Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century

Course No. 8313
Professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D.
University of Tennessee
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Course No. 8313
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Course Overview

From the trenches of World War I to Nazi Germany to Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the 20th century was a time of unprecedented violence. According to best estimates, in that 100-year span more than 200 million people were killed in world wars, government-sponsored persecutions, and genocides. Such monumental violence seems senseless. But it is not inexplicable. And if we can understand its origins, we may prevent even greater horrors in the century to come.

This is the premise of Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century. Professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius traces the violent history of that era, beginning with its early roots in the American and, especially, the French revolutions. With each passing lecture, you will see how the 20th century's violence was the result of specific historical developments that eventually combined, with explosive results.

The Fuse that Made the 20th Century Explode

The French Revolution proved that ideological movements could mobilize the public and, when willing to use violence, could indeed transform society.

The Industrial Revolution and subsequent technology created vastly more powerful weapons—including some that were entirely new, such as the airplane and rocket—that raised the potential for bloodshed to new heights.

Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection was perverted into Social Darwinism and eugenics: racist pseudosciences that provided excuses to repress or eliminate entire groups of people.

These events created a dangerous backdrop for the most sinister development of all. This was the notion that utopia was not just a perfect paradise to look forward to in the afterlife. Instead, utopia could be built right now, in this life.

Such 20th-century ideologies as Marxism, Nazism, Communism, and Fascism embraced this idea willingly—even enthusiastically—and used terror to implement it. These ideologies functioned as political religions, demanding fanaticism, commitment, and sacrifice in return for an ultimate reward in this life rather than the next.

Understanding Totalitarian Governments: Gangsters and Machines

Professor Liulevicius offers an intellectual framework though which to understand the totalitarian governments of the last century or, for that matter, of today. Such governments, and the terror they spread, share key characteristics and strategies.

For example, their leaders can be seen not as politicians but as mobsters, an organized conspiracy that uses criminal methods inspired by gangsters. They gain and maintain power by manipulating masses of people, often exploiting societies with many uprooted and alienated citizens, such as existed in Europe after World War I.

In addition, you will see that these regimes create fear and command allegiance through the use of "machines." These are not literally machines, but bureaucracies that carry out a set of deliberate, interrelated strategies. These include:

  • The cult of the leader, or the cult of personality. These make the dictator seem larger than life, or superhuman. After Italy annexed Ethiopia in 1936, Mussolini's followers declared him to be a new god in human form. In the Soviet Union, long ovations after Stalin's speeches were common, as no one wanted to be seen as the first to stop applauding.
  • The Big Lie, or deliberate distortions of the truth. During the Hundred Flowers Campaign, Mao Zedong seemed to promote free speech, then killed some half million dissidents when they came out in the open.
  • Secret police. An estimated 274,000 people worked with the East German secret police, the Stasi, from 1950 to 1989. When informers were added, this translated into one secret policeman for every 6.5 persons.
  • The media. Radio, film, and television were used to rewrite history and manipulate the masses. The Bolsheviks produced documentary films that made their October Revolution seem much more dramatic and deadly than it was (a common joke was that more people were injured during filming than in the actual event).

The portrait Professor Liulevicius paints is that 20th-century violence, while horrific and massive, was not chaotic or random but deliberate and calculated. Very often, it was based on precedent.

In using concentration camps, Hitler and Stalin essentially adopted a strategy that had first been employed by the Spanish in 1896 in Cuba and by the British against Dutch settlers during the Boer War (1899–1902).

Hitler's plan to exterminate Germany's Jews was inspired by the 1915 genocide of Armenians by the Turkish Ottoman Empire, an atrocity barely noticed by the international community. The fact that "no one remembered the Armenians," as Hitler is said to have declared, convinced him that his Final Solution would work.

Lessons Learned: A Hopeful Conclusion

In the final lectures, Professor Liulevicius considers recent figures such as Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden and assesses terrorism in the contemporary world. What is the future of terror? What lessons have been learned by the hard experience of the past century?

These questions hinge on several issues, including our attitudes toward human nature, our ability to remember and learn from past atrocities, and our use of technology. But an especially optimistic note is the notion of resistance. If the 20th century was plagued by repressive regimes, it was also blessed with those who resisted them.

Unlike the story of totalitarianism, which is about the state, the story of resistance is one of individuals who ignored personal risk to oppose violence. These "witnesses to the century," as Professor Liulevicius calls them, include novelists George Orwell and Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Polish labor leader Lech Walesa, Pope John Paul II, and political philosopher Hannah Arendt.

Their examples offer a hopeful conclusion.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    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. x
  • 2
    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. x
  • 3
    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. x
  • 4
    World War I
    World War I brutalized Western civilization through such innovations as poison gas, aerial bombing, and targeting of civilians. x
  • 5
    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. x
  • 6
    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. x
  • 7
    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." x
  • 8
    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. x
  • 9
    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. x
  • 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." x
  • 11
    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. x
  • 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. x
  • 13
    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. x
  • 14
    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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 18
    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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 22
    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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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 importance. x

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Your professor

Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius

About Your Professor

Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D.
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...
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Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 111.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A pretty good basic survey course Overall, I am glad I watched all 25 lectures. On the positive side this is a pretty good general survey course heavily weighted towards the communist, fascist, and Nazi atrocities of the 20th century. The professor has a very good speaking and presentation style. Body language, speech, pacing all good - nothing distracting in the least. Pleasant to listen to. I feel that I did not learn very much that was new to me, but someone with less grounding in 20th century world history there would probably be much new to learn here. On the downside, I really did get the feel this was a basic survey course that left out a lot of context and neglected other topics that could have been considered. The course was heavily weighted towards European totalitariansism, communism, and Naziism. I feel an opportunity was lost here to think about how terror has been used more globally - the dictatorships of Latin America were not even mentioned, I do not think apartheid in South Africa even came up one. And there is never a bad time to practice a little introspection and reflect the use of terror used in the the western liberal democracies in the third world in the colonial empires, and even domestically. On balance, I am glad I watched it, but came away with the feel I had really sat through an incomplete and fairly basic survey course.
Date published: 2019-06-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The Lesson is Missing A solid historical overview of state sponsored terror during the 20th century. A fair subtitle for the series would be State Sponsored Genocides. It's mostly history, with relatively little analysis. He mentions Arendt several times, and seems to think that her work on Totalitarianism will become a classic. I don't think it will. He disappointingly fails to draw the lines connecting the ideas of statism -- whether called "socialist" "communist" "nazi" "fascist" "baathist" or whatever -- and the murder, by the state, of citizens. Even in the US, where the "war on drugs" has usurped the idea of individual rights, the state murders (via 'no knock' raids) with impunity and a stamp of "legitimacy." The scale is certainly different, but the principle not so much. We identify a group we don't like, then license the state to use deadly force to eliminate them. If history is to be any more valuable than comics, we must learn from it. And the lesson from the 20th century must surely be: limit state power to the maximum extent possible. There is no even remotely explicit drawing of this lesson in this course.
Date published: 2019-05-16
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Flawed Concept In this course Professor Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius argues that Western utopian political thought, beginning with the Enlightenment and the emergence of Marxian socialism, birthed the terrorist dictatorships and genocides of the twentieth century. In his opening lecture he defines “utopia” as an imagined ideal society and “terror” as the organized use of violence for political ends with the deliberate targeting of civilians. When linked these two tendencies have led the state’s revolutionary rulers to draw up plans for perfecting society and then to beat down all resistance by mass imprisonment and murder while continuing to promise a bright future. In a long narrative, Liulevicius guides watchers and listeners through World War I and its totalizing effects, the Russian Revolution, the Stalinist “second revolution,” the rise and fall of fascism and Nazism, the Cold War, Maoist China, Pol Pot’s “killing fields” in Cambodia, the end of the Cold War, the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide, Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime in Iraq, and the rise of Al Qaeda. He concludes by proposing individuality, virtuous thinking and historical memory as the best defenses against the rise of new criminal regimes. The course has serious problems. First there is the conceptual slippage. Utopianism makes sense in helping to explain Stalinism, Maoism, the Khmer Rouge and perhaps early North Korea, but it’s hard to argue fascism, Nazism, Ba’athism or Hutu Power had any sort of comprehensive blueprint for an ideal society. To justify including them in the course, Liulevicius changes his selection filter from “utopia” to “ideology.” Yes, these horrible regimes had ideologies, but every state, including the USA, has an ideology of some sort to keep its political and economic elites in power. Then there were the Eastern European Communist regimes that may have professed utopian ideals, but as obsequious subjects of the USSR could hardly do it convincingly. In East Germany the Socialist Unity Party had to openly confess failure by fortifying the intra-German border and criminalizing “desertion from the Republic.” Second, the decision to relegate militant Islam to a few minutes in the final lecture is truly surprising. If Liulevicius was looking for a revolutionary utopian and antiliberal force in the last two decades of the twentieth century, this was it. The Shi’ite Islamic regime that came to power under Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 in a whirlwind of popular mobilization was a far better fit than the Ba’athists, and of course it is still in power today. The Islamist utopia lies as much in the medieval past as much in the future, but it is still a totalizing one—an imagined world where Islam is everywhere victorious, and every action, gesture and thought complies with the detailed requirements of Islamic law. Third, the professor makes little use of images that would have really enriched the course, especially the art he describes in the lecture on “Soviet Civilization.” On the other hand, one of the images he does use, the famous photo purporting to magnify Hitler’s ecstatic face in the crowd celebrating the outbreak of World War I in front of Munich’s Feldherrnhalle in August 1914, has long been debunked. It was a product of Hitler’s personal photographer after the war. Fourth, the professor’s framework ignores terrible crimes against humanity committed since 1945 in the name of fighting communism. Foremost among these was the great Indonesian massacre of 1965, in which the American CIA was complicit; at least a half-million died. I won’t tell you to avoid the course. You may enjoy—I use that word guardedly—this tale of the twentieth century’s worst governments but be aware of the flaws.
Date published: 2018-12-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Relevant and Thought Provoking This is not a new course (2003) but the themes and concepts help me view the world leaders and their trajectories in a new and sometimes frightening light. It also provided a new perspective on the 20th century and my own times.
Date published: 2018-08-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A must see! This is a course that Everyone should see to be prepared for the future! I must for young people to understand the past! Please see this to understand what can and must not happen again. The recommended reading list is very good too. Great professor!
Date published: 2018-07-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This Is How We Got Here. I bought this course a while ago, and finally got around to watching it. I became completely wrapped up in the explanation of the forces of history and ideology that have brought the world to its current state. I found it both terrifying and reassuring to see how history is repeating itself, and it gives me hope that we can recover from the current backsliding toward nationalism and violence, as we did aftern World War II. It illustrates how constant vigilance is necessary to keep humanity human. The professor is an excellent lecturer, clearly and logically presenting the events and forces that shaped the 20th Century. His voice is pleasant to listen to and easy to understand. I'm looking forward to consulting the authors he cited in his lectures to better comprehend their ideas. Toward the end of the course, I was becoming distressed at how current events are mirroring some of the events leading up to totalitarian regimes of the past, but in the final lecture Prof. Lielevicius gives reassurance that, with attention to what is happening and active participation in our communities, humanity might be able to avoid reverting to violence. I recommend this course, without reservation, to anyone concerned about the current state of the world, or with an interest in modern history. I have several more of Prof. Lielevicius's courses that I am looking forward to watching.
Date published: 2018-07-21
Rated 1 out of 5 by from A most biased lesson I am a great fan of the Great Courses. I must have got and listened up to now to close to 750 hours of Great Teaching. Several of these courses, I have listened to many times. This series of lectures by Prof. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius actually is a good review of historical facts: I have nothing to say against that. However, I find it horribly biased: firstly, everybody in the story is bad except for Americans who seem never to have committed any crime: even the two atomic bombs over Japan within 3 days are passed over in less than a minute without any value judgment about it; secondly, when talking about the tyrannical leaders (we all agree about Lenin, Stalin, Mao and so on), no mention is ever made about the conditions which were made to these people and which led them to their revolutions: nothing about colonialism or, if so, only about colonialisms by others than Americans, nothing about the inhuman treatment made to them mostly by great western capitalists. I could keep up throwing examples of the same sort but I won't. I think my message must have been received by now: this is clearly an example of poor intellectual rigor and honesty.
Date published: 2018-06-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century I listened to these lectures approximately a year ago. They are some of the finest, if not THE finest lectures I have ever heard. The author does a magnificent job of outlining the various governments which have resulted in mistreatments and torture of innocent human beings. EVERY single citizen of our free country should hear these lectures to understand how fortunate we are to live in a free country, which we tend to take for granted. I commend the author for making all of this very important information available. Lowell Gill
Date published: 2018-06-10
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