The purpose of this lesson is to help students:
Reflect on these guiding questions about history and human behavior:
What is a dictator? What is a dictatorship?
What happened to allow Hitler to become dictator of Germany?
What makes a democracy fragile? What can be done to protect and strengthen democracy?
Practice these interdisciplinary skills:
Understanding the chronology of events on a timeline
Presenting information to others
Using historical evidence to answer questions about the past
Deepen understanding of these key terms:
(see the main glossary in the unit's "Introduction" for definitions of these key terms.)
To deepen your understanding of the ideas in this lesson, read Chapters 5 of Holocaust and Human Behavior.
In the previous lesson, students learned that the Nazis won more votes than any other political party in Germany during the elections held in July and November of 1932. The purpose of this lesson is twofold: 1) to help students understand how Hitler was able to use the Nazis’ victory in these elections to suppress opposition, control the spread of information, use fear to establish authority, and, ultimately, to make himself Führer, the supreme leader of Germany, and 2) to help students recognize how the choices made by German citizens, members of parliament, and other leaders contributed to Hitler’s rise to power. Focusing on the choices made by ordinary people helps students appreciate how history is shaped by the everyday actions of individuals and counters the popular narrative that only leaders have the power to influence society. An awareness of how people like them have impacted the past encourages adolescents to see themselves as potential change-makers as well. The materials and activities suggested in this lesson also help students understand how democracy can be undermined without an independent judiciary, civil liberties, and citizens who are encouraged to think critically.
In the previous lesson, students learned that the Nazis won more votes than any other political party in Germany during the July 1932 elections. Even though they only won 37% of the votes, signifying that more than half of the German electorate did not vote for the Nazi Party, this was during an election that included over thirty political parties. Some of these parties endorsed ideas similar to those of the Nazis. While the results of the July 1932 elections demonstrated substantial support for the Nazis, they still did not have the support of the entire populace. Less than two years later, with the support of 90% of the electorate, Hitler declared himself Fuhrer (dictator) and announced the beginning of Germany’s Third Reich (empire). How did this happen?
One way of answering this question is through the lens of what Hitler did to make himself dictator. A more sophisticated understanding of this history requires us to look not only at Hitler’s actions, but also to recognize how the choices made by German citizens, members of parliament, and other leaders contributed to Hitler’s rise to power. For example, the election of 1932 put Hitler in the position to become Chancellor, and from that position of power he was able to manipulate Germany’s democratic system. Hitler had spent years trying to obtain a leadership position in German government. Twice he had run for president and twice the German citizens had decided to elect someone else. In 1932, however, with the Nazi Party obtaining more votes than any other political party (although still not a majority), Hitler could now pressure Germany’s aged president, Paul von Hindenburg, to appoint him as Chancellor, head of Germany’s Reichstag (parlia- ment). President Hindenburg and his advisers knew that in order to pass the laws needed to improve the economy, they would need the support of the Nazi Party. Even though they were wary of Hitler’s ultimate intentions (after all, he had spoken against having a democratic Germany on multiple occasions), President Hindenburg and his advisers still had several reasons for appointing Hitler to the position of Chancellor. Some of Hindenburg’s advisers believed that Hitler’s ambitions could be tempered once he had real leadership. And other advisers believed that Hitler and the Nazis would lose credibility as soon as they showed that they could not right Germany’s economy. Imagine how history might have been different if President Hindenburg had decided that, based on Hitler’s earlier rhetoric, he could not be trusted in this powerful position.
Wielding his new authority, one of the first moves Hitler made was to begin arresting and intimidating members of the Communist Party, one of the Nazis’ most powerful political rivals. Still, Hitler could not eliminate the communists entirely because the Weimar Constitution protected citizens’ rights to form political parties. When the Reichstag was set on fire on February 27, 1933, Hitler seized an opportunity for increasing his power. Immediately after the fire, Hitler blamed the communists. To this day, historians have not proven who started the fire, but regardless of who actually committed the crime, many Germans believed Hitler’s claim that the communists were responsible for this crime. The nation was in a state of crisis, and amidst crisis people generally seek the comfort of certitude rather than begin investigations that may lead to further questions and uncertainty. In this context, Hitler’s request for President Hindenburg to invoke Article 48 for the purpose of protecting public safety might not have seemed strange or suspicious to the German people. After all, they had just witnessed one of the major symbols of government, the parliament building, go up in flames.
Excerpt of Article 48 from the Weimar Constitution1
In case public safety is seriously threatened or disturbed, the Reich President may take the measures necessary to reestablish law and order, if necessary using armed force. In the pursuit of this aim, he may suspend the civil rights described in articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 and
153, partially or entirely.
Article 48 was written into the Weimar Constitution to help the government cope during times of crisis. This clause, as seen above, allowed the president to issue edicts which had the force of law during a crisis, even those that suspended civil liberties normally protected by the constitution. Article 48 was viewed by many as a safety valve to protect Germany during state emergencies. When the constitution was being drafted in the aftermath of World War I, Germany endured considerable economic and political challenges. At this time, it was not uncommon for political parties to fight against each other both verbally and physically. The drafters were concerned that there might be occasions when competing political parties would not be able to reach any agreement, and this could be a serious problem if Germany were faced with a crisis, such as the hyperinflation that plagued Germany in 1923. Indeed, Germany’s first elected president invoked Article 48 over one hundred times during his six years in office.2 Thus, it was not without precedent when President Hindenburg invoked Article 48 and suspended parliament after the Reich fire.
Article 48 allowed Hitler to use the emergency power of the president to issue two laws that suspended civil liberties, especially for those who opposed Hitler and the Nazis. Hitler’s main targets were communists and anyone suspected of being a communist. Hitler knew that even with Article 48, the members of the Reichstag still had some power. Hitler could pass laws, but those laws could be vetoed with a majority of votes in the parliament. Thus, Hitler’s first priority was silencing those who might oppose his laws. He did this in several ways: Hitler created his own secret-service agents, the Gestapo, who did not work under the supervision of the judiciary. He also established a concentration camp at Dachau for anyone suspected of treason, which according to Hitler meant anyone associated with the communists. So, even though after new elections were held in March the communists were entitled to 81 deputies in the Reichstag, most of these representatives never claimed their seats; they were either already jailed or in hiding. Not only did communists have reason to fear the Gestapo; anyone suspected of speaking against the Nazis could be physically threatened or jailed.
Without sufficient opposition to veto his proposals, Hitler was now able to push many laws through the Reichstag. Hitler established a new government department, the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, under the leadership of his top aide, Joseph Goebbels. Goebbels helped organize book burnings to eliminate information contrary to Nazi ideology. He also used newspapers, political posters, and artists to spread lies about Jews, communists, and other groups deemed undesirable, and to publicize how the Nazi Party would improve the fate of the German people. Less than five months after Hitler was appointed Chancellor, the Reichstag approved the Enabling Act, a law which suspended the constitution indefinitely, and the Law Against the Establishment of Parties, which outlawed all political parties except for the Nazi Party. By establishing these laws (which will be explored in Lesson 10), Hitler manipulated the tools of democracy to remove opposition and consolidate his power.
While it may appear that due to Hitler’s support in parliament he could not be stopped, in truth, at any point, President Hindenburg could have removed Hitler from the position of Chancellor—it was within his authority to do so. Yet, he believed that Hitler could be controlled better from within the ranks of government, and, in a few instances, Hitler demonstrated a capacity for compromise with the President. For example, letters exchanged between Hitler and Hindenburg in 1933 suggest that the President had some reservations about the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service,” namely that the law would have fired Jews who had loyally served in the German army during World War I. To appease Hindenburg, Hitler amended the law to allow Jewish war veterans to keep their civil service positions. While the President could have used the power given to him by the Constitution to dismiss Hitler as Chancellor, other circumstances made it difficult for Hindenburg to take this dramatic action (e.g., his party was second in popularity to the Nazi party, he was 85 years old, and he was in poor health).
On August 2, 1934, President Hindenburg died. After President Hindenburg’s death, Hitler suggested that he should hold the positions of both President and Chancellor; he called this new position Führer. Hitler put his suggestion to a national vote. On August 20, 90% of the German electorate agreed that Hitler should have complete control of all aspects of government. Ironically, it took an election to finally dismantle democracy in Germany. Hitler himself asserted that he became dictator through the will of the people. The German people would not vote again until after World War II.
In what ways were German citizens responsible for Hitler’s rise to power? What could have happened to prevent Hitler from becoming a dictator? Why did the majority of German citizens stand by while their power as citizens was undermined by Hitler’s policies? One way to begin answering these questions is to examine how fear, conformity, self-preservation, obedience, prejudice, and opportunism shaped the actions and attitudes of German citizens at this time. Because these factors exist in any society, studying the Weimar Republic and Hitler’s path to dictatorship can help us understand threats to our own democratic way of life. Studying this history illuminates the fragility of democracy and warns us that, as citizens, it is our responsibility to protect the ingredients that are vital to maintaining a healthy democracy, ingredients such as an independent judiciary, state-protected dissent, freedom of speech, and an active, mindful citizenry.
Related readings in Holocaust and Human Behavior:
Related video: Hitler’s Rise to Power, 1918-1933
To appreciate the significance of Hitler’s rise to power, students need to understand the concepts “dictator” and “dictatorship,” especially in relation to living in a democracy. One way to help students develop an understanding of these concepts is to ask them to respond to the following prompts:
What is a dictator?
What is the difference between a democratic leader and a dictator?
How might your life be different if you lived in a dictatorship instead of a democracy?
Or, you might ask students to respond to this scenario: Imagine waking up in the morning to learn that the president of the United States shut down Congress, closed all of the courts, and cancelled elections. How might you react to such news? How might your life be different as a result of this change in government? If you have time, this prompt can be used as a creative writing activity, with students writing and sharing stories about how life could change under a dictatorship.
Students’ sharing of responses to any of these prompts provides an opportunity to create a working definition of the words “dictator” and “dictatorship.” Students can record their definitions in their journals and you can add them to a word wall. Explain to students that in this lesson they will be learning about how Germany went from being a democracy to becoming a dictatorship. At this point in the unit, it is appropriate for students to have only a basic understanding of these concepts. The material in this lesson, and in the remaining lessons in this section, will help students develop a more sophisticated understanding of the distinction between a dictatorship and a democracy.
To understand Germany’s transformation from a democracy to a dictatorship, it is important for students to be familiar with the small steps made by Hitler and the Nazis to carve away at political and civil liberties between 1933, when Hitler became Chancellor, and August of 1934, when Hitler became dictator of Germany. One way to teach students this history is through a human timeline activity. This strategy enables teachers to use physical activity to help students understand the chronology of events, and improves the retention of material by having students present historical information to their peers. Alternatively, you could use the ideas in the timeline as the basis of a lecture.
Step One: Pre-class set up
Handout 1 presents a sample timeline you can use to help students identify the steps that allowed the Nazis and Hitler to establish a dictatorship. The timeline of Hitler’s rise to power includes 16 items. Adapt this list to best meet the needs of your students; you might combine items, delete items, or add additional items. Some teachers assign each student their own timeline item to present and other teachers have found that this activity works best if timeline items are presented by pairs. In preparation for this activity, we suggest placing each of the events on an index card or an 8 1/2 x 11” sheet of paper,
along with the date when it occurred.
[Note: Rather than distributing the timeline slips randomly, you might want to give certain students easier or more challenging items. Some of the events on the timeline are more challenging to understand and interpret than other items. For example, the first item on the timeline explains the Weimar Constitution. Because this material was covered in the previous lessons, this information should already be familiar to many students. The next item on the timeline goes into detail about Article 48. This is new material and may be challenging to understand without reading the text several times.]
Next, because students are able to see and hear each other better in a U-shaped line than in a straight line formation, identify a location in or near your classroom that will allow for students to form a U-shape. You can have students stand for this activity, or you can arrange chairs in a U-shape.
Step Two: Establishing a context for the timeline activity
Before students begin the human timeline activity, establish a context for the chronology students will be focusing on. The suggested opener activity meets this goal. If you skipped the opener, we suggest taking a few minutes to review the material from the previous lesson. Then, explain to students that through this timeline they will learn about how the success of the Nazi Party in the 1932 elections put Germany on the path from democracy to becoming a dictatorship. To remind students of the purpose of the timeline activity, you can write this lesson’s guiding question on the board: What happened to allow Hitler to become dictator of Germany?
The following terms are used throughout the timeline. If you think your students may be unfamiliar with these items, you might want to review them before they begin their work.
Reichstag/Parliament — the government institution where laws were made, like the U.S. Congress.
Chancellor — the leader of the Reichstag. The Chancellor decided which laws get voted on.
President — the head of state. The President controlled the military, appointed the Chancellor, and decided when elections would be held.
Constitution/Article — The Weimar Constitution, like the U.S. Constitution, is divided into articles. The articles explain how the government should be organized and the rights citizens should have.
Veto — To disapprove of a law.
Step Three: Individuals or pairs prepare timeline presentations
Whether students work individually or in pairs, here is an example of instructions you can provide:
Read over your timeline item once or twice.
Rewrite the timeline item in your own words. You should not read from your timeline slip when you present this event to the class; you should explain this event in your own words. If you are having trouble writing the statement in your own words, ask for help.
How does knowing about this event help you answer the question, “What happened to allow Hitler to become dictator of Germany?” You will share at least one connection between this event and Germany’s path to a dictatorship with the class.
Handout 2 has been designed to help students prepare for their timeline presentations.
Step Four: Building your human timeline
Invite students to line up in the order of their events. Once everyone is lined up, they present the event on the timeline and how they think that event contributed to Hitler’s path to dictatorship. Be sure to provide an opportunity for students to ask questions if they are confused about an event’s impact on the health of democracy in Germany. As students present, record answers to the question, “What happened to allow Hitler to become dictator of Germany?” on the board. The first item on this list might be having a clause in the constitution giving power to one person or branch of government. Other items that will likely be added to the list include: silencing the opposition through fear or imprisonment, using the media to control information, and citizens who follow a leader without questioning him or her.
Once students have a basic understanding of the many steps involved in Germany’s path from democracy to dictatorship, you can ask students to discuss who they think was responsible for the death of democracy in Germany. Another way to get at this question is to ask each student to record three steps or events that contributed to the decline of democracy and the rise of dictatorship in Germany. Then ask students to share what they wrote, noting how many of the steps place Hitler as the main actor and how many focus on the decisions made by other Germans, such as voters, Reichstag members, or President Hindenburg. To stimulate students’ ideas about the powers that shape their world, you can use the following prompt: To what extent do you believe that leaders are responsible for what happens versus the general public? Applied to the classroom, is successful learning a product of what the teacher does or what the students do?
Another way to end this class is to ask students to review the journal they wrote during the opening activity about dictatorship. Students can expand on their ideas based on the information they learned during the timeline activity. You might also ask students to predict what might happen next in Germany now that Hitler is in complete control of the country and all of the democratic institutions (the constitution, independent courts, elections, civil liberties, etc.) are gone.
To evaluate students’ understanding of how Germany grew into a dictatorship, you can ask students to list at least five events or factors that contributed to the death of democracy and the rise of dictatorship in Germany. This can be done during class (e.g., as part of the follow-through activity) or for homework. Students’ response to the following journal prompt will also reveal their understanding of the material from this lesson: Who was responsible for the death of democracy and the rise of dictatorship in Germany? Refer to evidence from the timeline activity in your answer. Think about an event that has happened to you or taken place during your historical context. To what extent do you believe that leaders are responsible for what happened? To what extent do you believe that individuals or groups were responsible for what happened?