JCU Logo


COURSE NAME: "Special Topics in History: Walls, Separation and Integration"
SEMESTER & YEAR: Spring 2019

INSTRUCTOR: Dario Biocca
EMAIL: [email protected]
HOURS: TTH 3:00-4:15 PM
PREREQUISITES: Prerequisite: Junior Standing; Corequisite: EN 110

An in-depth treatment of a current area of special concern within the field of History. Topics may vary.
May be taken more than once for credit with different topics.

This course explores the history of the most significant barriers built in the modern world and examines the debates and controversies surrounding their construction. Did walls achieve their alleged objectives? Did they provide a protective shield? Or did they merely reflect the inadequacies of modern diplomacy, intercultural dialogue, and peace-making? Are contemporary walls the product of a “cold war mentality”? Or do they effectively prevent conflict? Students will attempt to answer such questions by studying particular walls and the social-political contexts in which they were built, using a range of different historical sources. 

As early as 1928 France approved the construction of a grand system of steel and concrete barriers intended to avert German aggression; in a few years similar walls appeared within and beyondthe borders of Europe. In 1961 the Berlin wall marked the most dramatic and long-lasting fracture between the West and the East. Thereafter, more walls were built in Cyprus, Morocco, and Israel, and then in Pakistan, the United States, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. This course provides an analytical study of walls and separation barriers in a comparative, global perspective. It will focus primarily on the twentieth century, although earlier land partitions and some of the less visible roots of contemporary economic, social, and military conflicts will also be studied.

Each week our readings and class discussions will focus on a particular wall and the social-political context in which it was built. These will be analyzed collectively in class, and then each student will select one structure to analyze in a paper, examining the structure’s features and its social, political, and environmental context and effects.  

There are no course books to purchase. All reading material, including films, maps, photos, and other sources, will be distributed in class and/or made available on Moodle.

The only class pre-requisitesare EN 110 and Junior standing. However, knowledge of the political history of the twentieth century will be essential.


Through this course, students will not only develop an advanced knowledge of the social, cultural, and political contexts in which important walls and barriers were built, but also learn to analyze those contexts in order to identify the causes of conflict and evaluate strategies for managing and resolving it. In so doing, students will develop their broader historiographical skills in the interpretation and evaluation of different kinds of primary evidence, including essays, memoires, maps, archival records, photographs, videos, and journalistic reports, their ability to understand and evaluate secondary interpretations of that evidence, and their advanced research, reading, critical thinking, and written and oral communication skills.  


Class participationClass participation means developing arguments, articulating questions, and sharing opinions in and with the class. It also means reading assignments as scheduled and preparing for class discussions. Occasionally topics generate disagreement; class participation requires a genuine effort to accept different and even conflicting opinions. 20
MIdterm examThe midterm exam (1 hour) is divided into two parts. The first is intended to verify the acquisition of factual information (names, places, dates, etc.) from readings and lectures. The second part aims at testing the ability to support a point of view with convincing arguments. Guidelines for preparing for the midterm will be provided one week in advance.20
Final examThe final exam (two and a half hours) is structured in the same manner. It covers the material assigned and discussed in the second half of the course. The exam also includes a broader, interpretive “open question”. Guidelines for preparing for the final exam will be provided one week in advance.30
Paper The written assignment (10-12 pages) should reflect the student’s ability to examine and discuss a particular context where a wall or a barrier was (or is being) built and to research and evaluate relevant studies carried out by others, such as historians, anthropologists, political scientists, negotiators, security experts, and reporters. The assignment should present and support a point of view, rather than simply provide a description, and preliminary abstracts should be sent to and discussed with the instructor before the assignment is written. The grade for the assignment will be divided between the abstract (20%), an oral presentation of the research (30%), and the written assignment itself (50%). Plagiarism will not be accepted, and papers must indicate, where appropriate, all sources used. Further information on sources, footnotes, and bibliography will be provided in class. 30

AWork of this quality directly addresses the question or problem raised and provides a coherent argument displaying an extensive knowledge of relevant information or content. This type of work demonstrates the ability to critically evaluate concepts and theory and has an element of novelty and originality. There is clear evidence of a significant amount of reading beyond that required for the course.
BThis is highly competent level of performance and directly addresses the question or problem raised.There is a demonstration of some ability to critically evaluatetheory and concepts and relate them to practice. Discussions reflect the student’s own arguments and are not simply a repetition of standard lecture andreference material. The work does not suffer from any major errors or omissions and provides evidence of reading beyond the required assignments.
CThis is an acceptable level of performance and provides answers that are clear but limited, reflecting the information offered in the lectures and reference readings.
DThis level of performances demonstrates that the student lacks a coherent grasp of the material.Important information is omitted and irrelevant points included.In effect, the student has barely done enough to persuade the instructor that s/he should not fail.
FThis work fails to show any knowledge or understanding of the issues raised in the question. Most of the material in the answer is irrelevant.

An in-depth treatment of a current area of special concern within the field of History. Topics may vary.
May be taken more than once for credit with different topics.
As stated in the university catalog, any student who commits an act of academic dishonesty will receive a failing grade on the work in which the dishonesty occurred. In addition, acts of academic dishonesty, irrespective of the weight of the assignment, may result in the student receiving a failing grade in the course. Instances of academic dishonesty will be reported to the Dean of Academic Affairs. A student who is reported twice for academic dishonesty is subject to summary dismissal from the University. In such a case, the Academic Council will then make a recommendation to the President, who will make the final decision.
John Cabot University does not discriminate on the basis of disability or handicap. Students with approved accommodations must inform their professors at the beginning of the term. Please see the website for the complete policy.


Week 1: January 22-24 

Archetypes and precursors: The Great wall in China, Hadrian’s wall in Britannia, and the Aurelian walls in Rome provide striking evidence of the military power and engineering skills achieved by ancient empires, and also reveal persistent attitudes towards peoples and cultures regarded as primitive or hostile. The course begins with the study of ancient barriers and walls and includes an overview of the literature that has recently adopted a new, multidisciplinary approach to the study of conflict and land partition.

Week 2: January 29-31

The Belfast City Cemetery. In the late 19thCentury, in an effort to provide the city with a multidenominational, public cemetery, Belfast authorities in Northern Ireland inserted an underground barrier of stones and concrete to separate Catholic from Protestant as well as Jewish graves. Today the “Sunken Wall” provides disturbing testimony to the bloody conflict that plagued Ulster and its peoples before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.  

Week 3 February 5-7

The Maginot Line. In the aftermath of World War I the French military requested financial support for the construction of a formidable line of fortifications which included underground barracks and electric railways along the borders with Germany. The Maginot line was intended to prevent a new German attack. In 1940, however, the structure proved useless. In 1944 German armored divisions even found shelter from Allied aerial incursions hiding behind the French-built Maginot line. Thisclass will focus on the political and cultural motives behind the construction of the fortified line and the decision to finally dismantle it in the 1960s.

 Week 4: February 12-14

The Berlin Wall. In October 1961, the Soviets built a wall that became the symbol of the cold war and signaled the closing of all diplomatic and military cooperation between the powers that had defeated Nazi Germany, marking the start of a new era of rivalry and confrontation. Readings include newly edited documents related to Berlin and other German cities and rural areas along the border with the German Democratic Republic.  

Week 5: February 19-21 

Cyprus’ Green Zone. Following the 1974 Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus, a United Nations peace force (UNFICYP) helped establish a neutral area between the new Greek and Turkish states. The area was (and remains) protected by a wall which prevents contacts between local armed forces and civilian populations. Readings include documents from the 1974 invasion as well as reports from Famagusta, a now deserted city along the eastern shores of Cyprus surrounded by an impenetrable wall of concrete and steel.

Week 6: February 26-28

The Berm. In order to prevent the spreading of armed conflict and secession in the desert region of Western Sahara, in the 1970s the Royal Government of Morocco built the longest of all contemporary walls and carried out the expulsion of thousands of Sahrawi citizens into Algeria. A guerrilla war ensued and the future of the region remains uncertain. Class discussion will focus on the peculiarities of the sand wall, commonly called “Berm,” and the humanitarian work of MINURSO, the United Nations peace force deployed in the region.

Week 7: March 5-7

The Muna. During World War II, in a forested area of the Espelkamp district, in northern Westphalia, the Wehrmacht built a high wall to hide the entrance to a massive, secret underground facility called “Muna,” devoted to nuclear research and the stockpiling of forbidden chemical weapons. Heavily bombed by the British Royal Air Force in 1944-5, the structure remained buried underground. Local citizens now demand that authorities open hidden tunnels and inspect weapon repositories – to prevent radioactive or chemical contamination and, above all, to come to terms with their past. 

Spring Break

Week 8: March 19-21

Review session and midterm exam

Week 9: March 26-28

The Security Fence, Israel. In the wake of the second Intifada, the Israeli government began construction of a barrier designed to encircle the West Bank and prevent terror attacks. Conceived as a temporary structure along the “green line,” the barrier became permanent and currently defines the borders between two (future) states. Readings and discussion in this class will examine the controversial construction of the Security fence and its expansion, as well as the Gaza barrier and the borders with Egypt.

Week 10: April 2-4

The Vietnam Memorial Wall. Maya Lin, an undergraduate student at Yale University, designed the project and oversaw the construction of a Memorial monument to the Vietnam war in Washington DC. Completed in 1982, the black granite wall became a powerful symbol of reconciliation and eventually contributed to defusing the long lasting controversy over the war in South East Asia. Documents, interviews, and photos presented in class will examine the steps that led to the selection of Lin’s project and discuss the Congress’ objections and requests for modifications.

Week 11: April 9-11

The Korean Wall. Since 1989 the Government of Pyongyang has made claims that the US military and South Korea have secretly built a 250 km wall south of the demilitarized zone. The wall was reportedly designed in such a manner that it was invisible to viewers from the south. Does the Korean wall exist? If so, who built it and for what purpose? Intelligence files and media reports reflect the bitter propaganda war between the Seoul and the Pyongyang governments over the alleged construction of a Korean wall.

Week 12: April 16-18

The US-Mexico border. The Secure Fence Act of 2006 provided for the establishment of 700 additional miles of fencing, checkpoints, and other measures intended to curtail illegal immigration. Since then, the US-Mexico border has been the subject of growing political debate on both sides of the barrier. The Trump administration has recently proposed the completion of a concrete wall along the entire span of the frontier line. Congressional transcripts and other sources present different points of view and perspectives from either side of the US-Mexico border.

Week 13: April 23-25 (& make-up day Friday 26)

Virtual walls. Experts suggest that technology has made walls and other physical barriers obsolete. Drones, sensors, satellite imagery, video recordings, and other instruments derived from surveillance and security research allow for more effective scanning and appropriate countermeasures. The class discusses new perspectives on terrorism, crime, labor, human trafficking, and global trade in light of the deployment of invisible high-tech barriers throughout the world. Readings include material on barriers recently built around the world, from Guatemala and Hungary to Ceuta and Sao Paulo. 

Week 14:  April 30-May 2

Student presentations. Students discuss a pre-circulated abstract of their proposed individual paper topic. 

May 6-10: Final exam