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?
How did the Nazi Party, a small and unpopular political group in 1920, become the most powerful political party in Germany by 1933?
To examine how choices made by individuals and groups contributed to the rise of the Nazi Party in the 1920s and 1930s, and understand the party’s core values.
In the previous lesson, students explored the politics, culture, economics, and social trends in Germany during the years of the Weimar Republic (1919–33), and they analysed the strength of democracy in Germany during those years. In this lesson, students will continue the unit’s historical case study by re-examining politics in the Weimar Republic and tracing the development of the National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) Party throughout the 1920s and early 1930s.
Students will review events that they learnt about in the previous lesson and see how the popularity of the Nazis changed during times of stability and times of crisis. They will also analyse the Nazi Party platform and, in an extension about the 1932 election, compare it to the platforms of the Social Democratic and Communist Parties. By tracing the progression of the Nazis from an unpopular fringe group to the most powerful political party in Germany, students will extend and deepen their thinking from the previous lesson about the choices that individuals can make to strengthen democracy and those that can weaken it.
This lesson includes multiple, rich extension activities if you would like to devote additional time to a closer examination of the rise of the Nazi Party.
Adolf Hitler, an Austrian-born corporal in the German army during the First World War, capitalised on the anger and resentment felt by many Germans after the war as he entered politics in 1919, joined the small German Workers’ Party, and quickly became the party’s leader. By February 1920, Hitler had given it a new name: the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei), or Nazi, for short.
Originally drafted in 1920, the Nazi Party platform (see the reading National Socialist German Workers’ Party Platform) reflects a cornerstone of Nazi ideology: the belief in race science and the superiority of the so-called Aryan race (or ‘German blood’). For the Nazis, so-called ‘German blood’ determined whether one was considered a citizen. The Nazis believed that citizenship should not only bestow on a person certain rights (such as voting, running for office, or owning a newspaper); it also came with guarantees of a job, food, and land on which to live. Those without ‘German blood’ were not citizens and therefore should be deprived of these rights and benefits.
Fuelled by post-war unrest and Hitler’s charismatic leadership, thousands joined the Nazis in the early 1920s. In an attempt to capitalise on the chaos caused by runaway hyperinflation, Hitler attempted to stage a coup (known as the Beer Hall Putsch) in Munich to overthrow the government of the German state of Bavaria on 8–9 November 1923. The attempt failed and resulted in several deaths. Hitler and a few of his followers were arrested, but rather than diminish his popularity, Hitler’s subsequent trial for treason and imprisonment made him a national figure.
At the trial, a judge sympathetic to the Nazis’ nationalist message allowed Hitler and his followers to show open contempt for the Weimar Republic, which they referred to as a ‘Jew government’. Hitler and his followers were found guilty. Although they should have been deported because they were not German citizens (they were Austrian citizens), the judge dispensed with the law and gave them the minimum sentence – five years in prison. Hitler only served nine months, and the rest of his term was suspended.
During his time in prison, Hitler wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle). In the book, published in 1925, he maintained that conflict between the races was the catalyst of history. Because he believed that the ‘Aryan’ race was superior to all others, he insisted that ‘Aryan’ Germany had the right to incorporate all of Eastern Europe into a new empire that would provide much-needed Lebensraum, or living space, for it. That new empire would also represent a victory over the Communists, who controlled much of the territory Hitler sought. Hitler, like many conservative Germans, regarded both Communists and Jews as enemies of the German people. He linked the Communists to the Jews, using the phrase ‘Jewish Bolshevism’ and claiming that the Jews were behind the teachings of the Communist Party. The Jews, according to Hitler, were everywhere, controlled everything, and acted so secretly and deviously that few could detect their influence.
By 1925, Hitler was out of prison and once again in control of the Nazi Party. The attempted coup had taught him an important lesson. Never again would he attempt an armed uprising. Instead, the Nazis would use the rights guaranteed by the Weimar Constitution – freedom of the press, the right to assemble, and freedom of speech – to win control of Germany.
However, in 1924 the German economy had begun to improve. By 1928, the country had recovered from the war and business was booming. As a result, fewer Germans seemed interested in the hatred that Hitler and his Nazi Party promoted. The same was true for other extreme nationalist groups. In the 1928 elections, the Nazis received only about 2 per cent of the vote.
Then, in 1929, the stock market crashed and the worldwide Great Depression began. Leaders around the world could not stop the economic collapse. To an increasing number of Germans, democracy appeared unable to rescue the economy, and only the most extreme political parties seemed to offer clear solutions to the crisis.
The Communist Party in Germany argued that to end the depression, Germany needed a government like the Soviet Union’s: the government should take over all German land and industry from capitalists, who were only interested in profits for themselves. Communists promised to distribute German wealth according to the common good. The Nazis blamed the Jews, Communists, liberals, and pacifists for the German economic crisis. They promised to restore Germany’s standing in the world and Germans’ pride in their nation as well as end the depression, campaigning with slogans such as ‘Work, Freedom, and Bread!’
Many saw the Nazis as an attractive alternative to democracy and communism. Among them were wealthy industrialists who were alarmed by the growth of the Communist Party and did not want to be forced to give up what they owned. Both the Communists and the Nazis made significant gains in the Reichstag (German parliament) elections in 1930.
In 1932, Hitler became a German citizen so that he could run for president in that year’s spring election. His opponents were Ernst Thälmann, the Communist candidate, and Paul von Hindenburg, the independent, conservative incumbent. In the election, 84 per cent of all eligible voters cast ballots, and the people re-elected President Hindenburg. Hitler finished second. However, in elections for the Reichstag held four months later, the Nazis’ popularity increased further. They won 37 per cent of the seats in the legislature, more than any other party, and 75 seats more than their closest competitor, the Social Democrats.
President Hindenburg and his chancellors could not lift Germany out of the depression. Their popular support began to shrink. In January 1933, Hindenburg and his advisers decided to make a deal with Hitler. He had the popularity they lacked, and they had the power he needed. Hindenburg’s advisers believed that the responsibility of being in power would make Hitler moderate his views. They convinced themselves that they were wise enough and powerful enough to ‘control’ Hitler. They were also certain that he, too, would fail to end the depression. When he failed, they would step in to save the nation. But they were tragically mistaken.
- Reflect on Societal Values
- As students transition from learning about various aspects of German society during the years of the Weimar Republic to tracing the rise of the Nazi Party during those same years, it can be helpful to pause for a moment to reflect on how the values of a society are shaped. Ask students to spend a few minutes responding in their journals to the following prompts:
- Who or what shapes the values of a society?
- What roles do political and business leaders, the media, artists, and education play?
- What roles do individual citizens play?
- After students have had a few minutes to write, let them share their thinking in a brief discussion.
- Analyse Key Events in the Nazis’ Rise to Power
- Explain to students that they are now going to learn about the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, and throughout this unit they will observe how the Nazis shaped the values of German society.
- The video Hitler’s Rise to Power, 1918–1933 (9:14) provides an overview of the beginning of the Nazi Party in the early years of the Weimar Republic and the party’s growth in relation and reaction to key events in Germany in the 1920s.
- Explain to students that as they watch this video, they will recognise events that they learnt about in the previous lesson on the Weimar Republic, but now they will focus on how those events affected the growth of the Nazi Party in Germany.
- Before beginning the video, write the full name of the Nazi Party, in both English and German, on the board:
The National Socialist German Workers’ Party
Students can then see how ‘Nazi’ is an abbreviation of the first word of the party’s name in German. Tell students that they may see and hear a variety of related names for the Nazis in resources throughout this unit, including National Socialists and the initials NSDAP.
Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei
- Pass out the handout Hitler’s Rise to Power, 1918–1933 Viewing Guide and instruct students to respond to the questions with information from the video as they watch. To help students prepare to answer, have them read the questions before watching.
- Remind students to watch for moments where choices made by people other than Hitler contributed to Hitler and the Nazi Party’s eventual rise to power.
- Show the video Hitler’s Rise to Power, 1918–1933 to the class. You might choose to pause the video so students can add to their notes.
- Debrief the video as a whole group, reviewing the questions on the viewing guide and discussing the information students recorded, helping them fill in important ideas they may have missed.
- As you discuss the video with students, emphasise the choices that individuals, other than Hitler, made during this time period that contributed to the Nazis’ rise to popularity and power. You might ask students to underline on the viewing guide evidence of where individuals and groups made such choices and record a list of these key moments on the board.
- Analyse the Nazi Party Platform
- Pass out the reading National Socialist German Workers’ Party Platform.
- Explain that a political platform is an official statement by a party of its beliefs and positions on important issues. Read aloud with students the platform of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party from the handout.
- To help students comprehend the Nazi Party’s platform, ask them to label each bullet point with a word or phrase that captures the promise of each provision. For example, students might write ‘citizenship’ or ‘education’ or ‘insurance’ or ‘jobs’. Ask students to share what they notice about their lists.
- Do any categories appear multiple times or seem to get more or less attention?
- What might the list of provisions suggest about the message the Nazis wanted to convey to German voters?
- Discuss the Appointment of Hitler as Chancellor
- It is important for students to end the lesson with the understanding that while Hitler was never elected president (and the Nazis never won a majority of the Reichstag seats), he was appointed chancellor by President Paul von Hindenburg as a result of the popularity of the Nazi Party and other political circumstances. If necessary, review the branches of government in the Weimar Republic in order to help students understand the relationship between the president and chancellor and/or share the 1932 German Election Results (see the PowerPoint – there is also an option to discuss these further in the extension).
- The reading Hitler in Power explains how Hitler’s appointment came about. You might either read aloud this handout with the class, read it to them, or use it to create a mini-lecture if you don’t have time for students to complete the reading in class.
- Revisit the ‘Bubbling Cauldron’ Metaphor
- After discussing Hitler’s appointment, return to the Bubbling Cauldron images from the previous lesson’s extension task. Now that they have learnt about the Nazis’ rise, ask them to revisit their work for a few minutes. What would they add now? Is there anything they would erase or change?
- Give students a few minutes to complete the handout, and then lead a class discussion about how what students learnt in this lesson has affected their understanding of the Weimar Republic.
Ask students to interview someone who has been able to vote in a general election. They should ask their interviewee what factors influenced their decision about who to vote for, or about whether to vote at all, and write this up. Students should also consider how the factors compare with those that influenced German voters in 1932.