Global History of Human Rights since 1750 – An Annotated Syllabus

Since it’s human rights day, I thought I would share my syllabus for an undergrad seminar that I’m currently teaching at the University of Erfurt on the history of human rights. I’ve added some shot explanations of the logic behind the readings chosen for each week. Feel free to comment, critique or borrow liberally!

Session 1: Human Rights and History

General overview of the course matter (it’s the first day so it’s all pretty broad)

Session 2: Genealogies of Human Rights

  • Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, “Genealogies of Human Rights,” in Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, ed. SL Hoffmann Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, 1–28.

This is a dense first reading, but it provides a good sense of the scope of the field and lets students see the variety of themes we will be dealing with over the length of the course. In Germany, where seminars put an emphasis on historiography, it’s a great primer.

Session 3: 18th Century Revolutions

  • Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights, London: Norton, 2008. Chapter 3 pp. 113-145.

Hunt’s book provides an example of a teleological progress narrative of human rights beginning with the 18th century and the Enlightenment, and it introduces students to the history of emotions as a methodology.

Session 4: Unequal Revolutions (1)

  • Joan Wallach Scott. “French Feminists and the Rights of ‘Man’: Olympe de Gouges’s Declarations.” History Workshop 28 (Autumn, 1989), pp. 1-21.

I’ve got two lessons that are set up as a counter-point to progress narratives of the 18th century in order to center contemporary critics and to understand different forms of exclusion. Scott’s work delves into the exclusion of women from full citizenship and universalism and it also provides an introduction to gender theory.

Session 5: Unequal Revolutions (2)

  • Richard Brown. Self-Evident Truths: Contesting Equal Rights from the Revolution to the Civil War. Chapter 7 Equal Rights, Unequal People.

This reading shows how ideas of racial and religious equality progressed, and regressed, unevenly both geographically and chronologically. Brown does a great job of using Jefferson’s writings to track evolving elite conceptions of race from the colonial era to the early 19th century.

Session 6: Minority Rights and Self-Determination

  • Eric D. Weitz. From the Vienna to the Paris System: International Politics and the Entangled Histories of Human Rights, Forced Deportations, and Civilizing Missions, The American Historical Review 113, No. 5 (Dec., 2008), pp. 1313-1343.

This was a hard choice since the 19th century isn’t a great era for human rights, but you do have to address the rise of nationalism and minority rights systems. The Weitz article gives a broad picture and covers the geo-politics of the 19th and early 20th century for students who otherwise have never had to study it before.

Session 7: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

  • Mark Mazower. “The Strange Triumph of Human Rights, 1933-1950.” The Historical Journal, Vol. 47, No. 2 (Jun, 2004)
  • Marco Duranti. “Holocaust Memory and the Silences of the Human Rights Revolution.” in Aleida Assmann, Jan Assmann (Eds.), Schweigen: Archaologie der literarischen Kommunikation XI (Silence: Archeology of literary communication, vol. 11), (pp. 89-100). Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag.

This class has to address the jump from universal language in national revolutionary settings to the creation of a global human rights system and there is a ton of literature to choose from. I ultimately chose the Mazower in order to capture both drafting history and geo-politics of emerging Cold War as well as to dovetail with Weitz on minority rights. The Duranti reading is an excellent short overview on the absence of Holocaust references in the drafting history of the UDHR – especially in Germany, many students assumed that the horrors of the Final Solution directly inspired the Universal Declaration so it is an important corrective.

Session 8: Post-War Europe

  • Lora Wildenthal. The Origins of the West German Human Rights Movement, 1945-1961
  • Marco Duranti. Conservatives and the European Convention on Human Rights. In Norbert Frei, Annette Weinke (Eds.), Toward a New Moral World Order Menschenrechtspolitik und Volkerrecht seit 1945. (2013).

Here I wanted to look at early NGOs and look at conservative visions of human rights. Wildenthal is great on German revisionists and Duranti covers British laissez-faire opponents of Labour as well as the Catholic right in France.

 Session 9: Decolonization and Self-Determination

  • Roland Burke. “The Compelling Dialogue of Freedom”: Human Rights at the Bandung Conference – Human Rights Quarterly 28:4

There has been a lot of great literature recently on decolonization, anti-imperialism and self-determination , but Burke’s is particularly useful since it looks at Bandung and the beginning of Third Worldism, which many students seem to have never encountered academically.

Session 10: Racial Equality and Apartheid

  • Carol Anderson. Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944–1955. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, Chapter 3.

Anderson’s book brilliantly connects the horrors of post-war racial violence in the US to grassroots mobilization and the emerging global politics of human rights. Mary Dudziak’s Cold War, Civil Rights was a close runner up, as well as  Saul Dubow’s work on Apartheid South Africa.

Session 11: NGOs and the 1970s  

  • Jan Eckel. “The Rebirth of Politics from the Spirit of Morality: Explaining the Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s,” in Eckel & Moyn (eds.) The Breakthrough: Human Rights in the 1970s (2014)

Eckel’s essay gives a sense of the global scope of the 1970s NGO explosion and gets the students detail about important cases like post-coup Chile and Apartheid in South Africa.

Session 12: Socialism and Human Rights

  • Paul Betts.Socialism, Social Rights, and Human Rights: The Case of East Germany” Humanity Journal (2014)

Since the post-war Western Europe section looked at conservative opposition to social rights, Betts’s article shows the Eastern Bloc alternative. Since I’m teaching in Germany, the GDR is an ideal case study. 

Session 13: Women’s Rights as Human Rights

  • Arvonne Fraser. “Becoming Human: The Origins and Development of Women’s Human Rights,” Human Rights Quarterly, 21, No. 4 (Nov., 1999), ONLY 853-858 & 885-906.

Fraser provides a good overview of the development of the post-war women’s rights instruments and is also an example of women’s history, in contrast to Scott’s use of gender theory to examine feminist critiques of the French Revolution.

Session 14: Universalism and Cultural Relativism

  • Amartya Sen. “Human rights and Asian values: what Kee Kuan Yew and Le Peng don’t understand about Asia.” The New Republic (July 14, 1997)
  • Michael Ignatieff. “The Attack on Human Rights,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 80, No. 6 (Nov. – Dec., 2001), 102-116.

This is all material that was cutting edge when I was younger and first started reading about human rights theory. I wanted to capture the post-Cold War sense of liberal triumphalism, panic about “cultural relativism,” and the Asian Values debate.

Session 15: Genocide and Intervention

  • David Rieff, The End of Human Rights.


This piece from Rieff is both provocative and manages to cover the history of human rights NGOs since the 1970s, the interventions of the past three decades, the ICC and Responsibility to Protect and a host of other important developments that have led to the current crisis of faith in the mainstream human rights NGO community. And it’s still short enough to give some time for a wrap up and overview.



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