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

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

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At a Glance

Lesson

Language

English — US

Subject

  • History
  • Social Studies

Grade

6–8

Duration

Two 50-min class periods
  • The Holocaust

Overview

About This Lesson

In the previous lesson, students explored the brutal realities of World War I and the impact of the armistice and the Treaty of Versailles on Germany and its citizens. In this two-day lesson, students will continue this unit’s historical case study by learning about the 14 years of the Weimar Republic, the democratic government that replaced monarchy in Germany after the war. 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.

Unit Essential Question: 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?

politics, economics, and culture of Germany during the period of the Weimar Republic. They will then use a graphic organizer to represent the tensions and conflicts that existed for individuals and groups during that period.

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-min class periods and includes:

  • 6 activities
  • 1 teaching strategies
  • 7 handouts
  • 2 assessments
  • 2 extension activities

After World War I 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 characterized 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 characterized 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 World War I, 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):

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. 1

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 recognize these essential ingredients of democracy; it serves as a warning for today.

  • 1George Grosz, An Autobiography, trans. Nora Hodges (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 149–50.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this text set, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

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 characterized by both creativity and anxiety. While a subsequent lesson will focus on the rise of the Nazi Party, this one digs deep into the society that faltered during that rise.

Activity 1 for Day 1 includes a mini-lecture that covers both historical context and information about the structure of the Weimar government. The handout Introduction to the Weimar Republic is designed to help students follow along with the lecture. You may choose to transfer the information from the handout to a PowerPoint presentation. If you would like to add images and other multimedia resources, The Weimar Republic: The Fragility of Democracy can help you get started. This featured collection on the Facing History website provides a variety of additional primary sources, visual and print essays, and a timeline of the Weimar era.

To prepare for the station activity on Day 2, we recommend that you set up desk groups or tables in advance. Each station will focus on one of four different readings. In order to keep group size manageable (we recommend four to five students per group), you may need to create multiple stations for each reading. The goal is for each group to have the opportunity to work with each of the four readings.

The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:

  • Democracy
  • Republic
  • Paramilitary
  • Inflation
  • Constitution
  • Suffrage
  • Chancellor
  • Reichstag

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

If your students are writing the final essay assessment for this unit, after teaching this lesson, instruct your students to start gathering evidence in an evidence log. For suggested activities and resources, see Introducing Evidence Logs.

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Lesson Plans

Day 1

Activities

  • Ask students to briefly reflect 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 chart paper for later reference. Make sure that by the end of the discussion the 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.

Tell students that to better understand the concept of democracy, they are going to spend the next two days learning about the Weimar Republic, the democratic government created in Germany after World War I.

Present a brief mini-lecture to introduce Weimar Germany using the information on the handout Introduction to the Weimar Republic. Pass out the handout before you begin the mini-lecture, 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.

Remind students that one of the hallmarks of democratic societies is that the government protects the free expression of ideas by its citizens. In the Weimar Republic, this protection allowed creativity to flourish in Germany and spawned artistic movements that challenged traditional forms of art. In this activity, students will examine examples of modern art from the Weimar Republic.

  • Divide the class into groups of four or five, and assign one of the five Weimar Republic Images handouts to each group.
  • Walk the class as a whole through the following steps to analyze their assigned images:
    • Step 1: Ask students to look deeply at the picture for two or three minutes. Have them observe shapes, colors, textures, and the position of people and objects. Have them write down simple observations, not interpretations.
    • Step 2: Ask students to brainstorm together questions they have about the image. In order to understand it, what questions might they want to ask the artist or the subject of the image?
    • Step 3: Ask students to discuss possible interpretations of the image. What is the artist trying to communicate? What does this image or work of art suggest about life and culture in the Weimar Republic?
  • Briefly have each group share their assigned image and their ideas about what it suggests about life in the Weimar Republic.
  • To end the activity, share the titles and captions for each of the images with students. You could give students the key at the end of the Weimar Republic Images handout, project the information, or simply read it to students. If time permits, you might ask students to comment on how the titles and captions either support or change their interpretations of each image.

Either as a final activity or as a homework assignment, ask students to write a short paragraph about their impressions of the Weimar Republic so far. What has surprised them? What has interested them? How has what they learned so far supported or challenged their ideas about democracy?

Day 2

Activities 

  • Begin the class by asking students to review the short paragraphs they wrote at the end of the previous day. Ask a few students to share: What are their thoughts and impressions about democracy in the Weimar Republic so far?
  • Tell students that in this activity, they will explore several additional aspects of life in the Weimar Republic, including education, women’s rights, antisemitism, and economics.
  • Set up the classroom for a Stations activity with four stations, one for each of the handouts below. (Depending on class size, you might create multiple copies of each station.)
    • Education in the Weimar Republic
    • Voices in the Dark
    • Hyperinflation and the Great Depression
    • Women in the Weimar Republic
  • Divide the class into groups so that they are evenly distributed between the stations at all times. Then begin the activity by assigning each group a station at which to begin. Provide groups with ten minutes to read and answer the questions that accompany each reading on a separate sheet of paper before having them rotate to the next station.
  • Once the groups have finished visiting all of the stations, have the students discuss in their groups the following questions:
    • What was most surprising about what you learned 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?

To close this lesson, ask students to consider the metaphor of the “bubbling cauldron” that artist George Grosz used to describe life in the Weimar Republic.

  • Pass out The Bubbling Cauldron handout. Read the quotation by Grosz with students, and then ask them to fill out the cauldron-shaped graphic organizer 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 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. While part of the value of this activity is in thinking through the metaphorical relationship between ingredients, fuel, and those feeding the fire, some students may need assistance from the teacher in getting started filling in the graphic.
  • 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 a subsequent lesson, and they will revisit this handout to incorporate Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party into the metaphor.

Assessment

  • Evaluate the completed student versions of The Bubbling Cauldron handout to see how students are understanding the conflicts and tensions within German society during the years of the Weimar Republic. If you collect the handouts, make sure you return them so that students can add to them during the lesson on the rise of the Nazi Party.
  • Assign students to write their own working definition of democracy on a notecard to turn in. Look for characteristics such as accountability to the people, free and fair elections, the rule of law, equality before the law, free expression, free press, and freedom of religion.

Extension Activities

For additional activities to help students explore the meaning of democracy, see the lesson Defining Democracy.

The resources in The Weimar Republic: The Fragility of Democracy (mentioned above in the Notes to the Teacher section) can be used to extend and deepen the class’s investigation of the Weimar Republic beyond the materials in this lesson. Many teachers use this online collection to support inquiry-based lessons about the Weimar Republic, in which students gather information to help them respond to a set of guiding questions. You might use the guiding questions for this lesson to frame such an inquiry.

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