Laws and the National Community | Facing History & Ourselves
In 1933, Jewish businessman Oskar Danker and his girlfriend, a Christian woman, were forced to carry signs discouraging Jewish-German integration. Intimate relationships between “true Germans” and Jews were outlawed by 1935.

Laws and the National Community

Students are introduced to the Nazis’ idea of a “national community” and examine how the Nazis used the Nuremberg Laws to define who belonged.


One 50-min class period


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History
  • Social Studies




English — US



About This Lesson

In the previous lesson, students analyzed some of the dilemmas experienced by individual Germans during the National Socialist revolution in Germany. In this lesson, students will continue this unit’s historical case study by turning their attention to what happened after the revolution was complete and the Nazis firmly established control over Germany. Specifically, students will be introduced to the Nazis’ idea of a “national community” shaped according to their racial ideals, a concept students will continue to explore in two lessons that follow this one. While there were many ways in which the Nazis shaped and cultivated their ideal “national community,” in this unit students will look closely at three of those methods. In this lesson, they will examine the way the Nazis used laws to define who belonged to the “national community” and then separate those who did not belong. In future lessons, students will look at the Nazis’ use of propaganda and their creation of youth groups to shape German society.

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

  • What are the consequences when governments use laws to create “in” groups and “out” groups in a society?
  • How do laws affect the ways that individuals think about their own identities and the identities of others? How do laws affect the relationships between individuals in a society?
  • Through a close reading and discussion of the Nuremberg Laws, students will examine how the Nazis sought to create a racially pure “national community,” one that stripped Jews of their citizenship rights and narrowed Germany’s universe of obligation.
  • By reflecting on a story of how the Nuremberg Laws affected one family, students will think more broadly about the power and limitations of laws to shape society and influence individual behavior. 

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

  • 4 activities
  • 2 teaching strategies
  • 1 readings,  available in English and in Spanish
  • 3 handouts , available in English and in Spanish
  • 1 assessment 
  • 3 extensions 

By 1934, Germany was firmly under Nazi control. After President von Hindenburg’s death in August of that year, Adolf Hitler declared himself not only the nation’s chancellor but also its Führer. The revolution was over, he told his closest associates. It was now time to consolidate power and normalize life in the “new Germany” they had created. They were determined to create a Volksgemeinschaft—a “national community” or, literally, a “people’s community.”

The term had become popular during World War I as a way of rallying support for the conflict. At that time, it simply meant that all Germans, regardless of class, religious, and social differences, would work together to achieve a national purpose—winning the war. But the Nazis interpreted its meaning differently. They used the word to advance the idea of a racially pure and harmonious national community united in its devotion to the German people, their nation, and their leader. In the words of a popular Nazi slogan, the goal was “Ein Volk! Ein Reich! Ein Führer!” (“One People! One Empire! One Leader!”)

In his book Mein Kampf (My Struggle), Hitler described the foundation he sought for the national community, a foundation based on false myths about race:

Everything we admire on this earth today—science and art, technology and inventions—is only the creative product of a few peoples and originally perhaps one race [the “Aryans”]. On them depends the existence of this whole culture. If they perish, the beauty of this earth will sink into the grave with them.

In their effort to reshape the “national community” according to their racial ideals, the Nazis enacted hundreds of laws, policies, and decrees, including those that financially rewarded so-called Aryan couples for having children and those that allowed for the sterilization of people they considered “defective” or of supposedly inferior races.  

Nearly 1,500 of the Nazis’ laws, policies, and decrees enacted between 1933 and 1939 were designed to remove Jews from the country’s political, economic, and cultural life. Among the most significant of these were the Nuremberg Laws. This set of laws included the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor, both announced at the Nuremberg Party Rally on September 15, 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 November 14, 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. These laws placed Jews squarely outside of Germany’s “universe of obligation.”

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.

The German word for “national community,” Volksgemeinschaft, implies a specific kind of community that the Nazis aspired to foster and has a meaning that is more specific in connotation than the English common-noun translation signifies. For this reason, we chose to include quotation marks around the English translation of this term to highlight this distinction. (Review the Context section for more information on the meaning of this term.)

Activity 3 below uses the Big Paper teaching strategy, which we encourage you to familiarize yourself with before teaching the lesson. Note that in order for students to have a totally silent conversation with the text and with each other, you must provide very clear and explicit instructions for students prior to the start of the activity and answer any questions in advance. To get a sense of the final product for a Big Paper activity, refer to this Big Paper example on Facing History’s website.

The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:

  • “National community”
  • Reich
  • Citizen

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.

If your students are writing the final essay assessment for this unit, after teaching this lesson, instruct students to add evidence from the last five lessons to their evidence logs. For suggested activities and resources, see Adding to Evidence Logs, 2 of 4.

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Lesson Plan


Open by telling students that in this lesson, and the two following lessons, they are going to examine closely the “national community” that the Nazis envisioned for Germany and the ways in which they tried to create it in the 1930s. To illustrate for students the importance of the concept of “national community” to the Nazis, you might tell them that the Nazis had a specific word for this special community: Volksgemeinschaft. Tell students that defining who belongs in the Nazis’ idea of a “national community” is similar to defining who belongs in their universe of obligation.

Now, before looking at laws enacted by the Nazis, ask students to reflect on unfair laws or rules that they have experienced or witnessed in their own lives. Use the following journal prompt:

How do laws help to define a nation’s universe of obligation? Can you think of an example of a current or past law that excludes people from your country’s universe of obligation? Explain your example.

Students can share and discuss their thinking in a brief Think, Pair, Share activity.

Tell students that there are a variety of measures a government can take to shape society—and a variety of ways a government can exclude those who leaders consider to be outsiders from enjoying the benefits of belonging to the nation. Laws were one powerful tool the Nazis used for these purposes; 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.  

  • In this activity, students will examine a set of laws known as the Nuremberg Laws using the Big Paper silent discussion strategy. (For classes with additional time, an extension to this lesson analyzes a variety of additional laws enacted by the Nazis.)
  • Divide the class into groups of three or four, and prepare a piece of chart paper for each group with one of the following handouts taped in the middle:
  • Make sure that each student has a pen or marker to write with, and then give them eight minutes to have a written discussion about their assigned handout in complete silence. The following questions can help guide their discussion:
    • What is the purpose of this law?
    • Who benefits from it and who is harmed by it?
    • What does the law suggest about who is included in Germany’s “national community”?
    • How does the law define Germany's universe of obligation?
  • The written conversation should start with students’ responses to these questions, but it can continue wherever the students take it. Students should feel free to annotate the text. If someone in the group writes a question, another member of the group should answer it. Students can draw lines connecting a comment to a particular question. Make sure students know that more than one of them can write on the Big Paper at the same time.  
  • After the ten minutes, rotate each group to a different “big paper,” and give them two or three minutes to read the document and the written conversation on that paper. They can add new comments and questions if they have them. Then rotate the groups one more time, making sure that each group has seen each of the three handouts at least once.  
  • Finally, debrief the activity with the class, asking the following questions as checks for understanding:
    • How would you summarize the purpose of the Nuremberg Laws?
    • How did the laws you read and discussed contribute to creating the type of “national community” that the Nazis desired?
    • How might these laws have influenced the attitudes and actions of the German people? How might their lives and beliefs have changed as a result of these laws?
  • Tell students that they will now read a personal account of how one family was affected by the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws. Instruct students that as you read aloud from the reading Discovering Jewish Blood, they should underline any information that helps them answer the following question:
    How did the enactment of the Nuremberg Laws affect the lives of Marianne Schweitzer and her family?
  • After you finish reading, discuss with students their annotations as well as the effects of the Nuremberg Laws on the Schweitzer family using the Think, Pair, Share strategy.
  • End the lesson by giving students a few minutes to respond in their journals to one or more of the questions below. If necessary, they can complete their reflections for homework:
    • 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?


  • The Big Paper activity provides a visual representation of students’ thinking throughout the lesson that you can use to evaluate their understanding of the relationship between discriminatory laws and the way Germans thought about and treated each other.
  • Assign students to respond to one of the prompts at the end of the lesson on notecards instead of in their journals, so that you can collect the responses. Evaluate their responses to gain insight into students’ understanding of the power of laws to shape society and individual behavior. Connections students are able to make to other examples from history, literature, or current events can provide evidence of a deeper level of understanding.

Extension Activities

The film A Class Divided (60:00) tells the story of teacher Jane Elliott’s third-grade classroom experiment, in which she temporarily separated her students by eye color. The results of her experiment provide powerful insight into how rules and laws created by authority figures can impact how we view our own identities and those of others. After viewing the film, ask students how the results of Elliott’s classroom experiment might provide insight into the impact of the Nuremberg Laws (and other regulations enacted by the Nazis) on families such as the Schweitzers. The Connect, Extend, Challenge teaching strategy can help you structure the discussion.

Share the reading The Common Interest before Self-Interest with students. It is short enough that you might simply project it for the class to read together. Ask students to take turns reading aloud each of the questions and answers on the pamphlet.
Lead a brief discussion with the class that focuses on the following questions:

  • How does this pamphlet define what it means to be German?
  • What does the phrase “racial comrade” suggest about the way Goebbels defined “Germanness”?
  • What did National Socialism offer to these “honestly creative” Germans? What did it ask of them?

The readings Breeding the New German "Race" and A Wave of Discrimination provide additional important examples of laws enacted by the Nazis to shape their ideal “national community” of Aryans. These laws include dozens of discriminatory measures passed by national, state, regional, and local governments to exclude Jews from even the seemingly mundane aspects of German society, as well as laws that put into place national programs to encourage so-called Aryans to reproduce and to prevent non-Aryans from doing so. Consider sharing these readings with students and discussing the following questions:

  • How do these laws contribute to creating the type of “national community” that the Nazis desired?
  • How might these laws have influenced the attitudes and actions of the German people? How might their lives and beliefs have changed as a result of these laws?
  • How can laws affect the relationship between individuals and society? How do they affect the relationships individuals have with each other?

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