Back in the late seventies I saw an exhibit of photographs by the German photographer August Sander. I was visiting a friend attending graduate school at the University of Michigan at the time and I saw the exhibit at a University gallery. Sander was a portrait photographer and this exhibit showcased a project he undertook to capture a cross section of German society during the Weimar Republic (1919-1933). I was struck by the powerful beauty of the photographs and especially by the variety of people depicted. There were people of all classes, from laborers to executives, but there were also people dressed as if they were photographed in an avant-garde gallery in Soho in 1980s New York City.
I have never forgotten this exhibit, so my curiosity was piqued by the 10/30/07 edition of OnPoint, hosted by Tom Ashbrook, entitled: “Weimar Germany Revisited.” Tom’s guests in this show were Eric Weitz, then professor of history at the University of Minnesota and author of the book “Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy” and Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst and senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly. Professor Weitz argued that this period in Germany has been overshadowed by twelve years of the Third Reich that followed it. He took pains to point out that the Republic did not “just collapse.” Rather, he argued, it was undone by a coalition of the established Right (those occupying powerful positions in state bureaucracy, churches, the officer corps, and universities) and the newer, extreme Right, including the Nazis. In addition to highlighting the many political and artistic achievements in this period, he offered a few lessons for our times, one of which is to beware of efforts of extreme groups to target as enemies particular ethnic or religious groups. Like August Sander, Professor Weitz painted a vivid portrait of this period in German history.
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