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 this lesson, students build on their previous discussion about stereotypes by examining why humans form groups and what it means to belong. This examination begins the second stage of the Facing History scope and sequence, “We and They.” Students will learn a new concept, universe of obligation—the term sociologist Helen Fein coined to describe the circle of other individuals and groups within a society “toward whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for amends.”1
Understanding the concept of universe of obligation provides important insights into the behavior of individuals, groups, and nations throughout history. It also helps students think more deeply about the benefits of being part of a society’s “in” group and the consequences of being part of an “out” group.
The activities in this lesson ask students to think about the people for whom they feel responsible. The activities also help students analyze the ways that their society designates who is worthy of respect and caring and who is not.
Collecting ourselves into groups is a natural behavior. Being part of a group helps to meet our most basic needs: we share culture, values, and beliefs, and we satisfy our yearning to belong.
Like individuals, groups have identities. How a group defines itself determines who is entitled to its benefits and who is not. Sometimes the consequences of being excluded from a group are minor or harmless. For example, someone who does not enjoy running is unlikely to be affected by not being a member of a track club. But sometimes the consequences can be substantial, even dire. If someone is denied citizenship by a country, his or her freedom, livelihood, or safety may be at risk. Moreover, a society’s universe of obligation can change. Individuals and groups that are respected and protected members of a society at one time may find themselves outside the universe of obligation when circumstances are different.
Societies with governments dedicated to democratic values and human rights tend to define their universes of obligation in a more expansive and inclusive manner than other societies do. Yet, even within democratic countries, political movements and ideologies such as nationalism, racism, or antisemitism can take hold and lead to a more narrow definition of whose rights and privileges deserve protection and whose do not. In times of crisis—such as war or economic depression—societies also tend to define more narrowly who is “one of us” and whose loyalty is now under suspicion, making them undeserving of protection and respect. Individuals or groups who fall outside a nation’s universe of obligation become vulnerable not only to being deprived of the rights, privileges, and economic benefits afforded to citizens but also to expulsion, physical harm, and, in the most extreme cases, genocide (as Helen Fein warned when she articulated this concept in the 1970s).
Although Fein conceived of the term to describe the way nations determine membership, we can also recognize that individuals have a universe of obligation—the circle of individuals a person feels a responsibility to care for and protect. This concept helps us recognize the internalized hierarchies that influence how we think about and respond to the needs of others. While it is neither practical nor possible that one’s universe of obligation could include everyone in its center (the position of most importance), acknowledging the way we think about and prioritize our obligations toward others can help us act in a more thoughtful, compassionate manner.
During this lesson, students will examine their universe of obligation, as well as those of groups and nations to which they belong. By investigating the “us and them” dynamic that so often plays out in all of our lives and throughout history, students will be better prepared to analyze and understand the case study of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.
Supplement with Additional Readings
You might deepen the discussion of groups and belonging in this lesson by introducing additional readings from Chapter 2 of Holocaust and Human Behavior for student discussion and reflection. The reading What Do We Do with a Difference? includes a poem that raises important questions about the ways we respond to differences. In the reading Understanding Strangers, journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski discusses the ways the earliest humans likely responded to “the Other” and suggests models for how we can constructively respond to unfamiliar groups of people today. Both readings and their related connection questions can help support a larger class discussion about the human behavior of dividing ourselves into groups. You might use the following question to guide the discussion:
Why do humans so often divide themselves into “we” and “they”? When does it become a problem? What historical examples help you answer this question? What examples from the world today help you answer it?