Teaching Germany 1933 in USA 2017

The articles published on the New Fascism Syllabus website are intended to foster scholarly inquiry and enrich discussions and debates of topics thematically related to our project. The views expressed in the articles published here do not necessarily represent the views of the Editorial Board or its individual members.

One of the motivations for starting New Fascism Syllabus was the very pedestrian fact that I needed a syllabus. Perhaps I owe it to contributors to share what I came up with. I’ll attach the syllabus below. But first, I’d like to say a bit about the course I had in mind – and the course I got.

The course was inspired by the outpouring of historically-informed commentary about political figures like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orbán, and the movements they led. After decades of frustration at blithe applications of the term “fascism” to describe one’s political opponents (or parents), experts on fascism were now suggesting that we might indeed be seeing a revival of fascism, or political tendencies that share characteristics with fascism. Given Nazism’s pride of place in the popular imagination, references to the German variant played an outsized role in this discussion.

Students were clearly listening in on this conversation, even if in the form of tweets and memes rather than essays in the New York Review of Books. Approving or disapproving the use of one or another historical analogy was, in some ways, beside the point. My only choice was whether, as a specialist in 20th-century Germany, I should offer students guidance or leave them to their own devices. I opted for the former.

In spring, 2017, I offered a course called “Germany 1933.” The course was structured as follows:

  1. A weekly 50-minute lecture in which we delved into Germans’ transition from liberal democracy to Nazi dictatorship. In other words, the course actually covered 1930 – summer 1934 (with a couple of weeks at the beginning taking us from 1914-1930). Because I added the course after most students had already registered for spring classes, and because I wanted minimal barriers to learning about Germany’s transition from democracy to dictatorship, I set it at only one semester credit hour (sch): students wouldn’t have to sacrifice another class in order to take this one. I also had minimal assignments: attendance, active participation, and responses to weekly reading questions only. We did not discuss contemporary politics in this section.
  2. A second 50-minute discussion-based meeting for students who signed up for a second credit hour. (Slightly over half did.) I considered this section to be a primer on the methodology of historical analogy. We focused on essays by scholars of historical fascism, populism, and authoritarianism regarding the present day. The readings were correlated with the theme in the 1-sch class. In the same week that the large class read about the bitter split in Weimar’s political Left, for example, students in the 2nd sch read an essay by journalist Harold Meyerson that analyzed the divide between Clinton and Sanders supporters by referring to the Weimar-era Communist-Socialist split. We also examined alternative historically-informed frameworks for understanding the Trump phenomenon, such as populism in Latin America. Knowing that history would continue to be made (and essays written) during the spring semester, I left the last two weeks open to consider more recent developments.

The 1st sch ran more or less as planned, but events quickly overtook my planning for the 2nd sch – and so the remainder of this essay will focus on that section of the course. Our first meeting took place three days after the inauguration. By the time of our second meeting, the entire senior staff of the State Department had departed and Kelly Ann Conway had introduced the phrase “alternative facts” to the American vernacular. Trump had signed an executive order to build a wall on our southern border, issued a statement on Holocaust Memorial Day that did not mention Jews, and signed an executive order banning citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US for 90 days. (Amy Siskind’s list of items to remember for that week – because “experts in authoritarianism advise to keep a list of things subtly changing around you, so you’ll remember” – numbered fifty.)

My students’ heads were spinning – but who were these students? I announced at the outset that I did not ask anyone to disclose their politics, that the university was here to serve all, and that I assumed that the class might include representatives of the entire range of political thought in our country. And I fervently hoped that this would be the case, although my corollary hope was that no members of the class would consider disruption to be their purpose for attending.

As it happened, though, the class represented a cross-section of people under the age of twenty-five in a university town, not a cross-section of the United States. For most of my students, 2016 was the first presidential election in which they could vote. (The 2nd sch included one international student and two non-traditional students.) The conspicuous divide, legible via stickers on students’ laptops, was between Hillary and Bernie supporters; there was probably a disproportionate number of student activists in the group. Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses mean that Iowa students are drawn into presidential races earlier, more intensely, and in higher numbers than students in many other locations.

But the second, less visible, divide was between those who were politically engaged and those who were not. Several of the students were still finding their political feet and admitted to feeling uncomfortable (in ways that constrained their learning) in highly partisan environments. My obvious task was to enable politically-engaged students to sharpen their analysis while insuring that less engaged students didn’t shut down because the environment felt too partisan for them.

Regardless of their differences, all of my students were deeply concerned about the present – and the Trump campaign, which had inspired the essays on the syllabus, was now a thing of the past. The present was the first weeks of the Trump presidency. This shift, of course, paralleled the flow of time in the 1st sch, where we moved from the democratic crisis of late Weimar through the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor to the consolidation of the Nazi regime.

And so I revised my plans for the 2nd sch. We kept the readings that corresponded to the “German history” section of the class, which represented a range of political and disciplinary approaches. It proved impossible to achieve political parity: there simply weren’t as many conservative voices raising the specter of fascism in connection with Trump. But mathematical parity was never the point of the exercise: exposure to a range of interpretations about historical fascism’s relevance for the present was. With the language of fascism in the air, it was relatively easy to recall that political pluralism is one of the hallmarks of a healthy democracy, and this helped to reassure students who hadn’t staked out a political position (while challenging those who considered their own position so self-evident that it didn’t require analysis). Thus during the week when we examined the coordination of the German media and the Civil Service Law of 7 April 1933, we also read short essays on questions facing the media and civil service today by legal scholar David Luban, conservative New York Times columnist Russ Douthat, historian John Broich, and dissident Russian journalist and emigre Masha Gessen. By keeping discussion firmly tethered to the readings and the German history lectures, we avoided spiraling off into free-floating discussions of current events – and instead engaged in analyses of current events that students otherwise wouldn’t have had access to.

But rather than simply tacking on two weeks of more recent writings and then having students write a final paper based on those readings, we developed a collaborative project to engage history-in-the-making. Students entered news items in a shared drive, and cataloged those items in terms that would help them to use historical analogy effectively. So, for example, they had to identify actors (minority political party, federal agency, judiciary, media) as well as issues (immigration, foreign policy, environment, healthcare). They also had to consider such aspects of governance as the distinction between rules and norms. Students’ instinct was to seek comparisons with German history in the realm of ideology (eg the racialized religious animosity behind the immigration stop). My aim was to have them also think about how government and civil society function (eg the roles of the executive, the judiciary, and civil society organizations such as the ACLU in the immigration stop). During in-class workshops and in a final paper, students developed analyses of unfolding events based on their readings of German history as well as public intellectuals’ models of historical analogizing.

The result was perhaps the most rewarding teaching experience of my career and, based on reports from students, an extraordinary experience for them. They deeply appreciated the opportunity to delve into contemporary politics, which they felt were almost studiously avoided in much of their education despite their urgent importance. But they expressed relief in having the inquiry framed by methodology and investigation of a distinct case, rather than by the partisan arguments that had become so exhausting in their non-academic lives. This was not to say that they felt it was an ivory-tower experience: many noted that our discussions had equipped them to continue their community or political activity in a more informed manner.

Towards the end of the semester, we read the moving – and politically important – story of former white supremacist Derek Black (which, a few students admitted, brought them to tears). To my suggestion that this was a story about the value of humanities education, they responded that it was a story of the value of conversation. It was clearly both, but it highlighted what I consider to be the most important impact of this (or any) teaching activity: what happens once students are out of instructors’ earshot. In the case of Derek Black and his interlocutors, what happened was conversation; and clearly my students understood that they were involved in a project that extended way beyond the classroom.

The essays contributed by members of the New Fascism Syllabus project helped to make this course possible. I’m grateful for the collaborative effort that enabled me to create – and adapt – a course putting past and present into such effective dialogue.

HIST 4100 Course Syllabus:

HIST 4100 - Course Syllabus

HIST 4100 Final Assignment:

HIST 4100 - Final Assignment

HIST 4100 Revised Final Assignment:

HIST 4100 Course Flier


Elizabeth Heineman is Professor of History at the University of Iowa

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