Germany: From its 19th Century High Culture to 20th Century Nazism--How? Why?
F 2018


The idea of this SDG is not to attempt a history of Germany, but to look at certain elements of German history, sociology, religion and culture to try to find antecedents and sources of German attitudes and actions during the Nazi period, including authoritarianism, anti Semitism, glorification of war and feelings of insecurity.  It is difficult to reconcile the magnificence of German culture and the success of German industrialization with the felt need of Germans to embrace the Nazis.  How could Germany, which prided itself on having the highest culture in Europe have fallen into enthusiastic acceptance of Nazi policies and actions? 

The premise of this SDG is that that the German embrace of Nazism did not spring up suddenly and did not result entirely from the events of 1914-33, but that Hitler was able to capitalize on attitudes which long pre-dated him and his Nazi movement.  Our task is to try to define those attitudes and to determine their origins.  Thus, this SDG is intended to be more of an inquiry than simply didactic learning.  

                Our core book is “Germany: Memories of a Nation” by Neil McGregor.  McGregor is the Director of the British Museum.  He uses items in the British Museum as a means of identifying and focusing on key aspects of Germany and Germans. The book is well written and interesting, not a dreary recital of historical facts.  While using his chapters a jumping off place for our discussions, we will concentrate more than McGregor does on the questions underlying this SDG: Did the subject of the discussion contribute to the Germans’ endorsement of Naziism?  If so, in what ways?  Has German history and experience resulted in characteristics unique to Germans?  Should those characteristics continue to concern us?  Since the emphasis will be on the meaning of events, not just the events themselves, the expression of differing views is encouraged.

Weekly Topics

1.       History summary & Holy Roman Empire      Ch. 12

2.       Martin Luther      Ch. 28 

3.       Myths: Valhalla, Wagner, Rhine     Ch 4 & 9

4.       Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Folk Art     Ch. 7

5.       Writers:  Goethe, Schiller, Lessing     Ch. 4 & 8

6.       Entertainments: Beer Halls, Octoberfest, Sports     Ch. 10

7.       Defeat by Napoleon, Revolutions of 1848 & Aftermath    

8.       Philosophers:  Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche

9.       Art: Durer, Grunewald, Romantics, Post Expressionists   Ch. 7 & 22

10.   Modernization:  Industrialization, Communications, Urbanization

11.   Origins of Anti-Semitism     Ch. 28

12.   Anti-Semitism in late 19th and 20th Centuries

13.   Influence of Prussia Before & After Unification     Ch. 21

14.   World War I, Peace Treaty, Political and Economic Turmoil in Weimar Era

        Chapter references are to the chapters of “Germany—Memories of a Nation” by Neil McGregor


Neil McGregor, "Germany: Memories of a Nation"