Unit Essential Question: What does learning about the choices people made during the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazi Party, and the Holocaust teach us about the power and impact of our choices today?
In the previous lesson, students analyzed the steps the Nazis took in 1933 and 1934 to dismantle democracy in Germany and establish a dictatorship. Students also began to think about the responsibilities shared by both leaders and citizens for democracy’s survival. In this lesson, students will continue this unit’s historical case study by engaging in a deeper analysis of the dilemmas many Germans experienced during the first few years of Nazi rule. In particular, they will examine how some individuals responded to demands that they show allegiance, and in some cases take an oath of fidelity, to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi government.
By carefully considering the choices and the reasoning of the individuals in this lesson, students will not only learn more about the human behaviors underlying Germans’ choices in the mid-1930s but also deepen their understanding of the complex ethical dilemmas people often face over whether to stay quiet, speak up, or take action in response to injustices. Multiple extension activities bring additional complexity to the themes of this lesson by introducing opportunism and the desire to curry favor as motivating factors in the decision-making process. These extensions provide options for more in-depth units and classes with older students.
As the Nazis consolidated power and established a dictatorship in Germany, they sought to align all individuals, institutions, and organizations in Germany society with their goals. They referred to this process as Gleichschaltung, or “coordination.” They provided a mix of incentives, suspicion, fear, and brute force to bring about this alignment. As a result, individuals and institutions across the country were forced both to navigate the dangers that the Nazis posed to dissenters and to weigh the incentives they offered to encourage acceptance of the new government. Each person had to figure out how to live in a society under National Socialism, and even whether that would be possible at all.
How did individual Germans do it? Some were true believers in Nazism, some calculated that the benefits to them of Nazi government outweighed the parts they found unsettling, some who could do so left the country, some learned to stay quiet and retreat into “internal exile,” and some protested openly. Over the course of the next several lessons, students will encounter stories of people who found themselves in all of these situations. In this lesson, they will explore the dilemmas faced by Germans in response to the 1933 Civil Service Law and the 1934 requirement that German soldiers and civil servants take an oath of fidelity to Hitler.
As students learned in the previous lesson, the Nazis enacted the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service on April 7, 1933. The law required that all Jews and political opponents of the Nazis who were employed by the government in Germany be fired. Historian Richard Evans writes that the civil service was
a vast organization in Germany that included school teachers, university staff, judges, and many other professions that were not government-controlled in other countries. Social Democrats, liberals, and not a few Catholics and conservatives were ousted here too. To save their jobs, at a time when unemployment had reached terrifying dimensions, 1.6 million people joined the Nazi Party between 30 January and 1 May 1933.1
It was not difficult for the Nazis to win the support of many university professors, administrators, and students. At the time, a majority of them backed conservative political parties that had been hostile to the Weimar Republic. Many university professors immediately welcomed the Nazi-led government in 1933. Many student fraternities and other student groups already banned Jews and regularly protested against professors they believed did not support supposed traditional German values. Scholars who were Jewish or supported left-leaning parties struggled to find research and teaching positions in public, government-supported German universities and often worked in private ones instead. With the passage of the new law, the Nazis attempted to root out any dissent to their policies and ideology that remained in German higher education.
In August 1934, the Nazis issued a new demand to ensure loyalty to the regime. They required all German soldiers and civil servants to take an oath of fealty to Adolf Hitler himself, replacing a previous oath taken to the Weimar Constitution and to the office of president. Journalist William Shirer explains the oath’s significance:
The generals, who up to that time could have overthrown the Nazi regime with ease had they so desired, thus led themselves to the person of Adolf Hitler, recognizing him as the highest legitimate authority in the land and binding themselves to him by an oath of fealty which they felt honor-bound to obey in all circumstances no matter how degrading to them and the Fatherland. It was an oath which was to trouble the conscience of quite a few high officers when their acknowledged leader set off on a path which they felt could only lead to the nation’s destruction and which they opposed. It was also a pledge which enabled an even greater number of officers to excuse themselves from any personal responsibility...2
The oath would trouble not only soldiers and their generals but also many civil servants who were required to take it, including the defense plant worker students will learn about in this lesson.
While many Germans experienced troubling dilemmas in response to the changes the Nazis brought, it is important to acknowledge that many others did not. Due either to feelings of adulation for Hitler’s carefully presented persona as führer or to calculations of self-interest and self-preservation, many German soldiers, civil servants, and private citizens took it upon themselves to embrace, promote, and make a reality the vision for Germany articulated by Hitler. Historian Ian Kershaw writes:
Individuals seeking material gain through career advancement in party or state bureaucracy, the small businessman aiming to destroy a competitor through a slur on his “aryan” credentials, or ordinary citizens settling scores with neighbors by denouncing them to the Gestapo were all, in a way, “working towards the Führer”...3