HIST 3902A:  Selected Topic in European History: “The Weimar Republic – Germany, 1918-33″
Winter 2023

InstructorE. P. Fitzgerald

Synopsis:  The Weimar Republic was Germany’s first attempt at democracy. It gave Germans a liberal constitution, a president and parliament elected by universal suffrage (women as well as men), civil rights and the rule of law. Created in very difficult circumstances, Weimar democracy endured until a populist demagogue used the Republic’s own institutions to destroy it. The consequences of Weimar’s downfall would prove horrific.

’Why did German democracy fail?’ is the standard question historians ask. Given the cascade of crises Weimar had to face, ‘how did the Republic last so long?’ seems a better question. Military defeat, a malicious ‘big lie,’ a punitive peace treaty, foreign occupation, right-wing militias, murdered cabinet ministers, communist and Nazi subversion, the worst hyperinflation in history – somehow the Republic survived all this. Stabilization in the mid-1920s created breathing space for progressive social legislation, diplomatic détente and economic recovery – these were Weimar’s ‘golden years.’ But then the Depression hit, bringing mass unemployment, parliamentary gridlock and political violence. In that context conservative elites shoehorned a nationalist agitator into a coalition cabinet, hoping to harness his electoral appeal to their own agenda. They were wrong. It took just three months for Reichskanzler Hitler to side-line his conservative enablers, neuter parliament, rule through emergency decrees, and replace the Republic with an authoritarian police state.

This course traces Weimar’s rise and fall chiefly though political events in their social-economic setting, but cultural changes will be discussed as well. Weimar has always been identified with modernism in architecture and film, but recently such topics as the ‘New Woman’, sexual permissiveness, and the racy nightlife of ‘Berlin, Welthauptstadt der Sünde’ have come to the fore. Some Germans applauded these developments as liberating, but many more were dismayed by the flouting of traditional values. Conservatives and nationalists exploited this reaction to attack Weimar as a cesspit of hedonism and licentiousness, key themes in the damaging ‘culture war’ they waged against the Republic.

Aims:  Weimar’s story is captivating but also highly instructive. The history of every time and place is grounded in specific events that make it unique; but some historical experiences also throw light on contemporary events. The history of the Weimar Republic shows us how a liberal democracy built on popular sovereignty, constitutional safeguards and the rule of law was hollowed out and subverted from within. The study of Weimar Germany thus provides a warning from history and a  valuable cautionary tale for our own times.

Format:  Lectures and discussions twice weekly.

Readings will likely comprise materials available online plus a classic study of how a small town in central Germany experienced the struggles of Weimar. Check the course entry on Brightspace for the final selection.

Assessment:  All students will write a mid-term and a final examination. Those who wish may also submit an optional essay on an approved topic. In the first case the marking weight will be 40/60; in the second 30/40/30.