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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Enhancing digital teaching

Empire's Economy, 1848-1948

Taught by Frank Beyersdorf

Freitag, 16:00 - 18:00, Hausvogteiplatz 5-7, Room 0323-26

Course taught in English

Language requirements: English B2


Course Description

This course surveys German economic history from a social and cultural perspective from 1848 to
1948. Based on Berlin case studies, we will analyze how businesspersons and state officials interacted
and regulated markets for goods, capital, and work between planned and free market on local,
national, and global levels.
We will start our course from a Western European perspective and assess the structural changes
brought about by the processes of industrialisation since the late 18th century. In the German lands,
the steadily increasing railway network functioned as a motor of cross-border trade and fuelled the
exploitation of coal and iron ore during the first phase of ‘heavy’ industrialisation. As they grew
richer, a small elite of property owners and public office holders pushed for economic integration,
political rights, and a German nation-state. After the failure to create a democratic and unified
‘Germany’ in 1848, the liberal-nationalist movement traded freedoms for national unity to the
conservative Prussian authority under Bismarck, which eventually led to the creation of the German
Empire in 1871.
This peculiar coalition of authoritarian and liberal forces continued empire-building internally. It
standardised, centralised, and regulated market activities creating a national yet globally integrated German market. This double integration set the stage for an unprecedented boom during the second
(chemical and electrical) industrialisation, which propelled the German economy into the top three
in terms of GDP and trade volume since the 1890s. This first phase of economic globalization
would end for Germany in August 1914. Soon, military command assumed de facto dictatorial
leadership over Germany and instituted the first system of planned economy to wage total war.
After the Great War, the German economy suffered less under reparations payment than from
inflation due to a credit-financed war effort. Nonetheless, the German economy, in particular under
Streseman’s leadership, recovered with the help of US credit starting in 1924. Due to the global
chain reaction of the Great Depression, industrialized economies, however, collapsed in the early
1930s. After the Germans elected Hitler, the economy was subordinate to the Nazis’ “race war” in
conquer Eastern Europe: First, the Nazi elite planned the economy to generate enough income to
rearm. Then, having triggered the war in Europe, they siphoned off resources of occupied territories
to finance the continued war effort and genocide.
In 1945, Allied occupation forces as well as the Germans themselves broke with their past. After an
initial hope for a third way between capitalism and communism, politicians between Washington
and Bonn opted for the free market in Western zones of Germany. They traded national unity for
integration into the Western bloc, (en)forcing the East German elite’s decision to form their own
state. They consolidated the planned economy in the GDR and integrated the second new Germany
economically into Comecon. A comparison of regulation, performance, and popular acceptance of
those two economic systems in East and West concludes this course.
We will take a ‘hands on’ approach to history through visits to museums and sights in Berlin. Upon
completion of this course, you will be able to debate core economic themes and critically analyze
both primary and secondary sources.


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  • Clavin, P. (2000). The Great Depression in Europe 1929-1939. Basingstoke, Macmillan.
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