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From Bismarck to Goebbels: Biography and German History 1870–1945 - 30 credits (HS1829)

Module Tutor: Toby Thacker

Cover of the book by Toby Thacker about Joseph Goebells.

German history between 1870 and 1945 has often been imagined as dominated by ‘great men’, significant individuals who single-handedly shaped the course of events. This module will examine the ways in which some of these individuals have been represented in biographical writing, examining the potential and problems of this historical mode. It will focus on the political career of Bismarck, the ‘Iron Chancellor’ often credited with forging German unity in 1871, and on the life and career of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister, described on the front cover of a recent German magazine as ‘the man who made Hitler’. The module will be framed by contextual sessions devoted to the development of biography, and will also present a series of case studies in differing biographical modes, two devoted to collective studies of early Nazi supporters (one primarily psychoanalytic in methodology, one sociological), and two looking at the biographical representation of great German composers between 1870 and 1945. The course is underpinned by the study of a wide range of primary sources and an analysis of the problems associated with them.

Dr Toby Thacker research interest focus on propaganda and culture in Germany, citizenship and identity in twentieth century German, and writing biographies. His recent study, Joseph Goebbels: Life and Death (2009), is the first to be written since the entire set of Goebbels’ diaries has been published and offers important new contentions and insights.

Credits: 30

Availability of module: Every year


Necessary for

Teaching methods

A range of teaching methods will be used in each of the sessions of the course, comprising a combination of lectures, seminar discussion of major issues and workshops for the study of primary source material. The syllabus is divided into a series of major course themes, then sub-divided into principal topics for the study of each theme.

The aim of the lectures is to provide a brief introduction to a particular topic, establishing the salient features of major course themes, identifying key issues and providing historiographical guidance. The lectures aim to provide a basic framework for understanding and should be thought of as useful starting points for further discussion and individual study. Where appropriate, handouts and other materials may be distributed to reinforce the material discussed.

Seminar and Source Workshops:
The primary aim of the sessions will be to generate debate and discussion amongst course participants, focused in particular on primary source material. Seminars and source workshops for each of the course topics will provide an opportunity for students:
(a) to discuss topics or issues introduced by the lectures,
or (b) to discuss related themes, perhaps not directly addressed by the lectures, but drawing on ideas culled from those lectures.
and (c) to analyse different types of primary sources available, discussing the principal ways in which they can be used by historians.
Seminars and source workshops will provide the student with guidance on how to critically approach the various types of primary source material. Preparation for seminars and workshops will focus on specific items from the sources and related background reading, with students preparing answers to questions provided for each session. Both seminars and source workshops will provide an opportunity to discuss and debate the issues with fellow students. Classes will be divided into smaller groups for discussion purposes, with the results presented as part of an overall class debate at the end of the session.


Students will be assessed by means of a combination of one essay relating to primary sources [20%], an assessed essay [30%] and an examination paper [50%].

Course assignments:

The Assessed Essay relating to primary sources will contribute 20% of the final mark for the module and must be no longer than 1,000 words.

The Assessed Essay will contribute 30% of the final mark for the module. It is designed to give students the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to review evidence, draw appropriate conclusions from it and employ the formal conventions of scholarly presentation. It must be no longer than 2,000 words.

The Examination will take place during the second assessment period [May/June] and will consist of an unseen two hour paper that will contribute the remaining 50% of the final mark for this module. Students must write 2 answers in total.

Skills that will be practised and developed

  • communicate ideas and arguments effectively, whether in class discussion or in written form, in an accurate, succinct and lucid manner.
  • formulate and justify arguments and conclusions about a range of issues, and present appropriate supporting evidence
  • an ability to modify as well as to defend their own position.
  • an  ability to think critically and challenge assumptions
  • an ability to use a range of information technology resources to assist with information retrieval and assignment presentation.
  • time management skills and an ability to independently organise their own study methods and workload.
  • work effectively with others as part of a team or group in seminar or tutorial discussions.    

Suggested book purchases


Suggested preparatory reading

Fritz Stern, Gold and Iron: Bismarck, Bleichröder and the Building of the German Empire (New York: Knopf, 1977)
Edgar Feuchtwanger, Bismarck (London and New York: Routledge, 2002)
Robert Gerwarth, The Bismarck Myth: Weimar Germany and the Legacy of the Iron Chancellor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)
Bruce Waller, Bismarck (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997)
Toby Thacker, Joseph Goebbels: Life and Death (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)
Peter Fritzsche, Life and Death in the Third Reich (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008)
Theodore Abel (ed.), Why Hitler Came into Power ([1938] Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University    Press, 1986)
Dietrich Orlow, A History of the Nazi Party (Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1971), 2 volumes
Barbara Caine, Biography and History (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)