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Admission requirements



During the first half of the 20th century two “grand” experiments in fundamentally changing European society were undertaken, both underpinned by the Utopian and Millenarian ideas of centuries earlier. In both national-socialist Germany and the Soviet Union, the rights of the individual and individual liberty were essentially cast aside in favor of “the” party, the state and the “greater good”. What were the consequences, how did this thinking develop, and what lessons can we learn from this? Those are the main questions the course will confront. This reading-intensive course looks at the twins of 20th century totalitarianism as experienced in Europe under Hitler and Stalin (and to a lesser degree by Mussolini). Two works by Hannah Arendt, the Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem, form the fundaments of the course. All the other books – each a work of literature in its own right – are novels or memoirs written by those who directly experienced the effects of totalitarianism – exile, Nazi rule, the Holocaust, the Great Terror and the Gulag.

Course Objectives

After successful completion of this course, students will be able to:

  • read about and discuss with each other the dangers of extreme ideologies that promise “salvation in this life” and that believe society and industry can be fundamentally reorganized in a state where one party has total power.

  • demonstrate a clear understanding of the origins, ideologies, policies and effects of totalitarianism as practiced in Nazi Germany under Hitler and in the Soviet Union under Stalin, and to a lesser extent Italy under Mussolini.

  • describe the actual experience of those that were incarcerated in the Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet Gulag – and of how those camps were organized and run.

  • critically read the strongest, most evocative (and painful) literature to have been written by camp survivors and further hone their ability to write short, clear and well-thought through essays.


Timetables for courses offered at Leiden University College in 2021-2022 will be published on this page of the e-Prospectus.

Mode of instruction

Apart from during the first week, when there will be two lectures, the weekly classes will be split between lectures and student-led discussions (which should include small presentations by those leading the discussion). There are one or more books linked to every lecture and discussion, and every week students will be expected to write a short, thought-through essay on that particular book and the political and historical background surrounding it. Students will be graded on the quality of their essays (including their command of the English language), their presentations and their leading of class discussions, and on their general participation in discussions.

Assessment Method

In class participation: 10%
Leading class discussion/presentation: 10%
Six weekly essays (600-800 words): 10% each
Final essay (1000-1200 words): 20%

Reading list

Eichmann in Jerusalem – Hannah Arendt
Christ Stopped at Eboli – Carlo Levi
Diary of a Man in Despair – Friederich Reck
This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen – Tadeusz Borowski
The Drowned and the Saved – Primo Levi
Darkness at Noon – Arthur Koestler
Kolyma Tales – Varlam Shalamov
Under a Cruel Star (also published as: Prague Farewell) – Heda Margolis Kovaly
Under Two Dictators – Margarete Buber-Neumann

Recommended further reading:
The Origins of Totalitarianism – Hannah Arendt
Gulag – Anne Applebaum
Into That Darkness – Gita Sereny


Courses offered at Leiden University College (LUC) are usually only open to LUC students and LUC exchange students. Leiden University students who participate in one of the university’s Honours tracks or programmes may register for one LUC course, if availability permits. Registration is coordinated by the Education Coordinator,


Aernout van Lynden,


Students should have read at least parts of The Origins of Totalitarianism before the course begins.