Dismantling Democracy (UK) | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves
Germans look on as the Reichstag building burns on February 27, 1933.

Dismantling Democracy (UK)

Students examine the steps the Nazis took to replace democracy with dictatorship and draw conclusions about the values and institutions that make democracy possible.


This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

At a Glance

lesson copy


English — UK


One 50-min class period
  • The Holocaust
  • Human & Civil Rights


About This Lesson

In previous lessons, students traced the rise of the Nazi Party during the years of the Weimar Republic in Germany, and they explored the political climate that led both to the Nazis becoming the most popular political party in Germany and to the appointment of Adolf Hitler as chancellor. In this lesson, students will continue this unit’s historical case study by learning about the National Socialist revolution that followed Hitler’s appointment and analysing the steps the Nazis took in 1933 and 1934 to dismantle democracy in Germany and establish a dictatorship. In the process, students will continue to deepen and extend their study of democracy and reflect on the idea of democracy’s fragility. By examining how democracy was replaced with dictatorship in a relatively short period of time in Germany, students will begin to draw conclusions about the responsibilities shared by both leaders and citizens for democracy’s survival.

What does learning about the choices people made during the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazi Party, and the Holocaust teach us about the power and impact of our choices today?

  • What steps did the Nazis take to transform Germany into a dictatorship during their first two years in power?
  • What can we learn from the rise of the Nazis about what makes democracy fragile?

To explain how Germany was transformed from a democracy into a dictatorship.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 4 activities
  • 1 suggested homework 
  • 2 videos
  • 5 reading 
  • 2 handouts
  • 1 PowerPoint
  • 1 extension activity

Historians point out that Hitler’s political position upon his appointment as chancellor in January 1933 was precarious. However, by July of 1933, Hitler and the Nazis had succeeded in dismantling democracy and laying the foundation for dictatorship in Germany. Few Germans believed this could happen. In fact, many did not believe Hitler would remain in power for long. After all, in the fourteen years since the creation of the Weimar Republic, Germany had had fourteen chancellors, most of whom served for less than a year. Recalling a discussion with his father on the day Hitler became chancellor, journalist Sebastian Haffner wrote in 1939:

I discussed the prospects of the new government with my father. We agreed that it had a good chance of doing a lot of damage, but not much chance of surviving very long ... How could things turn out so completely different? 1

The events described in this lesson begin to answer Haffner’s question. The Nazis moved swiftly in early 1933 to take advantage of the weaknesses of the Weimar Republic. Previous chancellors had already invoked emergency powers under Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution (see Lesson 6: The Weimar Republic) to bypass the Reichstag and enact their own laws to try to pull the country out of the Great Depression. According to the constitution, only the president could invoke Article 48, so Paul von Hindenburg had to approve each of the measures chancellors took under emergency powers. Hitler seized on those powers – relying on Hindenburg’s willingness to sign off – to eliminate opposition, increase his power, and dismantle democracy.

On 27 February 1933, less than a month after Hitler became chancellor, the Reichstag building in Berlin was set on fire. While historians continue to debate who started the fire, Hitler chose to immediately blame the Nazis’ chief political competitors, the Communists. The day after the fire, Hitler used emergency powers under Article 48 to issue two decrees that suspended every part of the constitution that protected personal freedoms and also legalised the arrest of Communists and other political opponents of the Nazis. A few weeks later, on 21 March, Hitler issued another decree making it illegal to speak out against the government or criticise its leaders. And three days after that – while many Reichstag deputies from opposing parties were in prison, exile, or hiding – the Reichstag passed the Enabling Act, which gave Hitler and his cabinet the power to enact laws that overrode the constitution and the power to imprison anyone Hitler deemed an enemy of the state. That day, the Nazi government also announced the opening of the first concentration camp at Dachau to hold Communists and other political prisoners. The Nazis continued to attack opposing parties and organisations throughout the summer of 1933, dissolving trade unions in May and outlawing the Social Democratic Party in June. By July, remaining political parties were dissolved and the Nazi Party was the only legal party in Germany.

In the first six months of Hitler’s chancellorship, the Nazis also stepped up violence, intimidation, and terror towards the German people. The SA (Sturmabteilung) and SS (Schutzstaffel) attacked political dissenters in the streets, and the secret police force known as the Gestapo was created in April to spy on, interrogate, and imprison citizens in order to ‘protect public safety and order’. The Nazis initiated attacks on homosexual men, imprisoning dozens under a long-existing law (Paragraph 175) that was not regularly enforced by the Weimar Republic. The Nazis also targeted Jews, imprisoning Jewish immigrants and attacking Jewish judges, lawyers, and shopkeepers. On 1 April, the Nazis called for a nationwide day-long boycott of Jewish businesses. The boycott did not receive the widespread support the Nazis had hoped for; in some places in Germany people embraced the attack on Jewish businesses, but in other places people deliberately shopped in Jewish-owned businesses in defiance. Regardless, the event signalled the Nazis’ intent to target German Jews and foreshadowed the onslaught of discrimination that would soon follow. On 7 April, a new law to ‘restore’ Germany’s civil service went into effect, forcing the firing of Jews (and individuals deemed disloyal to the nation) who worked for government institutions.

In addition to people, the Nazis also began to attack ideas. On 13 March 1933, Hitler established the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda and put Joseph Goebbels in charge. The ministry set out to coordinate every form of expression in Germany – from music to radio programmes to textbooks, artwork, newspapers, and even sermons – crafting language and imagery carefully to praise Nazi policies and Hitler himself and to demonise those who the Nazis considered enemies. On 6 May, Goebbels led the first book burning, which the German Student Association declared was a nationwide ‘Action against the Un-German Spirit’.

After July 1933, Hitler grew more concerned with his opposition within the Nazi Party itself. He feared that the SA, whose members outnumbered the German military, and its leader, Ernst Röhm, had become too powerful. On 30 June 1934, in what became known as the Night of the Long Knives, Hitler ordered the SS and the army to murder more than 200 SA leaders, including Röhm, and other high-profile political threats to the regime. According to historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz, the massacre was accepted by many Germans who ‘believed that the purge of the SA represented Hitler’s wish to halt the arbitrary terror of the SA in the streets and to restore a measure of legality to the country’. 2

On 2 August 1934, President Hindenburg died and Hitler combined the positions of president and chancellor into a new position that he called Führer. The dictatorship was complete.

In response to his own question, ‘How could things turn out so completely different?’, Sebastian Haffner answered:

Perhaps it was just because we were all so certain that they could not do so – and relied on that with far too much confidence. So we neglected to consider that it might, if worse came to worst, be necessary to prevent the disaster from happening... 3

In this lesson, and especially in the lessons that follow, students will wrestle with the question of how Germans like Haffner might have tried to resist or prevent the Nazis’ takeover and the atrocities that followed. The rapidity of the events that transformed Germany during that time suggests a sense of inevitability. However, it is important to help students look closely at each of these events and consider the agency of individuals, groups, and the public at large to influence the actions of the Nazi Party and resist the revolution. That level of agency varied from person to person and depended on circumstances and time.

There is evidence, after all, that Hitler and the Nazis were responsive to pressure against their policies from leaders such as Hindenburg as well as from public opinion. Historian Doris Bergen writes: ‘Hitler and his associates in the new German leadership struck in dramatic, decisive ways, but they also tested the public response to each move before proceeding further.’ 4

However, public opinion did not stop Germany’s descent into Nazi dictatorship. While a few Germans resisted or protested, others were true believers in the Nazi programme. Still others were swept up in the energy and excitement of Nazi rallies and parades, or appreciated the order that the Nazis appeared to bring to German society in an unsettled time. Crucially, still others were troubled by the Nazis but felt intimidated and afraid to act. This lesson asks students to begin to consider the human behaviour that may have influenced all of these responses, a topic that will be explored more deeply in subsequent lessons.

The extension gives students the opportunity to explore the Nuremberg Laws of 1935. This set of laws included the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honour, both announced at the Nuremberg Party Rally on 15 September 1935. The former stripped Jews of their rights to citizenship, including the rights to vote and hold a German passport. The latter unleashed a series of restrictions on the lives of German Jews, including the prohibition of sexual relationships between Jews and non-Jews as well as the forbiddance for Jews of flying the Reich flag.  

These two laws raised an important question: What determined who was and who was not a Jew? According to many Jewish teachings, an individual was defined as a Jew if he or she was born to a Jewish mother or formally converted to Judaism. If a Jew converted to Christianity, he or she was no longer considered Jewish by many Jews. The Nazis did not accept that definition. They regarded Jews as members of neither a religious group nor an ethnic group (defined by their cultural heritage). Instead, they regarded Jews as members of a separate and inferior ‘race’. Since, according to Nazi logic, ‘race’ was not altered by conversion, people who were born Jewish would always be Jews, regardless of their religious beliefs or practices.

In reality, whether someone was German or Jewish could not be determined by medical or scientific tests. The question of defining German and Jewish identity was further complicated by the fact that there had been a great deal of intermarriage between the two groups, and there were thousands of people of mixed Jewish and non-Jewish ancestry, known to the Nazis as Mischlinge (‘half-breeds’ or ‘mixed-blood').

Responding to these questions, the Nazi government created precise legal definitions of who was a German and who was a Jew through an additional decree called the First Regulation to the Reich Citizenship Law, announced on 14 November 1935. (Debates about how to classify Mischlinge went on for years and were never completely resolved.) The detailed definitions the Nazis created are included in the resources in this lesson.  

The Nuremberg Laws turned Jews from German citizens into ‘residents of Germany’. The laws transformed the lives of Jews all over Germany, including thousands of people who had not previously known that their families had Jewish heritage. They placed Jews squarely outside of Germany’s ‘universe of obligation’.

  • 1 S. Haffner, ‘Street-Level Coercion’, in How Was It Possible? A Holocaust Reader, ed. P. Hayes (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), 118–19, excerpt from Defying Hitler: A Memoir, trans. O. Pretzel (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), 106–8. Reproduced by permission from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • 2 L. S. Dawidowicz, The War against the Jews, 1933–1945 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975), 82.
  • 3Haffner, ‘Street-Level Coercion’.
  • 4D. L. Bergen, War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust, 3rd edn (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 73.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts.

To learn about the many ways the Nazis created a dictatorship in Germany, groups of students will read one of five articles highlighting significant events from 1933 and 1934. The readings vary in length (from half a page to two pages) and in conceptual difficulty, with ‘Restoring’ Germany’s Civil Service being the most challenging. Therefore, you might consider in advance how you will group students for this activity. One option is to create heterogeneous groupings of readers so that the stronger readers can assist struggling ones with pacing, vocabulary, and comprehension. Alternatively, you might group students by level and work more closely with struggling readers to target specific literacy skills while allowing the more confident readers to tackle the content independently.

In Lesson 6, the class brainstormed characteristics of democracy. Students will refer to their notes from that discussion in this class. If you collected their ideas about democracy on sugar paper, you might hang it in the room before class so it is ready to review in the first activity. As noted in Lesson 6: The Weimar Republic, make sure that the paper includes ‘free and fair elections’, ‘the rule of law’, ‘equality before the law’, ‘free expression’, ‘free press’, and ‘freedom of religion’, if they are not already there.

The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:

  1. Dictatorship
  2. Fragile
  3. Dissent
  4. Propaganda
  5. Civil service

Add these words to your Word Wall, if you are using one for this unit, and provide the necessary support to help students learn these words as you teach the lesson.

Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides. The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lesson plans because the latter include important rationales, context, and detailed activity instructions that teachers should familiarize themselves with before teaching the lesson. The PowerPoints include basic content and student-facing prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

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Lesson Plan


  • Start the session by asking students to review their notes, or the class chart, from their Lesson 6 discussion about the characteristics of democracy. Then introduce the concept of dictatorship. 
  • You might create a similar chart for dictatorship as you did for democracy, or you can simply provide students with the following definition:

    A government ruled by a single person (or a small group) who has absolute power to make and enforce laws without the consent of the people or other branches of the government.

  • Then show students the video From Democracy to Dictatorship (3:24), in which Holocaust survivor Alfred Wolf recalls how he realised that dictatorship was taking hold in Germany.
  • After watching the video, ask students to respond in their journals to the following prompts:
    • For Alfred Wolf, what were the signs that a dictatorship was replacing democracy in Germany in 1933? 
    • What else do you imagine might be a sign of such a change? 
    • What might you be able to do if you lived in a democracy that you wouldn’t be able to do if you lived in a dictatorship?
  • After a few minutes, ask students to share some of their ideas as you write them on the board.
  • Introduce the video Hitler’s Rise to Power, 1933–1934 (7:45). It provides an overview of the two years following Hitler’s appointment as chancellor of Germany. Explain to students that they will learn about some of the events that the video touches upon in more detail later in the lesson.
  • Pass out the handout Hitler’s Rise to Power, 1933–1934 Viewing Guide and instruct students to respond to the first two questions on the handout as they watch the video. You might briefly pause the film to allow students some extra time to write their notes. Afterwards, ask students to complete the two reflection questions on the handout. They can complete this step independently or with a partner.
  • Debrief the video by reviewing the questions on the viewing guide and discussing the information students should have recorded.
  • Tell students that they will now work in groups to explore more deeply some specific choices the Nazis made to dismantle democracy and create a dictatorship in Germany. Each group will analyse the ways an individual event undermined democracy and share their conclusions about that event with the rest of the class.
  • Divide the class into small groups and provide each group with a copy of the handout Democracy to Dictatorship Reading Analysis and one additional reading: Shaping Public OpinionTargeting Jews‘Restoring’ Germany’s Civil ServiceWhere They Burn Books..., and Isolating Homosexuals.
  • Give the groups time to complete their assigned reading and the handout. Tell students that they will be using the information they gather on their handouts for the next activity and should be prepared to share it with the class.
  • Have a short discussion with students about the meaning of the word fragile. What does it mean for something to be fragile?
  • Then have students review their Democracy to Dictatorship Reading Analysis handouts, and discuss with them the questions below. Time permitting, use the Fishbowl teaching strategy to structure this conversation:  
    • In what ways is democracy fragile?
    • What makes democracy strong (or less vulnerable to becoming a dictatorship)?
  • Students should support their thinking with information from their analysis handouts and the readings they analysed. Record on the board important points that come up in the conversation, and ask students to copy them into their journals at the end of the discussion.

Suggested Homework

To assess students’ understanding of the factors that led to the destruction of democracy and the rise of dictatorship in Germany, invite them to create a pie chart to represent the distribution of responsibility for that transformation. You may wish to share the following prompts with them to spark their thinking:

What role did each of the following individuals or groups play in the destruction of democracy in Germany?

  • Adolf Hitler
  • President Hindenburg
  • Members of the Reichstag
  • German citizens
  • Other (label who on your pie chart)

Ask them to suggest proportions, using evidence from the videos and reading they analyzed in the lesson.

Extension Activity

This extension will introduce students to the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, some of the most significant measures the Nazis took in the 1930s to exclude Jews from membership in the nation. Before beginning this extension, make sure that students understand the Nazi concept of ‘national community’. The Nazis had a specific word for this special community – Volksgemeinschaft – which they saw as a racially pure and harmonious national community united in its devotion to the German people, their nation, and their leader. Laws were one powerful tool the Nazis used to create this racialised ‘national community’: between 1933 and 1939 they enacted nearly 1,500 laws, policies, and decrees that privileged ‘Aryans’ and excluded, discriminated against, and persecuted Jews and other supposedly inferior groups. Then use the following steps to introduce the laws enacted in 1935 and their impact on Jews in the Reich:

  • Explain to students that in 1935 the Nazis enacted two new laws that changed who could be a German citizen. The Reich Citizenship Law required that all citizens have German ‘blood’. As a result, Jews and others lost their rights to citizenship, which not only stripped them of the right to vote but also made them stateless. The second law was called the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honour, and it, amongst other things, banned marriages and relationships between Jews and German citizens.
  • To help students understand the Nuremberg Laws, share the reading The Nuremberg Laws with your students and then have them answer the connection questions.  
  • Then, to help students understand the impact of the Nuremberg Laws, share the reading Discovering Jewish Blood, which is a personal account of how one family was affected by the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws. After reading aloud, discuss these questions:
    • How did the Nuremberg Laws affect Marianne Schweitzer and her family members’ status in German society? How did the laws influence how they thought about their own identities?
    • How might discriminatory laws influence the way we think about others in our society? About ourselves?  
    • What other examples can you think of from history, literature, or your own life of laws or rules affecting how people think about and treat others? Of laws and rules affecting how people think about themselves?
    • What can be done to change laws that you disagree with? What would be required to change laws in your community (local, state, or national)? Which of these options, if any, were available to people in Germany in the 1930s?

Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

These are the handouts that students use throughout the Dismantling Democracy (UK) lesson plan.

Download the Files

Hitler’s Rise to Power: 1933–1934 Viewing Guide
Guide students' comprehension of a short documentary on the Nazis' rise to power.
From Democracy to Dictatorship Reading Analysis - PDF
Have students work in groups to analyze an assigned reading about an event that undermined democracy in Germany.

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