Do You Take the Oath? | Facing History & Ourselves
German military recruits swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler.

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.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History




One 50-min class period
  • The Holocaust
  • Genocide
  • Human & Civil Rights


About This Lesson

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.

How can learning about the choices people made during past episodes of injustice, mass violence, or genocide help guide our choices today?

  • What factors influence our choices about whether to speak up or stay quiet in response to injustice?
  • What choices did Germans have in the face of an emerging dictatorship? What opportunities for resistance were available?
  • Through close reading, class discussion, and written reflection, students will recognize that while Germans went along with the Nazi regime for a variety of often complex reasons, dissent was possible in 1933 and 1934, though the consequences left some marginalized or unemployed and others imprisoned or even dead.
  • Students will identify some of the universal human behaviors that influence individuals to look the other way, as well as those that influence individuals to speak out in response to injustice.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 5 activities
  • 3 teaching strategies
  • 3 readings
  • 2 assessments
  • 3 extension activities

As the Nazis consolidated power and established a dictatorship in Germany, they sought to align all individuals, institutions, and organizations in German 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

  • 1Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich in Power (New York: Penguin, 2005), 14.
  • 2 William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany , 50th ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), 227.
  • 3Ian Kershaw, “‘Working Towards the Führer’: Reflections on the Nature of the Hitler Dictatorship,” Contemporary European History 2, no. 2 (July 1993): 117.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this text set, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

In this lesson, students will read excerpts from individuals’ reflections, or, in one case, a son’s recounting of his father’s story, about whether or not to take the oath to Hitler or otherwise align themselves with the Nazi Party’s policies. In some cases, these reflections were written many years after the choices they describe were made. Before reading each piece, ask students to consider the information provided in its introduction to determine who is telling the story and whether the reflection was made at the time the decision was made or years later. You might ask students to consider the effects that hindsight might have had on how the individuals in these readings remember and interpret their experiences.

The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:

  • Oath
  • Loyalty
  • Allegiance
  • Authority
  • Obedience
  • Führer

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.

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  • Have students write a response to the following prompt in their journals:

Think of a time when you obeyed a rule or an authority figure (a parent, teacher, group leader, etc.). Why did you obey? What were the consequences of your decision? Now think of a time when you ignored or disobeyed a rule or authority figure. Why did you resist authority? What were the consequences?

  • You can use the Think, Pair, Share strategy to have students share their reflections. Note that students may have written about choices they made that they would prefer not to share. Therefore it is not necessary that they share the details of their stories with other classmates. Instead, they can focus their discussion contribution on the reasons they obeyed or disobeyed (fear of punishment, sense of fairness, etc.).
  • Finally, hold a whole-group discussion in which you focus on the "whys" of the students' stories. Make two lists on the board, one titled “Reasons for Obedience” and the other titled “Reasons for Disobedience,” and save them for use later in the lesson.
  • Tell students that the Nazis pressured Germans to show their allegiance in a variety of ways, one of which was to take an oath to Hitler. Before looking at the text of the oath, ask students to think about the oaths, if any, that they are familiar with in their lives. Begin the discussion by asking the following questions:
  • What oaths do people take today? For what reasons?
  • How do such oaths affect people’s choices? How should they, if they should at all?
  • Students may bring up oaths of office that government officials take, marriage vows, oaths that Boy Scout and Girl Scout members take, or oaths in religious ceremonies. While many students may not have been asked to take an oath before, they might have experienced a sense of obligation to stay true to their word or to care for others, and that sense of obligation may be similar to the commitment often expected from one who has taken an oath.
  • Then, read aloud the reading Pledging Allegiance, perhaps choosing to rotate among different students for each section. Ask students to compare and contrast the two oaths, using the following questions to guide the discussion:
    • Summarize the two oaths in your own words.
    • What is the main difference between the two oaths? How important is that difference? What are the implications of swearing an oath to an individual leader rather than to a nation?
    • How might taking an oath affect the choices a person makes? How does an oath affect the level of responsibility a person has for his or her actions? Is keeping an oath an acceptable explanation for making a choice that a person later regrets?
  • Distribute the reading Do You Take the Oath? and begin reading aloud the first five paragraphs, stopping at "and it was I who lost it." Ask students to reflect on what this man has said so far by responding to the following questions in their journals:
  • What do you think of his decision and his reasoning?
  • What factors complicate his choice?
  • How do you think he defines his universe of obligation?
  • Continue to read to the end of Do You Take the Oath? Ask students create a list of reasons why this man obeyed the Nazis’ demand to take the oath, and then create a class list, drawing on the students’ ideas. Be ready to ask follow-up questions that get students to analyze the defense plant worker’s view about how the oath, and other Nazi policies, affected Germans.
  • Ask students to compare and contrast this list with the list of reasons for inaction they created in Activity 1 based on their journal entries. Make it clear to students that the goal here is not to equate their stories with events leading to the Holocaust, but to examine the human behaviors of conformity and obedience in difficult situations.
  • It is crucial for students to see that while the dilemmas faced by Germans such as the defense plant worker presented complex choices for many in the 1930s, some Germans chose to resist demands to pledge allegiance to Hitler and the Nazis.
  • Pass out the reading Refusing to Pledge Allegiance and have students take turns reading the two stories aloud. Ask students to consider the reasons why Fest and Huch chose not to pledge their allegiance to the Nazis, as well as the consequences of their choices. Use the following questions to lead a class discussion:
  • Why did Fest and Huch each refuse to pledge allegiance to Hitler? What were the consequences of their decisions?
  • Compare and contrast Fest's and Huch's situations with that experienced by the defense plant worker. How do you account for the different choices they made?
  • As a whole class, create a list of reasons why these individuals resisted the Nazis. Ask students to compare and contrast this list with the list of reasons for disobedience they created earlier and their discussion of the reading Do You Take the Oath? (see Activities 1 and 3).

Finish the lesson by asking students to respond to the following question in their journals. Or, you might choose to capture students’ responses using the Exit Tickets strategy to assess their understanding of today’s content.

  • What were the positive and negative consequences of choosing to take the oath or show loyalty to Hitler in the mid-1930s?
  • What have you learned in this lesson about why many people went along with Nazi policies even when they thought those policies were wrong?
  • What have you learned about why some people chose to resist?


  • Applying the Found Poems strategy, assign students to create a poem using words and phrases from the reading Do You Take the Oath? or Refusing to Pledge Allegiance (or both). Students might focus their poems on the themes of “obedience” or “dissent,” or they might choose their own themes to explore. You might also ask students to select two contrasting points of view to include in their poem that highlight the different perspectives represented in this lesson. When you evaluate the poems, look for evidence of students’ emotional engagement with the text as well as their response to the ethical dilemmas described in these readings.
  • Evaluate the exit cards students submit at the end of the lesson to gauge how students understand and evaluate the dilemmas they encountered in this lesson.

Extension Activities

The reading No Time to Think provides another powerful window into the thinking of those confronted with dilemmas over whether to speak out or stay silent during the first years of the Nazi regime. Many students find this account, by a German professor recounting his experiences seven years after World War II ended, to be compelling and impactful. Others approach the professor’s reasons for inaction with skepticism due to the fact that he is writing with hindsight of the atrocities and genocide ultimately committed by the Nazis in the Third Reich. Use the connection questions that follow the reading to begin a discussion with students. Time permitting, you might consider using the reading as the basis for an activity based on the Socratic Seminar strategy, in which students analyze the professor’s dilemma and his explanation for his inaction.

The Lifted Line Poem strategy provides a way for the entire class to collaborate in creating a poem based on students’ analysis of the words and experiences of the individuals who offer firsthand accounts in this lesson. The readings Do You Take the Oath? and No Time to Think both provide good source material for this activity. Students often become highly engaged in selecting their lines for this activity and arranging their contribution to create a powerful performance. Consider giving the class the opportunity to share their lifted line poem with other audiences in the school.

  • Historian Ian Kershaw points to a dynamic, called “working toward the Führer,” that was at play within both German government and society under the Nazis. This concept further complicates our understanding of the choices and motivations of individuals during this era. It is based on the observation that many German officials and citizens took it upon themselves (rather than being forced or coerced) to take actions that aligned with broader goals expressed by Hitler. In other words, the possibility of currying favor with the Nazi government became a powerful motivating factor for many Germans.
  • It is worth exploring this dynamic, especially with older students or more advanced classes. Have students read and discuss the reading Working Toward the Führer, perhaps using the Save the Last Word for Me discussion strategy. In addition to the reading’s connection questions, students should consider the following questions: How does “working toward the Führer” add to or complicate the picture offered by the defense plant worker and the university professor? Who spells out the goals for the communities to which you belong? Who or what inspires individuals to try to meet those goals?

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