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Germany’s overlooked promise

Weimar Germany, the period between the two world wars, was an era that pulsed with potential.

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To write a compelling history of Weimar Germany – the period between the end of World War I and the Third Reich – is almost as daunting as the epoch itself: 14 tumultuous years that spun out revolving-door governments, three economic crises, and an explosion of creativity on multiple fronts.

It is easier instead to use historical shorthand, to describe the Weimar Republic as the run-up to Hitler, with perhaps a bow to Bauhaus and a curtsy to cabaret as familiar cultural reference points.

But “it is a travesty to see Weimar only as a prelude to the Third Reich,” writes Eric D. Weitz in Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy. As the title implies, these years also pulsed with potential. Defeated and disgraced, many Germans embraced democracy and humanity – in short, modernity. Their efforts found concrete expression that still speaks to the world, whether as women’s rights or sleek skyscrapers.

That gets at the “why” for tackling this complex time. But it still leaves the challenge of how to unpack and sort out a period that’s compressed in a kind of historical trash compactor.

Weitz, who chairs the history department at the University of Minnesota, does this in a way that adroitly avoids the pitfalls of either too much detail or not enough context.

He wisely begins at Weimar’s troubled beginning, which is to say, at the end of World War I, where he establishes

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