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The Rise and Fall of Liberty

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08/20/2010David Gordon

[David Gordon discusses his new online Mises Academy course, Freedom Versus Authority: Europe 1789–1945, which starts September 16.]

The onset of the French Revolution, in 1789, seemed to be a time of hope for liberty. As William Wordsworth said,

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

But by 1945, Europe lay in ruins. The appalling massacres and destruction of World War II were a bitter commentary on the enthusiasm of 1789.

What happened? Our main task in this course will be to try to answer this question.

We'll begin by looking at two aspects of the French Revolution. On the one hand, it aimed to overthrow the inequities of the Old Regime. In this way, it was a libertarian revolution, and many of the revolutionaries, including some of the Jacobins, strongly favored private property. On the other hand, the Revolution was marked by terror and massacres. We'll look at the way in which developments in the Revolution prefigured totalitarianism.

The Revolution needs to be studied in an international context, and here we will look at the battles between France and the European powers allied against her, headed by Britain. These wars were intensely ideological, and we will spend some time on the writings of Edmund Burke, the Revolution's main antagonist.

The Revolution ended with the rise of Napoleon to power, which of course led to a new round of wars as Napoleon tried to extend his rule over Europe. We will look at the tensions in Britain, Napoleon's principal opponent. There, the Industrial Revolution reflected the influence, in part, of classical liberalism; at the same time, fear of revolution led to attempts to suppress freedom.

Napoleon's defeat led to an effort by the European powers at the Congress of Vienna to restore the Old Regime, and we will study in this connection the diplomacy of Prince Metternich. His reactionary efforts proved ultimately unsuccessful, and we will look at some of the opponents of his efforts, stressing the classical liberals.

Unfortunately, classical liberalism, though powerful in Britain and France, did not prevail. Instead, nationalism was the order of the day; and we'll see how nationalism reflected the influence of Romanticism, a movement of thought that resisted 18th-century Enlightenment rationalism. We'll see nationalism expressed in the revolutions of 1830 and 1848. In the latter of these, we will contrast the interpretations of Tocqueville and Marx.

The latter half of the 19th century was marked by paradox. Classical-liberal policies, to the extent that they were enacted, brought peace and prosperity to Europe; but the rising trends of thought rejected classical liberalism. We will look at the efforts of Bismarck to create a powerful and unified Germany, as well as the movement for Italian unity. Many in the working classes found socialism attractive, and we will examine the various Marxist movements that gained increasing influence as the 19th century progressed.

The rivalries of the European powers were not confined to the continent, and we will examine one of the most dangerous trends of the time, the struggle for empire. We'll look at different interpretations of imperialism, especially those of Schumpeter and Lenin.

The division of Europe between conflicting alliances led to the First World War, which in turn led to the destructive ideologies of the 20th century. We'll devote particular attention both to the claim that the war was caused by Germany's grasp for world power and to the revisionist critics of this thesis.

The war brought revolution to Russia, and we will look at the Bolsheviks and their opponents. Here the socialist-calculation argument of Mises will show us why the Bolshevik project could not succeed. In part as a reaction to Bolshevism, fascism became a powerful movement. We'll see how fascism tried to put into practice a different variety of socialism from that of the Bolsheviks. Here, the interpretation of Mises will once more be our key tool.

Dissatisfaction with the Treaty of Versailles, as well as the ravages of the Great Depression, brought Hitler to power in Europe. The course will end with a detailed account of the Nazi regime, the origins of World War II, and some of the main events of that war. Students who complete the course will see how the rejection of classical liberalism and the embrace of belligerent ideologies led inevitably to this disaster.

The course consists of nine lectures, which will be held on Thursday nights at 7 EDT beginning September 16. Each lecture will last one hour, and after this there will be a 30-minute discussion period. Of course, students can always write to me at any time if they have additional questions.

For each lecture, there will be readings in both primary and secondary sources. There will also be quizzes and essays for those who would like a grade. Finally, I'd like to reassure those who have read my book reviews that I'm not a hard grader.

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