At a Glance
LanguageEnglish — US
- Civics & Citizenship
- Social Studies
DurationOne 50-min class period
- The Holocaust
- Human & Civil Rights
About This Lesson
In the previous two lessons, students learned about how the Nazis used laws and propaganda to compel and persuade the German public to accept, if not support, their idea of a “national community” shaped according to their racial ideals. In this lesson, students will continue this unit’s historical case study by looking at how the Nazis trained young people, through schools and youth groups, in an effort to build a foundation for the future of that “national community.” Students will learn about the experiences of people who grew up in Nazi Germany through a variety of firsthand accounts that show the appeal the Nazi program held for many youth and the limits of that appeal for others. This lesson also reveals some of the dilemmas and isolation experienced by those young people who were deliberately excluded from the Nazi universe of obligation. The lesson both begins and concludes by providing students with the opportunity to discuss the role of young people in any society and the proper goals and methods for their education.
How can learning about the choices people made during past episodes of injustice, mass violence, or genocide help guide our choices today?
- How did the Nazis attempt to enlist young people in their efforts to create “in” groups and “out” groups in German society in the 1930s? How did young people respond to these attempts?
- What were the consequences for young people who were excluded from the Nazi vision for a “national community”?
- What is the role of education in preparing young people for their role as citizens? What might be the difference between preparing students to live in a dictatorship versus a democracy?
- Through close reading and discussion, students will identify the range of choices that young people faced in Nazi Germany and how the Nazis used schools and youth organizations to mold young people to embrace their nationalist and racist ideologies.
- Students will also develop their ideas about the role young people should play in any society and how they should best be educated for the future.
This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-minute class period and includes:
- 3 activities
- 3 teaching strategies
- 2 handouts, available in English and Spanish
- 1 handout, available in English only
- 2 videos
- 1 assessment
- 3 extensions
In his book Mein Kampf, written in the 1920s, Hitler said, “Whoever has the youth has the future.” As the Nazi Party grew during the Weimar era, they devoted substantial time, effort, and resources to winning over Germany’s youth. Hitler hoped, once he was in power, that “these young people will learn nothing else but how to think German and act German. . . . And they will never be free again, not in their whole lives.”
Schools had a key role to play in the Nazi efforts to inculcate in German youth a philosophy centered on the idea of a racially pure “national community.” Throughout the 1920s, German schools adhered to a conservative educational philosophy—emphasizing social hierarchy and obedience to authority—that was already consistent with the Nazi worldview. After they came to power in 1933, the Nazis quickly passed new laws to make public education further reflect and teach their nationalist and racial ideologies. Jewish teachers were fired from their posts, and other teachers were encouraged to join the National Socialist Teachers League; by 1936, over 97% of teachers were members. Nazi leaders also created new curricula and textbooks to be used throughout the country. All students took classes in “race science,” while Nazi racism infused materials in every class, including literature selections in reading and word problems in math.
The Nazis also sought to win over Germany’s children and teenagers through party-sponsored youth groups. In the 1920s, the Nazis had already begun to organize groups that would train young people according to their principles. By 1936, all “Aryan” children in Germany over the age of six were required to join a Nazi youth group. At ten, boys were initiated into the Jungvolk (Young People), and at 14 they were promoted to the Hitler Youth. Their sisters joined the Jungmädel (Young Girls) and were later promoted to the League of German Girls. Although membership in the Hitler Youth organizations was compulsory, many young people did not have to be forced to join. In fact, they were eager to do so, because membership in Nazi youth groups offered a feeling of excitement, belonging, and even power.
Yet support for the Hitler Youth was never as widespread and strong as Nazi leaders would have liked. Young people skipped some meetings and activities, even though attendance was compulsory, and their loyalty could be inconsistent. Their reasons for losing enthusiasm for Hitler Youth activities were not always political or moral; sometimes young people grew tired of the many requirements or just got bored. In 1939, the Social Democratic Party, which had been outlawed by the Nazis and was operating in secrecy, published a report on German youth that described some of this discontent. It said that “young people are starting to feel particularly burdened by the lack of freedom and the mindless drills practiced by National Socialist organizations. So it is no wonder that signs of fatigue would be particularly prominent in their ranks.” 1
The resources in this lesson explore more deeply both the allure of the Hitler Youth to some young Germans and the reluctance felt by others. Examining these resources closely reveals not only the range of reactions but also a range of choices available to German youth in response to the Nazis’ efforts to win them over in the 1930s—and a range of consequences for those choices, as well.
Meanwhile, those young Germans who were excluded from the “national community” by the Nazis had markedly fewer choices and faced difficult and often dangerous dilemmas. Jewish children were prohibited from joining Nazi youth groups and excluded from that social world so central to many of their classmates in the process. Their supposed inferiority was pronounced repeatedly before them and their peers in school every day. And the seemingly infinite number of laws and rules that singled them out in Nazi Germany emphasized their “otherness” in the eyes of true “Aryans” in painful ways. The resources in this lesson include reflections by both a Jehovah’s Witness woman and a Jewish man who attended school in Nazi Germany, both of whom faced excruciating dilemmas related to their use of the ubiquitous “Heil Hitler” greeting.
- 1“SOPADE: Reports on German Youth” (1938), in The Third Reich Sourcebook, ed. Anson Rabinbach and Sander L. Gilman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 252.
Preparing to Teach
A Note to Teachers
Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts and needs.
The first activity in this lesson includes the Four Corners teaching strategy. We recommend that you set up the room for this activity before class begins. Create four signs that read “Strongly Agree,” “Agree,” “Disagree,” and “Strongly Disagree,” and hang them in different corners of the room.
In this lesson, students will be using a variation of the Big Paper strategy, “Little Paper,” to analyze accounts of the lives of young people in Nazi Germany told from a variety of perspectives. Because it is likely not practical for every student to analyze every document in this lesson, this activity is designed to enable each student to look at accounts of four or five different experiences.
One thing to keep in mind with this activity is timing. Some students may be slower readers, or take longer to comment on a text, while others are faster. To account for these differences, consider asking students to swap readings with another student who finishes at the same time as them, rather than rotating the handouts clockwise. In addition, you’ll want to ensure that students have plenty of margin space to comment on their little papers, so be sure to tape the handouts on a larger sheet of paper in advance.
The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:
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.
- Tell students that in this lesson, they will be looking at the experiences of young people in Nazi Germany, and especially how the Nazis attempted to enlist many of them in the process of building a “national community” that excluded non-“Aryans.” But first, students will engage in an activity to help them think about and discuss the role of young people in society more broadly.
- Pass out the handout Youth in Society Anticipation Guide and give students a few minutes to respond to each statement.
- Then lead a Four Corners activity in which students position themselves in corners of the room near signs reading “Strongly Agree,” “Agree,” “Disagree,” and “Strongly Disagree” to indicate their opinion about each statement.
- Discussing every statement on the anticipation guide could easily take the entire class period, so choose two or three of the statements that you think are of especially high interest to your students for the activity. Read one of the statements and instruct students to move to the corner of the room that represents their opinion.
- Then let students from each corner explain their opinions. Make sure at least one person from each corner has the opportunity to speak, and tell students that if they are persuaded by the argument of a classmate in another corner, they may change their mind and move.
- Repeat this process with as many statements as you can discuss in about ten minutes.
- Tell students that they will now examine a variety of firsthand accounts from people who were teenagers in Nazi Germany. Many of the ideas they responded to on the anticipation guide in the opening activity will come up in these readings.
- Begin by projecting (or writing on the board) and previewing the following questions for students, which they will respond to in their journals after watching a short video.
- What messages were being sent to young Germans about the proper way to think and act in Germany in the 1930s? What messages were sent about how young people should think about their universe of obligation?
- Why might these messages have appealed to some German youth? Why might they have frightened, angered, or confused others?
- What options did young Germans have about how they could respond to the pressures they faced? What factors may have expanded or shrunk the number of options available to them?
- How were young people from groups targeted by the Nazis affected by the changes in German society in the 1930s?
- Next, show students one or both of the following video testimonies:
- Changes at School under the Nazis (04:13): testimony by Kurt Klein
- Friendship and Betrayal (02:55): testimony by Ellen Kerry Davis
- After watching the videos, briefly discuss how Klein’s and Davis’s testimonies help to answer the questions above.
- Tell students that they will now use the same series of questions to respond to a variety of documents about youth in Nazi Germany in a “Little Paper” activity (a variation of Big Paper).
- Divide the class into groups of four or five, and have each group sit in a circle. Then give each group either Youth in Nazi Germany Reading Set 1 or Youth in Nazi Germany Reading Set 2. Each student should start with one reading from their assigned reading set. As students read, they should annotate the text by highlighting or underlining portions that help to answer the questions above. They can also write comments and observations in the margins about young people’s experiences.
- After a few minutes, students will then pass their handouts to the person on their right, and they will repeat the process with the new handout. This time, however, they can respond to the comments and annotations the previous student made. Repeat this process at least once more, or (time permitting) until students have had a chance to work with each handout in their group.
- When the process is complete, have students return each handout to the student who read it first so that student can see the written discussions that followed his or her initial comments.
- Finally, bring the class together as a whole group and debrief the activity with the following questions:
- How did the Nazis attempt to educate young people to accept, if not support, the dictatorship? How would education be different if the goal were to teach young people how to be citizens in a democracy?
- What did you notice about the variety of ways young people responded to education and youth groups in Nazi Germany? Did any of the responses surprise you?
- What options did German teenagers have in terms of how they could respond to the pressures they faced? What were the consequences of some of those choices?
- To close the lesson, or for homework, ask students to review their responses to the anticipation guide they completed at the beginning of the lesson.
- After they review the anticipation guide, assign students to select two of the statements from the list and copy them into their journals. After each statement, they should write a short reflection explaining how the firsthand accounts they studied in this lesson connected to, extended, or challenged their initial opinions about them from the beginning of the lesson.
- Evaluate students’ reflections from the closing activity of this lesson to help you assess both their understanding of the role young people played in the Nazis’ ideal “national community” and their thinking about the broader question of the role of young people in society. To use these reflections as an assessment, ask students to write them on a separate piece of paper or notecard to turn in (if you have established that their journals are private).
- For a more formal assessment, assign students to write an argumentative paragraph in response to the following prompt: In his book Mein Kampf, written in the 1920s, Hitler said, “Whoever has the youth has the future.” How did Hitler and the Nazi Party use schools and youth organizations to reflect this idea? How did young people choose to respond, and how did these choices challenge the way they saw themselves and understood their identities? Support your argument with evidence from the materials (videos, readings, and handouts) in Lesson 15: The Power of Propaganda and Lesson 16: Youth and the National Community. Be sure to include a thesis statement and explain how your evidence supports your thesis.
The reading Models of Obedience explores the roles that obedience and conformity played in the upbringing of children in Nazi Germany. You might use this reading to extend this lesson’s exploration of young people’s role in society and the proper goals of education. The connection questions following the reading probe the tension between the importance of teaching children to obey and the possibility that at some point the inclination to obey can become harmful. Use the questions as the basis for a class discussion about the differences between obedience and conformity and the times or circumstances in which each of these behaviors may be useful or dangerous.
The reading Even If All Others Do—I Do Not! explores how one German parent, Johannes Fest, coped with his opposition to Nazi policies and shared his opinions with his family. To more fully explore the question of choices and resistance, share this reading with students and discuss the connection questions that follow.
The reading The Birthday Party describes a situation in which a 14-year-old Hitler Youth leader felt empowered to challenge another boy’s father for keeping his son home from training exercises because he had a cold. You might read and discuss this reading with students and ask them what light it sheds on both the allure of the Hitler Youth for some young Germans and the influence it had on their behavior. You might also ask students how this helps them interpret the meaning of Hitler’s belief that “Whoever has the youth has the future.”
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Youth and the National Community
Power of Propaganda
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