How Does History Explain Why Germany Changed the Structure of Its Government? A classroom Activity and Explanatory Performance Task Grade 9 Civics

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How Does History Explain Why Germany Changed the Structure of Its Government?

A Classroom Activity and Explanatory Performance Task

Grade 9 Civics

Written by:

Amy Moores

Smyrna School District

Acknowledgements: Ms. Denise Weiner, Private Consultant in collaboration with the University of Delaware’s Professional Development Center for Educators
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Classroom Activity

Note to teacher: You may choose to create your own PowerPoint on graphic organizer to help your students with the information provided in this activity.

    1. First, complete a vocabulary review of the term “Alliance”. An alliance is defined as a union or association formed for mutual benefit, especially between countries or organizations.

    2. Ask students to think of examples of alliances in the real world today. Examples can be: The United States and Great Britain/France/Germany/Italy, etc.

    3. Provide students with the maps of Europe dated prior to World War I and World War II. Ask students to brainstorm which countries were allied during each war and explain why they made that choice. Provide students with the main players in each World War for this activity.

    4. Work through the answers students provide until you come to the correct alliances.

World War I


Great Britain






United States

World War II

Germany + conquered territories

Great Britain


Soviet Union



United States

Part One: Student Directions


During the late 19th and 20th centuries, Germany was involved in two World Wars. The result of the First World War was almost complete economic ruin and that lead almost directly to the events that caused World War II. America had a major part in helping Germany create their current structure of government found in their Constitution.

Your Assignment:

You will research four documents that depict different events and times in German history. Through each document you should recognize specific events, leaders, and government structures that would impact the ultimate choice of government Germany settled on in their Constitution. You will then complete research questions about the sources. Finally, you will write an explanatory essay laying out why, based on the history and experiences of the country, the German Government ultimately established the structure of government they have today.

Directions for Beginning:

You will now examine several sources. You can re-examine any of the sources as often as you like.

Research Questions:

After examining the research sources, use the remaining time in Part 1 to answer the three questions about them. Your answers to these questions will be scored. Also, your answers will help you think about the research sources you have read and viewed, which should help you write your explanatory essay.

You may refer back to your scratch paper or look at your notes when you think it would be helpful. Answer the questions in the spaces below the items. Your written notes on scratch paper will be available to you in Part 1 and Part 2.

Source #1

Emperor and King: 1888

Wilhelm’s father became Kaiser Frederick III of Germany in March 1888. Already ill with terminal throat cancer, he died after a reign of only several months. Wilhelm succeeded his father on June 15, 1888, at the age of 29. Within two years of his coronation, Wilhelm broke with Otto von Bismarck (1815-98), the “Iron Chancellor” who had dominated German politics since the 1860s. The Kaiser embarked on his so-called New Course, a period of personal rule in which he appointed chancellors who were upper-level civil servants rather than statesmen. Bismarck bitterly predicted that Wilhelm would lead Germany to ruin.

Wilhelm damaged his political position in a number of ways. He meddled in German foreign policy on the basis of his emotions, resulting in incoherence and inconsistency in German relations with other nations. He also made a number of public blunders, the worst of which was The Daily Telegraph affair of 1908. Wilhelm gave an interview to the London-based newspaper in which he offended the British by saying such things as: “You English are mad, mad, mad as March hares.” His childhood visits to his British cousins had given him a love for the sea–sailing was one of his favorite recreations–and his envy of the power of the British navy convinced him that Germany must build a large fleet of its own in order to fulfill its destiny. The Kaiser supported the plans of Alfred von Tirpitz (1849-1930), his chief admiral, who maintained that Germany could gain diplomatic power over Britain by stationing a fleet of warships in the North Sea. By 1914, however, the naval buildup had caused severe financial problems for Wilhelm’s government.

Kaiser Wilhelm II and World War I

Wilhelm’s behavior during the crisis that led to war in August 1914 is still controversial. There is little doubt that he had been broken psychologically by the criticism that followed the Eulenburg-Harden and Daily Telegraph scandals; he suffered an episode of depression in 1908. In addition, the kaiser was out of touch with the realities of international politics in 1914; he thought that his blood relationships to other European monarchs were sufficient to manage the crisis that followed the June 1914 assassination of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand (1863-1914) in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Although Wilhelm signed the order for German mobilization following pressure from his generals–Germany declared war against Russia and France during the first week of August 1914– he is reported to have said, “You will regret this, gentlemen.”

With World War I under way, the Kaiser, as commander in chief of the German armed forces, retained the power to make upper-level changes in military command. Nonetheless, he was largely a shadow monarch during the war, useful to his generals as a public-relations figure who toured the front lines and handed out medals. After 1916, Germany was, in effect, a military dictatorship dominated by two generals, Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934) and Erich Ludendorff (1865-1937).

Source #2

Viewing Germany as the chief instigator of the conflict, the European Allied Powers decided to impose particularly stringent treaty obligations upon the defeated Germany. The Treaty of Versailles, presented for German leaders to sign on May 7, 1919, forced Germany to concede territories to Belgium (Eupen-Malmédy), Czechoslovakia (the Hultschin district), and Poland (Poznan [German: Posen], West Prussia and Upper Silesia). The Germans returned Alsace and Lorraine, annexed in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian War, to France. All German overseas colonies became League of Nation Mandates, and the city of Danzig (today: Gdansk), with its large ethnically German population, became a Free City. The treaty demanded demilitarization and occupation of the Rhineland, and special status for the Saarland under French control. Plebiscites were to determine the future of areas in northern Schleswig on the Danish-German frontier and parts of Upper Silesia on the border with Poland.

Perhaps the most humiliating portion of the treaty for defeated Germany was Article 231, commonly known as the "War Guilt Clause," which forced the German nation to accept complete responsibility for initiating World War I. As such Germany was liable for all material damages, and France's premier Georges Clemenceau particularly insisted on imposing enormous reparation payments. Aware that Germany would probably not be able to pay such a towering debt, Clemenceau and the French nevertheless greatly feared rapid German recovery and the initiation of a new war against France. Hence, the French sought in the postwar treaty to limit Germany's potential to regain its economic superiority and to rearm. The German army was to be limited to 100,000 men, and conscription proscribed; the treaty restricted the Navy to vessels under 100,000 tons, with a ban on the acquisition or maintenance of a submarine fleet.

Moreover, Germany was forbidden to maintain an air force. Finally, Germany was required to conduct war crimes proceedings against the Kaiser and other leaders for waging aggressive war. The subsequent Leipzig Trials, without the Kaiser or other significant national leaders in the dock, resulted largely in acquittals and were widely perceived as a sham, even in Germany.

The newly formed German democratic government saw the Versailles Treaty as a “dictated peace” (Diktat). Although France, which had suffered more materially than the other parties in the “Big Four,” had insisted upon harsh terms, the peace treaty did not ultimately help to settle the international disputes which had initiated World War I. On the contrary, it tended to hinder inter-European cooperation and make more fractious the underlying issues which had caused the war in the first place. The dreadful sacrifices of war and tremendous loss of life, suffered on all sides, weighed heavily not only upon the losers of the conflict, but also upon those combatants on the winning side, like Italy, whose postwar spoils seemed incommensurate with the terrible price each nation had paid in blood and material goods.

For the populations of the defeated powers—Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Bulgaria—the respective peace treaties appeared an unfair punishment, and their governments, whether democratic as in Germany or Austria, or authoritarian, in the case of Hungary and Bulgaria, quickly resorted to violating the military and financial terms of the accords. Efforts to revise and defy the more burdensome provisions of the peace became a key element in their respective foreign policies and proved a destabilizing factor in international politics.

The war guilt clause, its incumbent reparation payments, and the limitations on the German military were particularly onerous in the minds of most Germans, and revision of the Versailles Treaty represented one of the platforms that gave radical right wing parties in Germany, including Hitler's Nazi Party, such credibility to mainstream voters in the 1920s and early 1930s. Promises to rearm, to reclaim German territory, particularly in the East, to remilitarize the Rhineland, and to regain prominence again among the European and world powers after such a humiliating defeat and peace, stoked ultranationalist sentiment and helped average voters to overlook the more radical tenets of Nazi ideology.

The burdensome reparations, coupled with a general inflationary period in Europe in the 1920s, caused spiraling hyperinflation of the German Reichsmark by 1923. This hyperinflationary period combined with the effects of the Great Depression (beginning in 1929) seriously to undermine the stability of the German economy, wiping out the personal savings of the middle class and spurring massive unemployment. Such economic chaos did much to increase social unrest, destabilizing the fragile Weimar Republic.

Finally, the efforts of the Western European powers to marginalize Germany through the Versailles Treaty undermined and isolated German democratic leaders. Particularly deleterious in connection with the harsh provisions of Versailles was the rampant conviction among many in the general population that Germany had been “stabbed in the back” by the “November criminals”—those who had helped to form the new Weimar government and broker the peace which Germans had so desperately wanted, but which ended so disastrously in Versailles. Many Germans forgot that they had applauded the fall of the Kaiser, had initially welcomed parliamentary democratic reform, and had rejoiced at the armistice. They recalled only that the German Left—Socialists, Communists and Jews, in common imagination—had surrendered German honor to an ignominious peace when no foreign armies had even set foot on German soil.

This Dolchstosslegende (stab-in-the-back legend) helped further to discredit German socialist and liberal circles who felt most committed to maintain Germany's fragile democratic experiment. The difficulties imposed by social and economic unrest in the wake of World War I and its onerous peace terms worked in tandem to undermine pluralistic democratic solutions in Weimar Germany and to increase public longing for more authoritarian direction, a kind of leadership which German voters ultimately and unfortunately found in Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party.

Source #3

Excerpt from Hitler’s speech declaring war on the United States, December 11, 1941:

“Today I am at the head of the strongest Army in the world, the most gigantic Air Force and of a proud Navy. Behind and around me stands the Party with which I became great and which has become great through me. The enemies I see before me are the same enemies as 20 years ago, but the path along which I look forward cannot be compared with that one which I look back. The German people recognizes the decisive hour of its existence millions of soldiers do their duty, millions of German peasants and workers, women and girls, produce bread for the home country and arms for the Front. We are allied with strong peoples, who in the same need are faced with the same enemies. The American President and his Plutocratic clique, who have mocked us as the Have-nots, will see to it that they are not robbed of the little they have.

You, my fellow party members, know my unalterable determination to carry a fight once begun to its successful conclusion. You know my determination in such a struggle to be deterred by nothing, to break every resistance which must be broken. In September 1939 I assured you that neither force nor arms nor time would overcome Germany. I will assure my enemies that neither force of arms nor time nor any internal doubts, can make us waver in the performance of our duty.

When we think of the sacrifices of our soldiers, any sacrifice made by the Home Front is completely unimportant. When we think of those who in past centuries have fallen for the Reich, then we realize the greatness of our duty. Buy anybody who tries to evade this duty has no claim to be regarded in our midst as a fellow German. Just as we were unmercifully hard in our struggle for power we shall be unmercifully hard in the struggle to maintain our nation.

At a time when thousands of our best men are dying nobody must expect to live who tries to depreciate the sacrifices made at the Front. Immaterial under what camouflage he tries to disturb this German Front, to undermine the resistance of our people, to weaken the authority of the regime, to sabotage the achievements of the Home Front, he shall die for it! But the difference that this sacrifice brings the highest honour to the solider at the Front, whereas the other dies dishonoured and disgraced.

Our enemies must not deceive themselves-in the 2,000 years of German history known to us, our people have never been more united than today. The Lord of the universe has treated us so well in the past years that we bow in gratitude to a providence which has allowed us to be members of such a great nation. We thank Him that we also can be entered with honour into the ever-lasting book of German history!”

Source #4

An excerpt from the German Constitution approved May 8, 1949

Article 20 {Constitutional principles – Right of resistance}

  1. The Federal Republic of Germany is a democratic and social federal state.

  2. All state authority is derived from the people. It shall be exercised by the people through elections and other votes and through specific legislative, executive and judicial bodies.

  3. The legislature shall be bound by the constitutional order, the executive and the judiciary by law and justice.

  4. All Germans shall have the right to resist any person seeking to abolish this constitutional order, if no other remedy is available.

Article 20a {Protected of the natural foundation of life and animals}}

Mindful also of its responsibility toward future generations, the state shall protect the natural foundations of life and animals by legislation and, in accordance with law and justice, by executive and judicial action, all within the framework of the constitutional order.
Article 23 {European Union – Protection of basic rights – Principle of subsidiarity}

  1. With a view to establishing a united Europe, the Federal Republic of Germany shall participate in the development of the European Union that is committed to democratic, social and federal principles of subsidiarity, and that guarantees a level of protection of basic rights essentially comparable to that afforded by this Basic Law. To this end the Federation may transfer sovereign powers by a law with the consent of the Bundesrat (Senate). The establishment of the European Union, as well as changes in its treaty foundations and comparable regulations that amend or supplement this Basic Law, or make such amendments or supplements possible, shall be subject to paragraphs (2) and (2) of Article 79.

Research Questions

  1. The author in Source #1 claims that Kaiser Wilhelm II was reported to have said, “You will regret this, gentleman,” upon signing the order for German mobilization following pressure from his generals. Explain how Source #2 supports this quote. Give specific evidence from Source #2 to support your answer.

  2. Based on Hitler’s tone and word choice in Source #3, explain how he would have felt about the development of the structure of government found in Source #4. Cite evidence from the sources to support your answer.

  3. Look at the claims in the table. Decide if the information in Source #1, Source #2, Source #3, and/or Source #4 supports each claim. Put a check in the box that identifies the source that supports each claim. Some claims will have more than one box selected.

Source #1 – Emperor and King

Source #2 –

Treaty of Versailles

Source #3 –

Hitler’s Speech

Source #4 -

excerpt from the German Constitution

Germany was governed under a dictatorship.

The World Wars were major events in German history that lead to the current structure of government.

Having a strong military is important to the German way of life and pride of country.

Part Two:

You will now review your notes and sources, plan, draft, revise and edit your writing. You may use your notes and refer to the sources. Now read your assignment and the information about how you writing will be scored; then begin your work.

Your Assignment:

Your school is holding a writing contest. The prompt asks students to determine how historical events have led to a current situation. You have decided to write your explanatory essay on how the history of Germany has led to its current structure of government.

Your assignment is to use your research and answer the following prompt: How have the history and experiences of Germany lead to its current structure of government developed in the German Constitution. Develop your ideas clearly and use your own words, except when quoting directly from the sources. Be sure to reference the sources by title or number when using details or facts directly from the source. Organize your essay in a way that makes sense to the reader.

You will be graded based on the DOE 9-10 explanatory essay rubric.

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