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 will begin to examine how the facets of human behavior they have learned about in previous lessons—including stereotypes, prejudice, racism, and antisemitism—influenced people and events in this unit’s historical case study: Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. They will begin the case study by exploring some of the brutal realities of World War I, unexpected to most nations when they joined the war. They will also learn about Germany’s surrender in 1919 and the terms imposed on it by the Treaty of Versailles, both of which shocked Germans and contributed to conditions that would provide fertile ground for the rise of the Nazi Party in the decade that followed.
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 and its 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 around 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 effect of World War I on Germany and how its aftermath created conditions that helped 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:
- The destruction and brutality of World War I “seemed to many Europeans to prove that human life was cheap and expendable.”
- The trauma of World War I created in Europeans and their leaders a “deep fear of ever risking another war.”
- 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
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.
Explore the Beginning of World War I
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 in it to write working definitions of 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.
Analyze Eyewitness Accounts, Art, and Literature
Activity 2 (Day 1) above provides one way to get a sense of the brutality of World War I—through statistics. Firsthand accounts of the battlefield, paintings by soldiers and observers, and literary responses to the war provide 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 its creator and on the world in general?
Explore the Signing of the Armistice and the “Stab in the Back” Myth
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.