The Department of German was one of the original Departments of Instruction created in the 1893-1894 academic year. The department's original mission involved developing students' mastery of the German language for informational purposes as well as preparing students to read and translate major works of literature. Initially, the department did not seek to teach students to converse in German. Commencing in the 1909-1910 academic year, the Department changed its policies to incorporate speaking instruction as a fundamental component of its curriculum. In 1972, the Department of German which had begun administering the Russian program in the 1967-1968 academic year, changed its name to the Department of German and Russian.
The Department of German ranked among the first academic departments created at Tufts University in 1893. Prior to the 1893-1894 academic year, students pursued a "course of study" model of instruction. They either enrolled in the Classical Course or the Engineering Course. During the 1893-1894 academic year, students could for the first time choose a major field of study from the Catalogue of Tufts College "Departments of Instruction" section.
Initially, the Department of German employed only two professors. Led by Professor Fay, the Department articulated two goals for its students. It sought to develop the German proficiency of department students to the extent that students would be able to read and understand the written language and thus be able to inform themselves about the current events, history, and the socio-political trends connected with Germany at that time. Furthermore, he sought to imbue students with an in interest in and an appreciation of German literature, art, and culture. In its courses, the Department of German emphasized the translation of major works of literature "by means of copious reading and careful grammatical drill." German composition was also considered to be an important tool of instruction as well as a means to practice the language. The curriculum called for students to read the great works of German literature while studying the historical context within which those works were written. Students were expected to understand spoken German without learning to speak the language themselves. The Tufts College Catalogue of 1893-1894 states "Though no attempt is made to teach the student to speak the language, he is trained from the outset to hear and to understand it when spoken, chiefly for the sake of the reflex influence of such practice upon pronunciation". Commencing in the 1909-1910 academic year, the Department changed its policies to incorporate speaking instruction as a fundamental component of its curriculum. In 1964, the department began to offer a Master's degree program in German Language and Literature.
The Department of German, which had begun administering the Russian program in the 1967-1968 academic year changed its name to the Department of German and Russian in 1972.