Educator Steve Cohen: World War I and the Weimar Republic

Steve Cohen, Senior Lecturer at Tufts University’s Department of Education, discusses the aftermath of World War I, the Weimar Republic, and the Nazis’ rise to power.

Transcript (Text)

For many students, history seems like the study of long ago, far away, dead leaders and, often, dead countries. One of the things that Facing History curriculum tries to do is to help students recognize that the past has power in the present. When we look at World War I, we're looking at an event of 100 years ago that has incredible repercussions and ramifications still today.

The war of 1914 to 1918 resulted in the death of 10 million soldiers. 20 million soldiers were wounded. More than 20 million people worldwide died soon after it because of the Spanish flu. The war itself destabilized society.

Why did the war start? Well, there are long explanations. There are more books out on World War I than any other topic in world history. But sometimes I think the best explanation for the reason for World War I comes from the poet Robert Zimmerman, also known as Bob Dylan.

In his song "With God On Our Side," Dylan says, "The First World War, it came and it went. The reason for fighting, I never did get." Most students have that feeling after they study World War I. What was it about? Well, it was about a lot of things, but certainly nationalism was at the front and center.

And this war that cost so many millions their lives was one that some people hoped would make the world safe for democracy. Others argued that it would be the war to end all wars. It did neither. Why not? We want our students to think about that.

We want them to think about why World War I, which led to this outrageous death toll, these injuries. Virtually no European city after World War I was safe from having beggars on the street who had fought in uniform and now could no longer support themselves through a job. World War I was in front of them every day.

And in Germany, which was a loser of the war, they had to deal not only with the fact of so many deaths, but also the fact that they had lost the war. What did it mean to lose a war? What had happened to Germany because it lost the war? What had happened to the winners?

All these are questions, not answers. And we want our students to think about those things and to think about what it means to live in a country at war and then a country that's trying to put itself back together. So the question for Germany after World War I is, what kind of government would there be there? The old Kaiser had abdicated and the new republic took its place.

So we need our students to understand, what is a republic? What is a democracy? How do you set one up? Why did they work? When did they work? Whom did they work for? And those are questions that we look at in detail as we try to understand the history of Germany and the rest of Europe, and in fact the world, in the 1920s and the 1930s.

The new republic set up in Germany, known as the Weimar Republic, is only in power from 1918 until 1933. And during that time, it went through warfare. It went through a Great Depression. It went through a couple of years of prosperity. And then, in the early 1930s, it underwent strong criticism from the Communist Party, from the Nazi Party, and from scores of other political parties that wanted to get their ideas represented and wanted to change Germany and make it once again into a strong power.

The rise of Adolf Hitler to power is not inevitable. In fact, the Nazis in 1928 were a small party with just a few seats in the Reichstag, in the German parliament. By 1930, the Nazis had gone from 12 seats to 107 seats. At its highest in a free election, they get all the way to 230 seats. But 230 was still only 1/3 of the representatives in the parliament.

So who were the other 2/3? And why had 1/3 of the Germans voted for Adolf Hitler, a person who, as he was campaigning, was campaigning against the idea of the Weimar Republic? But the Nazis also weren't the only party doing that. The communists ran on the same basis. They also ran against the Weimar Republic.

German citizens had deep choices to make in the elections of 1932. In fact, they had three elections in that one year. In those elections, they had to think about who they were. And they had to think about who the candidates were whose ideas best represented them.

And what we see as we look carefully at German history in the period between 1928 and 1933 is that German citizens, everyday citizens, had important decisions to make. And they often made those decisions based on the question of who they thought they were and who they thought best represented their views. So this question of decision-making was something that was incredibly important in the early 1930s.

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