For most of the 19th century, "Germany" existed only as a loose confederation of kingdoms and principalities such as Prussia, Holstein, Westphalia, and Bavaria. During the 1860s, a strong Prussian foreign minister named Otto von Bismarck instigated conflicts with Austria and France that led to a rise in German nationalism. After the Franco-Prussian war, in 1871, King Wilhelm I of Prussia was crowned kaiser of emperor of a united Germany. They called this new German empire the "Second Reich." Germany was finally united as a country.

The Great War of 1914-1919, later known as World War I, led to major changes in Germany. After Germany's loss in World War I and the fall of the kaiser, the country experimented with its first attempt at democracy. Known as the Weimar Republic, the period from 1919-1933 was known for its cultural creativity, fragile democracy, and weak economy. Cities like Berlin felt alive and vibrant. There were streetcars and double-decker buses rushing along the avenues. Women, now with the right to vote, had more freedom and hopes for the future than ever before.

Click here for a Weimar Republic timeline of key dates

Here are some specific questions you may want to think about as you peruse the Weimar exhibit:

  • What characteristics best describe life in the Weimar Republic?

  • What were some economic, political, and social problems during the Weimar Republic? What role did WWI and the Treaty of Versailles play in creating some of these problems?

  • How might life during the Weimar Republic in Germany help explain the later victory of the Nazi Party?

Begin by viewing the stories of Joseph and Myra's families and then move on to the artifacts. In this exhibit, you will encounter the following artifacts:

    • Artifact 1: Text excerpts from the Treaty of Versailles

    • Artifact 2: Photograph of protests against the Treaty of Versailles

    • Artifact 3: Photograph "Butchering a Horse"

    • Artifact 4: Photograph "Family Shares a Single Sausage for Dinner"

    • Artifact 5: Photograph "Line outside a Berlin Grocery"

    • Artifact 6: Photograph "Wallpapering"

    • Artifact 7: Photograph "Unemployed"

    • Artifact 8: Excerpt from Friedrich Kroner's "Overwrought Nerves"

    • Artifact 9: Excerpt from Betty Scholem's "On the Depression"

    • Artifact 10: Excerpt from Gershom Scholem's "On the Atmosphere in Munich in the early 1920s"

Yet, the period found many Germans dealing with resentment over the War Guilt Clause of the Treaty of Versailles and the reparations payments. Germany had suffered tremendously during the war years. Women took the place of men at factories, working long hours. There were shortages of bread and milk. Children went hungry. As soldiers returned from the war, the war-wounded were all over, men without limbs, without sight, begging. Many found themselves homeless.

Led by the Social Democratic Party, the government and the people dealt with more food shortages after the war. Amidst all these problems, many began to pin the blame on the Jews, who make up only 1% of the population, for losing the war and for being traitors to Germany. Strikes of miners and factory workers put the economy to a halt.

The leaders of the Weimar Republic seemed to rotate frequently as no one could maintain power. To pay off the foreign debt, the government printed more and more money, which led to hyperinflation. Matters only worsened after the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. Unemployment worsened and middle-class families found themselves on the streets begging as they lost their entire life savings and their jobs.

View the artifacts below to learn more about the Weimar Republic and click on the links on the bottom of the page if you wish to read more deeply about the period.

JOSEPH'S CHILDHOOD

The most dangerous thing about Joseph's childhood was that he was a sleepwalker.

MYRA'S CHILDHOOD

It was a childhood of bike rides, trips to the beach, and the best American movies.

THE TREATY OF VERSAILLES

ARTIFACT 1

Articles 231-235

The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments...

 

Guiding Questions:

  • According to the Treaty of Versailles, who was responsible for the war?

  • What rules did the treaty establish concerning war reparations?

  • How might many ordinary Germans view the "war guilt" and "reparations" clauses of the Treaty of Versailles?

MASS DEMONSTRATION

ARTIFACT 2

in Berlin's Lustgarten against the Treaty of Versailles (1919)

The conditions of the Treaty of Versailles met with harsh protest in Germany over the territorial transfers, the reparations payments, and the “War Guilt Clause,” which laid the blame for the war on Germany.

Guiding Questions:

  • What do you see in the photograph? Be specific.

  • What does this photograph show in terms of the response of many Germans to the Treaty of Versailles?

  • The sign "Nieder mit dem Gemwaltfrieden" translates as "Down with the violent peace!" What does that mean?

BUTCHERING A HORSE

ARTIFACT 3

in the streets of Berlin (1920)

During the period, Germans struggled with severe shortages of food. Food rationing was widespread. There was a flourishing in black market...here we see people butchering a horse on the street probably for sale in the black market. 

Guiding Questions:

  • What do you see in the photograph? Be specific.

  • What does this photograph tell you about economic conditions in Germany after WWI?

  • How might this type of economic conditions affect German morale after the war?

FAMILY MEMBERS SHARE A SINGLE SAUSAGE FOR DINNER

ARTIFACT 4

1920

Food shortages reached crisis levels in 1919-20 as the various sectors of the state-controlled economy faltered. The transition to free markets led to a sharp rise in food prices and to greater hardship for urban consumers.

Guiding Questions:

  • What do you see in the photograph? Be specific.

  • What does this photograph tell you about economic conditions in Germany after WWI?

  • How might this type of economic conditions affect German morale after the war?

LINE OUTSIDE OF BERLIN GROCER

ARTIFACT 5

1923

As hyperinflation crippled the economy, the living circumstances of large segments of the German population grew increasingly dire. By the autumn of 1923, price escalations had rendered Germany's hard currency worthless. People stood in long lines and bought goods as quickly as they could since their money was losing value by the hour. Unable to keep pace with inflation, many grocers and merchants switched to foreign currency or simply bartered.

Guiding Questions:

  • What do you see in the photograph? Be specific.

  • What does this photograph tell you about economic conditions in Germany after WWI?

  • How might this type of economic conditions affect German morale after the war? How do people respond psychologically to hyperinflation?

WALLPAPERING

ARTIFACT 6

With worthless Banknotes (1923)

With the onset of hyperinflation in the summer of 1922, Germany’s economic situation went from bad to worse. In January 1923, French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr in an effort to force Germany to meet its reparations obligations. The German government resorted to its printing presses. Paper notes became worthless as soon as they were printed. On November 2, 1923, the Reichsbank issued the first 100-trillion-mark note. By the end of the month, 1 U.S. dollar was worth 4.2 trillionmarks. Photographer: Georg Pahl.

Guiding Questions:

  • What do you see in the photograph? Be specific.

  • What does this photograph tell you about economic conditions in Germany after WWI?

  • How might this type of economic conditions affect German morale after the war? How do people respond psychologically to hyperinflation?

UNEMPLOYED

ARTIFACT 7

Stentoypist Seeks Work (December 1931)

The photograph below features a young unemployed stenotypist in search of office work. The sign around her neck reads:

Hello!

 

I’m looking for work!

I can type and do shorthand,

I know French and English,

I will accept any kind of domestic employment,

I can do everything that requires an attentive mind.

Guiding Questions:

  • What do you see in the photograph? Be specific.

  • What does this photograph tell you about economic conditions in Germany after WWI?

  • How might this type of economic conditions affect German morale after the war? How do people respond psychologically to unemployment?

FRIEDRICH KRONER, "OVERWROUGHT NERVES"

ARTIFACT 8

1923

There is not much to add. It pounds daily on the nerves: the insanity of numbers, the uncertain future, today, and tomorrow become doubtful once more overnight. An epidemic of fear, naked need: lines of shoppers, long since an unaccustomed sight, once more form in front of shops, first in front of one, then in front of all. No disease is as contagious as this one. The lines have something suggestive about them: the women’s glances, their hastily donned kitchen dresses, their careworn, patient faces. The lines always send the same signal: the city, the big stone city will be shopped empty again. Rice, 80,000 marks a pound yesterday, costs 160,000 marks today, and tomorrow perhaps twice as much; the day after, the man behind the counter will shrug his shoulders, “No more rice.” Well then, noodles! “No more noodles.” Barley, groats, beans, lentils—always the same, buy, buy, buy. The piece of paper, the spanking brand-new bank note, still moist from the printers, paid out today as a weekly wage, shrinks in value on the way to the grocer’s shop. The zeros, the multiplying zeros! “Well, zero, zero ain’t nothing.”

Guiding Questions:​

  • What is the economic condition that the text is describing in post-WWI Germany?

  • How might this type of economic conditions affect German morale after the war? How do people respond psychologically to this type of situation?

BETTY SCHOLEM ON THE DEPRESSION

ARTIFACT 9

August 1931

My dear child,

Your letter of the twenty-second arrived on the thirtieth. Meanwhile, you should already have received two letters from me describing the terrible situation. Technically, I’m in no position to give you a complete picture of the collapse, which you’d need in order to really understand what’s happening. The year 1930 was still a good one. We were a bit in the red; but given more or less normal business, we still hoped to make it up eventually. We never would have taken such a long trip if we’d had an inkling that such a crisis lay ahead!! It hit us like a catastrophe. An enormous fall in the demand for price tags caused our debts to swell. Just as all business came to a halt, the bank failed; so there was no one to speak to. The banks went into a government holding company, which showed no interest in the debts of „customers.“ All of this happened at once. It looks as if we’ll lose everything. It’s cold comfort to know that the entire commercial sector is in the same position and that more shops are going under than staying afloat. Since everywhere you look there’s desert, you see no chance to plant anything new. The situation is desperate. [ . . . ]

Guiding Questions:

  • What is the economic condition that the text is describing in post-WWI Germany?

  • How does this economic crisis in 1931 connect to what was happening in the United States during that same time?

  • How might this type of economic conditions affect German morale? How do people respond psychologically to this type of economic crisis?

GERSHOM SCHOLEM ON THE ATMOSPHERE IN MUNICH IN THE EARLY 1920s

ARTIFACT 10

1977

In Munich I had a chance to get acquainted with incipient Nazism at the university from close up. The atmosphere in the city was unbearable; this is something that is often disregarded today and presented in more muted colors than it actually was. There was no disregarding the huge, blood-red posters with their no less bloodthirsty text, inviting people to attend Hitler’s speeches: “Fellow Germans are welcome; Jews will not be admitted.” I was little affected by this, for I had long since made my decision to leave Germany. But it was frightening to encounter the blindness of the Jews who refused to see and acknowledge all that. This greatly encumbered my relations with Munich Jews, for they became extremely jumpy and angry when someone broached that subject. Thus my association with Jews was limited to a small circle of like-minded people.

Guiding Questions:

  • According to the Treaty of Versailles, who was responsible for the war?

  • What rules did the treaty establish concerning war reparations?

  • How might many ordinary Germans view the "war guilt" and "reparations" clauses of the Treaty of Versailles?

ADDITIONAL READING

HISTORY CHANNEL'S WEIMAR REPUBLIC

FACING HISTORY'S
WEIMAR REPUBLIC

UNITED STATES HOLOCAUST

MEMORIAL MUSEUM