Heroes and Villains

The Self-Deception of Irma Grese

Students will explore the vice of self-deception in civil society in this lesson on civic virtue.  Students will examine the life of Nazi Irma Grese who was an ordinary young woman who joined the Nazis and perpetrated great crimes in Auschwitz during the Holocaust.  Students will analyze a historical narrative, discussion guide, photographs, and other activities to try to understand how an ordinary person could have deceived herself to adopt an ideology of hatred through blind obedience and its consequences.

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.

Equality image


Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Liberty image


Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.

Majority Rule / Minority Rights image

Majority Rule / Minority Rights

Laws may be made with the consent of the majority but only to the point where they do not infringe on the inalienable rights of the minority.

Suggested Launch Activity

CENTRAL QUESTIONS: How can a person become so deceived by an idea that they will commit horrific acts against others? How can one prevent themselves from being deceived in a such a way?


The Holocaust was a unique event in human history. Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime carried out the genocide of an entire group of people, the Jews. Although Jews were practitioners of a religion, the Nazis used Social Darwinism and other racial science theory to label Jews a race who were “inferior.” They used the modern technology of railroads to ship Jews from all over Europe and killed them in modern factory systems. The organization of the systematic mass murder was carried out by Nazi bureaucrats who saw it as a complex problem to solve. All of this happened in the modern twentieth century. As a result, the Nazis killed six million Jews and millions of other people deemed “inferior.” In the wake of World War II, the world cried, “Never Forget.”

Discuss with the students how primary sources are important to the Holocaust for several reasons. Primary sources help preserve the memory of this terrible crime so that it never happens again. Additionally, primary sources help us to remember the victims of the genocide. Since there are those who deny that the Holocaust happened or question its scope, primary sources provide stark and comprehensive evidence that the Holocaust happened. Finally, primary sources associated with the Nazi participants can help start to explain how the people could have deceived themselves into thinking that it was morally acceptable to kill Jews.

About Launch Activities

This optional introductory activity 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.

Lesson Background

The trial began on September 17, 1945. On the stand were 45 defendants, each accused of acts of great barbarity….

Essay PDF

Sources and Further Reading

Bergen, Doris L. War & Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.

Browning, Christopher R. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.

Gellately, Robert. Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Johnson, Eric. Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews, and Ordinary Germans. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Wistrich, Robert S. Hitler and the Holocaust. New York: Modern Library, 2001.

Virtue Across the Curriculum

Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi (1985), directed by Richard Marquand
Luke Skywalker is a young and often headstrong Jedi in training. He is fighting on behalf of the resistance against the Galactic Empire. The light side of the force guides his actions. When he learns that his father is the dread Darth Vader, a fallen Jedi who has been tempted away from the light side of the force by the power of the dark side, he is confronted with a choice. Will he continue fighting for his friends or join his father? Tempted by both the natural love of family and the power the dark side of the force offers, Luke must resist with all his might not to be tempted and swept away by the powers of evil.

Captain America, Civil War (2016), directed by Anthony and Joel Russo
Torn between loyalty to his friend and to a group fighting for justice, Captain America must think through what is right and what is wrong and how not to be deceived by the wrong side.

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
Schindler’s List directed by Steven Spielberg (1993)
Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi
Night by Elie Wiesel

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