Introduction to the course
In the 1920s, Germany was one of the world’s most open, democratic, and progressive states. Nevertheless, in 1933 a fascist political party manipulated the democratic system and took power. The Nazis built a dictatorship that grew quite popular with many Germans. It was unpopular with some, especially those considered enemies of the state, including German Jews, Roma (Gypsies), communists, Afro-Germans, gay men, and people with mental and physical disabilities. After years of Nazi rule, Germany started a world war that became the deadliest conflict in human history, killing some fifty million people. Under cover of war, the Nazi State also orchestrated vast programs to murder civilians in pursuit of a vision of racial purity. Refusing to surrender, the Nazi State fell only in the final days of World War II in Europe, when the USSR captured Berlin in a bloody urban battle. The Nazi State’s immediate legacy was unprecedented destruction: tens of millions dead (including staggering numbers of civilians), millions of others (Germans and non-Germans) implicated in their deaths, and centuries-old European concepts of ethics undermined to the point of collapse. The catalogue of wreckage did not stop there. The war destroyed Germany itself, ruining much of its infrastructure and resulting in it being split into two separate countries. The German nation has henceforth been inexorably bound to the long, heavy shadow of its Nazi past.
This class investigates Nazi Germany according to four major lines of inquiry. The first has to do with what happened before 1933: What was German fascism, where did it come from, and how did German democracy fail? The second section of the course covers the period 1933 to 1939, when the Nazis ruled Germany in peacetime: What was the Nazi State? What was daily life like for those who lived under it? Why despite the majority of the population’s opposition to Nazism prior to 1933 was the Nazi State relatively successful and stable? The third section has to do with war and genocide: Why did the Nazis undertake mass murder during the Second World War and why were they able to kill unprecedented numbers of civilians? A final section of the course expands the temporal and geographical view: How have Germans and others addressed the history of Nazi Germany since 1945?
I teach history for two reasons. The first is that history, being a way to struggle with what the past was like, how and why change happened, and what the present ought to be like, is a practice that we need to do well in order to both live our lives and to participate in democratic political systems. The second reason I teach history is that it allows students to develop important skills, including analytical reading techniques, good writing practices, and useful ways of wrapping one’s mind around both the past and the present. These, also, are quite useful for people living in democratic systems. The more one knows about that history, I submit, the better able one is to come up with good answers to pressing political questions.