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Focus question 2: How and why was democracy lost in Germany in 1933?

Teaching and learning activities

Activity 1: Research task ESL Activity 1
Activity 2: Voting patterns ESL Activity 2
Activity 3: The Nazi Party ESL Activity 3
Activity 4: Nazi policies ESL Activity 4
Activity 5: Interpreting election posters ESL Activity 5

Activity 6: Who voted for the Nazis?

ESL Activity 6
Activity 7: Cartoon ESL Activity 7
Activity 8: Democracy destroyed ESL Activity 8
Activity 9: Democracy seized or given?  
Assessment task ESL Assessment task
Assessment criteria  


In 1914 Germany was a monarchy. In 1919 it was a democracy. In 1933 it was about to become a dictatorship.

Big events, like the collapse of a democracy, do not just happen. Nor are they inevitable. There are many conditions and circumstances which create a situation in which the change can occur, and then many choices which people make to cause that change to occur.

The focus of this part of the unit is on understanding what made the German democracy so weak and vulnerable to change by 1933.

Activity 1: Research task

Stories 1a Your teacher may want to divide this task among members of a small group. Look at the information on the Stories of Democracy CD ROM and in other sources such as encyclopaedias and history textbooks. Prepare a brief explanation of the following elements of the history of the German democracy, explaining what happened and how each might strengthen or weaken democracy in that country:

  • the type of government Germany had before World War I
  • what happened to the nation during World War I
  • how Germany became a democracy at the end of the war
  • the strengths or good features of the new democracy
  • weaknesses or problems in the Constitution of the Weimar Republic
  • how other nations treated Germany after the war, and the impact this had on the economy and on national pride
  • Germany's economic problems during the 1920s
  • the impact of the Depression from 1929.

1b Create a timeline of the period 1871-1933 in your workbook, placing each of these elements at an appropriate point on that timeline.

Activity 2: Voting patterns

The changing strength of parties in Germany 1919-33

To understand the new democracy you will need to understand the politics of the time. The graph below shows the proportion of the votes each party received in elections from 1919-33. The parties are organised from the most extreme right at the top (Nazis) to the most extreme left at the bottom (Communist Party). Both extremes were anti-democracy as a form of government. The graph below also shows the increasing number of people who voted.

You will notice that no party has an absolute majority of the vote during this period of time. The large number of elections was caused by this fact. Without a majority in the parliament (Reichstag), it became impossible for the government to pass its legislation and therefore to govern the country, making it necessary to hold an election in the hope that the new government would have a majority.

The changing strengths of political parties in Germany

Die Weimarer Republik

Adapted from a graph in Krummacher, FA & Wucher, Albert (eds) 1965, Die Weimarer Republik, Verlag Kurt Desch, Munich, p 141.

2a Is the growth in the Nazi vote explained by a decrease in the proportion of people voting for right-wing parties or by a decrease in the proportion of people voting for left-wing parties?

2b This was a period of great economic hardship with high levels of unemployment. With governments frequently being unable to govern and constant elections, what might people have started to think about the value of democracy as a form of government that could address the problems of the nation?

The rise of the Nazi Party

Historians generally agree that there was little sense of political stability or national direction at any time after the unexpected defeat of the German army in 1918. No outstanding leaders or inspiring ideas brought Germans together. The dominating sense was of division and conflict.

In the 1920s, once the wild inflation of the first post-War years was overcome, Germany made a quite prosperous recovery. Then came the international stock market crash of 1929, followed by the unemployment and suffering of the Depression in the early 1930s. This economic collapse threw more than six million people out of work. Germany was hit very hard, very quickly.

Inflation means that money loses its value. By 1923 people needed wheelbarrow-loads of notes, millions of marks, to buy a loaf of bread.

In a depression, fewer things are sold and there are fewer jobs. The Nazi Party was able to use this situation. It claimed to be not just another party but a political movement aimed at bringing all Germans together.

Activity 3: The Nazi Party

The party which was responsible for the destruction of democracy in Germany was the Nazi Party. Look at the following information on the Nazi Party, and answer the questions which follow.

Adolf Hitler

The leader of the Nazis, Adolf Hitler, was born in Austria in 1889. He served in the German army during World War I, gained the rank of corporal, and was decorated twice for bravery. He always felt the army had been betrayed by the politicians who created the democratic system in Germany.

In 1919 he joined the new National Socialist Workers' Party, and quickly became one of its leaders. He was strongly anti-communist, anti-Jewish, a German nationalist, and convinced that all Germans must be united in the face of the hostility of other countries.

Hitler's attempt to seize power by force in Bavaria in 1923 failed miserably but the subsequent trial made him a national figure. While in jail, serving only nine months of a five-year sentence, he wrote a book, My Struggle (Mein Kampf), which became the bible of the Nazi movement.

Hitler used speeches and pageantry brilliantly to appeal to many Germans' feelings of insecurity, persecution, and national pride.

How the Nazi Party worked

Hitler organised the Nazis into a ruthless group, ready to use violence as well as the ballot box to gain power, and ready to suppress all opponents. One element within the Nazis was the 'Brownshirts', known as 'Stormtroopers' or 'SA', whose main task was to disrupt opponents', and especially communists', meetings with violence.

The Nazi Party did not have many specific policies - and it changed those it had as circumstances changed. But it was high on emotion. It was undemocratic: Hitler made all the decisions. It also operated on the belief that only the strong won. The weak would alway be defeated, regardless of their ideas or values.

The German propaganda system, 1930

Carefully organised propaganda headquarters in each region make sure that the speaker and subject are adapted to the local and economic circumstances. Nazi speakers are trained for this task over a period of months ... [H]alls are almost always overcrowded with enthusiastic listeners ... Frequently such propaganda squads win the whole population for the movement through the most varied entertainment such as concerts, sports days ... and even church parades. National Socialist theatre groups travel from place to place.

Quoted in Cloake, JA 1989, Nazi Germany, OUP, Oxford, p 29.
Courtesy of JA Cloake.

Reichstag Party Day
1930s Nazi poster
Reichstag Party Day, Nuremberg, 1935
The Photo Library, Sydney/HULTON-DEUTSCH.
A 1930s Nazi poster. The caption reads: 'The organised will of the nation'.
Reproduced with permission of Bundesarchiv, Koblenz.

3a Prepare a brief report on the Nazi Party: its leadership; its main beliefs and aims; its members, supporters and opponents; its strengths and weaknesses; the tactics it used.

3b Write a few sentences about the photograph and poster at the beginning of Activity 3 which explain what their meaning or message about the Nazis is, and how each tries to influence people positively. For example, for the first poster you might focus on the size of the rally, the symbols, the spectacle, and what they tell us about the Nazis. In the second poster you might focus on who the people might represent, how they appear, why those people might have been chosen, what their expressions are supposed to tell us, and so on.

Who voted for the Nazis and why?

In 1933 the Nazis became the largest single party in the German Parliament, the Reichstag. They became the government, and their leader, Hitler, the Chancellor (equivalent to an Australian prime minister). With the support of other conservative parties in the Reichstag, they could have ruled Germany democratically. Instead, they destroyed democracy.

Activity 4: Nazi policies

4a Draw up a larger version of this table in your workbook.

Summary of Nazi policies Descriptor Attitude of opponents Attitude of supporters




4b Look at the main policies or ideas of the Nazi Party, which follow. Summarise them in the first column of your table.

4c Choose one or more of the following descriptors and enter them in the second column: Anti-democratic, Strong leadership, Economic development, Security, National pride, Making Germany strong, Fear of difference, Traditions.

4d Decide what the attitudes of the opponents of the Nazis would have been to each of the major areas listed. Write these in the second column.

4e Look at Figure 1. Which groups in German society were over-represented and which were under-represented in the Nazi Party?

4f Why might this have been the case?

4g Write the key ideas expressed by each of the people in 'Comments from German people' (at the end of Activity 4).

4h Use the information from these 'witnesses' to complete the fourth column of your table. Add any new information which you discover about 'opponents' to the second column.

Hitler's ideas and policies

  • We will finally put an end to this system of party politics that has deceived and failed our people.
  • Those who have created the political and economic disaster will have no more to say. That applies especially to the Socialists and Communists.
  • We will have a government of unified leadership and clear direction which will put Germany back to work. We will not rest until every German has a job!
  • We will protect German small business against the unfair competition of Jewish department stores.
  • We will protect the German family farm, the backbone of our nation.
  • Jewish banks and finance agencies will threaten our farmers no longer!
  • Non-Germans, such as Jews, will not be German citizens and will not play a role in the reborn National Community. Migrants will be sent back to where they came from.
  • Foreigners (Jews) who control banks, big business and the media will find themselves without a say. Control of German assets and German newspapers and German artistic life will revert to Germans!
  • All Germans in the National Community will have equal opportunities for their children, who have a right to grow up without crime and pornography.
  • Family life, with better housing, education and health care, is our first priority. Mothers will be encouraged to stay home to look after their children. The children are our future.
  • Freedom of religion will be protected, but the churches must stop meddling in politics.
  • Politics will no longer be a trough for self-serving politicians. National politics will have clear national leadership.
  • There will be an end to national humiliation. We will decide our own policy on the basis of what is best for Germans.
  • We will not be chained by the dictates of the Versailles Treaty. We will have the army, navy and air force we need to be equal to the other powers. We will not be a threat to anybody but we must be able to defend ourselves.
  • We will make Germany great and strong again.

Figure 1 Membership of the Nazi Party, 1930

Occupation Nazi Party membership (%) Total population (%)
Manual workers

'White-collar' workers


Government officials















Comments from German people

The following stories are adapted from historical records and represent typical attitudes and experiences of German people at the time.

Hildegard Bergman, aged 55 in 1933 (speaking at the time)

I don't believe that Hitler is dangerous at all. I have been a member of the Nazi Party since 1928 and all we want is a government that will stand up for Germany and then get us out of the Depression.

The Depression is just another way of stopping our recovery and keeping Germany down. That might suit some people in England or in America but we have families who are starving while they make profits out of loans.

Definitely I don't want Germany to go communist, and I'll even say I could see the necessity of putting communist leaders into concentration camps. But that's as far as we need to go.

Alfred Bebel, aged 56 in 1933 (speaking at the time)

We Socialists have been telling people since Hitler first crept out of the woodwork what a danger he is. I joined the SPD, the Social Democratic Party, in 1899, when Hitler was still at school in Austria, and even then we were warning people that the old guard would do anything to keep democracy out of Germany. They'd banned us for years and they only gave way after murdering millions of workers in a World War.

After the World War, in 1918, we got a democratic government, and the Kaiser went to Holland and we got a republic.

That was too much democracy by far for lots of people, especially the army and all those that did well out of the old government of the few. They are the people who back Hitler.

That's why Hitler will not allow any more elections, and the reason he put our leaders into concentration camps. We think Hitler means war.

Only the real democrats, the Social Democrats, will guarantee democracy. The Nazis don't want it and the Communists don't either. But when things get bad people don't listen. Our own people are staying loyal.

Hans Mayer, aged 15 in 1933 (speaking at the time)

My grandmother was the main political influence in the house until recently. She was strongly Catholic and saw Hitler as the devil's work. 'He's preaching hatred and envy,' she said, 'I'm glad your grandfather isn't here to hear it.' My father wasn't there to hear it either. He had been killed in the First World War, right at the end.

My mother never really got over it and wanted his sacrifice to mean something. So I know she is optimistic about Hitler, though she would never quarrel openly with my Gran.

She thinks it will be a good thing to end all the party squabbling. And the government will do lots of good things, like getting people back to work.

Sophie Stefan, aged 23 in 1933 (speaking today and looking back)

My dad had a small business, selling and repairing radios, and I helped him in the shop.

Times were certainly hard in those years. No one had any money. My father had the view that it didn't matter who you vote for, you always elected a politician. I think my mum was probably the same. Anyway, I'm pretty sure they both voted for Hitler, in the hope he would be different. Certainly he was always abusing the politicians and 'the system' and promising a clean sweep.

I was going out with this boy who was a real Nazi, I mean quite fanatical, and hoping to get a job as a policeman because he was in the Nazi Student Movement, and he carried me along. I voted for Hitler as soon as I got the vote: it was a kind of young people's party. That was true of the Communists too but my Dad would have killed me if I'd gone that way.

The funny part was this. We were all really optimistic, even, for once, my dad. Then, Paul, my boyfriend, was put on guard duty over a bunch of men. One was his school principal and one was our family doctor. It was made quite clear to him that he was meant to humiliate and mock them; that he was a wimp if he didn't. After that day he never went to any more meetings and started to say we were all making a dreadful mistake, this was not the government Germany needed. I told him to watch what he said or they'd be after him, it would be better if he joined the party. But he wouldn't.

Tony Barta, History Department, La Trobe University.

Activity 5: Interpreting election posters

Look at the election posters from the period 1932-3.

5a Describe what each poster shows.

5b Explain the message of each.

5c Identify which party each poster supports.

5d Decide which of these posters you think might have been successful in influencing Germans at this time. Explain your reasons.

5e Add any new information that you have discovered from these posters to the table you started in Activity 4.

1932 Social Democrats election poster
1932 election poster
A 1932 Social Democrats election poster. The caption reads: The worker under the rule of the swastika! Vote Social Democrat!
Reproduced with permission of Bundesarchiv, Koblenz.
A 1932 election poster. The caption reads: These are the enemies of democracy! Get rid of them - vote for the Social Democrats!
Reproduced with permission of Bundesarchiv, Koblenz.

Election placards
Election placards for Hindenburg and Hitler in Berlin in March 1932. Under Hindenburg the message is 'Vote for a man, not a party'. Hitler's poster shows a strongman breaking his chains.
Reproduced courtesy of Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin.

ational Socialist eagle
c. 1930s The National Socialist eagle watches over the German family. The caption reads: If you need advice or help, turn to your local party organisation.
Reproduced with permission of Bundesarchiv, Koblenz.

Activity 6: Who voted for the Nazis?

Look at these results from the 1932 election.

Election results July 1932

Party Seats won
National Socialists (Nazi Party) 230
Conservative Nationalist Party 59
Catholic Centre 97
Social Democrat 133
Communist 89
Total 608

6a Which party won the most seats?

6b Did they have enough seats to govern without support?

Which groups voted for the Nazis?

A study of the Nazis' rise to power in one German town indicates that those with steady salaried jobs, small businesses or farms were most frightened by the rise in unemployment. Fearing the threat to property, religion and all established interests which communism represented, they were ready to listen to someone who promised to end the political crisis and save Germany from revolution. They saw their fellow citizens who voted for the Socialists as their enemies: they swallowed the line that democracy, social democracy and communism were part of the same threat. They listened when the Nazis linked their fellow citizens with defeat and national humiliation. The following are fictional 'voices' but what they say is based on the study of the town.

Here is one voice from the group listening to the Nazi message:

We were all devastated when the war was lost. We really cared about Germany and the people who took over then sold us out. The Socialists stabbed our troops in the back while they were still fighting and then sold us out at Versailles. Our Social Democrats - they've been in charge of the local council all along - say they are not like the Communists but there were no Communists until they took over.

Now we have all the unemployed lined up outside the dole office. They'll be listening to the Communists for sure. Who is going to stick up for us? I know the Nazis are a pack of rowdies, a couple I know are real lowlife, but they could be our last hope. Hitler talks a fair bit of sense. It's hard to tell who's really to blame for the fighting. All I know is, the local authorities can't stop it and the government in Berlin seems paralysed.

Giving Hitler a go is probably the only way out of the mess.

Here is a view from the Social Democratic side of town:

Giving Hitler a go is a sure way of getting us into a worse mess. He appeals to the worst in people: even in this town you can sense the temperature rising whenever there's another election. He plays on fear, he tells lies and he tries to shut us up with his Brownshirt thugs. That's just a taste of what we'd get if he gets in. Those knives and guns the police find don't come from us. Do those nice middle-class folk know what they're letting themselves in for? People on that side of town don't seem to realise that democracy isn't to blame for the world economic crisis. They'll believe anything that fits in with their prejudices. The men round here who have actually lost their jobs know that it's capitalism, not socialism, that put them out of work. On the other hand, it's pretty hard for them to be enthusiastic about the current system. What has democracy done for them? We need everyone we can get to fight this campaign but a lot of hearts aren't in it.

It may seem amazing that the middle class voted for a radical party of violent hoodlums whose leader had been in jail. The shift in votes can be seen from the decline of various small parties at the time the Nazi vote swelled. The working-class vote did not generally go to the Nazis, even when unemployment hit hard. On the whole they stayed loyal to the Social Democratic Party or else opted for the extreme left, the Communist Party. Nor did the Catholic vote, which tended not to favour change. The Protestant rural areas, on the other hand, were most enthusiastic about the Nazis' radical solutions to the crisis.

Tony Barta, History Department, La Trobe University.

6c Look again at the graph in Activity 2 to see which parties lost support as the Nazis gained it and which maintained their support.

6d Why did ordinary people support such an extremist party?

Activity 7: Cartoon

Draw a cartoon for a newspaper of the day, about the results of the election. You may make it a pro- or anti-Nazi cartoon. Your cartoon must show the result, and also make some comment on or pass an opinion on the situation.

Activity 8: Democracy destroyed

While the Nazis were the largest party in the Reichstag after the 1932 election and became the government, they did not have a majority in the German Parliament. But by the end of 1933 the Nazis were supreme. Democracy in Germany had ceased to exist, and instead there was a dictatorship. Did this happen by force, or with the consent of the German people?

Look at the following sequence of events and answer the questions that follow.

Destruction of democracy timeline

Nov 1932 Nazi Party became the largest party in the Reichstag.
30 Jan 1933 Hitler was appointed Chancellor.
24 February A Government raid was carried out on the German Communist Party headquarters. (Plans for a revolution were claimed to be discovered. These documents were never published.)
27 February The German parliament house, the Reichstag, was burnt down in a fire. A communist sympathiser, Marinus Van Der Lubbe, was arrested at the scene. He later confessed to setting fire to the building, as a protest against the Nazis, but at the time Hitler claimed that the fire was an organised communist plot against the Government. Hitler persuaded President Hindenburg to use his special constitutional powers to authorise arrests and other measures said to be needed to prevent a communist coup. In this way Hitler was able to destroy his key communist opponents.
28 February The President used his constitutional 'emergency' power to support the Government in severely limiting the people's freedoms. Over 4,000 people were detained in prisons and makeshift concentration camps even before the first official concentration camp was set up by Himmler at Dachau, north of Munich, in March. After six months over 26,000 people were in detention for opposing the Nazis.

The 'Decree for the Protection of the People and the State' suspended civil and personal rights and freedoms, including the constitutional guarantees of free speech, free assembly and freedom from illegal searches or violations of property rights. Stormtroopers were enlisted as 'emergency police' and told not to hesitate to use their weapons. Political prisoners could now be held imprisoned for unlimited periods without having to go before a court.

5 March Reichstag election


National Socialists (Nazi Party)

Conservative Nationalist Party

Catholic Centre

Social Democrat




Number of seats







23 March The Enabling Act was passed. This allowed Hitler to pass laws without consulting the Reichstag and without the authority of President Hindenburg. All parties in the Reichstag supported the law except the Social Democrats, who spoke against it. The Communists were not allowed to take their place for the vote. Dachau concentration camp was established.
2 May The day after 1 May (the day for celebrating workers' rights throughout Europe) all the working-class organisations, including trade unions, were abolished.
14 July All political parties other than the Nazis were banned.

8a What was the position of the Nazi Party in the Reichstag in November 1932?

8b What was the significance of the Reichstag fire for Hitler?

8c What powers did he get after that event and after the March 5 election?

8d Were these powers legally and constitutionally given to him?

8e What did this mean for democracy in Germany?

Activity 9: Democracy seized or given?

After March 1933, German democracy was dead. Did the Nazis take democracy from the Germans, or did the Germans give democracy away?

Eyewitness accounts of the passing of the Enabling Act 1933

From a socialist member of the Reichstag

We were received with wild choruses: 'We want the Enabling Act!' Youths with swastikas on their chests eyed us insolently, blocked our way, in fact made us run the gauntlet, calling us names like 'Centre [Party] pig' or 'Marxist sow' ... In the cloakroom we learned that Severing [a former Social Democratic minister] had been arrested on entering the building. The assembly hall was decorated with swastikas and similar ornaments ...

Hitler read out his government declaration in a surprisingly calm voice ... at the end of his speech, he uttered dark threats of what would happen if the Reichstag did not vote the Enabling Act he was demanding ...

Otto Wels read out our reply to the government declaration. It was a masterpiece in form and content, a farewell to the fading epoch of human rights and humanity. In concluding, with his voice half choking, he gave our good wishes to the persecuted and the oppressed in the country who, though innocent, were already filling the prisons and concentration camps on account of their political creed. Only a few hours before, we had heard that members of the SA [Nazi Brownshirts] had taken away the 45-year-old welfare worker, Maria Janovska of Köpenick, to a National Socialist barracks, stripped her completely, bound her on a table and flogged her body with leather whips. The female members of our group were in tears, some sobbed uncontrollably.

But Hitler jumped up furiously and launched into a passionate reply ...

We tried to dam the flood of Hitler's accusations with interruptions of 'No!', 'That's wrong!', 'False!' But that did us no good. The SA and SS people, who surrounded us in a semicircle along the walls of the hall, hissed loudly and murmured: 'Shut up!', 'Traitors!', 'You'll be strung up today!'

Noakes, Jeremy and Pridham, Geoffrey (eds) 1974, Documents on Nazism,
1919-1945, Jonathan Cape, London, pp 193-4.
Reprinted by permission of the Peters Fraser & Dunlop Group Ltd
on behalf of Jeremy Noakes and Geoffrey Pridham.

From a member of the Nazi Government

Now in a state with a parliamentary constitution, one like the Weimar Republic, it really isn't possible to come to power against the wishes of the majority ... the 'seizure of power' of the National Socialists was accomplished without any open revolt, let alone bloodshed. It was all done according to the rules and laws of parliamentary democracy.

Vociferous demonstrations and riotous election meetings, complete with occasional bodily harm, happen from time to time in all democratic assemblies. That they also occurred during the rise of the National Socialist Party doesn't alter the fact that the Hitler Government came to power under exactly the same laws, rights and customs as all its predecessors.

Adapted from Schacht, Hjalmar 1933, Wie eine Demokratie Stirbt (How a Democracy Dies), Düsseldorf-Wien, 1968. Translation by Tony Barta.

9a Read the eyewitness accounts of the passing of the Enabling Act 1933. Describe the atmosphere in the meeting.

9b What examples are there of intimidation or force?

9c How does the Nazi Government's witness minimise those threats?

9d Was democracy given to the Nazis by Germans, or was it taken from them?

Assessment task

It is March 1933. Significant events have occurred in Germany. It is up to you to let the people of Australia know what is happening in Germany.

Present your explanation in one of the following ways:

  • as a newspaper report
  • as a storyboard of a film report
  • as one side of a debate on the issue: Democracy in Germany - was it taken or was it given?

In creating your report, storyboard or debate you must explain:

  • the background to the events of 1933
  • the nature of the Nazi Party and the alternatives available to the German people
  • what is attracting people to the Nazi Party
  • what has happened in 1933
  • why those things have happened
  • what these events mean for Germans in terms of democracy, pride, freedom and national unity and what they mean for particular groups such as Jews, communists and those who oppose the Nazi Party.

Assessment criteria

Your work will be assessed on:

ESL activities

Back to 'A Democracy Destroyed - At a glance'

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