by Kelly Sullivan
This winter, Ben Kohn is teaching a class on the Weimer Republic, an attempt at German democracy that collapsed and led to the rise of Nazi Germany.
The class is not about Hitler’s Third Reich, but the period between 1918 and 1933 called the Weimer Republic, named for the city its constitution was drafted in. Kohn’s class focuses on the political, artistic, and cultural atmosphere of the republic, and the problems with the German government that contributed to the rise of the Nazi regime.
“It’s an investigation of the inter-war period, particularly what happened during that period that eventually led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party,” Kohn explained. It was a very dynamic time in the country’s history when many changes, both politically and culturally, were taking place.
Kohn, who teaches first-year German, came up with the idea for the class after his German course last spring, where he introduced a brief lecture on Nazi Germany to his students.
“A cultural education is as important as a linguistic one,” said Kohn. He explained that understanding the cultural context of a language brings more color and excitement to the learning experience. Kohn found the students extremely interested in the topic and it took two class periods to answer all of the questions posed.
“They were asking really intelligent questions,” said Kohn, noting students were very curious how such a fascist system “could take over an entire European nation and lead the world to the cataclysm of World War once again,” Kohn said.
Most students said they had not received the education in school that explained how such a facist government could gain a position of power.
“How and why this happened are never really investigated,” said Kohn.
The Weimer Republic was Germany’s first attempt at a democratic republic, Kohn explained. It was a political experiment, as up until 1918 Germany had been an imperial power. After World War I, Germany’s citizens, especially artists, intellectuals, and the working class, were in crisis. They wanted to completely overthrow the previous culture, society, economic and political system that existed in Germany, for it was this that had led to the deaths of 250,000 people in the battle of the Somme.
After World War I, German society experienced a “collapse in traditional morality and values as well,” Kohn said. Germany’s economy was in a complete state of disarray with hyperinflation, and the unemployment rate was around 25 percent in 1933. Many segments of society were completely poverty-stricken.
Kohn’s class has already covered the element of communism apparent in this period. The students read Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto,” published in 1848, as this was the foundation of many political movements and parties in Germany during the Weimer Republic.
Communism and socialism were alternatives offered to previous political and social models. The class will also be reading excerpts from “Mein Kampf,” the book Hitler wrote while imprisoned in the 1920s. It offers a very different alternative, and outlines the program of the forthcoming Nationalist Party, which eventually became known as the Nazi Party.
“There are some sensitive topics,” said Nathan Lindquist, 23. He is one of nine students in the class.
“Everyone in here has a certain level of maturity,” added Ryan Haynes, 28. “If someone’s uncomfortable we know we can change subjects.” The small size of the class and Kohn’s teaching style result in a discussion-based class. Kohn said many of his students feel very comfortable adding to the conversations, and he tries to facilitate this as much as possible.
In the second week of February, the class studied the cultural side of what was happening in Germany during the Weimer Republic. One example Kohn brought to the discussion was that of the Dada movement. Dadaism originated in Switzerland in World War I, and by the 1920s had moved to centers of intellectual and artistic activity in Germany.
Dada “completely messed with people’s sense of reality,” said Kohn. “It was supposed to explode actual reality. Totally subvert it.”
Another movement that attempted to do things in a new way was German Expressionism. Poets and artists experimented with language and images. Poet Georg Trakl’s poem, “Grodek,” captures the horrors of a battle he witnessed in the town of Galicia, Poland. He captures the beauty of the setting and horror of the situation with contrasting images such as “the night embraces dying warriors, the wild lament of their broken mouths.”
The class spent time breaking apart and analyzing the verses. Kohn then reads it to the class in impeccable German.
There is a “musicality to the language,” said Kohn. “The sound of the words themselves contain a different level of meaning.” Listening to Kohn read the poem, one instantly understands what he means by this. When Kohn recited the lines in German, “Softly the dark flutes of autumn sound in the reeds,” one could hear the mournful hum of winds blowing through tall grasses.
Kohn compared some of the Dadaist performances to Monty Python skits in their use of humor to subvert power and authority, and another student added similarities from popular media, such as South Park. The point was to get a subversive message across through art. One effective way to do so is to use humor.
Kohn said the Dadaists disagreed with the more extreme contemporary ideological forces of the left and right that said, “There’s only one way to subvert things: violently overthrow them; let there be blood!”
The Dada poet and artist Kurt Schwitters completely overturned the traditional manner of communicating through language in his works. His poetry sounds like complete gibberish, “non-sense composed of syllables” Kohn said, but is meant to make people think about what it could mean to them. It is about the nonsense or meaninglessness of conventional language, especially traditional and sentimental poetic language, and the empty and deceitful language of political rhetoric.
“Everyone here has been really receptive to what we’ve been talking about,” said Haynes.
“What we are finding through the discussions in the class are that there are similar problems [as during the Weimer Republic period] in the way our society and especially our political system is being run today, especially in the way these things are discussed,” said Kohn.
Watching the students come to their own conclusions through discussion, and hearing their critiques of the material Kohn presents to them, has been very gratifying, he said. “It’s a great group of students.”