Teaching about German culture always hits a huge speed bump when the topic of World War II comes along.
I teach a German-language class, but I like to dip into history whenever possible to show how German culture developed, yet most Americans know little about German history prior to the three 20th-century world wars (I include the Cold War in this) in which our histories intertwined.
Every American has a theory on Hitler's rise to power, which usually indicates her/his political believes, some include:
- Hitler came to power by banning guns
- Hitler united racists and appealed to men's basest beliefs.
- Hitler was a left-wing socialist
- Hitler was a right-wing nationalist
I mean, what is a National-Socialist anyway? Is it a nationalist or a socialist? Can one be both?
|A meeting of the Reichstag in 1932. National Socialists sit on the far right of the assembly, wearing uniforms.|
Breaking-down the political parties
First I needed to get students to understand the constituencies that make up America's current political parties. We made a list of specific groups that make up the coalitions within the major parties. The picture below is a list we came up with. It's a pretty good list in my opinion.
|A list of American coalitions in politics today.|
On the Democratic side, students felt that environmentalists, socialists, and youth were for Bernie Sanders, while women and African Americans were more behind Hillary Clinton. On the Republican side they tied nationalists and authoritarian voters to Trump, christian conservatives and gun rights voters to Cruz, and Business voters to Marco Rubio or John Kasich.
Some students offered their own preferences, with comments like, "I'm a Tea Party voter" or "I'm libertarian, where are they?" or "I support the environment.
This gave us a better frame of reference to understand how German politics had worked, particulaly with the proportional representation used to make up the German parliament, in which even today a party with 5% of the vote can get one seat in parliament.
The Parliament of 1932
Next I broke students into groups based on the proportions of the electorate won in the 1932 parliamentary elections, the last free election prior to the Reichstag Fire and the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler. With 17 students in the class, it broke down to the following members
- 6 National Socialists
- 4 Social Democrats
- 3 Communists
- 3 Centre Party
- 1 German National People's Party
Divided into groups like these, I asked them to research their party's positions on four issues relevant to today's election:
- Welfare and health care
Students gathered into party groups. I had expected a little controversy about students representing the Nazi Party, but students were actually asking to join this party (it was the only one they knew anything about, and I teach in a pretty conservative county, carried by Donald Trump two weeks ago). They worked together to identify a party platform.
Here's what we learned:
- The National Socialists wanted welfare extended to all workers, and they really wanted a strong military. They proclaimed anti-capitalism, but their true contempt was for the Marxists.
- The Social Democrats wanted the military to stay the way it was--they emphasized that they didn't want to return to the conditions during and after World War I. They also stressed welfare for workers and the poor
- The Communists wanted to eliminate the military, they said. They believed in free abortion rights, and they wanted to shut down religious schools and other state-supported religious institutions
- The Centre Party said, "We are Catholic, and we hate Poles!" They focused on moral issues
- My single German National People's Party delegate just said, "I really like the Nazis."
I asked the Nazis to go to the right side of the room and the Social Democrats to go to the left. I reminded students that, in a room of 17 students, a side needed 9 votes to form a government. The Nazis had 6 delegates, the Social Democrats had 4.
I asked the Communists whom they would support. Citing their hatred of the military, they walked to the left side of the room. The vote stood at 6 to 7 in favor of the Social Democrats.
I asked the German National People's Party to choose. He strode confidently to stand with the National Socialists. It was 7 to 7.
Just as it was in 1932, it was up to the Centre Party to determine power. The leftists emphasized the welfare of all Germans. The National Socialists said, "The Left doesn't even believe in God!"
That settled it. My three Centre Party members got up and stood on the right side of the classroom.
My final question: who do you select as chancellor?
Their answer: "Adolf Hitler!"
This is a great example of project-based learning. I simply couldn't have lectured this lesson into my students. They had to explore ideas for themselves and make the choices that German leaders had made in 1932.
The discussion was engaging and stimulating. The class period flew by. I could have kept things going another 45 minutes--and perhaps, on Monday, I will.
Now, I hope, when my students think about the National Socialist takeover of Germany, they will understand it as a march of political coalitions toward a democratic majority, which was subverted within a year--compounded by the Reichstag Fire and the death of President von Hindenberg--into a total dictatorship under the aegis of Adolf Hitler.
It also served as the perfect launch of our class reading of the book, In the Garden of Beasts.