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Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century

Join an award-winning professor of history to examine a full century of our most violent history with the goal of understanding the roots of terror in order to prevent even greater horrors in the centuries to come.
Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 146.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the best lecture series available This is one of the best TGC series you can watch if you are interested in history. I've gone through this series twice and find myself going back to the guidebook time and again because there's so many topics related to socio-political topics of today. What's interesting is that the series is about 20 years old at this point, but in my opinion, this is one of its advantages. I'm concerned about too much wokism or other contemporary thoughts that have crept into recent scholarly ideas (including, sadly, some content of TGC professors). The fact that "Utopia and Terror" was made decades ago means it's removed from some of the currents that plague us today. So why is it so appealing? Because murder is madness, and mankind became terribly efficient at it in the twentieth century. It's mind-boggling to find out about the masses of people who were slaughtered during this century. At the core of the slaughter were various ideologies that drove people to commit the most horrific acts imaginable. This course examines these ideologies and how they played out across continents and decades. This is a sobering lecture series that should also serve as a warning about humanity's future. Why? Because we don't really seem to have learned much from our past. Whereas Nazism and Fascism were largely vanquished in the twentieth century, the spectre of Communism was bizarrely rehabilitated. Despite the tens of millions of people who died in the Soviet Union, Mao's China, Pol Pot's Cambodia, or elsewhere, you can find people on social media who actively defend and rationalize what Communists did. This lecture series helps when answering people like this who will revise history in order to achieve some contemporary political goals.
Date published: 2024-07-08
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Interesting content but…. Im only on lecture 3. I’m super interested in the content but if you are not super interested, you will become bored very quickly. There are very few illustrations which adds richness to the lecture. While Liulevicius does not drone on in a monotone, the lack of interesting illustrations results in just the constant sound of his voice. Why pay for video?
Date published: 2024-05-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Lecture 22, Rwanda Professor Liulevicius provides a coherent account of a horrifying and confusing event in recent history. Having read Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost several years ago, I was surprised that Belgium, with its well documented and widely acknowledged history of genocide against Africans, was entrusted with oversight of Rwanda after WW1, and moreover, that the Belgians had the audacity to claim the intention to provide “enlightened” oversight. It is an important lesson in history that even seemingly progressive nations are capable of enormities, and the veneer of humaneness and decency is very thin.
Date published: 2024-04-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brilliant and witty professor, excellent analysis I can't say enough good things about Professor Liulevicius. He is an excellent lecturer, and has a broad knowledge of history, politics, and philosophy. I followed the outline throughout the course and even repeated several lectures. Professor Liulevicius can be both serious and witty and connects well with the audience. I've since purchased "Communism in Power" and look forward to another positive learning experience.
Date published: 2024-03-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Regimes Acting on Mankind’s Malleability? Professor Liulevicius knocks it out of the park again! This is my third course with him and his fluent lecture style never fails to impress me. By my count he’s done 10 courses for The Great Courses which should tell you something. This course is a well-organized introduction to some of the most tragic events in human history, but all occurring in what was to be the fulfillment of 19th century progress, the 20th century. This could have been a political course on totalitarianism but Professor L. prefers to focus on the “utopian” societies envisioned by the extremist movements of the 20th century, both right and left, that were initiated and controlled by terror. These regimes were sustained by what he calls the 4 m’s: the masses, machines, mobsters, and master plans, i.e., mass movements energized by one-party states; an embrace of technology largely for control purposes; Gestapo bosses, the Soviet NKVD and Mao’s Cultural Revolution acting as violently and ruthlessly as any gangster (compare the Nazi’s 1934 “Night of the Long Knives” with, say, the St. Valentine’s Massacre of Chicago gangland fame); and master plans where Soviet 5-year plans controlling virtually all economic activity from the center and Nazi “Lebensraum” plans envisioned “removing” 100 million Slavs from Eastern Europe. The utopias sought by these visionary ideologues (more accurately fanatics) ranged from a racially pure state for Nazi Germany to the collectivized society of Stalinism with minimal scope for the private life to the perpetual revolution and chaos of Mao’s “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” to the pure rural society created by Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge where the cities were completely emptied and anybody wearing glasses (a proxy for educational status) was likely to be liquidated. The Professor acknowledges that utopias are sought because “we all need to look forward to a better tomorrow” but the “utopias” covered in this course were such radical transformations of human society because their leaders were so utterly convinced they knew what was best for society that they had no patience for the piecemeal reforms of parliamentary democracy. They also had no role for “civil society” as a buffer and outlet between the individual and the state, e.g., the family, church, voluntary organizations. The state dominated all aspects of life and completely displaced these elements of civil society. Professor L. reminds us that the ideologues behind these erstwhile utopias were confronting human nature. Were certain elements of human nature fixed or was it infinitely malleable? Stalin called his writers “engineers of human souls” while Goebbels believed his propaganda machine could manipulate anyone. Mao killed 30 million while experimenting on the people with his “Great Leap Forward.” This course makes us hope that the lessons from these 20th century “social experiments” will endure throughout our current century.
Date published: 2023-05-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Every topic was overview material I realize that this course was created 20 years ago and perspectives on these topics have changed. Nonetheless, this course was not particularly educational. Professor Liulevicius' dry presentation style combined with his broad descriptions of every topic left me underwhelmed. The two most important areas which he covered, Russian communism and German national socialism, did not add very much to my understanding and education. Much of what he mentioned about the Russian Revolution and following events I learned in my junior high school history class. Another weakness of Professor Liulevicius' teaching style is very little use of anecdotes and stories. He seemed to be presenting an academic, researched viewpoint. I began to wonder if he's ever visited any of the countries he mentioned. The video course is also short on maps and pictures. It could have used more of each.
Date published: 2023-04-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great Presentation In these lectures, the author, Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, examines the causes of the massive violence present in the 20th century. The title is somewhat misleading. It implies that the series ends in 1917, when the era of violence basically begins in 1917 and extends to the end of the twentieth century. The author first discusses the revolutions of the 18th century which laid the foundation for an optimistic view of human nature – the American Revolution, French Revolution, and Industrial Revolution. I disagree with the author regarding the American Revolution having an optimistic view of human nature. It was the diametrical opposite of that. The Founding Fathers had a pessimistic view of human nature. They were terrified of people’s ever-present lust for power, and hence, the institutions they established were controlled by checks and balances in order to prevent any group from gaining much power. The author then discusses the following societies as examples of Utopian ideals which collapsed into totalitarian dictatorships: Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, Mao’s China, Pol Pots’ Cambodia. Each began with the idea of obliterating pursuit of individual wants and replacing it with concern and submission to the collective. Those who would not submit were exterminated. The number of exterminations was terrifying, but perhaps most horrifying was Pol Pots’ slaughter of one-third of Cambodian citizens and his evacuation of all city dwellers to the countryside. The author discusses the genocide in the Balkans, Rwanda, and Hussein’s Iraq. These last three are not examples of a pursued utopia that collapsed into tyranny; they are just examples of one group determined to eradicate another group in order to achieve total control of their country. I was somewhat disappointed that the author did not acknowledge the pessimistic beliefs of the Founding Fathers. Additionally, he did not analyze why the basic ideas of utopias invariably collapse into dictatorships. The means by which our species progressed from apes to humans, and then humans of more advanced technology is our pursuit of power, our desire to control our environment. Living in a classless society does not allow expression of this basic need. We must always be on the alert for when this human trait, the hunger to control our world, leads to the abuse of others. Rather than viewing people who display this trait as sub-human and exterminating them for preventing a heaven on earth, we must have laws which limit their abuse of power. The BLM-Antifa rioters of 2020 that demanded an end to jails and capitalism would do well to acknowledge this fact of human nature. Tragically, in our society’s desire to acquiesce to their demands, our cities are now overwhelmed with violence and turning into a killing fields.
Date published: 2022-11-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Bloodiest Century: Are We Repeating It? Among all the 200 or so Great Courses I have consumed over the years, this might be the most important of them all. Of all the violence, terror and torture in our historical past, nothing compares to what happened during the 20th century. The core mechanism is sadly - or is it an opportunity, if we recognize it? - the same, for the inquisition, witch craze, all religious fundamentalism, so-called far leftist totalitarian ideologies (communism), so-called far-right totalitarian ideologies (fascism). Shared: An elite that get groups together to create utopia by killing of all those who don't agree, the "others". So just think about what's happening in the world today when the means of doing this are so technologically efficient, everything from mass-propaganda to warfare. Anyone who isn't aware of the political murder by states during the 20th century, who prefer to live under a blanket need to wake up. We are all born free and do not need a top-leader/elites to further their agenda. We need to ensure proper human rights, individual human rights for all citizens, and keep our leaders accountable. For cannibalism, torture and mass-murder read Frank Dikötter's books on Mao, (Mao's Great Famine, The Cultural Revolution, The Tragedy of Liberation) and Timothy Snyder's Bloodlandsd, Europe between Hitler and Stalin. Some reviewers here label this course as 'propaganda', it give me nightmares... Inform yourself about Mussolini (who was actually a prominent socialist, proving, socialism-fascism isn't really an economic left-right thing, but one of total control, authoritarianism, meaning violating individual human rights), Hitler, Stalin, Mao (more and more historical records revealed), Kim Il-Sung, Duvalier, Ceausescu, Mengistu etc. And observe, among this group there are different ethnicities, different colors of skin, different parts of the world, different political ideologies etc etc. The only thing that stays the same is that they CONTROL and VIOLATE individual human rights. Do not fall into this trap by falling into crazy political movements. CANNOT RECOMMEND THIS COURSE ENOUGH. I wish all schools taught this.
Date published: 2022-08-26
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The story of the 20th century is filled with leaders who promised utopia and instead delivered war, genocide, and dictatorship. This provocative and unsettling subject is covered in this 24-lecture series, which will help you understand this seemingly senseless and inexplicable record of inhumanity and how we may prevent it from recurring. Examples of leaders who resisted the century's inhuman trends offer hope for the future.


Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius

To study the deepest impulses in human nature, we see the lure of wealth and conquest, the deep-seated urge for fame and glory, the quest for higher ends, a basic human determination.


University of Tennessee

Dr. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius is Lindsay Young Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He earned his B.A. from the University of Chicago and his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. After receiving his doctorate, Dr. Liulevicius served as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University. Professor Liulevicius has won many awards and honors, including the University of Tennessee's Excellence in Teaching Award and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship. At the university he teaches courses on modern German history, Western civilization, European diplomatic history, Nazi Germany, World War I, war and culture, 20th-century Europe, nationalism, and utopian thought. Dr. Liulevicius has published numerous articles and two books: War Land on the Eastern Front: Culture, National Identity, and German Occupation in World War I and The German Myth of the East, 1800 to the Present.

Professor Liulevicius participated in The Great Courses Professor Chat series. Read the chat to learn more about diplomacy and war

By This Professor

Turning Points in Modern History
A History of Eastern Europe
The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin
History's Greatest Voyages of Exploration
The Secret World of Espionage
Communism in Power: From Stalin to Mao
Defining Utopia and Terror

01: Defining Utopia and Terror

The 20th century saw the rise of brutal ideological regimes that promised total solutions. The key elements of such modern regimes are: 1) masses, 2) machines and mechanisms for control, 3) the seizure of the state by mobsters (political criminals), and 4) ideological master plans....

33 min
The Legacy of Revolutions

02: The Legacy of Revolutions

Nineteenth-century revolutions set the agenda for the 20th century. The French Revolution ushered in a new mass politics, while the Industrial Revolution created new productive power and confidence in science and progress. Both contributed to "utopian socialism," the point of departure for further revolutions....

30 min
Omens of Conflict

03: Omens of Conflict

The 20th century began with optimism, but darker omens also appeared: the growing influence of Marxism, a wave of anarchist terrorism and assassinations, the brutal rule of worldwide imperialism, and premonitions of a coming world war....

31 min
World War I

04: World War I

World War I brutalized Western civilization through such innovations as poison gas, aerial bombing, and targeting of civilians....

31 min
Total War-Mobilization and Mass Death

05: Total War-Mobilization and Mass Death

This lecture considers implications of modern industrial war, or "total war," including use of violence against civilians, expansion of strong central states, propaganda as a tool of persuasion, and modern genocide: the massacre of a million Armenians in 1915....

29 min
Total Revolution in Russia

06: Total Revolution in Russia

Total war led to a new kind of political upheaval: total revolution. Led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the Bolsheviks seized control of Russia in 1917 and began a vast revolutionary experiment....

31 min
War's Aftermath-The Hinge of Violence

07: War's Aftermath-The Hinge of Violence

The peace treaty of Versailles set the terms for new conflicts that inevitably arose. The little-known movements of millions of refugees displaced by the war set a dire precedent for subsequent massive "population transfers."...

31 min

08: Communism

This lecture traces the early outlines of Soviet power: the establishment of the Cheka secret police and the Red Army, the use of propaganda campaigns, the repression of internal dissent, and, after Lenin's death, the emergence of Josef Stalin....

31 min

09: Stalin

Josef Stalin, the "Man of Steel," made himself synonymous with the state. This lecture examines obscure beginnings, his rise to power, and the cult of personality deliberately crafted around him....

32 min
Soviet Civilization

10: Soviet Civilization

The new society of the U.S.S.R. was self-consciously revolutionary and modern, heralding the construction of a "new man" and "new woman." Foreign visitors enthusiastically hailed what they saw as a vision of the "future that works."...

31 min

11: Fascism

Coming to power in 1922 through the falsely mythologized "March on Rome," the Fascists brutalized their opponents, prepared to mobilize society in a "total state," and chanted slogans of "Believe, Obey, and Fight." The Fascist style of "Il Duce," Mussolini, was imitated by would-be dictators worldwide....

31 min
The 1930's-

12: The 1930's-"The Low Dishonest Decade"

The 1930's were marked by deepening worldwide economic crisis, the rejection of liberal ideas, and the ominous revival of imperialist desires. Poet W.H. Auden called it the "low dishonest decade." The Japanese invasion of China foreshadowed World War II, while the Spanish Civil War was its dress rehearsal....

30 min

13: Nazism

This lecture surveys the origins of the Nazi movement, its ideological roots, and its rise to power in Germany. All of these were linked to the brutalizing legacies of World War I....

31 min

14: Hitler

Adolf Hitler, the man behind the Nazi movement, was indispensable to its success and its growing radicalism. This lecture profiles Hitler and considers the keys to his effectiveness as a dictator, in particular his capability for boundlessly cynical propaganda....

31 min
World War II

15: World War II

The Second World War was unleashed by Hitler in 1939 with help from Stalin. On all sides, this "perfected" total war resulted in massive civilian casualties, especially in war from the air, culminating in the opening of the atomic age....

32 min
Nazi Genocide and Master Plans

16: Nazi Genocide and Master Plans

This lecture considers the Nazis' program of mass murder against the Jews, beginning with escalating persecutions and culminating with extermination camps like Auschwitz....

32 min
The Cold War

17: The Cold War

No sooner had World War II ended than a new confrontation emerged: ideological blocs of countries faced off against one another in the Cold War....

32 min

18: Mao

After decades of civil war and struggle, Chinese Communists came to power in 1949 under the leadership of Mao Zedong. This lecture examines the society formed by the ideology of "Mao Thought," the "Little Red Book," the uniform dress of "Mao suits," and the cultural break with a rich past forced by the regime....

31 min
Cambodia and Pol Pot's Killing Fields

19: Cambodia and Pol Pot's Killing Fields

In 1975, Cambodian Communist leaders educated in France and led by the mysterious Pol Pot turned their own land into a social experiment. In the three years of their rule, the Khmer Rouge killed some 2 million people, more than 25 percent of Cambodians....

32 min
East Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea

20: East Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea

During the Cold War, different variants of communist regimes emerged. The German Democratic Republic was considered a success story. In the Soviet Union, the system lurched towards stagnation. North Korea enshrined its militarized isolation from the world in the ideology of "juche" or self-reliance....

31 min
From the Berlin Wall to the Balkans

21: From the Berlin Wall to the Balkans

As the 20th century neared its end, the spirit of the times sent mixed signals. From 1989 to 1991, Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union fell with astonishing speed. Yet, as Yugoslavia began to crumble, Europe saw a reversion to the crimes that had marked World War II....

31 min

22: Rwanda

In 1994, horrific events unfolded in the central African country of Rwanda. The Hutu-dominated government organized the mass murder of the Tutsi minority. In 100 days, 800,000 people were slaughtered; the international community failed to intervene....

30 min
Saddam Hussein's Iraq

23: Saddam Hussein's Iraq

This lecture traces how Hussein established his personal dictatorship in Iraq, modeling himself on long-ago despots and surrounding himself with elite Republican Guards. His eight-year war against Iran resembled World War I in its ferocity....

32 min
The Future of Terror

24: The Future of Terror

Ultimately, what are the lessons of the 20th century's linked experiences of the promise of utopia and the reality of terror? This lecture poses the urgent question of how to be vigilant against the revival of movements such as those surveyed, and examines the growing appeal of Arab radicalism and groups like al-Qa'ida. The question of whether these global trends are likely to continue is of vital...

33 min