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Devouring movies and novels for Cleveringa course

World War II is never over for those who have lived through it. This is the conclusion of Cleveringa Professor Carol Gluck and her students after reading The Assault (De Aanslag) by Harry Mulisch. The book played a central role in Gluck’s honours course.

Historic truth in fiction

Carol Gluck
Carol Gluck

Gluck’s lecture series, Narratives of World War II, addresses the role of World War II in history and in our collective memory. Remarkably, to answer this question, the American historian does not focus primarily on (scientific) non-fiction sources, but on movies and novels. These are also historical products, she argues, and they often contain historical truth. That is why they can be consulted as historical sources.

Cleveringa chair

Gluck offers her Leiden Honours course in the context of the Cleveringa Chair to which she was appointed for this academic year (2014-2015). In November 2014, she gave the Cleveringa lecture, in which she talked about how people in Asia remember World War II.

Lively discussion

Gluck during her Cleveringa lecture
Gluck during her Cleveringa lecture

In her lecture on Thursday 12 February, Gluck discussed with her honours students The Assault (De Aanslag) by Harry Mulisch. The novel tells the story of Anton Steenwijk, whose parents were executed in the War after the body of a murdered collaborator (member of the NSB) was left outside their house. Gluck and her students sharpen each other’s minds in the course of a lively discussion. Gluck uses subtle prompts to invite her students to come to their own conclusions, while her students in turn point her to some details she might have missed.

Not black-and-white

What the group noticed was that things are not always as black-and-white as we assume them to be. It proves to be almost impossible to determine who was good and who was bad. Not to mention the fact that coincidence also plays an important role in the course of history. ‘Until this planet disappears, we will never be rid of war,’ concludes Gluck. And then, relieved: ‘Except if you have never experienced war.’


The lecture about The Attack by Harry Mulisch
The lecture about The Attack by Harry Mulisch

Vera Bouwer, student of Chinese Studies and English Language and Culture, praises Carol Gluck as a teacher. ‘She is incredibly passionate and is committed heart and soul to her students. The lectures really stimulate us to think and they illuminate many aspects of the War that I never thought about before. For example, we watched the film Come and See, and then talked about the role of former Soviet countries such as Poland and Ukraine in World War II.’


Student of Computer Science Dennis Roos is also very enthusiastic. ‘It’s very different from most other courses, in which the teacher tells a story and the students listen. In this class, we have real discussions, and teacher and student are in principle equal.’ Roos finds it refreshing to learn about something completely different from Computer Science for a change. ‘I have always been interested in history and literary analysis, so this course is perfect for me.’


Gluck herself confirms Roos’s opinion. ‘The discussion is the class, which means that I learn with and from the students. There is no ‘professor’ in class.’ Gluck says that she feels honoured as a Cleveringa Professor to be able to work with such good students. ‘And Leiden is a beautiful city with a fantastic university. I feel very welcome here.’

( 17 February 2015)


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