A historian will tell this to students who enroll in her Hitler class this Fall

Historians in the News
tags: Hitler, Christine Adams, Tyranny



Christine Adams (cmadams@smcm.edu) is a professor of history at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

I always begin my history survey course, geared to first-year students, by asking about their “front-burner” issues — the issues that most concern them as they begin their college careers. These include personal issues, such as managing their demanding new schedules, but also issues with larger implications, such as global warming, health care access and the state of the economy. The point of the exercise is to get students thinking of themselves as historical actors; that while we all see the world through the lens of our own experiences, we are also products of this particular moment in history, and their concerns reflect that. I always hope that it will be empowering for my students to see themselves living and making history.

Helping students to see themselves as historical actors feels more important than ever these days. This fall, I will be teaching a course on Hitler’s Germany. In the past, students in this class have always arrived at the critical questions with a sense of wonder: How did the citizens of a democratic country allow the slide to dictatorship to take place? Why did Germans let a charismatic madman come to power legally, if not with a majority of the country’s votes? Why did they tolerate increasingly vicious attacks on fellow citizens and external aggression that led to the deadliest war in history? Surely, in a democracy, politically-engaged individuals should be able to recognize and stop the worst before it happens. We should be able to defend our institutions against those who seek to undermine them and send would-be authoritarian rulers packing before they entrench themselves in power. ...

One thing that we can learn from the past: Tyranny does not arrive in one fell swoop, but slowly, imperceptibly moves in as the guardrails we hope will protect our democracy give way. I hope that our study of the past will move my students to think about both the immediate and structural problems that we face and how we might act collectively to shore up our institutions that seem most vulnerable. I hope that protecting democracy will become a “front-burner” issue for us all.




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