Lesson Plan

World Leaders Turn their Backs

Examine the dismissive language used by world leaders who attended the Evian Conference in 1938 and decided not to expand their aid to refugees seeking asylum from Nazi persecution.

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Enduring Understanding

Countries with a great deal of power sometimes do what is in their best interest rather than what is right or ethical.

Essential Question

  • 1Why do countries with so much capacity fail to offer their help to people and other countries who are in so much need?


10 Min

Review the timeline from Echoes & Reflections between 1933 and 1938 to get a better picture of the context in which the Evian Conference occurred. What was the Evian Conference? Where was it? Who attended?

Highlight some of the major moments of persecution that Jews already witnessed at the hands of Nazis, like the boycott of Jewish businesses, the Nuremberg Laws or the expulsion of Jews from professional services.


10 Min

If need be, review the basic concept of the Evian conference. If time permits, students can read this short summary from Facing History and Ourselves. Then, divide the class into five groups, assigning each group to one of the countries represented in the reading here.

Ask the groups to read their quotes very carefully. It will seem to be accomplished easily, they should read these quotes with great acuity and attention to detail.


30 Min

Ask all the groups to consider the following set of questions and record their group answers:

  1. What do you know about the country you are assigned and the role that country ultimately played in WWII?
  2. What is the message that your country is telling the refugees?
  3. What kind of language (specific words and phrases) is being used by the country’s leaders to talk about their decision?
  4. Did your country own up to the decision or did they hide behind a sense of disempowerment or ‘policy’?
  5. Why do you think the leaders of your country made the decision that they did?

Each group should then present what they found in closely reading the quotations from their country. Take note of the themes that emerge–words like ‘impossible’ or ‘incapable’ will continue to come up. Ask how it is that countries like the USA are ‘incapable’ of something?

Then prompt the final question:

  1. Do you think the decision of your country’s leaders is justified or defensible? Why or why not?

This could be answered immediately, or, if time permits, groups could reconvene and come up with specific arguments about why the decision was defensible or justifiable. Possibly leave the class with a question about what motivated these countries to act to participate in WWII? If it wasn’t the plight of Jews, what was the reason these countries entered the war?

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