Museum Fellowship Lesson Plans

 
  German parliament building destroyed by fire on February 27, 1933

 The Reichstag Fire
 Judith Clark-Zaino
 Milford High School
 Milford, New Hampshire

 

 
  Dome of the Reichstag destroyed by fire.
Courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives

Overview

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.

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. 

Note: Given the recent events experienced in our own country on September 11, 2001, students have context to understand the shocking destruction of cultural symbols and how a government may respond to both the event and the perpetrators of the crime. While there can be little doubt of who was to blame on September 11 in the United States, the controversy over who set the Reichstag fire will most likely never be formally resolved. Asking students to discuss the issues of limitation of rights following such a disaster may, or may not, lead to discussions regarding the Patriot Acts. Anticipating such a discussion may prove helpful. Noting the similarities and differences of the two events has led to numerous interesting discussions in my classroom. 

Objectives

  • 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. 

Time Required

One class period and follow-up homework assignment.  

Grade Level

Grades 10-12

Curriculum Fit

Holocaust Studies, World History

Procedure / Strategy

  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.

Materials / Resources

  • Newsprint and markers
  • Weimar Constitution excerpts.
  • The following New York Times newspaper articles in pdf file format have been provided courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers:

Evaluation / Assessment

  • Notes on the NY Times articles
  • Graphic Organizers
  • Quiz that includes this subject

Weimar Constitution (excerpts)

Section II. The Reichstag
Art. 25. The President of the Federation may dissolve the Reichstag, but only once for any one cause. The general election is held not later than on the sixtieth day after dissolution.

Section III. The President of the Federation and the Federal Government
Art. 48. If a state fails to perform the duties imposed upon it by the federal constitution or by federal law, the President. . may enforce performance with the aid of the armed forces. If public order and security are seriously disturbed or endangered within the Federation, the President. . may take all necessary steps for their restoration, intervening, if need be, with the aid of the armed forces. For the said purpose he may suspend for the time being, either wholly or in part, the fundamental rights described in Articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124, and 153. The President. . has to inform the Reichstag without delay of any steps taken in virtue of the first and second paragraphs of this article. The measures to be taken are to be withdrawn upon the demand of the Reichstag. 
Art. 54. The Federal Chancellor and the Federal Ministers require the confidence of the Reichstag for the exercise of their offices. Any one of them must resign if the Reichstag withdraws its confidence from him by an express resolution.
Art. 56. The Federal Chancellor settles the political program, for which he is responsible to the Reichstag. 
Art. 114. Personal freedom is inviolable. No restraint or deprivation of personal liberty by the public power is admissible, unless authorized by law ...
Art. 115. The residence of every German is a sanctuary for him and inviolable. Exceptions are admitted in virtue of the law only.
Art. 117. The secrecy of correspondence, as well as the secrecy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications is inviolable. Exceptions may be admitted by federal law only.
Art. 118. Every German is entitled within the limits of the general law freely to express his opinions by word of mouth, writing, printing, pictorial representation, or otherwise. . .
There is no censorship, but the law may otherwise provide as regards cinematographic performances. Legislative measures are also permitted for the purpose of combating base and pornographic publications . . .

Examples of Student Work

Please click on image to display graphic organizers in full size. 

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