A crowd of women standing in line at a polling station in the Weimar Republic in 1919, the first year women were allowed to vote.
Lesson

The Weimar Republic (UK)

Students reflect on the idea of democracy as they analyse the politics, economics, and culture of Germany during the period of the Weimar Republic.

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This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

At a Glance

Lesson

Language

English — UK

Grade

6–12

Duration

One 50-min class period
  • The Holocaust
  • Human & Civil Rights

Overview

About This Lesson

In the previous lesson, students began to consider the roots and impact of antisemitism, both historically and present day. In this lesson, students will begin to examine how the facets of human behaviour they have learnt about in previous lessons – including stereotypes, prejudice, and antisemitism – influenced people and events in this unit’s historical case study: Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. They will begin the case study by learning about the fourteen years of the Weimar Republic, the democratic government that replaced monarchy in Germany after the war and was in existence in the years preceding the rise of Nazi Germany. While exploring the politics, culture, economics, and social trends of Germany during this era, students will also reflect on the idea of democracy itself, as well as the choices made by citizens and leaders that can strengthen or weaken it.

What does learning about the choices people made during the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazi Party, and the Holocaust teach us about the power and impact of our choices today?

Which aspects of German government and society during the years of the Weimar Republic helped to strengthen democracy, and which aspects weakened it?

To define democracy and analyse the key political, economic, and cultural events and trends in Germany during the period of the Weimar Republic.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-minute class period and includes:

  • 3 activities
  • 2 teaching strategies
  • 6 handouts
  • 1 PowerPoint
  • 1 featured collection 
  • 1 extension

The First World War would eventually involve 30 nations and 65 million soldiers. It was a war with incredible loss of human life on every battlefront and huge damage to the land wherever fighting occurred – a conflict marked by genocide, civil wars, famines, and revolutions. At the end of the war, more than nine million soldiers and more than five million civilians had been killed. As a result of the war, three European empires fell (the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman), causing panic and displacement for millions of people. The effect of the First World War on Germany and its aftermath created conditions that helped give rise to the Nazis in the years that followed. 

Historian Doris Bergen writes that while the First World War did not cause Nazism or the Holocaust, its aftermath left in place fertile ground for the history that followed in at least three ways:

  1. The destruction and brutality of the First World War ‘seemed to many Europeans to prove that human life was cheap and expendable’.
  2. The trauma of the First World War created in Europeans and their leaders a ‘deep fear of ever risking another war’.
  3. The war’s resolution left in place across Europe lingering resentments about the war and the terms of the peace. These resentments would later prove useful to leaders such as Adolf Hitler who sought to create ‘a politics of resentment that promoted a bitter sense of humiliation’. 1

After the First World War ended in 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm fled to the Netherlands, and Germany became a republic, a government that is accountable to its people. The Weimar Republic was characterised by contrasts and conflicts. The new constitution granted significant new rights and freedoms to individuals and groups, beginning an era in which creativity and experimentation flourished. At the same time, the republic struggled to convince many Germans, accustomed to monarchy, to accept and trust its authority. The people’s confidence in the republic was especially damaged as the country faced economic crises as well as challenges from political parties that were hostile to democracy.

Two very different moods characterised Weimar politics and society. On the one hand, there was a sense of excitement and creativity. In the early 1920s, Germany had a new constitution that established separate branches of government, and many groups vied for political power through an electoral process. Women took on new roles in Weimar society. They constituted about a third of the German workforce after the First World War, exercised their newly acquired right to vote, and held political office for the first time. Freedom of expression in art, music, dance, and architecture flourished in Weimar culture and left a lasting legacy in the modern world.

On the other hand, many Germans felt anxious and fearful. The pace of change, especially in expanding political rights and social freedoms, made many Germans uneasy and sparked backlash against the changes. Many also feared the impact of communism, which had succeeded in Russia and threatened to spread its abolition of private wealth and property to Germany, by violence if necessary. This fear was heightened by two economic crises that tested the leadership of the Weimar government: the hyperinflation that beset the republic in its early years and the Great Depression in its final years. Parties from across the political spectrum clashed violently in the streets throughout the Weimar era, leaving citizens on edge. Meanwhile, interest in and enthusiasm for the message of ultra-conservative forces – in particular, the growing Nazi Party, with its message of racial hatred and its demand for a return to an autocratic government – continued to grow.

In his autobiography, artist George Grosz recalls how these moods shaped life in Germany during the 1920s (see also the handout The Bubbling Cauldron, mentioned in the Extensions section):

Even the capital of our new German Republic was like a bubbling cauldron. You could not see who was heating the cauldron; you could merely see it merrily bubbling, and you could feel that heat increasing. There were speakers on every street corner and songs of hatred everywhere. Everybody was hated: the Jews, the capitalists, the gentry, the communists, the military, the landlords, the workers, the unemployed … the politicians, the department stores, and again the Jews. 2

Learning about the Weimar Republic not only helps students understand the society in which a dictatorship ultimately took root but also serves as a lesson on the fragility of democracy. Democracy is a system of government that depends on the resilience of both its institutions and its citizens. For example, constitutional rights are solidified by a judicial system that actively protects those rights and an atmosphere in which citizens can safely express dissent. In a healthy democracy, leaders are held accountable by citizens who are critical consumers of information, especially political propaganda, and who are active participants who speak up against injustice rather than passively watching it unfold. Studying the Weimar Republic not only helps students recognise these essential ingredients of democracy; it serves as a warning for today.

  • 1D. L. Bergen, War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust, 3rd edn (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 42–3. Reproduced by permission from Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.
  • 2G. Grosz, An Autobiography, trans. N. Hodges (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 149–50.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts and needs.

The Nazi Party was formed during the Weimar era and rose to prominence in the republic’s final years, but the Nazis are mentioned sparingly in this lesson. The lesson is designed this way because it is important for students to understand that the Nazis’ rise to power was not inevitable; it was, rather, the result of choices made by many individuals and groups within the context of a vibrant society characterised by both creativity and anxiety. While the following lesson will focus on the rise of the Nazi Party, this one digs deep into the society that faltered during that rise.

The handout Introduction to the Weimar Republic contains information about both historical context and the structure of the Weimar government. If you would like to show students any images and other multimedia resources as you read through the handout, The Weimar Republic: The Fragility of Democracy can help you get started. This featured collection on the Facing History and Ourselves website provides a variety of additional primary sources, visual and print essays, and a timeline of the Weimar era.

The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:

  1. Democracy
  2. Republic
  3. Paramilitary
  4. Inflation
  5. Constitution
  6. Suffrage
  7. Chancellor
  8. Reichstag

Add these words to your Word Wall, if you are using one for this unit, and provide the necessary support to help students learn these words as you teach the lesson.

The Weimar Republic (UK)

Use these slides to help students reflect on the idea of democracy as they analyse the politics, economics, and culture of Germany during the period of the Weimar Republic.

Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides.

The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lesson plans because the latter include important rationales, context, and detailed activity instructions that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching the lesson.

The PowerPoints include basic content and student-facing prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

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Lesson Plan

Activities 

  • Ask students to reflect briefly in their journals on the meaning of the term democracy, using the following questions to spark their thinking:
    • What is democracy? 
    • How would you define it? 
    • What words or phrases do you associate with it? 
    • If you live in a democracy, what might you be able to do that you might not under other forms of government?
  • Ask students to share ideas, words, and phrases from their journal entries and record them on the board or a piece of sugar paper for later reference. Make sure that by the end of the discussion the mind map includes the following topics: free and fair elections, the rule of law, equality before the law, free expression, free press, and freedom of religion.
  • Inform students that to better understand the concept of democracy, they are going to spend the lesson learning about the Weimar Republic, the democratic government created in Germany after the First World War.
  • Introduce Weimar Germany by talking through the information on the handout Introduction to the Weimar Republic. 
  • Pass out the handout before you begin reading, and as you walk students through the information on the handout, have them annotate it by writing a D next to information about the Weimar Republic that represents an important characteristic of democracy and an X next to information that describes a problem or challenge for democracy.
  • In this activity, you will be using the Jigsaw teaching strategy. Explain to students that they will be divided into groups and will be allocated a handout concerning a different aspect of life in the Weimar Republic – education, women’s rights, antisemitism, and economics.
  • Begin by dividing the class into ‘expert’ groups and assign each group one of the handouts (depending on your class size, you might need to have more than one group with the same handout):
    • Education in the Weimar Republic
    • Voices in the Dark
    • Hyperinflation and the Great Depression
    • Women in the Weimar Republic
    • The After-effects of the First World War 
  • Give students ten minutes to read the handout and to discuss and answer the questions at the bottom. 
  • Then divide the class into new ‘teaching’ groups. All of the members of each ‘teaching’ group should have read a different reading in their ‘expert’ groups.
  • Instruct each student to briefly summarise their ‘expert’ group’s learning about the Weimar Republic. 
  • Next, project the following questions on the board for students to discuss in their ‘teaching’ groups, and, if there is time, invite students to share their responses with the class:
    • What was most suprising about what you learnt about the Weimar Republic in this activity?
      • What was most interesting? 
      • What was most disturbing?
    • Which aspects of Weimar society explored in this activity were good for democracy? 
      • Which created challenges for democracy?

Extension Activity 

  • Ask students to consider the metaphor of the ‘bubbling cauldron’ that artist George Grosz used to describe life in the Weimar Republic by passing out The Bubbling Cauldron handout. You might want to begin by reading the quotation by Grosz with students and posing the question: What do you know about Germany in the 1920s that supports this description?
  • Ask students to fill out the cauldron-shaped graphic organiser to represent life in the Weimar Republic. They should label the ingredients being heated in the cauldron, the fuel for the fire, and the names of the individuals and groups lighting the fire. The handout includes a bank of words and phrases that students can use to label the graphic, but they will not be able to use all of the words in the bank and they may determine that some are not relevant.
  • It is important to note for students that in this lesson, one key part of this history of the Weimar Republic has intentionally been left out: the rise of the Nazi Party. Students will examine the Nazi Party in the next lesson, and they will revisit this handout to incorporate Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party into the metaphor.

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