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The Power of the Past: The Contemporary Relevance of Histories



‘History doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes.’ Whether we can attribute this quote to Mark Twain or not, it summarises the idea behind this course succinctly. On the one hand, we should be cautious not to oversimplify what can be ‘learned’ from history. On the other hand, history does and can definitely play a role in political debates and decision making.
Examples of questions that we will explore during this seminar are: How is history used and misused in political debates? What evidence can history contribute to decision making? How can we make history relevant to contemporary societal debates? We will predominantly look into historical developments and events that took place during the twentieth and early twenty-first century.
Students will have a lot of freedom to select events or developments related to international relations and organisations to work on for their assignments. More important than the topics as such, is that they promise to be relevant to a contemporary issue. This relevance can be established in different ways, of which the analogical reasoning and the construction of histories that explain how a contemporary situation emerged are the ones most widely applied. For at least one of the assignments, the students adopt a practice-oriented perspective. This may, for example, involve writing a briefing for political decision makers.

Course objectives

After completing this course, students will have:

  • Knowledge of history as ‘the past’ and history as ‘an approach’

  • Knowledge of the ways in which history is invoked in political debates and decision making

  • Ability to work with primary and secondary sources to develop an analysis of past developments or events

  • Knowledge of approaches to determine the contemporary relevance of histories

  • Ability to develop well argued recommendations or reflections rooted in history related to current debates and present them in a way suitable for a non-academic audience

Mode of instruction

Ditigal learning environment in Brightspace

Assessment method

100% of the final grade is determined by grades for written assignments.

In addition, several seminar assignments, including a presentation, have to be completed to a satisfactory standard to be elegible for a final grade for the course.

Details will be included in the syllabus.

Reading list

We will use a combination of journal articles and (chapters from) books. Examples are:

Brands, H. & Suri, J. (eds.) (2015). The power of the past: History and statecraft. Washington: Brookings Institution Press.
Cox, P., (2013). The future uses of history. History Workshop Journal, 75(1), 125-145.
Neustadt, R.E. & May, E.R. (1986). Thinking in time: The uses of history for decision makers. New York: Free Press.
Pollitt, C. (2008). Time, policy, management: Governing with the past. Oxford: Oxford
Woolcock, M., Szreter, S. & Rao, V. (2011). How and why does history matter for development policy? Journal of Development Studies, 47(1), 70-96.

A detailed reading list, including instructions on how to acquire the texts, will be included in the syllabus.


See general information on tab 'Year 3'.

Timetable courses and Exams



Please feel free to contact the lecturer if you have any questions about this course at: