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A Democracy Destroyed

Teacher notes

A study of the destruction of democracy in Nazi Germany can broaden our understanding of the nature of democracy, and help us to deal with attacks on or threats to it.

Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party came to power in Germany by promising a better life than democracy seemed to have provided and by playing on people's fears. A majority of Germans were persuaded to trade democracy for dictatorship. Australians can learn lessons about safeguarding our own democracy from this past experience.

About the unit | Indicators of student achievement | Background notes | Discovering Democracy resources | Other resources | Notes

About the unit

  • Features of a democracy
  • Threats to democracy
  • Safeguards to democracy
  • Use of the justice system for undemocratic purposes

Contexts: Nazi Germany, contemporary Australia

Indicators of student achievement

The student can:

  • identify key principles and values of democracy
  • identify threats and safeguards to democracies
  • analyse the effects of the loss of democracy on individuals and society, in particular with reference to Nazi Germany
  • justify views about how democracy in Australia can best be protected.

Background notes

The German nation was created in 1871, as a federation of states (much like Australia). It was not a democratic state, being under the rule of the Kaiser (Emperor), who could control the legislature.

The new nation expanded industrially and militarily, and became a major colonial power. This growth threatened the traditional balance of power in Europe. Rivalries between the nations led to two great sets of alliances. In 1914 Germany and Austria-Hungary went to war against Britain, France and Russia.

After four years of World War I Germany was economically exhausted. The German army fought on, but internal suffering and political unrest in Germany led to the abdication of the Kaiser, and the substitution of a liberal-socialist government. This new government ordered the military to surrender, which was very much resented by many in the armed forces, and led to the creation of the myth that the army was ‘stabbed in the back’ by the socialist politicians. This resentment festered for many years.

A punitive and humiliating treaty was imposed on Germany at Versailles in 1919, and a new democratic parliamentary system, the Weimar Republic, was created.

There was no tradition of democracy in Germany, and many elements of German society, both left-wing and right-wing, opposed and undermined the struggling democratic system. The lack of any one party with an overall majority in the parliament, the Reichstag, created a volatile situation.

During the 1920s, clashes between right-wing nationalists and left-wing socialists increased in intensity, exacerbated by economic instability and French occupation and exploitation of some resource-rich areas of Germany. The depression that began in the late 1920s created mass unemployment and unrest.

The National Socialists, under Adolf Hitler, gained office in 1933. When the Reichstag was burnt down they seized the opportunity to pass the Enabling Act, which effectively created a one-party state. Once in power, the Nazis imposed a totalitarian regime upon the nation. The democratic experiment of the Weimar Republic was destroyed. The Nazis’ use of repression and terror, their policies of rapid economic development and their fervent nationalism satisfied supporters and won over those who wavered, while targeted minorities - especially communists and socialists, and Jews and gypsies - were destroyed.

Discovering Democracy resources

Stories of Democracy CD ROM - interactive and sources on 'A Democracy Destroyed'

Discovering Democracy - A Guide to Government and Law in Australia

Discovering Democracy website:

Further teacher reference material can be found in Discovering Democracy Middle Secondary Units, pages 204-5.

Other resources

The World at War, Episode 1, A New Germany 1933-1939 (video recording) Thames Television MCMLXXIII (1973).


This unit, while self-contained, is an excellent summative unit. It brings together ideas about democracy, institutions and values that have been the focus in many other units. Students will need a good understanding of how Australian democracy works to be able to apply the concepts covered in the unit to the modern Australian situation. It would be useful to study the unit 'Human Rights' and possibly 'Parties Control Parliament' and 'Making a Nation' (middle secondary) before undertaking this unit. The unit is also probably best undertaken in year 10 rather than year 9.

The unit does not cover Nazi Germany in great detail. It focuses most closely on the years 1932-34, the period in which democracy was destroyed. There are many elements of the historical period which are covered only briefly, or not at all.

The essential principles of democracy that arise from the brainstorming activity in Focus question 1, Activity 1 should include, among others: free elections; free speech; free media; the right to organise and protest; the right to a fair trial with independent judges; respect for the rights of minorities.

Several of the ‘testimonies’ of people in Germany (Focus question 2) are composite creations based on historical documents and experiences. It is important that students realise that these are ‘constructed’.

There are many videos available on Nazi Germany. It is easy, however, for students to be seduced by Nazi propaganda film footage and images. Encourage students to critically analyse these images. Remind students that these are scenes designed to glorify the party and the leader after they came to power; they are not the reason for people voting for them in the first place.

Take care when comparing Germany with Australia. It is important that students understand the complexity of events in history before they try to translate the concepts involved to Australia. They also need to be made aware that it is very difficult to compare different historical places, times and cultures in anything but a fairly generalised way. Having said that, there is still great value in using the Nazi historical situation to encourage students to think about the dynamics of their own democratic society, and how those dynamics might be changed.

Resistance simulation

Some of the scenarios in the Resistance simulation in Focus question 3 are based on a real situation in Nazi Germany. This is a very valuable exercise for ‘personalising’ the period for students. The exercise has the greatest impact when the teacher does not explain the purpose of the ‘game’, and keeps control of the scoring - revealing the consequences at the end of each situation. Students should be encouraged to discuss each option carefully before choosing. Most students initially think they have to ‘win’, and the process of realising what it takes to ‘win’, and the consequences that follow resistance, is an enlightening one. It is important to stress at the end of the exercise that there were many Germans who tried, though usually quietly, to resist the Nazi regime.

Resistance consequences for Focus question 3, Activity 1

Read aloud to students after each scenario.

Situation 1

  1. You are OK.
  2. You are not discovered, but you are always anxious when you are there. Lose two points.
  3. This does not help your anxiety! Lose two points.
  4. There is terrible pressure placed on you to join. Lose two points from anxiety.

Situation 2

  1. This is noted and approved. You are OK.
  2. They are discovered. You are arrested and your parents gaoled. Lose four points.
  3. You are OK, though worried. Lose two points.
  4. You are OK.

Situation 3

  1. You are heard by a Brownshirt and bashed. Lose four points.
  2. You are heard by an informer and reported to the police. The Gestapo arrest and gaol you. Lose four points.
  3. You are OK, but feel very angry that you are not allowed to speak freely. Lose two points.
  4. You are OK.

Situation 4

  1. You are OK.
  2. Even helping indirectly will get you severely punished. Lose two points.
  3. You are not caught, but the strain on you is terrible. Lose three points.
  4. You are not caught, but the strain on you is terrible. Lose three points.

Situation 5

  1. Your friends are caught. Under torture they incriminate you. You are arrested, tried by a Nazi judge, and executed. Lose all points.
  2. The Gestapo have been watching, and you are caught. You are also arrested, tried by a Nazi judge, and executed. Lose all points.

Situation 6

  1. Some students complain about using the old books and you are sacked. Lose four points.
  2. Some students talk about this among themselves and are overheard by other staff members. You are sacked. Lose four points.
  3. Some students report you and you are sacked. Lose four points.
  4. This is noted and approved, and you are promoted.

Situation 7

  1. You are OK but find that you are being watched by judges and lawyers in future cases. Lose two points.
  2. You are OK but wonder how long you can continue to serve in a court when the government interferes in the justice system and accused people are not given a fair trial. Lose one point.
  3. You are sacked and replaced by a judge who is known for his Nazi loyalties. You live in fear that you will be arrested. Lose three points.

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