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.
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.
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:
- The destruction and brutality of the First World War ‘seemed to many Europeans to prove that human life was cheap and expendable’.
- The trauma of the First World War created in Europeans and their leaders a ‘deep fear of ever risking another war’.
- 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.
Introduce the ‘Bubbling Cauldron’ Metaphor
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.