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The Man Behind Hitler
Teacher's Guide: Suggestions for Active Learning

Joseph Goebbels delivers a speech during the book burning in Berlin, 1933 The Man Behind Hitler provides insights into social studies topics including World War II in Europe, the Holocaust, fascism, U.S. involvement in foreign wars, political propaganda, censorship, and more. You can use part or all of the film, or delve into the rich resources available on this Web site to learn more, either in a classroom or on your own.

The following activities are grouped into four categories: history, civics, psychology and biography. You can also read a few helpful hints for completing the activities.

History | Civics | Psychology | Biography

  1. The road to tyranny and war.
    Divide the items below equally among the members of the class, and have students find out how their assigned items were related to the Nazis' rise to power and the coming of World War II: (a) Beer Hall Putsch; (b) Great Depression; (c) Hitler-Stalin Pact; (d) Kristallnacht; (e) Lebensraum; (f) Mein Kampf; (g) Night of the Long Knives; (h) Nuremberg Laws; (i) President Paul von Hindenburg; (j) Reichstag fire of 1933; (k) reparations; (l) SA; (m) Sudetenland; (n) Treaty of Versailles; (o) Weimar Republic. Then use this information to create a timeline extending from November 11, 1918 (the day World War I ended) to September 1, 1939 (the day World War II started in Europe). You do not need to have a separate timeline entry for each of these items, but each item should be mentioned somewhere on the timeline.

    When you are done, review the timeline as a class. Do you think the Nazis' rise to power and World War II were inevitable, or could one or both of these events have been prevented?

  2. Stopping Hitler.
    Take the online poll on whether the United States should have tried to stop Nazism in the late 1930s.

    To get a sense of how this question might have appeared to Americans at the time, divide the class into groups of two: imagine that it is January 1, 1939, and each group has been asked by President Franklin Roosevelt to advise him on this issue. One member of each group should prepare a one-page memo arguing in favor of American intervention against the Nazis, while the other member should prepare a one-page memo arguing against American intervention. The two memos don't have to have the same format -- you may want to include a bulleted list of arguments, quotes from Nazi leaders or other officials, charts or photographs, or other elements -- but each should be as persuasive as possible.

    Have the members of each group exchange memos and vote on which side they found more persuasive. Then find out how the class as a whole voted: how many groups were split, and how many agreed either for or against intervention?

History | Civics | Psychology | Biography

  1. Propaganda and democracy.
    Germany wasn't alone in using propaganda during World War II. Both sides in the war used propaganda to rally domestic support for the war effort and weaken enemy morale. Review these examples of German and American propaganda and note the similarities between the two.

    When is it proper for a democratic country like the United States to use propaganda? Consider the following issue: late in 2005 it was revealed that the U.S. government had paid Iraqi journalists to write stories for the Iraqi press that presented an optimistic view of events in Iraq under U.S. occupation.

    Review this Online NewsHour report presenting both sides of this question. On the board, list three arguments in favor of the U.S. policy; next to each one, list a counterargument that responds to the specific point made in that argument. Then list three arguments against the U.S. policy, and a counterargument next to each one. When you have finished, vote as a class on whether you approve or disapprove of the U.S. policy.

  2. Censorship and libraries.
    Read Goebbels' 1933 speech at a public ceremony where German students burned thousands of "un-German" books by authors ranging from Karl Marx to Helen Keller. Then review this online exhibit from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on the U.S. reaction to the book-burnings, paying special attention to this discussion of ongoing controversies in the United States over whether certain books, such as J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, should be banned from school libraries.

    Today, no one is burning books in giant bonfires, but many people feel that certain books should be kept from young people. What is the best way to decide which books should (and should not) be made available in school libraries? Explore this issue as a class. Begin by having members of the class do their own research to learn more about this issue, such as by reviewing this information from the American Library Association on books that recently have been challenged or banned.

    Then discuss the following questions as a class:

    • What are the similarities between burning books and banning books from school libraries? What are the differences?
    • Should there be limits on what kinds of materials can be placed in school libraries? If not, why not, and how would such a policy work in practice?
    • If there should be such limits, what kinds of materials should not be allowed in school libraries -- materials containing graphic presentations of sex or violence, for example, and/or materials promoting hatred?
    • Should exceptions be made for materials that are historically important, such as Hitler's book Mein Kampf, even if they violate a school's restriction against materials advocating hatred and violence?
    • Should students have a voice in the decision of which materials should be allowed in school libraries? Should their parents?
    • Should certain materials be allowed in school libraries even if some members of the community find them offensive? What if most of the members of the community find them offensive?

    Through your discussion of these questions, see if you can come up with a proposed policy for your school that is acceptable to most of the students in the class. Then invite your school's librarian, principal, or other school official to come to your class and explain how materials are selected for your school's library, and discuss your proposals with him or her.

History | Civics | Psychology | Biography

  1. Shaping beliefs through stories.
    Working in groups of two, review four Nazi propaganda films overseen by Goebbels. For each film, first explain what you think the goal of the film was -- what were audiences supposed to believe, or do, as a result of watching it? Next, explain who you think the characters in each film represented, and why the story was relevant to something that was happening in Germany at that time. (For example, was "The Jew Suss" really only about an eighteenth-century Jew, and was "Kolberg" really only about Napoleon?) Compare your answers with those of the other groups.

    Finally, discuss as a class why you think Goebbels believed stories like this were an effective way to shape Germans' beliefs. Why didn't he think it was enough for the government simply to tell people what they should believe and do?

  2. What makes propaganda effective?
    Read the interview with historian Martin Kitchen in which he explains that propaganda has to be believable to be effective and discusses the importance of language in shaping people's thoughts.

    Then read three examples of Goebbels' propaganda: his 1939 article, "What Does America Really Want?", his 1941 article attacking British leader Winston Churchill, and his 1943 speech after the Stalingrad disaster.

    For each of the readings, explain what its goal is and how Goebbels tries to achieve that goal. What tone does he use, and what kinds of striking words or images? Try to imagine that you were a target of each of these pieces: do you think you would have found them persuasive? Why or why not? Hold a class vote on which of the readings was most effective, and which was least effective.

History | Civics | Psychology | Biography

  1. Goebbels' "flight from freedom."
    In his 1941 book Escape from Freedom, German psychologist Erich Fromm examined the reasons for the rise of Nazism. He asked, "Can freedom become a burden, too heavy for man to bear, something he tries to escape from? ...Is there not also, perhaps, besides an innate desire for freedom, an instinctive wish for submission?" Fromm also wrote that "a Fascist ... is driven by the desire to subordinate himself to a higher power and at the same time to overpower other people."

    Do you think Fromm's statements help explain why Goebbels became, and remained, a fanatical Nazi? Imagine that you are a psychologist during World War II and the U.S. government has asked you to prepare a psychological profile of Goebbels. Using information from Goebbels' biography, his diary, his relationship with Adolf Hitler, and the film, briefly explain why you think he became a Nazi and whether he is likely to remain a loyal Nazi even if Germany begins to lose the war.

  2. Understanding evil.
    Shortly before his death, Goebbels stated, "We shall go down in history as the greatest statesmen of all time, or as the greatest criminals." Do you think Goebbels and the other Nazi leaders knew that the many crimes they committed were evil? If so, how did they live with themselves? If not, how did they convince themselves that what they were doing was right?

    Working with a partner, select one of the Nazi leaders -- Goebbels, air force chief Hermann Göring, SS leader Heinrich Himmler, or Adolf Hitler himself, -- and find out more about him. Decide whether you think the person you chose felt any guilt for his crimes, and if not, why not. Present your theory to the class, and explain the evidence on which you base it.

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The Man Behind Hitler American Experience