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

Dismantling Democracy

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


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History
  • Social Studies




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 as chancellor and analyzing 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.

How can learning about the choices people made during past episodes of injustice, mass violence, or genocide help guide 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?

Students will learn about the transformation of Germany into a dictatorship in 1933–1934 and draw conclusions, based on this history, about the values and institutions that might serve as a bulwark against dictatorship and make democracy possible.

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

  • 4 activities
  • 1 assessment 
  • 1 teaching strategy
  • 2 videos, available Spanish captions 
  • 2 handouts, available in English and Spanish 
  • 5 readings, available in English and Spanish 
  • 2 extension activities 

Historians point out that Hitler’s political position upon his appointment as chancellor in January 1933 was precarious. Yet, 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 14 years since the creation of the Weimar Republic, Germany had had 14 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 9: 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 February 27, 1933, less than a month after Hitler became chancellor, the Reichstag building in Berlin was set on fire. While historians continue to debate who set 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 legalized the arrest of Communists and other political opponents of the Nazis. A few weeks later, on March 21, Hitler issued another decree making it illegal to speak out against the government or criticize 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 organizations through the summer of 1933, dissolving trade labor unions in May and outlawing the Social Democratic Party in June. By July, remaining political parties 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 toward the German people. The SA and SS 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 April 1, 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 signaled the Nazis’ intent to target German Jews and foreshadowed the onslaught of discrimination that would soon follow. On April 7, 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 March 13, 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 programs to textbooks, artwork, newspapers, and even sermons—crafting language and imagery carefully to praise Nazi policies and Hitler himself and to demonize those who the Nazis considered enemies. On May 6, 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 June 30, 1934—in what became known as “the Night of the Long Knives”—Hitler ordered the SS and the regular 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 August 2, 1934, President Hindenburg died and Hitler combined the positions of president and chancellor into a new position he called Führer. The dictatorship was complete.

In response to his own question—how could things turn out so differently?—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 Yet 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 program. 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 behavior that may have influenced all of these responses, a topic that will be explored more deeply in subsequent lessons.  

  • 1Sebastian Haffner, “Street-Level Coercion,” in How Was It Possible? A Holocaust Reader, ed. Peter Hayes (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), 118–19, excerpt from Defying Hitler: A Memoir, trans. Oliver Pretzel (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), 106–08. Reproduced by permission from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
  • 2Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The War against the Jews, 1933–1945 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975), 82.
  • 3Haffner, “Street-Level Coercion.”
  • 4Doris L. Bergen, War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust, 3rd ed. (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 and needs.

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, so 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 8, 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 chart paper, you might hang it in the room before class so it is ready to review in the first activity. As noted in Lesson 9: The Weimar Republic, make sure that the chart 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:

  • Dictatorship
  • Fragile
  • Dissent
  • Propaganda
  • Civil service

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

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Lesson Plans


  • Start the class by asking students to review their notes, or the class chart, from their Lesson 9 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 (03:00), in which Holocaust survivor Alfred Wolf recalls how he realized that dictatorship was taking hold in Germany.  
  • After watching the video, ask students to respond in their journals to the following prompt:
    • 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 two or three times to allow students some extra time to write their notes. After the film, 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 analyze 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 Opinion, Targeting Jews, “Restoring” Germany’s Civil Service, Where They Burn Books . . . , or 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)?
  • Make sure that students support their thinking with information from their analysis handouts and the readings they analyzed. Record on the board important points that come up in the conversation, and instruct students to copy them into their journals at the end of the discussion.


  • To assess students’ understanding of the factors that led to the destruction of democracy and rise of dictatorship in Germany, assign them to create a pie chart to represent the distribution of responsibility for that transformation between the groups listed below. They can create the chart individually or in pairs, and they should use evidence from the video Hitler’s Rise to Power, 1933–1934 and the readings they analyzed in this lesson. Use the following prompt 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)
  • Carefully observe the Fishbowl discussion about the fragility of democracy to assess students’ ideas about what the history covered in this lesson suggests about the importance of protecting democracy. You might tell students in advance that they will be assessed on these conversations in order to ensure that everyone contributes.

Extension Activities

The video Hitler’s First Victims (11:00) details the Nazis’ response to the Reichstag fire, the opening of Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, and the murders of four Jewish prisoners at the camp. The story of the murders and the response to them by investigators, bureaucrats, and Nazi officials sheds light on the relationship between the Nazi program, the law, the government bureaucracy, and public opinion in 1933, and it helps students consider the consequences of the choices made by a variety of individuals and groups at that crucial point in time. 

The reading Storm Troopers, Elite Guards, and Secret Police introduces the Gestapo, or Nazi secret police. The resource book Holocaust and Human Behavior includes more information on the Gestapo and its tactics in the readings Spying on Family and Friends and Speaking in Whispers. You might include one or both of these readings in the main activity above, or you can share these readings with students after the main activity and discuss the following questions:

  • What is the role of dissent in a democracy?  
  • How did the Nazis use fear and suspicion to stifle dissent?  
  • Can democracy survive in a society in which neighbors do not trust each other?

Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

These are the handouts, available in English and Spanish, that students use throughout the Dismantling Democracy lesson plan.

Download the Files

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

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