Heroes and Villains

August Landmesser’s Courageous Refusal

A look at the virtue of courage through the courageous action of August Landmesser. Courage is defined as standing firm in being a person of character and doing what is right, especially when it is unpopular or puts you at risk. The significance or courage in a society built on democratic principles is explored in this lesson.

Founding Principles

Civic Virtue image

Civic Virtue

A set of actions and habits necessary for the safe, effective, and mutually beneficial participation in a society.

Private Virtue image

Private Virtue

The idea that only a knowledgeable and virtuous citizenry can sustain liberty.

Suggested Launch Activity

CENTRAL QUESTION: What is the significance of courage in a society built on democratic principles?

  1. Post the central question on the board before class. Point it out to students, and let them know they’ll be expected to write an answer to it at the end of class.
  2. Gather students in a hallway, a gym, or a classroom in which you can create a clear path from one side to the other. Identify one end of the hallway (or room) as “strongly agree” and the opposite end as “strongly disagree.” Describe the space between those two ends as the continuum between those two positions, and identify a defined midpoint. Explain that you are going to read a series of statements, that students will listen to each entire statement and then, on your cue (Suggested cue: Say, “Choose a position and take your stand.”), choose a position and to go stand at the spot on the continuum or on either end, that represents his or her position: “Strongly Agree,” “Strongly Disagree,”… or somewhere in between.
  3. Read each of the following statements, allowing time for students to choose and move to a position, to note their positions in relation to the entire continuum, and for you to note their positions in relation to each other. Do not make direct comments; just read the statements and allow students time to decide on, and move to, their positions. (It is likely that many students will agree, to some degree, with each statement.)
    • “Judge not, lest you be judged.”—Then the cue: “Choose a position and take your stand.”
    • “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”—Then the cue to move.
    • “All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”—Then the cue to move.
  4. Without commentary, but while acknowledging and encouraging student comments, return to the classroom and direct students to their seats. Distribute the Courage Primary Source Analysis handout. Conduct a close-reading of the photo, referring to the questions provided and allowing for additional discussion. When students discover the location of August Landmesser, allow time for those who find it to point it out to others, and for their natural reactions and commentary.
  5. Distribute copies of August Landmesser’s Courageous Refusal. Read and discuss it in relation to the primary source analysis you completed with the photograph.

Concluding Activity – Teacher’s Notes

  1. Distribute the From Where I Stood to Where I Stand handout. Make sure each student has two different colors of pen or pencil. Have each student indicate, in one color, the “hallway position” they chose for each statement. Discuss why students chose the positions that they did. Do the same with the second statement. Do the same with the third. Discuss the following:
    • Do the first two statements mean that one should keep silent in the face of evil? Why do you think so?
    • Does the third statement mean that we should judge the actions of others? How do you know?
    • How, if at all, can the contradictory ideas in the previous two questions be reconciled? (That is, idea that on the one hand, we shouldn’t ever judge others, but on the other hand, that we should take action against injustice?)
    • Are there times when judgment is required in order to take a just action?
  2. Refer students back to their handout, this time inviting them to revise their positions by indicating in a second color, their revised positions and to follow the additional instructions provided.

About Launch Activities

The optional introductory activity above is designed to support you in the classroom. However, the primary narratives and photos in the section that follows can be used with or without this introduction.

Sources and Further Reading

Benz, Wolfgang. A Concise History of the Third Reich. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Hill and Wang, 2006.

Virtue Across the Curriculum

Below are corresponding literature and film suggestions to help you teach this virtue across the curriculum. Sample prompts have been provided for the key corresponding works. For the other suggested works, or others that are already part of your curriculum, create your own similar prompts.

The Avengers (2012)
Read the dialogue and answer the following questions:

  • How does this scene relate to the photo of Landmesser?
  • What does the German Old Man mean by “There are always men like you”?
  • Are there, in fact, always people like the German Old Man? Explain.

The Avengers Dialogue
Loki: Kneel before me. I said, KNEEL!
[everyone becomes quiet and kneels before him]
Loki: Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity, that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.
German Old Man: [defiantly rises] Not to men like you!
Loki: There are no men like me.
German Old Man: There are ALWAYS men like you!

Erika’s Story by Ruth Vander Zee
Refer to both the text and illustrations in this picture book to answer:

  • Who, in this story, relates to Landmesser?
  • How is courage demonstrated in this story?
  • Did courage necessarily mean there was an absence of? Explain.

The Crucible by Arthur Miller
Glory directed by Edward Zwick (1989)
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
Henry V by William Shakespeare
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
1984 by George Orwell

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