Lesson 7
Two 50-minute class periods

The Weimar Republic: Historical Context and Decision Making

Learning Objectives

The purpose of this lesson is to help students:

Reflect on these guiding questions:

  • What was life like in Germany during the Weimar Republic (1920-1933)?
  • How did the Nazi Party, a small, unpopular political group in 1920, become the most powerful political party in Germany by 1933? 
  • What is historical context? How does our historical context shape our beliefs and choices? 

Practice these interdisciplinary skills:

  • Interpreting primary source documents
  • Connecting historical context to individual choices and beliefs
  • Collaborating with peers
  • Presenting information in an oral presentation
  • Active listening and speaking in a class discussion

Deepen understanding of these key terms:

  • Weimar Republic
  • Democracy
  • Economy
  • Depression
  • Political party
  • Inflation
  • Versailles Treaty
  • Constitution 
  • Historical context 
  • Nazi
  • Hitler
  • Fear/bullying
  • Antisemitism 

(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 Chapter 4 of Holocaust and Human Behavior.

Adolf Hitler did not gain power by a military coup; he gained power primarily through lawful means. How did this happen? What factors may have influenced the choices made by regular people that led to the popularity of the Nazi Party? In this lesson, students will explore primary documents that will help them answer these questions.  As they interpret how conditions during the Weimar Republic may have impacted the appeal of the Nazi Party to specific German citizens, students begin to recognize how economic, political, social, and cultural factors influence their own beliefs and choices.


The history of the Weimar Republic (1919–1933) illuminates one of the most creative and tumultuous periods of the twentieth century. According to historian Paul Bookbinder, “The fourteen years of the Weimar Republic were a way station on the road to genocide, and yet they also witnessed the struggle of many decent, sincere people to create a just and humane society in a time of great artistic creativity.”1 Looking at Germany in the early 1920s, we would see a society with the following characteristics: a constitution that established separate branches of government, numerous outlets for creative expression, many groups vying for political power through an electoral process, a plentiful dose of cultural disagreement—characteristics familiar to many democratic nations today. The Weimar Constitution granted women the right to vote while this right was still being denied to women in the United States. The constitution also protected civil liberties and religious freedom.

While Germans were adjusting to democratic political institutions and modern ideas about civil liberties, they were also slowly recovering from their losses in World War I and coping with the pressures placed upon them by the Versailles Treaty. Losing overseas colonies and paying war reparations were crippling Germany’s already war-torn economy. In 1923, Germans suffered astounding hyperinflation. People who had saved their money in banks or were living on pensions or disability checks found themselves bankrupt. Those with salaries found that they could not keep up with the perpetual rise in prices.

German Inflation (1919-1923)2

Date Marks U.S. Dollars
1919 4.2 1
1921 75 1
1922 400 1
Jan. 1923 7,000 1
Jul. 1923 160,000 1
Aug. 1923 1,000,000 1
Nov. 1, 1923 1,300,000,000 1
Nov. 15, 1923 1,300,000,000,000 1
Nov. 16, 1923 4,200,000,000,000 1

At the height of this inflationary period, Hitler tried to organize a coup. At a beer hall in Munich, he gave a speech declaring that the government should be overthrown. He was arrested and was found guilty of treason. According to German law, Hitler, at the time an Austrian citizen, should have been deported. But the judge decided not to follow the law, explaining, “In the case of a man whose thoughts and feelings are as German as Hitler’s, the court is of the opinion that the intent and purpose of the law have no application.”3 During the Weimar Republic, it was commonplace for judges to place the need for order and patriotism before the law. German judges, many of whom had worked under the former monarchy, did not consider themselves responsible for upholding Germany’s new constitution. For example, artists and activists were fined or imprisoned if they expressed ideas that were contrary to those held by the mostly conservative judges.

Hitler spent nine months in jail. During that time he wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle). This book expanded on many of the ideas articulated in the Nazi Party platform. Hitler wrote extensively about the superiority of the Aryan race and the privileges that should be bestowed on Aryans. In Mein Kampf, Hitler characterized Jews as a threat to the German people and to the world at large. He added to long-held antisemitic beliefs and fears with exaggerated claims of the financial and political success of the Jewish community. Even though Jews made up only 1% of the German population, Hitler made it appear as if they were operating a conspiracy to take over Germany. The increased visibility of some Jewish Germans, including physicist Albert Einstein and composer Arnold Schoenberg, could have been interpreted as evidence of the Jewish community’s contributions to German culture and position in the world. Yet, Hitler manipulated examples of Jewish success to prove his theory that Jews were the enemy.

Drawing from the German public’s frustration with the government’s mishandling of the economy and then the attention of Mein Kampf, the Nazi Party gained popularity. Hitler and other Nazi leaders organized rallies and strengthened the Hitler Youth Movement. James Luther Adams, an American student traveling in Germany in 1927, recounts his experience at a Nazi rally. When he questioned some men about how they planned on “purifying Germany of Jewish blood,” he was quickly shushed and led out of the rally. His German companion then reprimanded Adams, warning, “Don’t you know that in Germany today you keep your mouth shut of you’ll get your head bashed in.”4 Many political parties at that time had their own paramilitary branch, and the Nazis were no different. Nazi “stormtroopers,” or “brownshirts” as they were later called, were known to intimidate political opponents if they spoke against Nazi leaders or ideas. The German police were often required to break up street fights between Nazi brownshirts and their Communist Party counterparts.

By 1928, the German economy improved, largely as the result of the Dawes Plan—an agreement between the United States and Germany whereby American banks offered the German government and businesses loans to rebuild their country. By this time, Germany had also been invited to join the League of Nations. No longer international outcasts or in financial turmoil, Germans seemed less interested in Hitler’s ideas that the Jews and the rest of the world were to blame for Germany’s problems. In the 1928 elections, the Nazi Party only received 2 percent of the votes. However, the global depression of 1929 rejuvenated the Nazi Party. With unemployment high and many Germans concerned about how they could shelter and feed their family, Hitler’s scapegoating of the Jews and promises of jobs regained popularity. In the 1932 presidential election, 84% of all eligible voters cast ballots. Hitler lost his bid for president. But, in July 1932, the Nazi Party won their greatest victory yet—37% of the seats in the Reichstag. While not a clear majority, the Nazis had received more votes than any other political party.

Reichstag Election Results (1928-1932): Number of seats won by major political parties5

Party 1928 1930 July 1932 November 1932
Social Democrat 153 143 133 121
Center 62 68 75 70
Communist 54 77 89 100
Nazi 12 107 230 196
People's 45 30 7 11


With all of this change and turmoil in German society, one thing that did not change was the education system. In classrooms, German students continued to be taught about Germany’s heroic past. Klaus, a German who was in school during this period, recalls, “We were taught history as a series of facts. We had to learn dates, names, places and battles. Periods during which Germany won wars were emphasized. Periods during which Germany lost wars were sloughed over. We heard very little about World War I; expect that the Versailles peace treaty was a disgrace....”6 He continues to describe how lessons were designed to prepare students for a national final exam. The exam emphasized rote memorization; students were not asked to analyze information or draw their own conclusions. Studying the German education system at this time begs the question of how to best prepare students for living in a democracy. In what ways might an education system designed for a monarchical system be inadequate for preparing students for their future role as participatory citizens?

In the next lesson, students will see how the success of the Nazi Party in the 1932 elections led to the unraveling of democracy in Germany. By August of 1933, Germany was a totalitarian government ruled by one dictator, Adolf Hitler. Jews were no longer allowed to work in the government or in universities. Many famous artists and intellectuals had left Germany, choosing to reside in places where they could enjoy artistic and intellectual freedom. Women, once allowed the right to vote and serve in government, were now told that their place was in the home as wives and mothers. Gone were political parties, elections, artistic diversity, and freedom of religion. In its place was a nation ruled by fear and propaganda where difference and dissent were prosecuted and often punished by imprisonment or even death.

Learning about the Weimar Republic does not only help students understand the origins of Hitler’s dictatorship, but it also serves as a lesson on the fragility of democracy. Democracy is a system of government that depends on the resilience of both its institutions and its citizens. For example, constitutional rights gain meaning through a functioning judicial system that protects those rights and an open public space where citizens can safely express dissent. In a healthy democracy, leaders are held accountable by citizens who are critical consumers of information, especially political propaganda, and who are active participants who speak up against injustice rather than passively watch it unfold. An understanding of the Weimar Republic helps us recognize these essential ingredients to a vibrant, sustaining democracy.

Related readings in Holocaust and Human Behavior:

Related video: Hitler’s Rise to Power, 1918-1933


  • 1 : Paul Bookbinder, “Why Study the Weimar Republic?” The Weimar Republic: The Fragility of Democracy, Facing History website, (accessed January 5, 2009).
  • 2 : “1923 Germany’s Hyperinflation: Loads of Money,” The Economist, December 23, 1999, (accessed January 5, 2009).
  • 3 : Margot Stern Strom, Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior (Brookline: Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, Inc., 1994), 137–38.
  • 4 : James Luther Adams, interview, No Authority but from God, vol. 1 (VHS) (Boston: James Luther Adams Foundation, 1990).
  • 5 : Stephen Lee, Weimar and Nazi Germany: Heinemann Secondary History Project (Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1996), 35.
  • 6 : Ellen Eichenwald Switzer, How Democracy Failed (New York: Atheneum, 1977), 62–63.



Suggestion for how to implement this lesson over two class periods: During the first day of this lesson, students can begin their group work (steps 1–3 of the main activity). Any unfinished work can be assigned for homework. After giving groups a few minutes to check in about their presentations, you can begin day two of this lesson with step four of the main activity—presentations and class discussion.


The purpose of this lesson is to help students understand how the particular historical context of the Weimar Republic shaped the voting decisions of German citizens, many of whom ultimately voted for the Nazi Party in 1932. You can begin this lesson by having students recognize how their own attitudes and actions have been influenced by their historical context.

First, ask students to brainstorm a list of major events that have taken place in their lifetime. You might ask students to respond to the question, “Twenty years from now, what do you think people will remember about the time period in which you grew up? What major events took place? What ideas, inventions, or people will people remember when they look back at this time?” With this list posted on the board or wall, explain that these items make up the historical context in which students live. You might want to add historical context to your word wall and/or have students record a definition for historical context in their journals.

Then ask students to identify an example of how their historical context has shaped their life. Another way to look at this question would be for students to consider how their choices and beliefs might be different if they had been born in a different time period or a different part of the world

Main Activities

Explain to students that they will be using the documents they review in this lesson to begin to answer the following question: “How did the Nazis go from being an unpopular political group in 1920 to being the most powerful political party in Germany by 1932?” You can put this question on the board to remind students of the purpose of this lesson. To answer this question, students need to understand the historical context of the Weimar Republic—the time period from the establishment of democracy in Germany at the end of World War I—to Hitler’s dismantling of democracy in 1933.

Students will work in groups of four or five for this four-step activity.

  • Step One: Recognize the perspective of a German living during the Weimar Republic.

Handout 1 includes short biographical sketches, representing typical experiences of German citizens during the Weimar Republic. Assign one German citizen to each of the groups. Ask for a volunteer from each group to read the text aloud. Then have the group make an identity chart for this German citizen. [For more information on making identity charts, refer to page 8 in the Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior.]

  • Step Two: Describe conditions during the Weimar Republic (establishing historical context)

What political, economic, social, and cultural events might be impacting the life of this individual? To answer this question, students will analyze primary source documents. You can use all or some of the documents included at the end of this lesson (handout 2). You can find other documents on Facing History’s online module “The Weimar Republic: The Fragility of Democracy.” (Refer to the extension section of this lesson for more information about this resource.) 

Students can go through these documents together. Or, they could each take one or two documents and then present their analysis to the members of their group. Students could share information as they complete a timeline for the Weimar Republic (handout 3). If students need additional support, you can give them an answer bank that they can use to complete the timeline (handout 4). Alternatively, students could construct an identity chart for the Weimar Republic.

To help students retain this historical information, you could have them create their own timeline by cutting out images and captions and pasting them in the appropriate place on a large sheet of paper. Reviewing students’ timelines and/or their responses to the questions about the primary source documents will reveal the depth of students’ understanding of the historical context of the Weimar Republic. You may find the need to help students understand concepts such as inflation and depression as they interpret the documents.

  • Step Three: Synthesize information about historical context to answer the question, “How might conditions during the Weimar Republic have influenced the voting decisions of German citizens?”

A representative from each group shares how they think their German citizen will vote in the election and explains their decision. Then you can share the results of the election: The Nazis won 37% of the seats in the Reichstag, which was more than any other political party. This made the Nazi Party the most powerful political party in Germany. [See the extension section for information on how to use the documents on Facing History’s Weimar Republic online module to help illustrate this point.]

Now students have enough information to participate in a discussion that both synthesizes what students have learned thus far and foreshadows the history students will explore in the following lessons. Prompts for this discussion might include:

  • How did the Nazi Party, a small, unpopular political group in 1920, become the most powerful political party in Germany by 1932?
  • If all Germans lived through the same economic, political and cultural events, then why didn’t all Germans vote in the same way? Why do you think more than half of German citizens did not vote for the Nazi Party?
  • In 1932, there were no penalties for those who did not vote for the Nazi Party, as citizens voted using secret ballots. What, then, can explain why many Germans voted for the Nazi Party in 1932? What could have been done in the early 1930s that might have prevented the Nazis from gaining so much power?
  • Given what you know about Nazi beliefs, what do you think they might do now that they are in power?
  • What might limit the power of the Nazis? In a democracy, what keeps one group or one person from having too much power?
  • What can happen in a society if one group or one person has unlimited power?

Follow Through (in class or at home)

One way to reinforce students’ understanding of the material in this lesson is to review the concept of historical context that was introduced during the lesson opener. Students’ exploration of elections during the Weimar Republic demonstrates how people do not make decisions in a vacuum. Individuals’ attitudes and actions are shaped by their eco- nomic, political, and cultural surroundings. Yet, the same event can impact people in different ways because we all have distinct identities. Students could spend time at the end of this lesson reflecting on the relationship between their current context and their identity. You might select several major events or trends taking place in students’ community (local, national, or global) and have students share how this event has impacted their life.

Another way to approach this topic is to have students reflect on the question, “Do people make history or does history make people?” This prompt can lead to a stimulating discussion about the degree to which people shape their world or are shaped by their world. Students can begin answering this question by drawing from their knowledge of the Weimar Republic. Who (or what) is more responsible for the victory of the Nazi Party—the German citizens or the Depression of 1929? Then students can apply this question to their own social world by considering questions such as: In what ways are you influenced by the peer culture around you? In what ways do you influence this culture?


Students’ work interpreting primary source documents, their presentations, and their participation in class discussions can be used to evaluate students’ historical understanding and their ability to make connections between context and individuals’ choices and beliefs. You can have students complete the timeline in groups or as a quiz to gauge their awareness of the sequence of historical events. A final assessment of this lesson might ask students to write a brief essay responding to the following prompt: Explain how you think the German citizen you were assigned voted in the 1932 election. In your answer, describe how the historical context and this individual’s personal identity impacted his/her decision.


  • For homework, you might ask students to interview someone in their family or community who has voted in a national election about the factors that influenced their choice at the ballot box. Students may find that the same factors that influenced voters during the Weimar Republic (e.g., the economy, fear, cultural issues. . .) also shape the voting decisions of people today.
  • The Weimar Republic: The Fragility of Democracy was developed so that teachers and students could create their own learning paths to explore the many facets of German society in the years between World War I and World War II. Many of the documents included with this lesson can also be found in this module. The module includes many more historical artifacts, including images, songs, political cartoons, and speech excerpts. Additionally, historian Paul Bookbinder’s reading, “Why Study Weimar Germany: Questions for Today,” which is posted on the module, makes excellent background reading for teachers and students with college-level reading skills.
  • Another way to introduce students to the Weimar Republic  is through the film Witness to the Holocaust. Episode 1, “The Rise of the Nazis,” provides some excel- lent visual imagery and commentary on the first years of the Weimar Republic. The episode is only 20 minutes long, but the class need only watch the first 8 minutes of the film. This covers the devastation of the war, the Treaty of Versailles, hyperinflation, riots in the street, and other issues. This film can be borrowed from the Facing History library, but it is only available in VHS format.
  • Rather than use a collection of primary source documents, many teachers have helped students understand conditions during the Weimar Republic by interpreting the painting The Agitator by George Grosz. This painting includes symbolic references to many of the key ideas represented in this lesson (e.g., economic hardship, the Nazis’ use of terror and propaganda, antisemitism, etc.). For more information on how you might use this painting in the classroom, refer to the lesson “Interpreting a Painting.” 
  • You can add geography skills to this lesson, by showing a map of Germany before and after World War I. This will help students appreciate the impact of Germany’s loss on the national psyche. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum posts a map that illustrates the European territory Germany relinquished by signing the Versailles Treaty. It should also be noted that Germany also had to give up her colonies overseas.

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