Active Learning on

Reichstag 1932-1933:
How did Hitler finally gain power?


Those of you who had the good fortune to attend Ian Luff’s opening plenary at the 2009 SHP Conference will remember this activity. For five minutes Ian turned 250 law-abiding, gentle History teachers into a rancorous horde of Fascists and Communists, pouring bile on their opponents. And then he turned us back into the reasonable people we are but whilst in roles another part of our brains was developing an understanding of why Hitler came to power – magic!

Ian’s description of the activity (below) not only provides clear guidelines on how to use this activity to develop understanding of how Hitler gained power but also raises important general teaching issues. Firstly, Ian explains why understanding this particular event makes an important contribution to students’ understandings of the workings of democracy. Secondly he addresses the importance of making complexity accessible rather than thinking ‘that’s complex so best avoid it’ – and he shows how to do this by helping students into the topic in such a way that they gain the confidence to build up detailed knowledge later. Happily for me, this is very much in accord with my own use of role-play on very complex topics at A level and degree level – good teaching methods work with all ages!

So over to Ian’s description:

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Or, a WORD version of this activity and accompanying resources can be downloaded:

This activity is based on the ’Simulation’ style of model; for more examples of this model, click here.


It has always worried me that many departments succumb to the temptation of glossing over Hitler’s rise to power on the grounds that it is excessively complex. In my opinion this is a grave mistake which leaves pupils – particularly those who do not follow a history course after Year 9 - with the impression by default that Hitler seized power by force of arms. The danger of this impression is that it reduces the responsibility of the ruling elite for undermining Weimar democracy by making them appear helpless in the face of overwhelming force. This is a dangerous untruth. At the very least the responsibility of the ruling elite should be subjected to debate: not removed entirely from the equation. As both historians and as the voters (or indeed non-voters) of tomorrow pupils need to understand that democracy is fragile and can be undermined.

A second issue arising from this is that, as history teachers, we owe it to pupils to make the complex accessible even though extremely complex topics such as this can often lose pupils in a maze of detail and technical terms. What is important to think about is the phasing in of detail. Whilst detail is required eventually for full understanding, too much detail tackled too soon will quickly lead to ‘switch- off’ for most of the class. It is hard to pull a class back after pessimism about ‘getting it’ has set in. This simplified role play, acting as an introduction, illustrates the framework of the topic in an enjoyable way, grab enthusiasm and pave the way for methodical analysis of the political moves of 1932-33.

This role play is therefore designed to simplify the complex political situation of 1932-3 to the point that useful discussion can be undertaken and complexity re-introduced once pupils have mastered the basic elements of the situation. It gives pupils access to the atmosphere and vested interests of the time, making the point that the norms and conventions of polite society or bourgeois politics had dissolved in the face of self interest and a perceived communist threat.

Setting Up and Briefing

[This assumes use with a Y9 class with 20-something students – you’ll probably need to adapt numbers in groups if using with smaller A level groups.]

1. Arrange the class in three blocks with the largest block formed of the quietest pupils in the centre. The left hand block (of perhaps six) represents Communists. The right hand block represents Nazis and should be larger than the Communist group.

2. Take the Nazis and Communists out of the room separately, one group after the other, to brief them. The briefing is for that group only to hear [but leave classroom door open or observe through glass door so you are alert to possible antics of those still in the room, but remember that these were selected as the quietest.]

Communists are briefed to shout down the Nazis whenever the latter make a noise. They are told to stop making a noise the instant the Nazis stop. A pupil can be given the role and briefing sheet of the Communists’ leader, Ernst Thalmann, if the teacher so wishes. Since the Communists merely react to actions of the Nazis, Thalmann’s role does not need to be an active one (See briefing sheet).

The Nazis are told to look to their leader. A charismatic pupil is essential for this. Give only him/her the briefing sheet as this helps the rest of the Nazi group focus on him/her as leader. He or she is told to give a signal to the Nazis to shout and yell as soon as any democratic politician reaches the words ‘my country’ in an acceptance speech. Nazis are briefed to be absolutely silent on a signal from their leader. That signal will be given as soon as the democratic politician is sacked by Hindenburg and sits down. (See briefing sheet)

3. Everyone returns to the classroom. From the centre group, select two chancellors: von Papen to be followed by von Schleicher – one to succeed the other. Give them the pre-written speech of dull content (See briefing sheet). They will only need these few lines as Nazi interruptions will prevent the speech from being heard. Centre group is briefed (and everyone can hear this) to give polite applause when a new chancellor stands – whoever he is.

Note – from here your role is a double-one. You both play the part of Chancellor Hindenburg and act as Director of events, when necessary prompting pupils to follow their role-briefs and react to the unfolding events.

Briefing Cards

These cards are also provided as a separate sheet, for easy copying [ click here ]

Von Papen/von Schleicher speech

‘I am honoured to have been chosen as the chancellor of my country. We now must be patient and build steadily. Britain and France cannot be offended, nothing drastic can be done…’


As soon as the democratic politicians Papen or Schleicher reach the words ‘my country’ you order or signal to your Nazis to create as much noise as possible. Once Hindenburg orders the chancellor to sit down then order or signal to your Nazis to be silent.

When shaking hands with Hindenburg say, aside to the crowd, ‘This old fool is 84. He won’t live much longer.’ - but smile at Hindenburg all the time whilst you’re saying it!

When Hindenburg mentions fire, listen to him then gesture to your Nazis to kill the Communists. Point at the Communists, then draw a hand across your throat.

Communists: leader - Ernst Thalmann

When the Nazis make a noise try to match it with your Communists.

When the Nazis are silent, order your communists to be silent.

When shot by the Nazis all Communists slump on the desk

The Activity

4. You now take the role of Von Hindenburg, the German President, announcing your name and position and making great play of having to choose a chancellor in this time of crisis.

a) Pointedly show contempt for the Communists, holding up your own wallet and accusing the communists of wanting to take your money.

b) Then pour scorn on the Nazi leader as an ex-corporal rabble-rouser

c) select a Chancellor from the centre: an ex military man and aristocrat, von Papen. Ask him to stand and make his acceptance speech as the new Chancellor of Germany.

5. Von Papen stands and begins his acceptance speech from the briefing paper. On reaching the words ‘my country’ in the acceptance speech von Papen is howled down by the Nazis and the din is joined by Communist shouts.

In your role as President Hindenburg, dismiss von Papen as Chancellor for incompetence - the noise stops on a signal from the Nazi leader as soon as the ex-chancellor has sat down.

6. Still in your role as Hindenburg

a) again make a great play of rejecting the Communists. You could even pretend to spit at them.

b) also reject the Nazis again but this time less wholeheartedly - saying ‘They are very disciplined’ and ‘Hitler was in the army’ but then think again, saying ‘He was a corporal, what am I thinking of? I must choose somebody else – a general from the centre will be safe.’

c) now choose another politician from the centre – this time von Schleicher. Again invite the new Chancellor to make his acceptance speech - with the same chaotic result as before as Nazis and Communists shout the new leader down.

7. Now as Hindenburg

a) select the Nazi leader and make him Chancellor. Explain that ‘at least they have discipline and might be able to control the Communists’.

How do the other groups react? The centre group politely applaud. The Communists remain silent from fear of the large Nazi block.

b) shake hands with Hitler and explains aside (so everyone can hear) that you will use Hitler to get rid of the Communists, then … you will get rid of Hitler.

c) Hitler aside to the crowd says ‘this old fool is 84. He won’t live much longer. (See briefing sheet below). Both smile at each other.

8. Hindenburg then points to the window and says ‘Is the Reichstag burning? Lean forwards as if Hitler has whispered to you and then say ‘Oh so you think it was the communists?’

Hitler gestures to his Nazis to shoot the communists. Communists play dead (see briefing sheet).

9. The centre group is now offered the chance to vote complete power to Hitler by Hindenburg. Gesture at the dead communists and say ‘whatever you think of Hitler it seems dangerous to oppose him. Think of your families. Don’t worry, I will still control the army’ Hands will rise as the centre vote for Hitler. Those who do not are approached from behind by a Nazi.

10. After acting a dramatic yet natural death for Hindenburg and explaining that Hitler has now taken Hindenburg’s power as well and is calling himself ‘Fuhrer’, the teacher can confidently ask the class where the power in Germany now lies.


This role-play is noisy but self regulating since the cessation of noise is built into the roles of both Nazi and Communist leaders. The activity has great power for showing how a rule-respecting centre can be undermined by a combination of organised disruption and prejudice from those, such as Hindenburg, entrusted with guarding the constitution. Detailed follow-up is easy, and to any depth required. Pupils will have gained interest and, just as important, confidence that the topic is indeed understandable.

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Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

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Set Up & Briefing

Briefing Cards

The Activity