in the minds of most Europeans.

Bernard Wasserstein was born in London in 1948 and educated at Balliol and Nuffield Colleges, Oxford. He has taught at Sheffield, Oxford, Glasgow, and Brandeis Universities and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.   Since 2003 he has been Harriet and Ulrich Meyer Professor of History at the University of Chicago. His many previous books include "Britain and the Jews of Europe 1939-1945" and "The Secret Lives of Trebitsch Lincoln" (which won the Golden Dagger Award for Non-Fiction from the Crime Writers' Association).   His latest book is "Barbarism and Civilization: A History of Europe in Our Time", just published by Oxford University Press.  He is currently spending a year in Europe as a Guggenheim Fellow.