HM - May 2019 - Holocaust Lesson

Classroom Applications


Fathoming the Holocaust Though Historical Empathy

by Alex d’Erizans, Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York
Anthony Pellegrino, The University of Tennessee


In seeking ways to address the origins of the Holocaust in K-12 classrooms, this lesson reimagines the teaching of the Shoah by supporting students’ understanding of the context and perspective of National Socialism. We assert that, only by examining the embattled environment National Socialists contended that they inhabited, as well as the new world they chose to forge, could students begin to comprehend the hateful, destructive energy that fueled the Holocaust. Specifically, we aim to address the essential question: How and why did National Socialism resonate with so many people in the years leading up to the Holocaust?

Lesson Framework

Lesson Context
For this lesson—well-suited for two periods of a middle or secondary-level world history or global studies class—we include a variety of primary and secondary sources formulated to present National Socialism as a culture that resonated with millions of Germans in the years leading up to the Final Solution. We aim to draw students’ attention to the worldview of National Socialism, specifically, its attention to the struggle for, and embrace of, life as it was presented in policy and how it was experienced during the time. In so doing, we hope learners become better equipped to understand the Holocaust while recognizing that there will always be a distance between past events and those who attempt to learn about them.
The activities in this lesson draw upon the work of Endacott and Brooks,1  who articulated a framework for fostering historical empathy which includes setting up the conditions through which learners are able to consider context, perspective, and affective connections as they interrogate text and artifacts. We structured the lesson in such a way that enables learners to investigate, share, and reflect on their investigations.2

Lesson Overview

Learners begin the lesson by hypothesizing about two images representing specific aspects of Germany in the Nazi years. Each image provides a different perspective on the ways National Socialists conceived of life and building national community (Volksgemeinschaft). The first is the 1934 German “mother and child” poster. The second poster is of the German Autobahn—an engineering feat that epitomized the technologically advanced and environmentally progressive culture the National Socialists envisioned. Together, these images represent the focus on life and progress as central features of National Socialism.

After reviewing the images and responding to the questions, students watch the introductory segment (approximately 12 mins) of the film, Path to Nazi Genocide, from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. This portion of the film offers insights into the conditions through which Hitler and the National Socialists came to power. Questions related to the film ask learners to consider life in Germany during this time. Following the film segment, small groups of learners undergo a gallery walk/station activity where they investigate various sources and respond to the associated questions. These sources generally focus on the ways National Socialism referred to life, living space, and national community contrasted with its attitudes about and treatment of Jews. Day 1 concludes with an “exit ticket” that asks individuals or groups for a brief paragraph or concept map describing the worldview of the Nazis using at least three of the lesson resources as evidence. Here, teachers are encouraged to ask learners to draw from evidence they encountered in the lesson and move beyond simplistic ideas shaped only by their previous knowledge.

Day 2 opens with a review of the conclusions students drew from the previous day’s activities, with a new source added to augment the previous day’s exit ticket. This activity is designed to help learners recognize the life and death struggle, which the National Socialists contended that they were facing. This introduction is followed by the remaining 20 minutes of the film Path to Nazi Genocide. As they watch, they should now pay attention to the ways life for Germans and Jews diverged in the years leading up to the Holocaust. In a follow-up discussion, the teacher should challenge students to consider the perspectives of individuals from the film. The final activity is for students to re-examine the images from the beginning of the previous day (“Mother and Child” and “Autobahn”) and craft a diary entry from one of the artist’s/engineers’ perspective. Teachers should reiterate the notion of existential struggle integral to the National Socialists’ worldview. Below are details of the lesson activities,
resources, and questions to guide learners.

Lesson Activities/Resources:

Day 1

A. Share the following images and ask students to respond to the questions below (10-15 mins)

Source: Image 1, Mother and Child, U.S. Library of Congress,Source: Image 2, Autobahn, U.S. Library of Congress

Image 1: Why would National Socialists use this poster as part of their messaging? What does this have to do with the Holocaust?
Image 2: This image is of the Autobahn, a system of highways built by the German mostly during the 1930s. What vision of the future do you think National Socialists wanted based on this highway project? What do you see in the image that supports your thinking?
To synthesize these images, prompt learners to consider the symbols of life and progress, aligned with the Nazi message that the German Volksgemeinschaft (national community) will be nourished through Aryan population growth, land expansion, and technological innovation. 

B. Watch the Path to Nazi Genocide film segment and respond to questions below (
(film segment ~12 mins, with review of questions, 25 mins)
Film Questions:
  • What two adjectives would you use to describe life in Germany in the years right after Germany’s defeat in World War I?
  • Identify three important steps in Hitler’s path to power through 1932.
  • Explain how the burning of the Reichstag helped Hitler consolidate his power.
  • What examples from the film point to German frustrations and hopes in the time of the Weimar Republic?
C.  Gallery Walk/Station Activity: Students review artifacts (see below) from differing perspectives (this activity can be done through station teaching or as a gallery walk) and respond to questions. Conclude this activity with a small or whole group debriefing focused on the juxtaposition of life and death presented in these resources to help students see the crooked path leading to the Final Solution (30-40 mins).  

D.  Assessment/Exit Ticket: In a brief paragraph or concept map, students describe National Socialist culture using at least three of the sources as evidence (10-15 mins). Collect these paragraphs or concept maps to be revisited in Day 2.  

Day 2

A. Introduction: Review Exit Tickets from Day 1 of the lesson adding this new image (10-15 mins).  
Added Image. This image is of a 1939 sculpture by Arno Breker, known as Hitler’s favorite sculptor, meant to be displayed as public art.

Sculpture titled "Readiness" (1939)

Question to Students: In reviewing your paragraph or concept map from yesterday, comment on what this sculpture adds to, or changes about, your perspective of National Socialism.
Note for Teachers: In discussion, emphasize the title and the ways this sculpture might help us see that, in addition to focus on progress and building the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft (national community), there was also a resonant message of urgency, crisis, and readiness. Each of these ideas was integral to the National Socialists’ perspective and became explicitly part of plans and policy.   
B. Film: Watch the remainder of Path to Nazi Genocide and respond to questions below (30 mins). 

Film Questions:
  • What two adjectives would you use to describe life in Germany in the years leading up to World War II?
  • Explain ways Hitler remained in power and increased his authority during these years.
  • What two adjectives would you use to describe how life differed for Jews living in Germany and German-controlled land during this time?
C. Authentic Assessment: Learners re-examine the initial two images from the beginning of the lesson, plus the image of Arno Breker’s “Readiness’ sculpture. Building on what they learned from the lesson, students craft a diary entry from one of the artist’s or engineer’s perspective. Ask learners to consider, “what motivated me to create this (poster, highway system, or sculpture)?” “How do I expect my work to support the building of the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft (national community).” 

Alterative Activity: Small groups break into dyads to develop a social studies standard(s) or policy of teaching the Holocaust.
Note: If you are in a state that already has explicit standards covering the Holocaust, you may ask your students to review those and augment them with ideas from this lesson or develop a rationale justifying their place in the curriculum (30 mins).
Gallery Walk Resources
Source 1: "Life and death were deeply entangled in the Third Reich.  The ways in which Nazism promoted an ideal of German life were inextricably linked to the near-death, they believed Germany had suffered in 1918.  The Nazis delivered upon their enemies the very destruction they imagined awaited Germans.  With their invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the Nazis waged a war that conformed almost exactly to their unconditional ideas.  It posed the question of life or death, national survival or annihilation, in the most radical terms.  Political activity throughout the twelve years of the Third Reich was premised on both supreme confidence and terrifying vulnerability; both states of mind coexisted and continuously radicalized Nazi policies.  The sense of “can do” was wrapped in “must do.”  This combination released enormous energies as millions of Germans participated in public life to renovate, protect, and preserve the nation.  At the same time, the Nazis’ sense of urgency made their policies more lethal, since they believed that the only way to ensure the preservation of “worthy” lives was to destroy what they considered to be “unworthy” lives, including the genetically “unfit,” “asocials,” and Jews." (pp. 4-5).

Fritzsche, P. (2008). Life and Death in the Third Reich. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press: 4-5.

Question: How does this historian’s view of Nazism show how the ideas of life and death were closely connected in the minds of Germans during the Third Reich (use specific evidence from the author in your response)?
Source 2 (4 images):
Help Hitler Re-Build (Library of Congress) (Upper Left)
Behind the Enemy Powers: The Jew (Library of Congress) (Upper Right)
He is to Blame for the War! (Library of Congress) (Lower Left)
“Help you too! (Library of Congress) (Lower Right)

Question: What symbols in these pictures illustrate building of, and threat to, the Nazi Volksgemeinschaft (national community)? Include at least two symbols from each poster.

Source 3: Perspectives of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, 1933-1945
Goebbels Reflects on the Seizure of Power
Biography: Appointed propaganda leader of the party in 1929, Joseph Goebbels was an extremely effective organizer of Nazis’ electoral campaigns, particularly during 1932, when the party reached its height in popular support. Before, as well as following, the Nazis gaining power in 1933, Goebbels employed eloquently hopeful, dramatic, and provocative language that reflected an urgency to be always at the ready to engage enemies in the struggle for survival that National Socialists projected as also a struggle for Germany itself.  
January 30th, 1933:
It seems like a dream!  The Wilhelmstrasse is ours.  The Leader is already working in the Chancellory.  We stand in the windows upstairs, watching hundreds and thousands of people march past the aged President of the Reich and the young Chancellor in the flaming torchlight, shouting out their joy and gratitude….
We are torn between doubt, hope, joy, and despair.  We have been deceived too often to be able whole-heartedly to believe in the great miracle.…
Torturing hours of waiting!  At last a car draws up in front of the entrance.  The crowd cheers.  They seem to feel that a great change is taking place or has already begun.
The Leader is coming.
A few moments later he is with us.  He says nothing, and we all remain silent also.  His eyes are full of tears.  It has come!  The Leader is appointed Chancellor.  He has already been sworn in by the President of the Reich.  The final decision has been made.  Germany is at a turning-point in her history.
All of us are dumb with emotion.  Everyone clasps the Leader’s hand; it would seem as if our old pact of loyalty were renewed at this moment.
Wonderful, how simple the Leader is in his greatness, and how great in his simplicity.
Outside…the masses are in a wild uproar.  In the meantime, Hitler’s appointment has become public.  The thousands soon become tens of thousands.  An endless stream of people floods the Wilhelmstrasse.
The day passes like a dream.  Everything is like a fairy tale.  Slowly the evening closes in over the Capital of the Reich.  At seven o’clock Berlin resembles a swarming bee-hive.  And then the torchlight procession begins.  Endlessly, endlessly, from seven o’clock in the evening until one o’clock in the morning crowds march by the Chancellery.  Storm Troopers, Hitler youths, civilians, men, women, fathers with their children held up high to see the Leader’s window.  Indestructible enthusiasm fills the streets….Hundreds and thousands and hundreds of thousands march past our windows in never-ending, uniform rhythm.
The rising of a nation!
Germany has awakened!
In a spontaneous explosion of joy the people espouse the German Revolution.
What goes on within our hearts is indescribable.  One feels like crying and laughing at the same time.
The everlasting stream of cheering people flows on and on and on.  The tree-tops at the Wilhelmplatz in front of the Chancellory are swarming with boys who cheer the Leader in shrill ear-splitting chorus.
His people acclaim him!
For the first time the German people in demonstration is being broadcast.  We speak for the first time over all German transmitters.  I can say nothing, but that we are happy beyond words, and that we shall go on working….
This miraculous night ends in a frenzy of enthusiasm.
At length the square is empty.  We close the windows and are surrounded by absolute silence.  The Leader lays his hands on my shoulders in silence.
Arrive home at three o’clock.
Source: Goebbels, J. 1935. My Part in Germany’s Fight. London: Hurst and Blackett: 234-37.
Question: The National Socialists conceived of themselves as leading a movement of world historical significance.  How does Goebbels' language and emotion reflect this Nazi sentiment of being marked by destiny for great things? Provide at least two examples of words or phrases as evidence for your response.

Source 4: Section II (page 3 of PDF) of the Wannsee Conference protocols outlines the plan…never explicitly stating mass murder as the intention.
Questions: What is this source?
When did the conference take place?
Based on the text from page 3, what was the purpose of this conference?
The last line on page 3 says that “(t)he aim of all this was to cleanse German living space of Jews in a legal manner.” What does this statement tell you about the way National Socialism was framing the “Jewish question”?

Source 5:

This image is of members of the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi mobile killing units charged with carrying out mass murder of Jews, Roma, and political enemies during the German invasion of the Soviet Union. This image was taken in 1942 in Ukraine. 
Source: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
Question: What three adjectives do you use to describe what is going on in this image?

1. Endacott, J. L. & S. Brooks. 2013. An updated theoretical and practical model for
promoting historical empathy. Social Studies Research and Practice, 8(1):41-59.
2. Endacott, and J. Sturtz. 2015. Historical empathy and pedagogical reasoning. The
Journal of Social Studies Research, 39(1):1-16.



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