Lesson 4 of 23
One 50-minute class period

Universe of Obligation

From the Unit:

Essential Questions

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?

Guiding Questions

  • What factors influence the extent to which we feel an obligation to help others? How does the way we view others influence our feelings of responsibility toward them?

Learning Objectives

  • Students will apply a new concept of human behavior—universe of obligation—to analyze how individuals and societies determine who is deserving of respect and whose rights are worthy of protection.
  • Students will recognize that a society’s universe of obligation often changes, expanding or shrinking depending on circumstances such as peace and prosperity or war and economic depression.


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.


  • 1 : Helen Fein, Accounting for Genocide (New York: Free Press, 1979), 4.


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.

Notes to Teacher

  1. Previewing Vocabulary
    The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:
    • Universe of obligation
    • Responsibility
    • Membership

    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.

  2. Student Privacy
    Some of the activities in this lesson require students to record what may be sensitive or personal information. Note that students may feel uncomfortable sharing their completed handouts for Activity 3, and we do not recommend requiring them to do so. Instead, we encourage asking students to share their thought processes as they completed the exercise, rather than divulging the personal reflections they made about who is included (or excluded) in their universes of obligation.

  3. The Unit Assessment
    If your students are writing the final essay assessment for this unit, after you complete this lesson, proceed to Introducing the Writing Prompt.



  1. Journal Responses: Groups and Belonging
    Ask students to respond in their journals to the following prompt:
    Think about a group you belong to. It might be your family, a team, a faith community, a club, a classroom, an online community, or some other type of group. How did you become a member of that group? Did you choose to be a member, or are you one automatically? What do you gain by belonging to that group? What, if anything, do you have to give up or hide about yourself to be a member?
    • Briefly debrief the prompt by asking students to share some of the things they gain by belonging to groups and some of the things they give up in order to belong. Honor student privacy and refrain from requiring all students to share their responses in detail.
    • Then pose a new question to students:
      Why do humans so often divide themselves into groups? When is this a good thing? When is it harmful?

      Give students a few minutes to respond in their journals, and then discuss the question using the Think, Pair, Share strategy.

  2. Introduce the Concept of “Universe of Obligation”
    • Introduce the concept of universe of obligation to students, and explain that it is one way to consider the benefits of belonging to groups and the consequences of being excluded. An individual’s or group’s universe of obligation represents the extent to which they feel responsible for others. We often feel a greater sense of responsibility for those who belong to the same groups that we do.
    • Pass out the reading Universe of Obligation and read it aloud.
    • This reading includes quotations that feature the perspectives of three people: David Hume, Chuck Collins, and William Graham Sumner (connection question 4). Re-read the quotations from each of these people to the class, and then discuss with students the following questions:
      • In what ways do these three people agree? In what ways do they disagree?
      • Which of these people seems to have the most inclusive universe of obligation? Which seems to have the most exclusive?
      • Is it possible for everyone in the world to be included in person’s or country’s universe of obligation? If not, how should we prioritize?
  3. Illustrate Individual Universes of Obligation
    • Finally, ask students to illustrate their own universes of obligation using the graphic organizer on the Universe of Obligation handout. The concentric circles on this handout can help students visualize and diagram what an individual, group, or country’s universe of obligation might look like.
    • Give students time to follow the instructions and complete the activity on the handout. It might be helpful first to quickly brainstorm a variety of types of individuals and groups that might appear on one’s graphic organizer, including family, friends, neighbors, classmates, strangers in one’s town, and others.
    • Have students meet in groups of two or three to discuss their experience of trying to illustrate their universes of obligation. In their discussions, students should address some of the following questions:
      • What was the experience of diagramming your universe of obligation like?
      • What did you think about when deciding where to place certain groups in your universe of obligation? Which decisions were difficult? Which were easy?
      • Under what conditions might your universe of obligation shift? What might cause you to move some groups to the center and others to the outside?
      • What is the difference between an individual’s universe of obligation and that of a school, community, or country?


  • Due to their personal nature, we do not recommend using students’ individual Universe of Obligation Graphic Organizers for assessment. Instead, gauge their understanding of the concept by asking each student to complete a separate universe of obligation handout, this time illustrating a group to which he or she belongs—such as a school, neighborhood, or country.
  • Observe the group discussions at the end of the lesson to understand how students are responding to the moral and ethical dilemmas inherent in attempting to define explicitly one’s universe of obligation.


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?



Get Started

Begin here to find useful information and rationale for teaching this unit.

Lesson 1 of 23

Introducing The Unit

Students develop a contract establishing a reflective classroom community in preparation for their exploration of this unit's historical case study.

Lesson 2 of 23

Exploring Identity

Students identify the social and cultural factors that help shape our identities by analyzing firsthand reflections and creating personal identity charts.

Lesson 3 of 23

Stereotypes and “Single Stories”

Students create working definitions of stereotype as they examine the human behavior of applying categories to people and things.

Lesson 4 of 23

Universe of Obligation

Students learn a new concept, universe of obligation, and use it to analyze the ways that their society designates who is deserving of respect and caring.



Step 1:

Introducing the Writing Prompt

Students draft a working thesis statement for an argumentative essay about the impact of choices in history.

Lesson 5 of 23

The Concept of Race

Students analyze the socially constructed meaning of race and examine how it has been used to justify exclusion, inequality, and violence throughout history.

Lesson 6 of 23

The Roots and Impact of Antisemitism

Students explore the long history of discrimination against Jews and come to understand how anti-Judaism was transformed into antisemitism in the nineteenth century.

Lesson 7 of 23

World War I and Its Aftermath in Germany

Students begin the unit's historical case study by exploring the brutal realities of World War I and the impact of the armistice and the Treaty of Versailles.

Lesson 8 of 23

The Weimar Republic

Students reflect on the idea of democracy as they analyze the politics, economics, and culture of Germany during the period of the Weimar Republic.



Step 2:

Introducing Evidence Logs

Students start to gather evidence that supports or challenges their initial thinking about the writing prompt.

Lesson 9 of 23

The Rise of the Nazi Party

Students examine how choices made by individuals and groups contributed to the rise of the Nazi Party in the 1920s and 1930s.

Lesson 10 of 23

European Jewish Life before World War II

Students analyze images and film that convey the richness of Jewish life across Europe at the time of the Nazis’ ascension to power.

Lesson 11 of 23

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.

Lesson 12 of 23

Do You Take the Oath?

Students consider the choices and reasoning of individual Germans who stayed quiet or spoke up during the first few years of Nazi rule.

Lesson 13 of 23

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.



Step 3:

Adding to Evidence Logs, 1 of 3

Students respond to the writing prompt in a journal reflection and begin to evaluate the quality of the evidence they are gathering.

Lesson 14 of 23

The Power of Propaganda

Students analyze several examples of Nazi propaganda and consider how the Nazis used media to influence the thoughts, feelings, and actions of individual Germans.

Lesson 15 of 23

Youth and the National Community

Students learn about the experiences of people in Nazi Germany through a variety of firsthand accounts and identify the range of choices that they faced.

Lesson 16 of 23


Students learn about the violent pogroms of Kristallnacht by watching a short documentary and then reflecting on eyewitness testimonies.

Lesson 17 of 23

Responding to a Refugee Crisis

Students think about the responsibilities of governments as they consider how countries around the world responded to the European Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany.

Lesson 18 of 23

Race and Space

Students examine the Nazi ideology of “race and space” and the role it played in Germany’s aggression toward other nations, groups, and individuals.



Step 4:

Adding to Evidence Logs, 2 of 3

Students share their ideas about the writing prompt in groups and continue to build their evidence logs.

Lesson 19 of 23

The Holocaust: Bearing Witness

Students are introduced to the enormity of the crimes committed during the Holocaust and look closely at stories of a few individuals who were targeted by Nazi brutality.

Lesson 20 of 23

The Holocaust: The Range of Responses

Students deepen their examination of human behavior during the Holocaust by analyzing and discussing the range of choices available to individuals, groups, and nations.

Lesson 21 of 23

Justice and Judgment after the Holocaust

Students grapple with the meaning of justice and the purpose of trials as they learn how the Allies responded to the atrocities of Nazi Germany.



Step 5:

Adding to Evidence Logs, 3 of 3

Students approach the unit writing prompt in its entirety through journal reflection, evidence, gathering, and discussion.

Lesson 22 of 23

How Should We Remember?

Students both respond to and design Holocaust memorials as they consider the impact that memorials and monuments have on the way we think about history.

Lesson 23 of 23

Choosing to Participate

Students use the “levers of power” framework to identify ways they can bring about positive change in their communities.



Step 6:

Refining the Thesis and Finalizing Evidence Logs

Students complete activities that help them think about the unit as a whole as they prepare a strong thesis statement for their essay.

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