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my online courses at the university of waterloo


German Thought and Culture: Objects

  • general education course - no prerequisites
  • diverse mix of students - different faculties, ages
  • can be taught online, in-class, or blended

German Thought and Culture: People

  • general education course - no prerequisites
  • diverse mix of students - different faculties, ages
  • can be taught online, in-class, or blended

Third Reich Culture: Racism, Resistance, Remembering

  • general education course - no prerequisites
  • diverse mix of students - different faculties, ages
  • can be taught online, in-class, or blended
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my innovations in ger 271/272/383

  • Structure: modular

  • content: undigested primary sources / diverse voices

  • Coursework: discussion-based

  • Creation: reflection + practice

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You want to understand something about Weimar Republic culture? Start with Germany's best-selling tissues.

Ger 271 - example module


What do tissues have to do with German culture?

I use objects to teach German cultural history. I think of them as gateways, jumping off points to broader discussions about specific eras, issues, and movements.

In 1929 the now ubiquitous Tempo tissues were brought onto the market. The manufacturer wanted a name that would resonate with the times, so they chose "Tempo," which in German means "speed." The Weimar Republic, that brief period of democracy between the First World War and the Third Reich, was thought of as a fast-paced period of change and innovation, an era of "Tempo."  

So let's get an understanding of what was going on in Germany between the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Third Reich in 1933. This brief history of the Weimar Republic from Germany History in Documents and Images should put you in the picture.

Your task: what do you think were the major issues and/or characteristics of the Weimar Republic?

The Weimar republic -
an overview

Weimar on the Move

Cinema was ideally suited to capture the mood of Weimar - films weren't originally called "motion pictures" for nothing! I want to show you short clips from two classic 1920s films that really capture the spirit of movement and speed.

The first clip is from Berlin - Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin - Symphony of a Great City or Berlin - Symphony of a Metropolis). This documentary film from 1927 was made by Walter Ruttmann, and shows numerous scenes of movement in the city. The tight editing adds to this sense of movement.

The second clip comes from a science fiction film, Fritz Lang's Metropolis (also 1927). This film nearly bankrupted the studio thanks to its use of advanced special effects (advanced for the time, of course). The scene you're about to watch took months to create because it is made up largely of stop-action photography (this is used when you want to show models or inanimate objects move).  Every second of a normal celluloid film is made up of 24 still photos. In the scene you're about to watch, we see a futuristic city in which hundreds of cars are moving through the city on multiple expressways. These cars are models, so for each second of the scene, imagine that there had to be 24 photos made, which meant that for each photo all those cars etc had to be moved a teensy bit.

In the scene just before the one you've just watched, Freder, son of one of the city's great industrialists, has just witnessed, with horror, how workers deep underground put their lives in danger to supply the energy the city needs. So Freder goes to see his father in order to implore him to make conditions better for them. And like all films about the future, this film is also commenting on the present.

Your task: after watching these two clips, can you formulate in words a contemporary conception of what city life was like in the 1920s?

Opposing views on Weimar Culture

Some people welcomed the new age with open arms, others despised it. Here are two short essays that demonstrate these opposing views:

  • Harold Nicolson was a British diplomat who wrote about the "Charm of Berlin"
  • Joseph Goebbels, who would become notorious as the Propaganda Minister of the Third Reich, was not charmed by Berlin, as seen in this essay about the area around Berlin's Gedächtniskirche (Memorial Church)

Your task: after reading these two opinions of 1920s Berlin, can you describe where the fault lines lie in society? Where are the divisions in society located? What issues or changes divide people?


    Towards the end of the First World War an artistic movement called dada started, at first in Switzerland, but then once the war was over spreading throughout the western world.

    Hugo Ball is credited with writing the first dada manifesto in 1916 as part of a performance art piece he did in Zurich:

    Dada is a new tendency in art. One can tell this from the fact that until now nobody knew anything about it, and tomorrow everyone in Zurich will be talking about it. Dada comes from the dictionary. it is terribly simple. In French it means "hobby horse." In German it means "good-by," "Get off my back," "Be seeing you sometime." In Romanian: "Yes, indeed, you are right, that's it. But of course, yes, definitely, right." And so forth.

    An international word. Just a word, and the word a movement. Very easy to understand. Quite terribly simple. To make of it an artistic tendency must mean that one is anticipating complications. Dada psychology, dada Germany cum indigestion and fog paroxysm, dada literature, dada bourgeoisie, and yourselves, honored poets, who are always writing with words but never writing the word itself, who are always writing around the actual point. Dada world war without end, dada revolution without beginning, dada, you friends and also-poets, esteemed sirs, manufacturers, and evangelists. Dada Tzara, dada Huelsenbeck, dada m'dada, dada m'dada dada mhm, dada dere dada, dada Hue, dada Tza.

    How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying dada. How does one become famous? By saying dada. With a noble gesture and delicate propriety. Till one goes crazy. Till one loses consciousness. How can one get rid of everything that smack of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, europeanized, enervated? By saying dada. Dada is the world soul, dada is the pawnshop. Dada is the world's best lily-milk soap. Dada Mr. Rubiner, dada Mr. Korrodi. Dada Mr. Anastasius Lilienstein.

    In plain language: the hospitality of the Swiss is something to be profoundly appreciated. And in questions of aesthetics the key is quality.

    I shall be reading poems that are meant to dispense with conventional language, no less, and to have done with it. Dada Johann Fuschgang Goethe, Dada Stendhal. Dada Dalai Lama, Buddha, Bible and Nietzsche. Dada m'dada. Dada mhm dada da. It's a question of connections, and of loosening them up a bit to start with. I don't want words that other people have invented. All the words are other people's inventions. I want my own stuff, my own rhythm, and vowels and consonants too, matching the rhythm and all my own. If this pulsation in seven yards long, I want words for it that are seven yards long. Mr. Schulz's words are only two and a half centimetres long.

    It will serve to show how articulated language comes into being. I let the vowels fool around. I let the vowels quite simply occur, as a cat miaows... Words emerge, shoulders of words, legs, arms, hands of words. Au, oi, uh. One shouldn't let too many words out. A line of poetry is a chance to get rid of all the filth that clings to this accursed language, as if put there by stockbrokers' hands, hands worn smooth by coins. I want the word where it ends and begins. Dada is the heart of words.

    Each thing has its word, but the word has become a thing by itself. Why shouldn't I find it? Why can't a tree be called Pluplusch, and Pluplubasch when it has been raining? The word, the word, the word outside your domain, your stuffiness, this laughable impotence, your stupendous smugness, outside all the parrotry of your self-evident limitedness. The word, gentlemen, is a public concern of the first importance.

    Kurt Schwitters took the nonsensical aspect of dada to its extremes in his art and writing. Ursonate (Primeval Sonata), a sound poem, is his signature piece. He started writing it in 1922 and first performed it in 1925; he continued working on and performing it for many years. I'd like you to listen to it, and I've provided two links: a recording of him reciting a portion of the poem (the poem starts about six seconds in), plus a written version with which you can follow along.

    I'd also like you to look at a work of art created by Hannah Höch, Cut with a Kitchen Knife (from 1919). Höch specialized in collages, works of art made from newspaper and magazine clippings. This work is incredibly dense and complex, but the two items provided will help you understand it

    Your task: is dada political or apolitical?

    This fragment of the Ursonate by Kurt Schwitters was recorded in 1932 by the Süddeutscher Rundfunk.

    Hannah Höch,  Cut with a Kitchen Knife  (1919) -  Click on the picture and you will be taken to a site where the person who has uploaded the piece has annotated sections of it; you'll see faint squares on the picture. Move your mouse to those areas to see what information the uploader has provided.

    Hannah Höch, Cut with a Kitchen Knife (1919) - Click on the picture and you will be taken to a site where the person who has uploaded the piece has annotated sections of it; you'll see faint squares on the picture. Move your mouse to those areas to see what information the uploader has provided.


    Bauhaus was an artistic movement, or perhaps rather a style, that developed in Weimar and would influence design and architecture throughout the 20th century.

    Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus, wrote the following manifesto in 1919:

    The ultimate aim of all visual arts is the complete building! To embellish buildings was once the noblest function of the fine arts; they were the indispensable components of great architecture.Today the arts exist in isolation, from which they can be rescued only through the conscious,cooperative effort of all craftsmen. Architects, painters, and sculptors must recognize anew and learn to grasp the composite character of a building both as an entity and in its separate parts. Only then will their work be imbued with the architectonic spirit which it has lost as “salon art.”

    The old schools of art were unable to produce this unity; how could they, since art cannot be taught. They must be merged once more with the workshop. The mere drawing and painting world of the pattern designer and the applied artist must become a world that builds again. When young people who take a joy in artistic creation once more begin their life's work by learning a trade, then the unproductive “artist” will no longer be condemned to deficient artistry, for their skill will now be preserved for the crafts, in which they will be able to achieve excellence.

    Architects, sculptors, painters, we all must return to the crafts! For art is not a “profession.” There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman. The artist is an exalted craftsman. In rare moments of inspiration, transcending the consciousness of his will, the grace of heaven may cause his work to blossom into art. But proficiency in a craft is essential to every artist. Therein lays the prime source of creative imagination.

    Let us then create a new guild of craftsmen without the class distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist! Together let us desire, conceive, and create the new structure of the future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity and which will one day rise toward heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystal symbol of a new faith.

    Your task: Bauhaus style is almost 100 years old, and yet it is still considered modern. Why do you think that might be?

    The Lavender Song


    Weimar Germany, and especially Berlin, was known for its liberal attitude towards sex. This was especially evident in the cabaret scene. Though many of the larger cabarets were really just variety shows providing entertainment for general audiences, there was a more avant-garde cabaret scene that used song and music to comment on politics and society, and to advocate for more liberal morals.

    It was an odd period as older values clashed with newer ones in a country that was just learning how to cope with democracy and the public freedoms that go with it. Nudity was allowed on stage as long as there was no movement or dancing; as a result, tableaux (still scenes in which the actors posed nude on the stage) became common. Homosexuality was still illegal; "paragraph 175" was the statute in the German criminal code that outlawed it.

    A wonderful example of how cabaret songs could play a role in the public discourse is Das lila Lied / The Lavender Song, considered one of the first gay liberation anthems. It was written in 1920 by Kurt Schwabach and Mischa Spoliansky (who used the pseudonym Arno Billing). You can listen to an English version here sung by the great, the wonderful, the amazing Ute Lemper.

    Your task: what strikes you as modern about the song, and what strikes you as antiquated or old-fashioned?

    Das Lila Lied / The Lavender Song

    What students think of the course structure and content

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