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German Politics and Culture – Introduction to the Political System of the Federal Republic of Germany

Chancellor Brandt at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial

"German Politics and Culture" has a dual objective, as both area studies and applied social science theory seminar.

Course Description

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Das alles ist Deutschland

"Das alles ist Deutschland" / "All this is Germany" -- Flear feat Bushido (2010)

On the one hand, the class is an "area study" of German history, politics and culture. It charters the various German Sonderwege (unique, separate historic path) and Irrwege (meanders) from the failure of the Weimar Republic to fascist rule and the institutionalization of liberal democracy in the Federal Republic to current challenges facing the welfare state and the crisis of european integration. Germany is interesting in its own right, as a leading economy and European pioneer, but also serves as a powerful prism of the dynamics, disruptions and contradictions of western (post?-)modernity. In addition, of course, it is the home to Jacobs University and its international students.

On the other hand, the class applies selected theoretical perspectives from the breadth of social sciences and beyond to contextualize the German experience, ranging from Political Science and Sociology to Social Psychology and Economics. The course highlights primary texts by renowned authors --including Hannah Arendt, Zygmunt Bauman, Charles Tilly, Philip Zimbardo, Robert Dahl, Peggy & Richard Musgrave, Claus Offe and Jürgen Habermas -- whose diverse and seminal contributions serve both to train students in their application as well as to elucidate what is specific to the German experience, and what can be generalized.

The class focuses on critical reading and analytical synthesis. Students prepare presentations, write several (short) essays and participate actively in class as well as online discussions.

The class is supplemented by a field trip to the nation's capital, Berlin, where students will visit institutions, museums and experience the flair of contemporary urban life in a once again vibrant (if broke) metropolis.


* Auto generated table of contents {:toc}


This syllabus does not include an actual course plan.

For that information, go to:

The seminar is organized in topics and subtopics (1.0-4.0). You will find this structure everywhere -- on the assignments spreadsheet and the forum -- and it should make navigating really easy.

Here is an example:

  • Say, you want prepare for the morning of Jan 25, 2014.
  • First, you go to the calendar and check that day. It says, we'll do 1.6 in the morning, then 2.1, then 2.2.
  • Next, you go to the spreadsheet to find out what happens in 1.6. It says that 1.6 is about "Death, a Master from Germany"/"Philosophy: Is Evil Banal?" and that it is based on a reading of Arendt 1963, pages 23-56.
  • You go to the folder, download the PDF for Arendt 1963 and read it carefully.
  • You answer the reading questions on section 1.6 of the Google+ Community by selecting the section on the left.
  • You decide you also want to do a presentation on this topic, and so go to the spreadsheet and enter your name in that field.

Obviously, you can also do this any other way around; maybe you'll decide on a presentation topic and then figure out when it's due etc. ... .


We will be using a variety of web-based venues for this class:

  1. This website for static information.
  2. A private Google+ Community for any kind of interaction, where you should:
    • post your responses to reading questions and other prompts as native entries (not links)
    • post other comments, recommendations or raise questions
    • post links to your presentation (shared with "everyone who has the URL" on Google Drive or some other service, see below), ideally embedded
    • post your abstracts and summaries as native entries (not links)
    • use sections and appropriate hashtags to keep everything organized
    • check back regularly
    • (The community is closed and only enrolled students will be accepted.)
  3. A spreadsheet for assignments and grades.
    • You can sign up for assignments by entering your full name on the assignments sheet.
    • You can find your grades and attendance under your matriculation number on the grades sheet.
    • The spreadsheet is open to anyone with the URL, but only includes matriculation numbers.
    • If you would not like your grades to be posted on this spreadsheet, let me know.
    • (You can also add this to your Google Drive for automatic synchronization.)
  4. A calendar including all dates, open to everyone. (You can also sync this with your own calendaring application or add it as a google calendar.)
  5. A bibliography on Mendeley, including all bibliographic information. (You can also import this into your own bibliography software, or sync it to your Mendeley account.)
  6. A folder with all the readings for the class. (You can also add this to your own Google Drive for automatic synchronization.)


  • Participation (20 %)
    • 7.5% at midterm
    • 12.5% at the end of term
    • (this includes oral participation, as well as contributing to the online community including summaries, abstracts, key terms and such like.)
  • Quizzes (15%)
  • Presentations (15%)
  • Essay(s) (50%)

If you have more than one grade component with a failing grade (4.67 or worse), you fail the course.


Especially because this is a seminar -- and not a lecture -- to have productive discussions, we need to prepare carefully.

Ideally, you should diversify your assignments: do different jobs on different topics.


Students must read all assigned mandatory reading prior to the seminar session to which they pertain and should consider answering reading questions and responding to other online prompts.

Texts marked as background readings in the assignments spreadsheet are long and mandatory -- but should be relatively light reading. They set up the historical events and institutional details of the German case on which we will apply selected social science theories and concepts.

Texts marked as theory readings in the assignments spreadsheet are shorter and mandatory -- but can be tough going. They provide the theories and concepts with which we will analyze the German case.

Careful reading will require a significant amount of time.

You are encouraged to engage the recommended reading; focus on what you are most interested in. You are expected to consider at least some of the recommended readings in your essay or presentation on a given topic.

Also consider these suggestions for academic reading.


Students are expected to participate during seminar sessions as well as online. Both contribute to your active participation grade.


Obviously, regular attendance is a necessary -- but not a sufficient -- condition for participation.

In addition:

  • Quality is more important than quantity ...
  • ... but you should not worry about saying something wrong. Mistakes are not a problem. Just don't jam the frequencies.
  • Consider how you can best contribute to the discussion. Be relevant and helpful

A metaphor: Good participation behaves like a water container with four walls:

  1. Quality
  2. Relevance
  3. Quantity
  4. Attendance If any of these walls is leaky, water will drain from the container. The lowest container wall will determine the water level it can hold.

I am aware that people who participate in this seminar have vastly different academic backgrounds and experiences. To level the playing field, I have assigned extensive background reading that should get everyone up to speed. In addition, the discussions in class usually do not concentrate on facts or historical data (from Germany or elsewhere), but we will apply and discuss competing theories to explain the particularities of the German experience.

I also understand that people are used to different classroom cultures and have different temperaments. I expect that everyone participates both in the seminar and online, but you can emphasize whichever forum suits you better.

In addition to regular seminar discussions, we will also have up to two formal debates, in which some students can sign up to participate.


I expect everyone to participate in the online community on Google+, too. This forum will be a valuable resource for all participants, and therefore, everyone should chip in.

The community is generally open to any additional questions, comments or recommendations you might have. Post away.

There are also some predefined tasks I'd like you take up online:

  1. Reading Questions are meant to guide your attention and to make the texts easier to understand. They should be answered publicly before they are discussed in class. You will find reading questions to most -- but not all -- texts on the community. You can also post your own reading questions, especially if none are posted already.
  2. Key Terms are meant to make it easier to follow the discussion and familiarize you with the appropriate terminology. They should be answered publicly before they come up in class. You can use any resource (Wikipedia, Google, reference works) you like. Just cite your sources and be concise.
  3. Abstracts briefly summarize one of the assigned texts in about 200-300 words. They, too, should be published (as posts) online before they come up in class. A good abstract tells us not what the text is about, but just what it says.
  4. Summaries summarize one of the past sessions in about 500-700 words. They should be published (as posts) online after the seminar session they cover, but no later than three days. They should concentrate on our discussion of a text or concept, and not merely summarize the readings (that would be an abstract).

You do not have to do all of these assignments, but you should contribute your fair share. You also do not have to sign up for these assignments in advance, but signing up might make it easier for everyone to coordinate.


Quizzes will cover the mandatory readings, but may also include concepts covered in past seminar sessions. They will generally be multiple-choice, and will not be announced in advance.

Quizzes will be closed-book, but will generally not require you to memorize details (such as dates or names). They may, however, test knowledge of important concepts or terms from the readings. You will not need to study for these quizzes: if you have carefully worked through the readings, you should do fine.


Every participant is expected to give a presentation (7 minutes per person) on one of the listed topics in the seminar. The presentations are to be done individually. In addition, presenters should prepare questions for a stimulating discussion of about 3 minutes.

Good presentations should not merely summarize the assigned readings, but instead, provide a critical perspective on them and make them relevant to the class context. That also means that you can be selective.

Note that the course plan can change on short notice, so you should be prepared to give your presentations at least one session in advance of the scheduled date.

You must sign up for the presentations on the assignments spreadsheet.

Also consider these suggestions for a good presentation.

Make sure that whatever technology you want to use during your presentation is reliable and quick to set up. Getting the projector to work is your responsibility.

Remember to share your presentation on the Google+ Community, ideally embedded directly. There are several ways to accomplish this, in roughly decreasing order of elegance, to do this:

  1. Build a native Google Slides presentation on google drive and share it on Google+ (this will embed the presentation)
  2. Build your spreadsheet anywhere you like, export is as a PDF, share the PDF with anyone who has the URL on Google Drive and share it on Google+
  3. Build your spreadsheet anywhere you like, share it publicly on a service like Slideshare or Speakerdeck, and post the URL on Google+
  4. Build your spreadsheet anywhere you like, share it publicly anywhere you like, and post the URL on Google+

Whatever you do, it's got to be on Google+.


Students must write one to three essays on different topics, totaling around 4,000 words. You can divide up the words between the essays any way you like, but no essay can be shorter than 1,000 words. Grades will be weighted by the number of words.

Anything less than 3,500 words will probably fall short on substance. Anything more than 4,500 words better be really good (and you don't have to do that much work).

The three topics, corresponding to the seminar sections, are:

  1. Death, a Master from Germany?
  2. Lessons Learned?
  3. The Way Ahead

You should begin to write your essay only after the respective topic has been discussed in class. You must hand in your essay seven days before the grade submission deadline of for the respective term.

Because essays will, in large part, be based on discussions and concepts developed in class, it will be nearly impossible for students to write a decent essay without attending seminar.

You need not conduct your own literature research for these essays; the assigned readings provide a sufficient theoretical and historiographic basis. You should, however, venture beyond the mandatory readings and also consider at least some of the recommended readings in your work. Of course, you can also add any additional literature that you think interesting.

You should also consider these suggestions for writing good essays.

To submit your essays, please write (or at least paste) them on Google Drive as a native Google document and share the document with me ( You can also ask me for feedback on outlines (but not complete drafts) in the same way. Google does not offer the best word processor -- let alone typesetter -- out there, but it provides convenient annotation and tracked changes.

Essay 1: Is Death a Master from Germany?

Discuss Goldhagen's thesis and its critics (such as Bauer, Browning) in light of selected theories of social change (such as sociobiology, constructivism, and social psychology) covered in class and in the mandatory and recommended readings. Argue why the Shoah could have happened only in Germany, or whether it could also have happened, or happen, elsewhere. Justify your choice of theory and describe its contribution (or failure thereof) to -- as Bauer demands -- "understanding" the Shoah in light of Bauman's critique of sociology (or lack thereof) on the Holocaust.

Also comment on Arendt's and/or Bonhoeffer's morality and describe your own position on Goldhagen's thesis, as well as on what the selected theories imply for Germany and other countries in the future.

You can agree or disagree with any of the texts, or even with the premise of the essay prompts -- but you have to consider these and other arguments on their own terms first.

Essay 2: Institutional Design of Democracy in the FRG -- Has Germany Learned its Lessons?

Choose selected features of the german (Federal Republic of Germany) institutional design of democracy covered in class. Focus on features that are specific to Germany and its historic experience. Justify your choice of selected features. Reference pertinent articles of the German constitution (Basic Law).

Locate (your selected) German institutional design features within the broader paradigmatic design choices of democracy (Lijphart 1999 or 2012) and reference the fundamental tradeoffs, advantages and disadvantages embodied by the Westminster/Majoritarian and Consensus types of democracy, informed by one or more normative theories of democracy (such as Dahl or Cohen).

Contextualize Germany's design choices within its historical experience and discuss how your selected features of the 1949 design (The Basic Law) may, or may not be "Lessons (successfully) Learned" from the Weimar democracy (1918-1933), fascist rule (1933-1945) and the Shoah.


Essay 3: European Integration and the German Welfare State: Which Way Ahead?

What are some of the contradictions, demands and difficulties in building a welfare state, or, more generally, in reconciling a market economy with planned economy components and redistribution (Marshall, Musgrave, Mankiw)?

Explain which choices the German Welfare State has taken, given these fundamental abstractions of the welfare state and redistribution, and describe which alternative institutional and economic designs are available (Esping-Andersen). Argue what the advantages and disadvantages of the german systemic design are.

Lastly, describe the interaction of (German) welfare and (European) economic integration (such as Mundell or Dehejia & Genschel). Comment on the diagnosed crisis and recommended future of a mixed economy and cosmopolitan government (Offe, Habermas).

In all of this you do not have to be comprehensive; you cannot, and should not try to cover everything discussed in class or the readings. Discuss a selection of issues, but discuss them carefully.


"Can we agree on this?" -- Francis on The Darjeeling Unlimited

  • Computers are only allowed for class-related work. I can tell if people are doing something else, and I find it disrespectful. Such distraction also harms a stimulating atmosphere for discussion. If you have something important to do on your computer, leave the classroom.
  • No language other than english spoken within earshot of a third person.
  • I expect regular attendance; it will be next to impossible to write decent essays otherwise.
  • If you feel you can't make a deadline (e.g. because of sickness) or are otherwise running into trouble with assignments, email me well in advance. If I receive no message in advance, you will receive a failing grade on the assignment in question.
  • Do not plagiarize. I will catch you and it will be embarrassing for everyone. The code of academic integrity applies. There is no shame in not handing in an assignment, or asking for an extension (see above) if you are under exigent circumstances.

Remote Participation

The seminar "German Politics & Culture" (Winterschool 2014) allows up to eight (8) students to participate in the class remotely via web-based video-conference and collaboration.

Here are the details that you should be aware of:

  • Remote participation is strictly optional, experimental and offered for your convenience (for example, if you're abroad or in your home country at the time of the seminar).
  • It's remote participation, not an online course. It's a real-life seminar that features remote participation, not the other way around.
    • Participation is synchronous, meaning you have to log on in real time (Central European Time). Depending on your time zone, this may require you to be up at quite odd hours.
    • Remote participation is mandatory. The same attendance policy applies to remote and real participants.
  • There are technical requirements. You need:
    • A stable, preferably wired (not WLAN) internet connection, with at least 1Mbit uplink and 3Mbit downlink (also see:, Please use -- or a similar service -- to measure the bandwidth and latency (ping) at your remote location prior to the class. Make sure to select a speedtest server close to Bremen to measure your effective speeds.
    • Access to a quiet, well-lit room during class time (again, at CET).
    • A web-cam.
    • A computer with current browser and requisite plugins for Google+, Drive and Hangout products (again, see
    • A headset wired to your computer. Built-in microphones and speakers are not ok.
    • Preferably, a second screen, so that you can browse class material while following the class.
  • Remote participation is at your own risk.
    • Please understand that neither Jacobs University nor the instructor can provide tech support nor guarantee service. You should verse yourself in the necessary services and be reasonably tech-savvy.
    • This option is -- for now -- open only to enrolled Jacobs students.
    • If you cannot effectively participate for technical reasons in more than 50% of the classes, you will receive a late drop; the class will be (late) dropped from your transcript. Any work or preparation you might have done, may be for naught.
    • If you cannot effectively participate for technical reasons in more than 50% of the classes, but missed more than the maximum allowed number of sessions, the instructor may assign you extra work to make up for the lost participation. This work may need to be completed promptly so that other members in the class can benefit, and may still require access to the internet.
  • You should register in advance.
    • Please make sure you can meet all of the requirements and understand the conditions.
    • If you'd like to participate remotely, please write an email to the instructor at to sign up.


Google Spreadsheet for Grades, Attendance & Assignments

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Google Calendar

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German Politics & Culture, a seminar at Jacobs University Bremen



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