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 the tension between liberal and conservative thinking that characterizes Germany's first democracy – and eventually dooms it.
Then he takes readers on a walking tour of Berlin in the 1920s: to street scenes and department stores; to dark and crowded tenements and newly designed, light-filled apartments; to the Jewish quarter; to cafes and jazz-filled nightclubs.
It's a nifty device that gives readers a feel for the entirety of the era and its contrasts.
Then it's back to history for two chronological chapters on politics and economics, helpfully described as a sandwich: a slice of chaotic revolution by the left, followed by a middle layer of relative calm, and topped by a turbulent counter-revolution from the right (both "revolutions" occurring through the ballot box).
The rest of the book explores the "promises" of German modernity: innovations in the media, in writing and theater, in architecture, and in the way Germans viewed the human body and female gender.
Nothing enlivens history more than the people who experienced it, and Weitz gets at concepts and trends through the work and lives of the players. His mostly lively and descriptive writing paints visual pictures that are complemented by well-chosen photographs and illustrations.
Sometimes the historian in Weitz assumes too much prior knowledge on the part of readers. And because he's organized most of his material thematically, it's impossible to avoid some redundancy of events. But generally, Weitz, as in his tour of Berlin, succeeds in guiding readers down the avenues of this unusually rich and complex time, until these boulevards finally meet in an abrupt dead end.
• Francine Kiefer, editorial writer for the Monitor, was the paper's correspondent in Germany from 1989 to 1993. She is writing a book about one of Hitler's political opponents.