Nationalism and the Aftermath of World War I | Facing History & Ourselves
Map showing major alliances and advances of the Central and Allied powers during World War I.

Nationalism and the Aftermath of World War I

Students consider the ways in which World War I intensified people’s loyalty to their country and resentment toward others perceived as a threat.  


One 50-min class period


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History
  • Social Studies




English — US



About This Lesson

In this lesson, students will begin to examine how the facets of human behavior they have learned about in previous lessons—including stereotypes, prejudice, and antisemitism—influenced people and events in one of this unit’s two historical case studies: Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. They will start with a brief review of World War I and an examination of the relationship between war and national pride. Then they will consider how Germany’s surrender in 1919 and the terms imposed on the nation by the Allied powers and the Treaty of Versailles shocked Germans, who felt alienated, angered, and humiliated by the conditions of the treaty, and how this contributed to conditions that would provide fertile ground for the rise of the Nazi Party in the decade that followed.

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

  • How does war affect people’s feelings of pride in and loyalty toward their country?
  • How did World War I end for Germany, and how did Germans respond to the war’s aftermath?
  • Students will distinguish between patriotism and nationalism and consider the ways in which war can intensify people’s loyalty to their country and resentment toward others who they perceive as a threat.
  • Students will be able to explain why the Treaty of Versailles shocked and upset many Germans.

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

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

The history of World War I shows how the ways in which societies define “we” and “they” can help to precipitate war. To understand how this dynamic played out in the buildup to World War I, one must consider the ideology of nationalism and the theory of Social Darwinism. In the 1800s, the biological view of race shaped how many Europeans and Americans defined the word nation. Members of a nation shared not only a common history, culture, and language but also common ancestors, character traits, and physical characteristics. Many believed, therefore, that a nation was a biological community. Nationalists believed that their biological communities—their nations—were inherently superior to others. Through the practice of eugenics, nations sought to promote the health of their biological communities and protect them from “threat,” which they often defined as mixing with other, allegedly inferior, “races.”

How could a nation demonstrate its superiority to other nations? In the late 1800s, the answer to that question was increasingly demonstrated through competition and conflict. After Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution in 1859, many Europeans and Americans began to apply his ideas about natural selection to human society. The result was the theory of Social Darwinism, based on belief in the “survival of the fittest.” Social Darwinists believed that people who were at the top of the social and economic pyramid were society’s fittest. People at the bottom must be “unfit,” they reasoned, because competition rewards “the strong.”  

Inspired by the desire to prove that their societies were the “fittest” and enrich themselves in the process, European nations set out to extend their empires at about the turn of the twentieth century throughout Africa and Asia. To sustain this imperialism, nations devoted more and more men and resources to their armies and navies. As militaries became more powerful and competition increased between European nations, they began to form military alliances to ensure that they had the necessary support to fend off rival nations in case war broke out.  

It was in this context that the 1914 assassination of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, by a Serbian nationalist, set off the series of events that engulfed the world in war. In response to the assassination, Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia. Soon after, Russia (Serbia’s ally) and Germany (Austria-Hungary’s ally) declared war on each other. Other nations, including France, England, and the Ottoman Empire, entered the hostilities soon after that.

World War I would eventually involve 30 nations and 65 million soldiers. It was a war with incredible loss of human life on every battlefront and huge damage to the land wherever fighting occurred—a conflict marked by genocide, civil wars, famines, and revolutions. By its end, more than 9 million soldiers and more than 5 million civilians had been killed. As a result of the war, three European empires fell (the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman), causing panic and displacement for millions of people.

This lesson explores the effects of World War I on Germany and how its aftermath created conditions that helped to give rise to the Nazis in the years that followed. Historian Doris Bergen writes that while World War I did not cause Nazism or the Holocaust, its aftermath left in place fertile ground for the history that followed in at least three ways:

  1. The destruction and brutality of World War I “seemed to many Europeans to prove that human life was cheap and expendable.”
  2. The trauma of World War I created in Europeans and their leaders a “deep fear of ever risking another war.”
  3. The war’s resolution left in place across Europe lingering resentments about the war and the terms of the peace. These resentments would later prove useful to leaders such as Adolf Hitler who sought to create “a politics of resentment that promoted a bitter sense of humiliation.” 1
  • 1Doris L. Bergen, War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust, 3rd ed. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 42–43. Reproduced by permission from Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.

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.

This lesson presumes that your students have already studied World War I in their history class. World War I is a substantial historical topic, one to which an entire unit could be devoted, and we have included extensions to this lesson that can be used to help review the causes and outcome of the war as well as introduce students to new topics, readings, and images that they might not have studied. Chapter 3 of Holocaust and Human Behavior includes additional resources about World War I, its impact on the home fronts, and its aftermath.

Depending on your students’ understanding of nationalism and the events leading up to and following World War I, you may want to spend more than one class period digging into this lesson’s activities and one or more of its extensions. Students who have studied World War I recently might not need to do the first activity, which provides an opportunity to review key events and geography. Likewise, they won’t need as much time with the Treaty of Versailles reading if they have already studied its articles and conditions. However, other classes will benefit from a more in-depth review to help prepare them to fully understand the anger, humiliation, and alienation Germans felt following the signing of the armistice. For these groups, we recommend splitting this lesson over two class periods by combining the first two activities with one of the extensions in the first lesson and then doing Activities 3 and 4 (perhaps reading all of Signing the Armistice rather than just an excerpt) in the second lesson.  

The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:

  • Patriotism
  • Nationalism
  • Armistice
  • Treaty

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 Plan


  • Remind students that in the last two lessons, they learned about the rise of nationalism in the Ottoman Empire coupled with the violence and atrocities that the Ottoman Turks committed against the Armenian people during the Hamidian massacres and World War I. They also examined some of the ways that members of the international community responded to the reports of mass deportations and murders of Armenian men, women, and children in the region.
  • To review World War I, project or pass out the map World War I in Europe and the Middle East. Lead students through an quick analysis of the map using the following questions. Consider inviting them to the front of the room to point to places on the map that support their thinking.
    • What information does the map provide about the two sides that fought the war? What was each side called? What countries and empires were part of each side?
    • What information does the map provide about the nations that were formerly part of the Ottoman Empire?
    • What else does the map suggest about the story of World War I?
  • Let students know that in this lesson, they will be examining the German response to the end of the war and the peace treaty that the world leaders signed. Start by having students respond to the following questions in their journals:
    What are some ways that people express pride in their country? What are some benefits of patriotism? Can feelings of national pride ever go too far?
  • Have students discuss their responses using the Think, Pair, Share strategy. Make sure students understand that war almost always amplifies people’s feelings of loyalty toward their country. Encourage them to make connections between these ideas about patriotism and loyalty and what they learned about the creation of “we” and “they” groups during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Armenian Genocide.
  • Remind students that the countries that fought in World War I were motivated by a belief that the people of their nations were superior to the people of the nations they fought. This more extreme form of patriotism, called nationalism, involves the belief that one group of people is distinct from and superior to another.
  • Explain to students that even though an armistice (truce) ended fighting on November 11, 1918, the war was not officially over until a treaty was signed. The Allies determined the terms of the treaty in negotiations in 1919, and Germany and other Central powers had no choice but to sign the treaty in 1920. 
  • Before looking at some details about the Treaty of Versailles, pause and have students think about the purposes of a treaty to end a war. Have them turn to discuss the following two questions with a partner:
    • To what are the victors entitled at the end of a war?
    • How should the countries that surrendered and lost a war be treated?
  • Pass out the reading Negotiating Peace, containing excerpts from the Treaty of Versailles, and divide the class into groups of three to four students. Read the excerpts from the treaty in groups or as a class. Then have students discuss the following questions with their group members before having them share their ideas with the class:
    • Based on the information you have about the Treaty of Versailles, what do you think its goals were?
    • What were some of the ways that the Allied countries punished Germany in the treaty?
    • Who benefited from the treaty? How? Who was harmed by the treaty? How?
    • Do you think the treaty was fair? What makes you say that?
  • After students have had a chance to evaluate the excerpts from the Treaty of Versailles, have them spend a few minutes reflecting in their journals about the following questions:
    • How do you think the outcome of World War I and the Treaty of Versailles might have affected Germans’ feelings about their nation?
    • How might people respond to evidence that their belief in their nation’s superiority is wrong?
  • Then, to help students understand the extent of the Germans’ anger following the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, project or pass out and read aloud the following passage from the Signing the Armistice reading:
    The armistice was a shock for many Germans because they had begun the war with a strong sense of national superiority and the expectation that their country would win. Few blamed the generals or the kaiser for the nation’s defeat. Instead they placed the blame on the people who signed the armistice—the Social Democrats and the Catholic Center Party. Historian Richard Evans notes: “All of this was greeted with incredulous horror by the majority of Germans . . . Germany’s international strength and prestige had been on an upward course since unification in 1871, so most Germans felt, and now, suddenly, Germany had been brutally expelled from the ranks of the Great Powers and covered in what they considered to be undeserved shame.” 2  In the years that followed, many of Germany’s generals, including Hindenburg, would claim that the country’s new leaders, as well as socialists and Jews, had “stabbed Germany in the back” when they signed the armistice.
  • Finally, tell students that they will be working with a partner to write a newspaper headline, in 15 words or less, that summarizes the impact of the Treaty of Versailles on Germany. Have half of the pairs imagine that they are German reporters writing the lead story about the signing of the treaty for their country’s newspaper, while the other half of the pairs are French reporters writing for their own country’s newspapers. Challenge students to try to capture their country’s feelings about the treaty.
  • Invite pairs to share their headlines using the Wraparound teaching strategy, noting any differences between the French and German perspectives that students captured. 
  • 2Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (New York: Penguin, 2003), 66. Reproduced by permission from Penguin Random House UK and Penguin Press.


  • Evaluate students’ headlines about the Treaty of Versailles to look for evidence of their understanding of the war, the treaty, and the impact on Germany. You can either listen to the headlines as students share them in the Wraparound activity, or you can ask students to turn them in on a notecard.
  • Listen carefully to students’ contributions to the Wraparound activity that closes the lesson to hear how they are thinking about the impact of nationalism coupled with a strong sense of resentment and humiliation following the loss of World War I and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. 

Extension Activities

To deepen students’ understanding of the world-historical scope of this conflict, consider selecting one or more of the following activities to add to this lesson or assign as homework.

The reading The Beginning of World War I introduces some important factors that helped lead to the war (and continued to affect Europe and the rest of the world after the war), and it describes the event that ignited the fighting.  

Consider reading the overview aloud with the class, pausing so that students can locate the following places on the map World War I in Europe and the Middle East: Great Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France, Serbia, and Sarajevo.

After you finish reading, ask students to use the information to write working definitions for militarism, nation, and military alliance in their journals. Then discuss how each of those factors (militarism, nations, and alliances) contributed to the outbreak of World War I.  

Use statistics to help students get a sense of the brutality of World War I by having them analyze the reading The Brutal Realities of World War I. Use a teaching strategy like 3-2-1 or S-I-T to help frame students’ analyses of the information. You can supplement this reading by providing firsthand accounts of the battlefield, paintings by soldiers and observers, and literary responses to the war to offer other avenues for learning about the profound impact of the war on the bodies and minds of those who experienced it. The following resources provide a sampling of these kinds of responses to the war:

You can have students analyze and discuss these resources using the Jigsaw strategy. Use the following question to focus their analysis:

What does this text or image suggest about the impact, physical and emotional, that World War I had on this work’s creator and on the world in general?

The signing of the armistice shocked many Germans. It gave rise to the dangerous assertion that Germany’s new leaders, as well as socialists and Jews, had “stabbed Germany in the back” when they signed the armistice. The reading Signing the Armistice explores the terms of the agreement and the vicious rumors that swirled in its wake.

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