HST6071: Life Stories: Men and Women in War and Revolution, 1936-1949 

Spanish War Children (restored)

15 credits (Semester 2017-18: Autumn | Semester 2018-19: Autumn)

Module Leader 2017-18: Dr James Yeoman | 2018-19: Dr James Yeoman


Module Summary

'During the 1930s and 40s the fabric of everyday life in Europe was fractured, at times seemingly beyond repair. This module examines ideological commitment, displacement, mobility and radical change, looking at how individual men and women responded to these changes and defined themselves in the face of them during the turbulent years of the mid-twentieth century. We'll look at the traces they left behind them, the diaries, letters, pictures and memoires that they wrote as well as the photographs that recorded them and the objects they took with them.' Professor Mary Vincent

This module will allow you to explore issues of identity and how these changed during the turbulent early years of the twentieth century, looking at how these identities are expressed. Each seminar is structured around a particular kind of 'ego-document': for example, diaries, memoires, interviews, and children’s drawings. Exploring and comparing these sources, which all come under the broad title of 'life-writing', allows us to examine consider how identities are negotiated in difficult, and often harsh, social and political circumstances. The module looks to locate the individual in the momentous history of mid-twentieth-century Europe, a time of massive dislocation and population movements as well as disruption to the normal course of everyday life.

Module aims

  1. To explore constructed identities in twentieth-century Europe, examining issues around lived experience, life histories and trauma in relation both to a particular kind of documentary source—life writing or 'ego-documents' and the history of war and occupation that characterised the continent in this period;
  2. To investigate how identities are expressed and constructed in individuals' own textual production, through comparison of and with particular reference to specific genres of source, for example diaries, memoires, letters, and children’s drawings; 
  3. To enable students to consider how identities are negotiated in different, and often harsh, social and political circumstances; 
  4. To develop advanced source criticism skills, comparing across genres and identifying how historians can use ego-documents and what they can tell us about this period;
  5. To enhance and develop their knowledge of European history in the period of the Second World War; 
  6. To encourage the use of linguistic skills in those students that have or are acquiring them; 
  7. To offer students expert guidance in the exploration of source-based problems; 
  8. To provide a forum for the exchange of informed views over issues which have generated scholarly debate.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the module, you will be able to demonstrate:

  1. A developed understanding of the history of Europe in the period of the Second World War with an ability to come to independent conclusions (Aims 1, 3, 5); 
  2. How historians and other scholars understand and use subjective sources such as life-writing and the use of specific genres of life-writing (A2, 4, 7 as well as A6 for students with language skills);
  3. An awareness of the interdisciplinary debates around subjectivity and the expression of identity in the past (A2, 3);
  4. The ability to elaborate and defend an intellectual position to other members of the seminar group (A8); 
  5. Their ability to collaborate with other members of the group in both the presentation and analysis of material and in discussions of interpretative issues (A8).


Learning hours
Seminars Tutorials Independent Learning
10 1 139

The module will be taught in five, two-hour classes. Each will focus on personal testimony, exploring particular themes such as the lived experience of men and women during specific periods of revolution and war; the relationship between identity and physicality; gender and class identities (LOs 1, 2). Such topics will also be located within a particular genre of life-writing, such as children's testimony (textual and visual), soldiers' letters, diaries and memoirs (LOs 2, 3). This is a field with a rich literature that draws from history, literary criticism, sociology and psychoanalysis. Classes will enable students to explore this interdisciplinarity (LO3), share knowledge and debate controversial issues (LO4) and listen and respond to the views of others in a structured environment (LOs 4, 5). You  will, in addition, have individual tutorial contact with the module leader in order to discuss your written work for this module.



Assessment methods
Assessment % of final mark Length
Coursework 100% 3000 words

You will prepare a short paper (not more than 3000 words) which demonstrates an ability to handle this type of primary source and use it to explore one of the key themes raised by an in-depth study of identity in this particular period of modern European history (LOs 1, 2, 3).


Selected reading

Among the best know and possibly most familiar examples of life-writing from the period are George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1938) and Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (1952), both of which are well worth re-reading.

Richard Vinen, A History in Fragments: Europe in the Twentieth Century (London, 2000), part II, discusses the period, Mary Fulbrook and Ulinka Rublack, 'In Relation: the "Social Self" and Ego-Documents', German History 28:3 (2010), 263-27, the methodology.



*The content of our courses is reviewed annually to make sure it's up-to-date and relevant. Individual modules are occasionally updated or withdrawn. This is in response to discoveries through our world-leading research; funding changes; professional accreditation requirements; student or employer feedback; outcomes of reviews; and variations in staff or student numbers. In the event of any change we'll consult and inform students in good time and take reasonable steps to minimise disruption.