Academic journal article Teaching History: A Journal of Methods

Acting out Nazi Germany: A Role-Play Simulation for the History Classroom

Academic journal article Teaching History: A Journal of Methods

Acting out Nazi Germany: A Role-Play Simulation for the History Classroom

Article excerpt

The scene I confronted when I arrived in the classroom on that third day of the simulation unnerved me. Festooned all over the walls, the blackboard, the backs of chairs, and the door through which I had entered were photocopied political posters, some in full color, most in black and white, all sporting an array of frightening images from Germany in 1932: swastikas, hammers and sickles, pictures of Adolf Hitler and Karl Marx, a Socialist Party poster with a worker crucified upon a devilish swastika, invocations to vote for this candidate or that one, threats of dire consequences should one or the other side prevail. I quickly closed the windowed door and blocked it, fearful that a colleague or a student might happen by, glance in, and wonder what I was teaching these students. Students moved me out of the way and papered the door window with even more posters, and I confronted the unforeseen consequence of an improvisation. On a whim, at the end of the first day of a three-day simulation of the German Reichstag election of 1932, I had promised an extra 300 votes to whichever party put up the most posters on the third day, and my students had responded with ferocious energy! Well, I thought, that idea was obviously going to require a little bit of tweaking. (1)


Students can really get involved in simulations. Properly structured, they represent the ultimate in active learning techniques, allowing participants not only to discuss historical events and their sources, but to try to reenact them, to get into the shoes of historical people and move around in them. A simulation comes closer than any other tool to helping students understand the past from the perspective of those who lived it. (2) When I ask students about the simulation in class evaluations at the end of the term, the reaction is nearly always enthusiastic. "I loved the simulation!" wrote one. "It was a great experience which helped me understand the actual election and how each group of people in German society was affected." Another wrote simply, "highlight of the course!" Students love simulations so much that they are always quick to offer specific suggestions for how they can be improved, made more challenging, or best of all, more realistic. That reaction demonstrates not only that students enjoy the experience, but that they make a real connection between the experience of the simulation and the history it is supposed to illuminate. (3)

Because simulations require a solid commitment of class time (a minimum of three days in my classes) as well as careful planning, the event or topic to be simulated must illustrate an important course theme. In various classes, I have structured simulations around medieval feudalism, the Terror in the French Revolution, the fall of the Soviet Union, the independence movement in nineteenth-century Latin America, and conflicts among the Italian Renaissance states in the fifteenth century. All of these, including the German election of 1932, are sufficiently detailed and involved to merit a substantial investment of class time and student effort.

Setting up the Simulation

Once a topic is chosen, the simulation itself must be designed. I start with the rule that all roles must be gender-neutral. That is, both men and women must be able to play any role. In the important fifteen- to twenty-minute debriefing that ends every simulation, students can discuss how realistic or unrealistic this is (and thereby learn more about gender roles in different periods), but it is important that students of either gender to be able to play every role. It is also practical, since the balance in the average classroom is usually too unpredictable to plan gender-specific roles in any but a single-gender institution.

Along with gender-neutrality goes the assumption that students will read substantially in the literature of the period before the simulation begins. …

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