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Europe 1914-1989: war, peace, modernity

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This module will give you an overview of Europe's twentieth-century history. It begins with Europe on the eve of the First World War and ends with the reunification of Germany at the end of the Cold War. As well as analysing political and military developments, it will introduce you to the key themes in Europe’s economic, social, medical and cultural history. A central focus of the module is how historians have studied the period. You'll be introduced to historical debates, and to the vast resources for the study of twentieth-century history that are now being made available online.

What you will study

The three key themes of this module are the:

  • ways that war was waged in Europe and how this changed the continent
  • different forms of peace, which were always more than just an absence of war
  • industrial and technical transformation of the whole of Europe.

This module will open up the breathtaking variety of electronic resources on twentieth-century history which have transformed our ability to carry out historical research and scholarship wherever we are. It will teach you the skills of independent study through learning about this period, so you are able to see the big pictures more clearly, and know how to find out more for yourself.

Beginning with the First World War, which marked the end of the old order in Europe, you’ll study the war’s causes and the war itself. It was a period of technological advances, but inevitably this total war left its mark on every state in the continent, and destroyed many of them. It also enabled some existing socialist and nationalist movements to gain state power for the first time.

During the first half of the interwar period, it appeared that the crises arising from the First World War would be resolved largely within a framework of liberal democracy and internationalism. In the second half, under the stress of the world economic crisis, political systems buckled and the era became a consciously 'pre-war' one. Attempts in Italy, Germany and Russia to create fundamentally new societies achieved varying degrees of success at the cost of immense human damage. Despite the economic crises, technical and social changes continued throughout the period. You will gain an impression of these changes, as well as the ability to see their inter-relationships.

You'll learn about the causes of the Second World War, with an eye on the way that the historiography has developed over the century, and is not resolved even today. You will examine the relationship between war, society and technology via several case studies, including one on the development of penicillin. The history of medicine features in the module to illustrate wider points about social and technical history. The effects of the war on the post-war order will also be considered.

The Cold War was a total war of another kind, and the 'waging of peace' becomes a key theme in the second half of the module. Broadcasters and religions were mobilised in the struggle, as were more conventional socio-economic factors. Soviet-style Communism attempted to provide a coherent alternative to the liberal-democratic mainstream. The year 1968 was a watershed on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The momentum of both the Western European 'golden age' and the Eastern experiment with autarchic socialism had slowed down. In the final part of the Cold War, the West's (slowing) growth, and the more compelling social vision that it embodied, brought victory in 1989.

During the post-war period, competing Great Powers were (in theory) replaced by allied and integrating blocs. But was Great Power rivalry really dead?

Entry requirements

This is an OU level 3 module. OU level 3 modules build on study skills and subject knowledge acquired from studies at OU levels 1 and 2. They are intended only for students who have recent experience of higher education in a related subject, preferably at the OU. You should already have some of the skills appropriate to studying history at this OU level. 

This module is open to all students who are suitably prepared. If you intend to study for the BA (Honours) History, you must have first successfully completed either Early modern Europe: society and culture c.1500-1780 (A223), The British Isles and the modern world, 1789–1914 (A225), or Exploring history: medieval to modern 1400–1900 (A200) (now discontinued).   

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

Preparatory work

You may find it helpful to do some background reading of the set book, Mark Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century.

What's included

You’ll be provided with four printed module books, each covering one block of study, and have access to a module website, which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • module materials
  • audio and video content
  • assessment guide
  • online tutorials and forums.

Computing requirements

You’ll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11) or macOS Ventura or higher.

Any additional software will be provided or is generally freely available.

To join in spoken conversations in tutorials, we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

Our module websites comply with web standards, and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

Our OU Study mobile app will operate on all current, supported versions of Android and iOS. It’s not available on Kindle.

It’s also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook. However, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you’ll also require a desktop or laptop, as described above.

Materials to buy

Set books

  • Mazower, M. Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century Penguin £12.99 - ISBN 9780140241594

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You'll have a tutor who will help you with the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. We may also be able to offer online group tutorials that you are encouraged, but not obliged, to attend.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying A327 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

Europe 1914-1989: war, peace, modernity starts twice a year – in February and October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2024 and February 2025. We expect it to start for the last time in February 2026.

Course work includes:

5 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment

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