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Assessing the Impact of an Historical Event - The Reichstag Fire

[Click for printable version]

Submitted By: judiz@hotmail.com

Affiliate Group: Souhegan Valley, 2004/2005

School District: Milford, NH

Grade Level: 10-12

Intended Audience: Teachers

Standards Addressed: Discuss the nature, importance, and potential impacts on world affairs of political, demographic, environmental, pathogenic, economic, technological, and cultural developments, and identify and examine possible responses to these developments. Analyze the assertion that constitutional democracy is fragile and that it requires the participation of an attentive, knowledgeable, and competent citizenry. Analyze historical documents, artifacts, and other materials for credibility, relevance, and point of view. Discuss the origins, political ideas, and worldwide effects on society, politics, and economics of the European ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries including Conservatism, Liberalism, republicanism, social democracy, Marxism, Communism, Fascism, Nazism, and nationalism.

Curricular Connection:
English component in writing

Processing information

·Students will examine issues in the Weimar Constitution that allowed for the ascension of the Nazi party and Adolph Hitler to complete power.
·Students will read and analyze primary sources and decide what resulted from the fire.
·Students will create a “web” of the effects of the Reichstag fire.
·Students will recognize the fire and subsequent limitation of civil liberties, their impact on the German people and the suppression of opposition to the Nazis, particularly from the Communist party.

The focus of this lesson is to direct students toward understanding how a legally constructed republic with duly elected representatives can disintegrate into fascism. The results of the Reichstag fire and how they influenced the lives of individual Germans, members of the Communist party and Hitler’s elevation to dictator through the Enabling Acts need to be examined. Students need to piece together how the faulty Weimar Constitution allowed all of this to occur, how such limitation of rights affected the German people and why the populace seemed accepting of these restrictions. As with so many occurrences with the Nazi party, students need to note and understand the progressive nature of the Nazi rise from “fringe” party in 1924 to legitimacy and power in 1932. By creating a web, students will be able to recognize this progression as well as the interconnectedness of events.

90 minutes of classroom time

Background Information:
On February 27, 1933, the Reichstag, seat of the German parliament, caught fire and burnt to the ground. Just two weeks before the anticipated election of representatives to the Reichstag on March 5, the fire would prove to be Chancellor Adolph Hitler’s next step on his rise to eventual dictatorship of the former Republic of Germany. Hitler and the leaders of the Nazi party immediately accused the Communists of setting the fire. A few minutes after the fire had begun, Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch communist at the scene, was arrested for arson. What caused the fire, however, was not nearly as important as what resulted from the fire.

This lesson is part of a semester-long history course on the Holocaust and follows lessons that explain the 1932 Reichstag election, the election of President Otto von Hindenburg, the appointment of Adolph Hitler as Chancellor and the respective constitutional roles of both president and chancellor. This lesson should serve as a bridge to understanding how the legal election of 1932 devolves into the rigged election of 1933 that allows the Nazi party to gain control over the Reichstag. This lesson may be used in any history class, however, to explain how Germany deteriorated from a republic into a fascist dictatorship.

Teaching Suggestions:
1.Ask students what would have happened if, on September 11, another plane made it all the way to Washington and had crashed into the Capital Building. Would members of Congress been asked to remove themselves from office? Would the President have dissolved Congress? Why couldn’t these things have happened? Discuss how and why the US Constitution does not allow the President to dissolve Congress or call for new elections.
2.Give students handouts of selected portions of the Weimar Constitution. How does this differ from the US Constitution? Explain that they are going to take a look at what the effects of the Constitution are on German government and politics as well as on the rise of the Nazi party and Adolph Hitler.
3.Distribute copies of New York Times articles from February 28. 1933 through March 23, 1933 [Reichstag Fire and subsequent events]
4.Students will assemble in groups of three and read the NY Times articles, taking notes on the events that occurred as a direct result of the Reichstag fire. Students will then work together to construct graphic organizers/webs of the results of the Reichstag fire. They need to include the affect on the German public, the Communist party and what new laws resulted from the incident.

Related Link(s):
Web site with links to NY Times articles and examples of student work


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