Using Primary Sources to Promote Deeper Understanding of History

“Those people were just crazy!”

When students first learn about the rise of fascism in Europe, especially the Nazi regime, the question many ask is, “How could this possibly have happened?” The natural reaction of many students to the horrors of fascism is to try to explain them away as something that could never happen to a “normal” country or to people like them. They will say, “The Germans were just insane!” or, “The Nazis were evil!” However, from the perspective of a historian, “insanity” and “evil” aren’t useful explanatory categories.

Ideally, learning about Nazism will serve as a warning from history, not just a darkly fascinating but otherwise irrelevant phenomenon to be exploited for its entertainment value, as it often is in popular culture. Instead of dismissing Nazism as “craziness,” with TCI students will strive to understand how Nazism took hold and how everyday people just like them could have become caught up in it.

Developer Nathan Wellborne and I specifically designed TCI’s Classroom Presentation on the rise of fascism to promote this type of deeper understanding. This new Classroom Presentation appears in Lesson 23, “The Rise of Fascism and Totalitarian States,” in History Alive! World Connections, TCI’s soon-to-be released world history program.

In the Presentation, students learn about fascist and totalitarian propaganda art, and how art and culture were used as tools to promote loyalty to totalitarian regimes. As part of the activity, the teacher plays the role of a government official, and students are able to experience firsthand how information can be repressed under a totalitarian regime. By analyzing propaganda posters, students will learn how to critically examine a primary source artifact and read behind the falsehoods fascist regimes presented to their citizens. Hopefully, students will be able to extend this attitude of critical inquiry to the world around them. In the end, this is a much more useful lesson to take away from studying fascism than simply the conclusion that Hitler was completely insane.

We’re putting the final touches on this lesson, but you can try other lessons from History Alive! World Connections by signing up for a 30-day trial.


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