Museum Fellowship Lesson Plans

  Adolf Hitler

Governing National Socialist Germany
Stephen Pagaard
North Kitsap High School
Poulsbo, Washington


  Hitler at Nazi Party Congress, Nuremberg.
Courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives.


This short unit represents the eighth and ninth days of a twenty-five day unit on the Nazi Dictatorship/Holocaust. Prior to this unit, students are introduced to the background of the National Socialist period with a special focus on the decline of the Weimar Republic, the rapid rise of the Hitler movement, and the handing over of power to the Nazis in 1933. The purpose of this unit is to acquaint students with National Socialist government and the governing style of Adolf Hitler. Particular emphasis is on the concept of Gleichschaltung, the 'dual state', and the question of totalitarianism in Nazi Germany.


  • Students will gain a firm grasp of how the Nazi government worked.
  • Students will be able to demonstrate understanding of the concepts of Gleichschaltung, the dual state, and “working toward the Fuehrer.”
  • Students will be able to describe Hitler’s governing style.

Time Required

Two class periods.

Grade Level

Grades 10-12 

Curriculum Fit

20th Century Dictatorships, World History, Holocaust Studies

Day 1


In a previous assignment, students were asked to look up the derivation for the word “dictatorship” and write a brief paragraph summarizing how they think decisions were made in the Third Reich. Students now share their responses on “dictatorship” and on their prior knowledge of the Hitler dictatorship. Responses revolve around the Latin “dicere” (to say) and prior knowledge invariably assumes a tireless Fuehrer who works around the clock to supervise – through the Gestapo and other institutions – every detail of German life, and of a well-organized, highly efficient government.

Lesson Sequence

  1. Teacher introduces the concept of Gleichschaltung (synchronization or coordination). Examples are presented to illustrate the National Socialist effort at totalitarianism. Possibilities include: Nazification of the educational system and youth organizations, control of the media, coordination of the Protestant churches and intimidation of the Catholic, an oath of loyalty from the Wehrmacht, replacement of labor organizations with the D.A.F., and even control of leisure activities and the arts.
  2. Students are directed to the handout “The National Socialist Power Network”. It is circular and centralized, everything revolves around Hitler, and all has the appearance of careful organization. Students are asked to identify examples of Gleichschaltung from the chart: typically, students offer the Hitler Youth, the propaganda office, Hitler as the supreme judicial official, the hierarchical structure of the Gaus, even an office on racial policy. The chart is detailed so responses can lead to a lengthy discussion.

  3. Assignment: Read Ch. 2 in The Nazis and the excerpt from Speer’s Inside the Third Reich

Day 2


Students are now shown the transparency with these quotations and are then shown the photograph of Hitler sleeping: “In the twelve years of his rule in Germany Hitler produced the biggest confusion in government that has ever existed in a civilized state. . . . he systematically disorganized the upper echelons of the Reich leadership . . . .” Otto Dietrich, press chief “He disliked the study of documents [and] . . . took the view that many things sorted themselves out on their own if one did not interfere.” Fritz Wiedemann, personal staff. A discussion takes place around the question: "How do these views contradict the usual view of Nazi government?"


Lesson Sequence

  1. The teacher asks for student responses: What examples on the organizational chart show dual functions, i.e., two different functionaries from party and state assigned to the same job responsibility? This is called the “dual state” and is confusing. The most important identified are usually Ribbentrop and von Neurath in the area of foreign policy; Himmler and Frick in the area of police; Goering and Schacht in the area of economics; Seldte and Ley in the area of labor; and Lammers, Bouhler, Bormann, Hess, and Meissner in the Chancellery. Others can be added. For example, in the field of education Rust, von Schirach, Ley, Streicher, Rosenberg and Bouhler all competed for supremacy. In the struggle for control of economic assets in the East during the war, Himmler and Goering competed fiercely. The egos and influence of Goering, Goebbels, and Himmler all played a part in the Kristallnacht pogrom. Students draw on their knowledge from the text to understand how important the concept of struggle was to Hitler’s outlook and to how he governed. Subordinates were expected to “fight it out” and Hitler usually sided with the winner.
  2. Students are now asked to use the account of Hitler’s style provided by Speer and the text to draw up a typical daily schedule for Hitler. They should work in two's or three's. The results will have much to do with sleeping late, walking his dog, eating chocolate cake, reading news clippings selected for him, looking at building plans, and watching movies into the wee hours of the morning. They will include little in the way of “dictating”: i.e., concerning himself with the details of policy, tirelessly writing memos, or working late to insert himself in the governing process on the Stalin model. This is quite a revelation to students and they appreciate more fully the photo of Hitler. Speer’s account continues with an insider’s account of how the top Nazis manipulated their leader and, at the same time, undercut each other in order to move up the ladder of influence. This is lively discussion material.

  3. The notion of “working toward the Fuehrer” is introduced and discussed. Rather than issue orders, Ian Kershaw has argued, Hitler typically left bureaucrats under him to initiate policies within what they felt to be the spirit of the regime or according to Hitler’s wishes, and carried on implementing those policies until corrected. Typically, the most radical policies won the day. Our text describes very clearly how chaotic Nazi government actually was. A chilling case study illustrates the chaos within the Chancellery and how competition between different officials there had dire results in the child “euthanasia” policy. A chance letter to Hitler on a subject very close to his heart (racial purity) was read by Phillip Bouhler, ambitious and always eager to curry favor with Hitler, who passed it on and began to implement the T-4 program. Laurence Rees has called this governmental style “chaotic radicalism.”

Follow-up lesson

Examine the role played by the Gestapo. Consider the case study of the city of Wuerzburg in Lower Franconia, where only 28 Gestapo officials were required to supervise around 1 million inhabitants. The idea of an omnipresent secret police will be refuted.

Materials / Resources

  • Reese, Lawrence. “Chaos and Consent,”  Ch. 2 in The Nazis : A Warning from History. New York : New Press, 1997.
  • Speer, Albert. Inside the Third Reich. New York, Macmillan, 1970.
  • The Nazis in Power: Propaganda and Conformity (support documents including the “The National Socialist Power Network” circular chart).
  • photograph of a snoozing Adolf Hitler (available from The Nazis : A Warning from History)
  • transparency with relevant quotations.

Evaluation / Assessment

Students respond to an end-of-unit essay: “To what extent is it valid to suggest that the government of National Socialist Germany was a highly centralized, efficient, one-man, totalitarian dictatorship?” 

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