Cultures of Capitalism in Weimar and Nazi Germany

February 22-24, 2018
Conference at the German Historical institute
Conveners: Pamela Swett (McMaster University), Moritz Föllmer (University of Amsterdam), and Ines Prodöhl (GHI Washington)

In modern Germany, ‘capitalism’ has been highly significant as economic regime, a topic of debate; one might even say a focal point of obsession. It was praised for its dynamic nature, yet seen as deeply ambivalent. To contemporaries, it was at times personified by leading industrialists or bankers, and at other times it was seen as an impersonal power governing millions of lives in inscrutable ways. In Germany and elsewhere, capitalism possessed a range of appearances and meanings. This variation suggests that the concept straddles the boundaries between economics, culture, and society.

By exploring past uses of the notion, and applying it for analytical purposes, historians have begun to show how economic trends and practices were culturally and socially embedded. Moving away from artificially pure definitions, some have foregrounded capitalism’s murky and outright violent features, its historical proximity to imperial power and criminal activity. Others have investigated how capitalism was intertwined with religious convictions or a broader culture of risk.  The conference intends to draw on recent United States literature as well as the long tradition of relevant analysis and critique in Germany in order to ask new questions and stimulate debate on the Weimar and Nazi periods. In so doing, it will proceed from the observation that meanings and practices of capitalism between 1918 and 1945 were highly diverse and controversial, ranging from complete endorsement to unequivocal hostility with a broad spectrum of beliefs and behaviors between these two poles – as well as rapid, politically-driven shifts at certain historical moments. This diverse set of meanings cannot sensibly be organized under one model, as might be argued for the Federal Republic’s ‘coordinated’ or ‘social’ market economy. Instead, it seems more apt to speak of cultures of capitalism in the plural and discuss overarching trends and possible generalizations on that conceptual basis.

It is our hope that this workshop will foster cultural historians’ growing interest in economic matters. Conversely, we think that economic and business historians could benefit from greater attention to cultural questions. Some questions we hope may be explored by participants are: What constituted capitalist behavior? How was capitalism shaped by aspects such as entrepreneurial (self-)images or ethical values? Did capitalist behavior change during the Weimar era with its short-term but drastic shifts or in the Third Reich as a regime offering particular incentives? What difference did it make whether companies were active within or outside the borders of the Reich – in other words, how does a transnational perspective modify our interpretation of ‘German’ capitalism? To what extent should the notion of capitalist behavior apply to groups other than businessmen or managers, for instance salespersons, advertisers, or consumers? Did it even, as many contemporary observers deplored, extend to personal relations, for instance between men and women? The challenge when discussing these and further questions will be constantly to bear two dimensions in mind: contemporary notions of ‘capitalism’ and the usefulness of ‘capitalism’ as a category of historical analysis.

We will meet over three days in Washington DC at the German Historical Institute. The language of the workshop will be English. The GHI will provide a lump sum to participants for travel, and we are currently seeking further financial support. To apply, please send a 300 word abstract and a one-page cv to by Dec 15, 2016.