Human rights issues during and after World War II with focus on Nazi Germany

The Holocaust Centre in Cape Town has produced an excellent Learner’s Book called Lesson for Humanity. This 72-page full colour book provides a rich variety of primary sources and accompanying activities that assist learners in developing their historical skills. In exploring the issues of human rights and social justice, this interactive book focuses on the universal lessons that arise out of Holocaust history. The book helps learners explore ways to apply these lessons to present day issues and situations. You can read more about ordering the book on

For notes for Educators teaching the Holocaust, click here.


Why study the Holocaust?

A Sudaten woman weeps as she is forced to give the Nazi salute to the invading Germans. Source:

Before reading this material, it is worth considering why we learn about the Holocaust.

"We learn about the Holocaust so that we can become more human, more gentle, more caring, more compassionate, valuing every person as being of infinite worth, so precious that we know such atrocities will never happen again and the world will be a more humane place." - Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus, Patron of Cape Town Holocaust Centre, August 1999

We should remember the value every of person as being precious and of infinite worth. We should respect human rights. We should be alert and keep informed so that such atrocities will never happen again and the world will be a more humane place.

Holocaust history teaches us about:

  • the consequences of prejudice, racism, intolerance, and  discrimination
  • the roles and responsibilities of individuals, groups, and nations, and the consequences of the choices they make
  • the consequences of human rights violations
  • the human capacity for good and evil
  • the need to become sensitised to inhumanity and suffering
  • understanding the importance of safeguarding democracy
  • the danger of propaganda and stereotyping
  • the use and abuse of knowledge
  • the effects of blind loyalty to a leader, and peer pressure
  • the use and abuse of power
  • the results of placing self-interest above moral principles
  • the necessity of identifying danger signals and knowing when to react

The end of World War I: 1918

There have been two World Wars. During the First World War the countries Britain, France, Italy and Russia fought against Germany, Austria and Turkey. The United States of America entered the war right at the end, and helped Britain and its allies to win the war. Germany and its allies were defeated. The war started in 1914 and ended in 1918. The war caused poverty, political chaos and economic collapse. In many ways, this war set the stage for the Second World War (WWII) which broke out two decades later in 1939.

The fighting in WW I stopped in 1918. At the end of a war, there is usually a meeting of the leaders of the countries that won the war, and they discuss and write down a Peace Treaty or agreement. At the end of World War I, the Peace Treaty of Versailles was signed.

The countries which won the war wanted to take revenge on the countries which lost the war. This is what happened to Germany:

  • Germany had to pay for the cost of the war. Germany had to pay millions in reparations for the cost of the damage of the war.
  • Germany lost land.
  • Germany also had to admit that it was to blame for the war by signing the War Guilt Clause.
  • Germany was not allowed to build up a defence force again.

A new government was set up in Germany in a town called Weimar. Germany became known as the Weimar Republic, with a democratic government. A man called Hindenburg became the President.

The beginnings of the Nazi Party in Germany: 1920s

Adolf Hitler joined the Nazi Party at the end of WWI, and became its leader in 1921. The Nazis set up armed groups of supporters who wore brown shirts. These groups became known as the Storm Troopers (in German they are called the SA which is short for Sturm Abteilung). They organised massive parades, dressed in uniforms and carrying flags with the Nazi symbol, the Swastika on it.

The SA had no problem with using violence, and often beat up people who disagreed with them. The SA pledged 'to be always ready to risk life and limb in the struggle for the aims of the Nazi Party and to give absolute military obedience to my leaders'.

You can read more about Mein Kampf on this external website:

The Nazis hated the new Weimar government which had signed the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler and the Nazis tried to overthrow the Weimar government in 1923 in a coup or putsch. This putsch failed, and Hitler was sent to jail for nine months. While he was in jail, Hitler wrote his famous book called 'Mein Kampf' in which he outlined many of his ideas.

After the putsch failed, Hitler decided to get the Nazi Party so well organised, and so attractive, that German people would vote in the elections for the Nazi Party. By 1929, they were still not very popular.

The impact of the Great Depression: 1929

In 1929 an economic disaster occurred that affected most of the world. The disaster began in the United States of America, the leading economy in the world. The American economy was controlled by the money market or stock exchange in the city of New York. The New York stock exchange is situated in a building on Wall Street. The Wall Street stock exchange collapsed in 1929, and the American economy collapsed with it. This event was known as the Wall Street Crash, and was the start of the Great Depression.

The United States of America wanted back the money that it had lent to Germany after World War I. Germany was unable to pay back the money. German businesses collapsed and more and more people became unemployed. Ordinary men and women in Germany became very unhappy with the Weimar Government, and blamed it for the economic crisis. Some turned to support Hitler's Nazi Party.

The Weimar government could not cope with the crisis. By this time, the Nazi Party, with their powerful leader, was very well organised. The economic crisis made more people turn to Hitler, who promised law and order and the hope of jobs.

The Nazis come to power: 1932

After a series of national elections, the National Socialists rose to become the largest party in the Reichstag, or Parliament. On the 30th of January, 1933, President Paul von Hindenburg was forced to appoint Hitler, the party leader, as Chancellor. Source:

There was an election in 1932 and Hitler's Nazi Party won a large number of votes and he was appointed as the Head of Government (Chancellor or Prime Minister) of Germany.  Hindenburg was still the President and the Head of State. When Hindenburg died, Hitler combined the title of Chancellor and President. In 1933 he became an absolute ruler and dictator known as Der Fuhrer or The Leader.

In a dictatorship, one person rules the country. When Hitler became Der Fuhrer of Germany, the Nazis turned Germany from a democracy into a totalitarian dictatorship. This meant that they wanted total control over Germany and its people.

Germany, under the Nazis, became known as the Third Reich or Empire. The Nazis aimed to spread their Reich throughout Europe. The Third Reich went to war in 1939 against Britain and France in the Second World War. Russia and the USA later joined the Allies against Nazi Germany. The Third Reich came to an end in 1945 when Germany was defeated in World War Two.

The features of Nazi Germany: 1933 -1945


For worksheets on Life in Nazi Germany, go to:

The Nazi government was ruthless and cruel, violent and intolerant. Here are some of the ways they ruled Germany:

  • Used violence to keep control of people
  • Used symbols like the swastika to unite people
  • No freedom of speech or the press
  • No opposition allowed, everyone has to support the party and the leader
  • Hatred of communism. Trade unions were banned, and fascist leaders co-operated with the landowners and factory owners
  • Used propaganda through newspapers, radio, education, films, posters and leaflets, songs, symbols, and parades.
  • A big emphasis on the military, and built a strong army, navy and air force. Willingness to go to war.
  • The Gestapo was the Secret Police who spied on people and got rid of all opposition using any means they thought necessary.
  • Brutality and ruthlessness
  • Belief in a great leader who holds all the power. People were encouraged to worship the leader. This is often referred to as a personality cult.
  • A strong sense of pride in the country and belief that Germany was better than other countries. This is called nationalism.
  • The Nazis hated other races of people, like Jews and black people.
  • Hatred of democracy - the Nazis said that the German people existed to serve the government, not the government to serve the people.

Last updated : 27-Jul-2011

This article was produced for South African History Online on 22-Mar-2011