Problems with teaching about dictatorships

By the time most teachers have started delivering GCSE or A level lessons on Nazi Germany, their pupils will already have consumed hours of movies, documentaries and YouTube clips about Hitler. This, you might think, is an advantage. Rarely can a classroom teacher expect their learners to come prepared with subject knowledge so when they do it should be embraced.

Berlin, Großkundgebung im Sportpalast
Das deutsche Volk fordert den grossen Krafteinsatz zur Erzwingung des Sieges. Am Donnerstagabend fand im Berliner Sportpalast eine Grosskundgebung der Bevölkerung Berlins statt, in der Reichsminister Dr. Goebbels mit schonungsloser Offenheit die Gefahr aufzeigte, in der Europa schwebt. Die von dem alten nationalsozialistischen Kampfgeist getragene Veranstaltung brachte das einmütige und leidenschaftliche Bekenntnis der Teilnehmer, der Männer und Frauen, der Ritterkreuzträger und Rüstungsarbeiter, der Verwundeten und zahllosen Männer aus allen Schaffens- und Wissensgebieten, den Krieg rücksichtslos und in seiner radikalsten Totalität zu führen und den Sieg über den Bolschewismus zu erzwingen. UBz: Uebersicht über den Sportpalast während der Kundgebung. Fot. Schwahn 18.2.1943 J 5235

Well, yes and no. Perhaps more no than yes.

A two dimensional, highly simplified and mythologised version of Germany in the 1930s is absorbed from the various history cable channels by learners who come to the lesson with the following preconceptions and misconceptions:

  • Hitler’s regime terrorised everyone, all day long, all the time.
  • Everyone supported the Nazis.
  • Everyone fanatically supported the Nazis.
  • All Germans were anti Semites.
  • Hitler’s government reached all areas of German life, all the time.
  • Everyone was brainwashed by propaganda.
  • Hitler’s economic policies were incredibly successful and the dictatorship got Germany working again.
  • Hitler had a plan for the Holocaust from 1918 onwards.
  • The people were terrified into supporting the regime.

And so on. It’s not to say parts of the above list are to some extent valid, but a real understanding of any time period or era is about seeing the nuances and the extent to which any given statement, however sweeping, can be said to be valid. Nazism, Stalinism and Maoism were all complex interactions between regime and society. In all three dictatorships the public had to be courted (particularly in Nazi Germany, that relied on endless plebiscites and referenda). Hitler was exceptionally sensitive to changes in the public mood during the 1930s and was aware that his public persona and popularity were very important. The range of views, opinions and attitudes towards Nazism was diverse, as Ian Kershaw points out, there were few fanatical supporters or opponents of the regime, simply a large ‘muddled majority’, trying to do their best to get what benefits they could from the regime and avoid falling foul of social or racial laws. By 1938 social research conducted by the SS on one hand and the Social Democratic Party’s covert agents in the county, Sopade, tended to indicate that there was widespread political indifference and apathy. People under the Nazis therefore interacted with politics in ways that are to some extent recognisable with the present day. They often felt cynical about the regime’s endless pronouncements, particularly as for much of the 1930s few Germans saw the material benefits of Nazism. Equally, there is precious little evidence to suggest that the German people were en masse a warlike population. Having suffered far greater losses than Great Britain during World War One and famine, revolution and political violence at the end of the war, many Germans were keen to avoid a repetition of the conflict in the late 1930s.

In general, it is important to start off a module on Nazism, Stalinism or any other dictatorship by showing that dictatorships may promise simplicity, but that doesn’t mean they deliver it. Instead they govern complex societies and the extent to which they really change those societies or mould them in their own image is debatable.

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