20th Century Germany: One Lifetime & Five Political Systems: A Six-Part Course with John Owen - Context Travel

20th Century Germany: One Lifetime & Five Political Systems: A Six-Part Course with John Owen

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Focusing on the idea of change vs continuity, in this six-part course we will examine the notion of "ordinary" life for Germans under multiple regimes from 1900 to the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. We will begin in the conservative environs of the short-lived German empire, before looking at its successor regimes; from the Weimar Republic to Nazi Germany, and the dual systems which followed the Second World War.

As much as possible, we will tell the story of these regimes through the first-person narratives or the reported experiences of people whose lives were defined by, and spread across, at least two of the periods in question. Diaries and letters will play a central role, but we will also look at a range of cultural sources from novels and films to visual art, and at their creators, who often had to cope with the dual pressures of depicting life during extraordinary change, and state masters, often unwilling to accept cultural movements which diverged from their political ideas. Alongside people, we will cast an occasional glance at institutions and places which experienced enormous change or surprising continuity across the long first-half of the German Twentieth Century.

Overall, this course aims to use the history of everyday life to look at this extraordinary period of German history, and to ask whether our accepted narrative of its enormous political changes always tells the whole story of how people lived across multiple regimes.

Lecture 1: Empire on the brink? 1900-1918

Our first session will look at the end of the Prussia-dominated German Empire; an empire which despite a grand sense of itself only lasted a shade under 50 years. Looking at the military culture and values that shaped Prussian culture, we will ask whether Germany’s involvement in the First World War was a logical extension of the influence of its most dominant region, and ask questions about what the huge changes brought about by the end of WW1 meant for a generation of older Germans. Finally, we will look at the lives of our first group of protagonists, mostly people born in or relatively young during the lifespan of the Wilhelmine period.

Lecture 2: The Roaring 20s: from utopian ideas to the coming storm

This talk will focus on the lives of Germans in the 1920s, a decade defined by crisis and utopian visions for the first (and very short-lived) German Republic. We will look at the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic, the financial crises of the 1920s and the rapid rise of the Nazis. We will ask questions about how life in 1920s Germany influenced a generation of thinkers and intellectuals around the world and we will both examine and question the centrality of art and culture in the Weimar Republic.

Lecture 3: Life under the Nazis

This talk will look at life for various groups under the Nazis. We will do a deep exploration of Victor Klemperer’s diaries to show how Jewish lives were transformed by a combination of a steady stream of increasingly restrictive measures and terrible set-piece moments of Nazi politics designed to remove them the ‘national community‘. As part of looking at what Nazi policies meant for Jews, we will examine what the dictatorship meant for the ‘Aryan’ majority – who benefitted? Who lost out? And who was somewhere in the middle?

Lecture 4: Denazification and the move towards new types of dictatorship

Our final session will look at the era after WW2, when Germany was divided into two very different systems. We will ask how life resumed after the war, what happened to ex-Nazis in both East and West, before looking at how ordinary life began to be irreparably changed by the increasing incursions into ordinary life of state surveillance and control in the East, ending with the construction of the Berlin Wall. We will close by thinking about the lives of our protagonists in the era after our course ends, and how their lives had been shaped by each regime they lived under.

Lecture 5: Ordinary LIfe in extraordinary circumstances

This session will look at life for Germans in the aftermath of WW2, during the crises at the end of the 1940s and the rapidly diverging developments in East and West.  Going up until the era around the building of the Berlin Wall, we'll consider how a cast of characters from a range of political and social standpoints dealt with the rapidly changing situation in Germany.  Beginning with denazification, we'll observe how the Cold War division was evident even when the wartime allies were displaying a relatively united front, and how much subsequent events drove the two Germanies apart.  We will look at tales of flight in the 1950s to bring us on to talk about the imposition of the Berlin Wall and its very real effects for people in the early 1960s. 

Lecture 6: Two countries, two identities

Our final session will begin by looking at the world of life in Germany in the 1960s and 1970s as people began to gradually move more towards accepting Germany's division as a reality.  We will look at how families maintained contact across the division, at the desperate attempts of some East Germans to escape, but also the acceptance of the system displayed by many others.  We will touch on some big changes in people's lives, looking at how language did (or didn't) develop differently on opposing sides of the Iron Curtain, but will mainly focus on a small cast of characters whose lives will allow us to see how Germans perceived what by the 1970s seemed a permanent division. We will end by looking at the 1980s and the increasing frustration in the East which led to the Wall coming down, before asking some concluding questions about how Germans have perceived what has come since, and how their lives have been shaped by this tumultuous twentieth century.

John studied History and German at the University of Oxford, eventually specializing in German-Jewish history and the history of the Third Reich. He has been coming to Berlin since he was a teenager and moved to the city permanently a couple of years ago. The tangibility of history, especially that of the twentieth century, never ceases to thrill him in Berlin.

How does it work?
This is a six-part series held weekly and hosted on Zoom. Please check the schedule for the specific dates and times for each lecture.

Is there a reading list in advance?
Though the course is open to participants with no background in German history, there are suggested readings for further investigation. You will receive this soon after course registration.

How long are the lectures?
Each lecture is 90 minutes long with time for Q&A.

How much is the course?
The course is $210 for 6 lectures.

Is a recording available?
In general our courses are not recorded. However, if you need to miss a lecture please let us know in advance and we can arrange for a recording for that session on an individual basis.

This course is suitable for all ages.

90 minutes, including a 30 minute Q&A.