Modern history



A picture of Adolf Hitler is hanging on the wall in almost every classroom. Next to the memorial plaque in the stairwell a particularly valuable portrait of the Leader, acquired from funds of the Nölting Foundation, holds a place of honour. Teachers and pupils greet each other at the beginning and end of every lesson with the German greeting. The pupils listen to major political speeches on the radio in the school hall.

Thus reported the headmaster of a state secondary school in Wismar at the end of the school year 1933-4, a year, as he noted, of ‘growing into the thought-world of the new National Socialist state’.128 The process of adjustment had been made easier, he noted, through the membership of the staff in the National Socialist Teachers’ League and of the pupils in the Hitler Youth. It was also pushed on by a stream of new regulations and directives from the government in Berlin and the state authorities in other parts of Germany. Already on 30 July 1933 a central decree laid down ‘Guidelines for History Textbooks’ according to which history lessons had from now on to be built around the ‘concept of heroism in its Germanic form, linked to the idea of leadership’. Soon students were being set essays on topics such as ‘Hitler as the accomplisher of German unity’, ‘the nationalist revolution as the start of a new era’, ‘the film “Hitler Youth Quex” as a work of art’ and ‘I am a German (a word of pride and duty)’. One school student’s imagination ran riot in an essay on ‘Adolf Hitler as a boy’, written in 1934:

The boy Adolf Hitler was no stay-at-home. He liked to rough-and-tumble with other boys in the open. Why was he staying out so long today? His mother went restlessly from the cooker to the table, shook her head, looked at the clock, and began to think the worst about what Adolf was up to again. A few hours before she had seen from the window how he took off with a dozen other boys, who were almost all a head taller than slight Adolf and if it came to it could give him a real thrashing.

Then the door burst open and her Adolf stormed in, with bumps on his head and scratches on his face, but also with shining eyes, and shouted: ‘Mother, the boys have made me their General today.’129

Another child, pupil at a primary school, given the question ‘Were our Germanic ancestors barbarians?’, knew immediately how to draw a parallel with the recent past: ‘The allegation that our Germanic ancestors were barbarians’, he wrote, ‘is just as much a lie as for example the lie that Germany alone was to blame for the world war. It has been proved that the Germanic tribes stood on a high cultural plane even in the stone age.’130 The Nazi cult of death found its way into lessons too, as schoolchildren were asked to write about Horst Wessel and other martyrs for the Nazi cause. ‘We must not forget either, those who fell for the movement,’ wrote a fourteen-year-old in 1938, and added: ‘in thinking about all that we must also think of our own death’.131

Numerous essay questions also required school students of all ages to regurgitate the antisemitic bile the regime poured into them. Erna, a primary school pupil, sent her essay for publication in Streicher’s The Stormer, of which she readily confessed to being a reader. Set the topic of ‘The Jews are our misfortune’, she wrote: ‘Unfortunately many people still say today: “The Jews are also God’s creatures. So you must respect them too.” But we say: “Vermin are also animals, but despite this we exterminate them.”’ On occasion, particularly in working-class districts, schoolchildren could take a different view. In 1935, for example:

In a lesson that was devoted to those who had fallen for their country in the war, the teacher said that very many Jews had fallen as well. Straight away a young Nazi exclaimed: ‘They died of fright! The Jews don’t have any German Fatherland!’ At this, another pupil said: ‘If Germany isn’t their Fatherland and they died for it despite that, that even goes beyond heroism.’132

A student essay written in 1938, however, registered the effects of years of indoctrination on the opinions of the young. ‘Jews’, it claimed, ‘do not constitute a race in itself, but are a branch of the Asiatic and Oriental race with a negroid mixture.’ Jews, it went on, had made up 60 per cent of the higher civil service under the Weimar Republic (an estimate many times higher than the true figure) and ‘the theatre was completely Jewified too’, an equally drastic, vulgar overestimation. Despite this, ‘You’ll never have seen a Jew working, because they only want to trick their fellow men, non-Jews, out of their hard-earned money.’ Jews, it concluded, ‘had driven the German people into the abyss. This time is now over.’133

These student essays reflected a sharp change in the direction of teaching, ordained from above. History, ruled a directive issued on 9 May 1933 by the Reich Minister of the Interior, Wilhelm Frick, had to take a commanding position in the schools. The idea that history should be objective, added the General German Teachers’ Paper (Allgemeine Deutsche Lehrerzeitung) on 9 August 1933, was a fallacy of liberalism. The purpose of history was to teach people that life was always dominated by struggle, that race and blood were central to everything that happened in the past, present and future, and that leadership determined the fate of peoples. Central themes in the new teaching included courage in battle, sacrifice for a greater cause, boundless admiration for the Leader and hatred of Germany’s enemies, the Jews. 134 Such themes found their way into the teaching of many other subjects too. Biology was transformed to include ‘the laws of heredity, racial teaching, racial hygiene, teaching about the family, and population policy’ from the latter part of 1933 onwards.135 Basic reading primers acquired a picture of Hitler, often in the company of children, on their cover or as a frontispiece, or sometimes both. Tiny children learned to recite verses like the following:

My Leader!
I know you well and love you like my mother and father.
I will always obey you like I do my father and mother.
And when I grow up, I will help you like I will my father and mother,
And you will be pleased with me.136

Reading books such as the German Reading Book, issued in 1936, were filled with stories about children helping the Leader, about the healthy virtues of peasant life, or about the happiness of Aryan families with lots of children. A favourite was a story by Hitler’s press chief Otto Dietrich, recounting Hitler’s bravery in flying by aeroplane through a massive storm during the Presidential election campaign of April 1932. The Leader’s serenity conveyed itself to Dietrich and the other Nazis on the plane and calmed the terror they felt as the winds tossed the plane about the sky.137 By the mid-1930s there was scarcely a reading primer which did not mention one Nazi institution or another in a positive way.138 Picture-books for the very young portrayed Jews as devilish figures lurking in dark places, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting blond-haired German child.139

Some textbooks from the Weimar era remained widely in use for a while, though they were increasingly frequently censored at a local or school level, and already in 1933 the state committees that checked school textbooks were purged and staffed with committed Nazis. A steady stream of directives flowed from the education authorities in the regions, while additional teaching materials were also issued by Nazi teachers’ organizations in different parts of the country. Thus teachers knew within a few months of the Nazi seizure of power the basic outlines of what they had to teach. A directive issued in January 1934 made it compulsory for schools to educate their pupils ‘in the spirit of National Socialism’.140 In order to help achieve this aim, the Breslau regional chapter of the Nazi Teachers’ League for instance had issued more than a hundred extra pamphlets by the beginning of 1936 on subjects from ‘5,000 Years of the Swastika’ to ‘The Jew and the German Person’. They were sold to pupils for 11 pfennigs each. In some schools the teachers added to the education of their pupils in such matters by reading out loud to them articles from Julius Streicher’s The Stormer.141 All this was backed up by a whole battery of central government requirements, ranging from forced attendance in every school hall in the land to listen to Hitler’s speeches when they were broadcast on the radio, to the compulsory requirement to watch films issued by the school film propaganda division of Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry from 1934, including movies thought to have an appeal to the young such as Hitler Youth Quex and Hans Westmar. In every school, libraries were combed for non-Nazi literature and Nazi books stocked instead. Increasingly, classes were interrupted in order for the teachers and pupils to celebrate a whole variety of Nazi festivals, from Hitler’s birthday to the commemoration of fallen martyrs of the Nazi movement. School noticeboards were covered in Nazi propaganda posters, adding to the general atmosphere of indoctrination from very early on in the Third Reich.142

From 1935 onwards, regional initiatives were augmented by central directives covering the teaching of a whole variety of different subjects in different years. By 1938, these directives covered every school year and most subjects, even those without any directly ideological content.143 The teaching of the German language had to focus on speech patterns as the product of racial background, German words as instruments of German national consciousness and modes of speech as expressions of character.144 Even physics teaching was reoriented towards military-related topics such as ballistics, aerodynamics and radiocommunication, though necessarily a good deal of the teaching of basic principles had no clear political point of reference.145 Biology was redirected towards the study of race.146 Basic arithmetic textbooks compiled under the Education Ministry’s direction also began to appear from 1935. A central feature of these books was their inclusion of ‘social arithmetic’, which involved calculations designed to achieve a subliminal indoctrination in key areas - for example, sums requiring the children to calculate how much it would cost the state to keep a mentally ill person alive in an asylum.147 ‘The proportion of nordic-falian blood in the German people is estimated as ⅘ of the population,’ went one such question: ‘A third of these can be regarded as blond. According to these estimates, how many blond people must there be in the German population of 66 million?’148 Geography was recast in terms of Nazi ideology to stress ‘the concepts of home, race, heroism and organicism’, as the chapter headings of one handbook for teachers put it. Climate was linked to race, and teachers were advised that studying the Orient was a good way into the ‘Jewish question’.149 Innumerable geography textbooks propagated concepts such as living-space and blood and soil, and purveyed the myth of Germanic racial superiority.150 World maps and new textbooks emphasized the importance of geopolitics, implicitly underpinned the concept of ‘one people, one Reich’, or traced the expansion of Germanic tribes across East-Central Europe in the Middle Ages.151


Despite all these developments, teachers in some situations did retain a little room for manoeuvre. Many village schools were tiny, and the majority of all elementary schools still had only one or two classes in 1939. Teachers here could exercise a degree of freedom in interpreting the materials they were fed by the regime. Moreover, some textbook writers seem to have colluded implicitly with officials in the Ministry of Education to include a good dose of ideologically neutral material in their publications, enabling teachers whose priorities were educational rather than ideological to exercise a degree of choice.152 One handbook for primary schoolteachers, issued by the National Socialist Teachers’ League in 1938, insisted that the three Rs had to remain at the core of the curriculum. Children would serve the nation better, its author declared, if they mastered basic skills of literacy and numeracy before going on to secondary tasks.153 The more intelligent pupils, such as the artist Joseph Beuys, who went to school in a Catholic area of western Germany during this period, later remembered how they could spot which teachers were ‘opponents of the regime beneath the surface’; sometimes they distanced themselves by easily deniable gestures such as adopting an unorthodox stance or attitude when rendering the Hitler salute.154 One teacher in a Cologne school greeted his class ironically every morning with the salute: ‘Hail, You Ancient Germanic Tribesmen!’ Many made it clear that they were paying no more than lip-service to Nazi ideology.155 Yet such ambiguities could have a damaging effect on teaching. As one girl who left Germany at the age of sixteen in 1939 reported, the children were well aware that many of the teachers

had to pretend to be Nazis in order to remain in their posts, and most of the men teachers had families which depended on them. If somebody wanted to be promoted he had to show what a fine Nazi he was, whether he really believed what he was saying or not. In the last two years, it was very difficult for me to accept any teaching at all, because I never knew how much the teacher believed in or not.156

Really open dissent in the schools had become virtually impossible long before the eve of the war.157

As employees of the state, teachers fell under the provisions of the Reich Law for the Re-establishment of a Professional Civil Service, passed on 7 April 1933, and politically unreliable pedagogues were soon being identified by a network of investigative committees established by the Prussian Minister of Education, Bernhard Rust, who was himself a schoolteacher and a Nazi Regional Leader. Packed with active Nazis and controlled by the Regional Leaders and local Nazi officials, these committees brought about the removal of 157 out of 1,065 male secondary school heads in Prussia, 37 out of 515 male senior teachers and 280 out of 11,348 tenured male teachers. No fewer than 23 out of 68, or 32 per cent, of all women heads of secondary schools in Prussia were sacked.158In some areas the proportion was higher. In the Social Democratic and Communist stronghold of Berlin, for instance, 83 out of 622 head teachers were fired, and progressive institutions such as the Karl Marx School in the working-class district of Neukölln were reorganized under Nazi auspices, in this case with the loss of 43 out of 74 teachers.159 Those Jewish teachers who were not fired in April 1933 were compulsorily pensioned off in 1935; two years later, Jews and ‘half-Jews’ were formally banned from teaching in non-Jewish schools.160 Yet in general the proportion of dismissals was relatively low. The fact that so few non-Jewish teachers had been purged suggests powerfully that the great majority of schoolteachers were not unsympathetic to the Nazi regime. Indeed, they had been one of the better represented professional groups in the Party and its upper echelons before 1933, reflecting among other things a widespread discontent at salary cuts, sackings and job losses as the Weimar Republic reduced state expenditure during the Depression.161

The National Socialist Teachers’ League, founded in April 1927 by another schoolteacher-become-Regional-Leader, Hans Schemm, increased its membership rapidly from 12,000 at the end of January 1933 to 220,000 by the end of the year, as teachers scrambled to secure their positions by this obvious manifestation of their loyalty to the new regime. By 1936, fully 97 per cent of all schoolteachers, some 300,000 in all, were members, and the following year the League belatedly succeeded in merging into itself all the remaining professional associations. Some, like the Catholic Teachers’ League, were forcibly closed down, in this case in 1937. Others, such as specialist groups of teachers in particular subjects, continued to exist as separate entities or sub-groups of the National Socialist Teachers’ League. The League initially had to contend with a rival organization, the German Educationalists’ Community, backed by a rival Nazi boss, the Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick. But it emerged victorious. From 6 May 1936 the League was formally responsible for the political indoctrination of teachers, which it carried out by setting up political education courses, usually lasting for between one and two weeks, in its own special camps. Of the teachers employed in German schools in 1939 215,000 had undergone this training, which, like the fare offered at other Nazi camps, also included a large dose of military drill, physical jerks, marches, songs and the like, and required all the inmates to wear a military-style uniform for the duration of their stay.162

The pressures on teachers to follow the Nazi line were not just exerted from above. An incautious word in class could result in a teacher being arrested. On one occasion, a 38-year-old teacher in the Ruhr district told a joke to her class of twelve-year-olds that she immediately realized could be given an interpretation critical of the regime; despite her entreaties to the children not to pass it on, one of them, who had a grudge against her, told his parents, who promptly informed the Gestapo. Not only the teacher, who denied any intention of insulting the state, but also five of the children were interrogated. They had liked their previous teacher better, one of them said, adding that this was not the first time that the woman under arrest had told a political joke in class. On 20 January 1938 she was brought before the Special Court in Düsseldorf, found guilty and ordered to pay a fine; her three-week imprisonment on remand was taken into account. She had already been dismissed from her job at the beginning of the affair several weeks before. In everyday schoolroom situations, which were saturated with political obligations of one kind and another, fears of denunciation must have been widespread. Teachers under suspicion were likely to receive frequent visits from the inspectors, and every teacher, it was reported, who tried to reduce the impact of the increasingly Nazified teaching he was required to give, ‘had to consider every word before he said it, since the children of the old “Party comrades” are constantly watching out so that they can put in a denunciation.’163

Pressures to conform worked both ways; children who failed to give the required ‘Hail, Hitler’ greeting, for example, could be disciplined; in one instance, where Catholic schoolgirls were found greeting each other with the formula ‘H.u.S.n.w.K’, which a pro-Nazi girl learned, under a promise of strict secrecy, meant ‘Heil und Sieg, nie wieder Krieg’, ‘Hail and Victory, War Never Again’, a full-scale police investigation was launched. The new emphasis of the regime on physical education and military discipline played into the hands of traditionalist disciplinarians and martinets as well as newly fledged Nazis among the teaching staff. Corporal punishment and beatings became more common in schools, as the military spirit began to permeate the educational system. ‘In his lessons’, wrote a headmaster admiringly of one of his teachers, ‘a sharp Prussian wind blows, that does not suit the slack and idle students.’ Correspondingly, children who failed to show the required upright posture, who did not stand to attention smartly when addressed, or who showed any kind of ‘softness and slackness’ were in for trouble from Nazis and authoritarians on the staff.164

Yet teachers had to endure a barrage of criticism from adult Nazi activists at every level, starting with Hitler himself, and going on to what one group of teachers called ‘a tone of contempt for the teaching profession’ in the speeches of the Reich Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach. The result of such open contempt was, they went on, ‘that nobody wants to take up the teaching profession any more, since it is treated in this way by top officials and is no longer respected’.165 This observation was no idle complaint. Continuing pressure by the government to keep pay down in order to make money available for other aspects of state expenditure, such as armaments, added to the deterrent effect. In small village schools, teachers found it increasingly difficult to make ends meet as they were deprived of their traditional sources of additional income as village scribes, while many found it impossible to function as paid church organist and choirmaster at a time of growing conflict between the Church and the Party.166 Increasing numbers of teachers took early retirement or left the profession for other jobs. In 1936, there were 1,335 unfilled posts in elementary schools; by 1938 the number had grown to nearly 3,000 while the annual number of graduates from teacher training colleges, at 2,500, was nowhere near adequate to the estimated need of the school system for an additional 8,000 teachers a year.167 The result was that by 1938, class sizes on average in all schools had increased to 43 pupils per teacher as compared to 37 in 1927, while less than one-fourteenth of all secondary schoolteachers were now under the age of forty.168

Those teachers who remained in the profession soon lost much of the enthusiasm with which so many of them had greeted the coming of the Third Reich. The militarization of educational life caused increasing disillusion. ‘We’re nothing more than a department of the Army Ministry, ’ teachers were reported to be saying in 1934.169 The training camps they were required to attend were particularly unpopular.170 More and more time had to be spent away on officer training courses and military exercises.171 The lives of school heads and administrators were made a misery by endless regulations and decrees poured down from a whole variety of different agencies, one often contradicting the other. A Social Democratic observer described the situation in drastic terms towards the end of 1934:

Everything that has been built up over a century of work by the teaching profession is no longer there in essence. Only the outer shell is still standing; the school houses and the teachers and the pupils are still there, but the spirit and the inner organization has gone. They have been wilfully destroyed from above. No thought any more of proper working methods in school, or of the freedom of teaching. In their place we have cramming and beating schools, prescribed methods of learning and apprehensively circumscribed learning materials. Instead of freedom of learning, we have the most narrow-minded school supervision and spying on teachers and pupils. No free speech is permitted for teachers and pupils, no inner, personal empathy. The whole thing has been taken over by the military spirit, and by drill.172

In every school there were likely to be two or three fanatical Nazis amongst the teachers, willing at any point to report colleagues if they expressed unorthodox views. The more considerate ones even warned their colleagues openly that they would be obliged to inform on them if they said anything out of line. The common room became a place to avoid instead of a place for lively intellectual debate. When one head teacher, as was reported in Bremen, ‘criticizes in sharp terms the breach of confidentiality of decisions and the writing of anonymous letters that are even sent to the political police’, and called for a stop to ‘this attack on our honour and these reprehensible denunciations’, he was painting a grim picture of the changed atmosphere in the nation’s school common rooms; he was also a rare exception to the norm.173 School management committees and parents’ associations were turned from democratic institutions into agencies of control; from 1936, head teachers were no longer allowed to be appointed from the school’s own staff but had to be brought in from outside.174 This further reinforced the leadership principle that had already been introduced in 1934, with the head now the ‘Leader’ of the school and the teachers his ‘retinue’, who no longer had any input into the running of the school, but simply had to accept orders from above.175 In many schools, teachers also had to put up with the presence of old brownshirts who were found jobs as caretakers or even in positions of authority over them.176 Two or three ‘school assistants’ were appointed to help the teachers in each school; their continual presence in the classroom was resented by many teachers, who saw them, correctly, as political spies. Most of them were untrained and many were not even particularly well educated. Their ideological interventions became notorious. ‘The school assistants’, teachers joked amongst themselves, ‘are like the appendix: useless and easily inflamed!’177


As time went on, the Nazi Party, impatient with the inbuilt inertia of the state educational system, began to bypass it altogether in its search for new means of indoctrinating the young. Chief among these was the Hitler Youth, a relatively unsuccessful branch of the Nazi movement before 1933 when compared to, for example, the National Socialist German Students’ League. At that time, the Hitler Youth could not compete with the massive numbers of youth groups gathered together in Protestant or Catholic youth organizations, the youth wings of the other political parties, and above all the free youth movement that carried on the tradition of the Wandervogel and similar, loosely organized groups from before the First World War. Non-Nazi youth organizations simply dwarfed the Hitler Youth, a mere 18,000-strong in 1930 and still numbering no more than 20,000 two years later. By the summer of 1933, however, as in other areas of social life, the Nazis had dissolved almost all the rival organizations, with the exception of the Catholic youth organizations, which, as we have seen, took rather longer to close down. Boys and girls came under massive pressure to join the Hitler Youth and its affiliated organizations. Teachers were obliged to set selected pupils essays with titles such as ‘Why am I not in the Hitler Youth?’ and students who did not join had to endure continual taunting from their teachers in the classroom and their fellow students in the playground; as a last resort, they could even be refused the school-leaving certificate when they graduated, if they had not become members by this time. Employers increasingly restricted their apprenticeships to members of the Hitler Youth, thus bringing a particularly powerful material pressure to bear on school students nearing graduation.178

From July 1936 the Hitler Youth had an official monopoly on the provision of sports facilities and activities for all children below the age of fourteen; before long, sports for 14-18-year-olds were subjected to the same monopoly; in effect, sports facilities were no longer available to non-members. Hitler Youth members were given special days off school for their activities. The results of such pressure soon became apparent. By the end of 1933 there were 2.3 million boys and girls between the ages of ten and eighteen in the Hitler Youth organization. By the end of 1935 this figure was approaching four million, and by the beginning of 1939 it had reached 8.7 million. With a total population of 8.87 million Germans aged ten to eighteen by this time, this gave the Hitler Youth and its associated groups a near-total claim on the allegiance of the younger generation, especially when the fact that Jewish children were barred from joining is taken into account. From 1 December 1936 the Hitler Youth was given the status of an official educational institution and taken away from its previous subordination to the Reich Interior Ministry. From this point on it was an autonomous organization directly accountable through its leader Baldur von Schirach to the Leader alone. After 25 March 1939, membership was legally binding from the age of ten, and parents could be fined if they failed to enrol their children, or even imprisoned if they actively tried to stop them joining.179

It was above all through the Hitler Youth and its associated affiliates that the Nazis sought to build the new Germans of the future. Already in My Struggle, Hitler devoted a considerable amount of space to outlining his views on the nature and purpose of education in the racial state he wanted to build in Germany.180 ‘The folkish state’, he proclaimed, ‘must not adjust its entire educational work primarily to the inoculation of mere knowledge, but to the breeding of absolutely healthy bodies. The training of mental abilities is only secondary.’ Character-building came next, then the promotion of will-power, then the training of joy in responsibility. ‘A people of scholars, if they are physically degenerate, weak-willed and cowardly pacifists, will not storm the heavens.’ An academic education was useless. ‘The youthful brain should in general not be burdened with things ninety-five per cent of which it cannot use.’ Academic subjects would be taught only through ‘an abridgement of the material’, and they should be geared to the interests of the race: history teaching for example should cut out pointless detail and concentrate on encouraging patriotism. Physical education and character-building would culminate in military service, the last stage of education. The overriding purpose of the school was ‘to burn the racial sense and racial feeling into the instinct and the intellect, the heart and brain of the youth entrusted to it’.181

These nostrums were applied to the German schools, as we have already seen, after the Nazis came to power, backed by the pedagogic doctrines of Nazi educational theorists like Ernst Krieck, now standard fare in the teacher training institutions.182 But even when it had been centralized and taken completely under state control, the traditional primary and secondary education system was still only of limited use in achieving these ends. As Hitler proclaimed at the Nuremberg Party Rally in 1935:

In our eyes the German boy of the future must be slender and supple, swift as greyhounds, tough as leather and hard as Krupp steel. We must bring up a new type of human being, men and girls who are disciplined and healthy to the core. We have undertaken to give the German people an education that begins already in youth and will never come to an end. It starts with the child and will end with the ‘old fighter’. Nobody will be able to say that he has a time in which he is left entirely alone to himself.183

Members of the Hitler Youth were required to learn this speech by heart and proclaim it when the swastika flag was raised.184

The indoctrination which young Germans received through the Hitler Youth was ceaseless. Although it borrowed the style of existing youth organizations, with hikes, camping, songs, rituals, ceremonies, sports and games, it was emphatically a top-down organization, run not by young people themselves, as the old youth movement had been, but according to the leadership principle, by the Reich Youth Leadership under Schirach. The organization issued strict guidelines on the activities to be carried out. All those who joined had to swear a personal oath of allegiance to Hitler. Their training was compulsory and legally binding. Every age-cohort of the Hitler Youth had a set syllabus to get through each year, covering topics such as ‘Germanic gods and heroes’, ‘20 Years’ fight for Germany’, ‘Adolf Hitler and his fellow-fighters’, or ‘The people and its blood-heritage’. The songs they sang were Nazi songs, the books they read were Nazi books. Specially prepared information packs told the leaders what to say to the assembled children and young people and provided further material for their indoctrination.185 As time went on, military training increasingly came to the fore. Candidates for admission even to its most junior levels had to pass a medical and fitness test and only then could they become full members. On 20 February 1938 Hitler’s listing of its key divisions claimed:

The Naval-Hitler-Youth comprises 45,000 boys. The Motor-Hitler-Youth comprises 60,000 boys. 55,000 members of the Junior Hitler Youth are serving in aerial training through learning gliding. 74,000 Hitler Youths are organized in the Flying Units of the Hitler Youth. In 1937 alone, 15,000 boys passed their gliding tests. Today 1,200,000 Hitler Youths are receiving regular instruction in small-calibre shooting, led by 7,000 shooting instructors.186

By this time, training sessions were concentrating on parade-ground marching, learning the morse code, map-reading, and similar activities for boys, while girls focused on military nursing and air-raid protection.187

The result was that, as agents reporting secretly to the exiled Social Democratic Party leadership in Prague noted, even if the older boys retained something of the beliefs their Social Democratic, Communist or Catholic parents had passed on to them, the younger ones were ‘from the beginning onwards fed exclusively on the National Socialist spirit’.188 The possibility of holiday trips with the Hitler Youth, the sporting facilities, and much else, could make the organization attractive to children from poor working-class families who had not previously had the opportunity to enjoy these things. Some could find excitement and a sense of self-worth in the Hitler Youth.189 Idealism undoubtedly played a role in committing many young people to the cause in defiance of their parents’ wishes. Melita Maschmann joined the League of German Girls on 1 March 1933, secretly, because she knew her conservative parents would disapprove. Her attempts to read through ideological tomes such as Hitler’s My Struggle or Chamberlain’sFoundations of the Nineteenth Century came to nothing.190 She later claimed that, like many of her upper-middle-class friends, she discounted the violence and antisemitism of the National Socialists as passing excesses which would soon disappear. The League of German Girls offered her a sense of purpose and belonging, and she devoted herself to it night and day, to the neglect of her schooling and the distress of her parents. Yet, she wrote later, she was ‘only secondarily interested in politics, and even then often only under duress’.191For boys, the constant emphasis on competition and struggle, heroism and leadership, in sport as in other things, had its effect. There must have been many incidents like this one reported by a Social Democratic agent in the autumn of 1934:

The son of a comrade in my house is 13 years old and in the Hitler Youth. Recently he came home from a training evening and asked his father: ‘Why didn’t you defend yourselves then? I despise you because you didn’t possess a shred of heroism. Your Social Democracy is worthy of nothing more than to be beaten to a pulp because you didn’t have a single hero!’ His father said to him: ‘You don’t understand any of that.’ But the boy laughed and believed what his leader had told him.192

Old Social Democrats despaired. A whole generation was growing up, as one of them said, ‘that has no concept of the labour movement, that hears nothing all the time but “heroes and heroism”. This generation of young people doesn’t want to hear anything from us any more.’193

Yet despite this massive programme of military training and ideological indoctrination, the effect of the Hitler Youth on the younger generation was mixed. The more it evolved from a self-mobilizing movement fighting for a cause into a compulsory institution serving the interests of the state, the less attractive it became to the younger generation. Ideological indoctrination was often superficial, since the leaders of the Hitler Youth groups were more often men in the brutal, anti-intellectual tradition of the brownshirts than educated thinkers along the lines of the leaders of the old youth movement.194 Thus the majority of their charges had no very firm grasp of ‘the idea of National Socialism’. If there was a regime change, one of the more reflective youth leaders thought, for example through defeat in a war, then most of them ‘would adjust themselves to the new situation without particular inner complications’. 195 The emphasis on sporting activities that was such an attraction to many to join the Hitler Youth also hindered a full-scale indoctrination, since the interest of many boys and girls went no further than using the facilities to play games. Physical exercise was not to every child’s taste. Particularly unpopular was the obligation to go round with a collecting-box for donations, especially since this was increasingly a feature of school life too. With hikes sometimes beginning at 7.30 in the morning on a Sunday and lasting all day (not coincidentally obliging the religious amongst the participants to miss church) or compulsory gymnastics at eight o’clock on a Wednesday evening, it was not surprising that some young people began to long for time to spend on their own private pursuits. Yet unorganized hiking and spontaneous activities organized by the young people themselves, notable features of the pre-1933 youth movement, were expressly forbidden.196

In September 1934 the Hitler Youth leadership in a working-class district of Hamburg sent a lengthy memorandum to Hitler Youth members, with copies to their parents, complaining:

You are not turning up to do your duty and are not even giving any excuses for your absence. Instead you are pursuing private pleasures. The ‘liberal Marxist I’ counts amongst you once more, you are denying the National Socialist ‘we’. You are sinning against the interests of the nation. You are excusing yourselves from service because you want to go to an acquaintance’s wedding feast, you are excusing yourselves because you are overburdened with school homework and want to go for a spin on your bicycle. When you get to school you use your Hitler Youth service as an excuse for not finishing your homework.197

Most hated of all was the military discipline, which became more pronounced as time wore on.198 Schirach proclaimed that ‘the principle of self-leadership’ would apply as it had in the old youth movement,199 but in practice the organization was effectively run by grown-ups. Hitler Youth members were drilled by adult brownshirts, plunged into ice-cold water to toughen them up, forced to go on lengthy exercises in winter with inadequate clothing to teach them physical endurance and subjected to increasingly brutal punishments if they disobeyed orders. There were reports of boys being forced to run the gauntlet for minor misdemeanours, or even being beaten with spring-hooks. Doctors complained that long hours of drill, night marches with full packs and military exercises without proper nourishment were ruining young people’s mental and physical health.200

Social Democratic agents reported that young people absented themselves from training evenings, or failed to pay their dues, so that they were excluded from the organization, rejoining only when they needed to show their membership card to get a job or enter university. One agent in Saxony reported in 1938: ‘The boys are past-masters in telling the latest jokes about Nazi institutions. They fritter away their hours of service whenever they can. In their spare time, when they meet to play in a school-friend’s home, they talk contemptuously of “the plan of service”.’201 Children quickly got bored with long evenings sitting around a camp fire singing patriotic songs: ‘Most of them’, reported one Social Democratic agent, ‘want to go home already after the first song.’202 Weekly parades lasting from 7.30 to 9.30 in the evening were notable for their poor attendance. There was little that the organization could do to punish those who stayed away. As long as they paid their dues, they could not be expelled, and many a young person was, as one member of the League of German Girls noted, ‘more or less only a paying member’, since a fifteen-year-old ‘had all kinds of other interests’. Young people who were already at work in their teens found the hours of training particularly wearisome.203Camping, once a favourite activity in the youth movement, became increasingly unpopular as it became more militarized. As one young man returning from a camp complained:

We hardly had any free time. Everything was done in a totally military way, from reveille, first parade, raising the flag, morning sport and ablutions through breakfast to the ‘scouting games’, lunch and so on to the evening. Several participants left the camp because the whole slog was too stupid for them. There was no kind of fellow-feeling between the camp inmates. Comradeship was very poor, and everything was done in terms of command and obedience . . . The camp leader was an older Hitler Youth functionary of the drill sergeant type. His entire educational effort amounted to barking orders, holding scouting exercises, and general slogging . . . The whole camp was more hyperactivity and an exaggerated cult of the muscular than a spiritual experience or even an active and co-operatively shaped leisure time.204

Another, remembering his time in the Hitler Youth some years later, confessed that he had been ‘enthusiastic’ when he had joined at the age of ten - ‘for what boy is not roused to enthusiasm when ideals, high ideals like comradeship, loyalty and honour, are held up before him?’ - but soon he was finding the ‘compulsion and the unconditional obedience . . . exaggerated’.205 The ‘endless square-bashing’ was boring and the punishments for the tiniest infringements could lead to bitterness, remembered another, but nobody complained, since proving your toughness was the only way to get on, and it had its effects too: ‘Toughness and blind obedience were drilled into us from the moment we could walk.’206

Even young Nazis were ‘disappointed and discontented’. Under the surface, the old tradition of the youth movement lived on, as rebellious boys learned old, now forbidden, hiking songs and hummed the tunes to one another at Hitler Youth camps as a sign of recognition; they clubbed together at camp and organized their own activities where they could.207 But a good number of other Social Democratic observers curbed their desire to seek light at the end of the tunnel and reported gloomily that the younger generation were losing touch with the values of their elders and falling prey to Nazi ideology under the impact of the Hitler Youth and indoctrination in the schools. For all their deficiencies, the Hitler Youth movement and the increasingly Nazified school system were driving a wedge between parents who still retained some loyalty to the beliefs and standards they had grown up in themselves, and their children who were being indoctrinated at every stage of their lives. As one such agent ruefully observed:

It is extremely difficult for parents who are opponents of the Nazis to exercise an influence on their children. Either they ask the child not to talk at school about what is said at home. Then the children get the feeling, aha, the parents have to hide what they think. The teacher permits himself to say everything out loud. So he’s bound to be right. - Or the parents express their opinion without giving the child a warning. Then it’s not long before they are arrested or at the very least called up before the teacher, who shouts at them and threatens to report them. - ‘Send your father to the school!’ That is the normal answer to suspicious doubts and questions on the part of the child. If the father is quiet after such a visit, then he gives the child the impression that he has been convinced by what the teacher has told him, and the effect is far worse than if nothing had ever been said.208

There were even more disturbing reports of children whose membership in the Hitler Youth was disapproved of by their parents threatening to report them to the authorities if they tried to stop them going to meetings. For adolescents, it was only too easy to annoy parents who were former Social Democrats by greeting them at home with ‘Hail, Hitler!’ instead of ‘good morning’. ‘Thus war is taken into every family’, one wife of an old labour movement activist observed. ‘The worst is’, she added apprehensively, ‘that you’ve got to watch yourself in front of your own children.’209

Thus state and Party were both undermining the socializing and educating functions of the family. Baldur von Schirach was aware of this criticism and sought to counter it with the allegation that many poor and working-class children did not have a proper family life anyway. The middle-class parents who were most vociferous in complaining about the time their children were forced to spend outside the home in activities organized by the Hitler Youth or the League of German Girls should remember, he said, ‘that the Hitler Youth has called up its children to the community of National Socialist youth so that they can give the poorest sons and daughters of our people something like a family for the first time’.210 But such arguments were only liable to increase resentment among working-class parents. Bringing up children, many of them complained, was no longer a pleasure. The costs of providing uniforms and equipment for their children in the Hitler Youth was considerable, and they got nothing back in exchange. ‘Nowadays, childless couples are often congratulated by parents on their childlessness. These days parents have nothing more than the duty to feed and clothe their children; educating them is in the first place the task of the Hitler Youth.’211 One ‘old soldier’ was heard complaining about his son, a Hitler Youth activist, in bitter terms: ‘The lad has already been completely alienated from us. As an old front-soldier I’m against every war, and this lad is just mad about war and nothing else. It’s awful, sometimes I feel as if my lad is the spy in the family.’212

The overall effect of Hitler Youth membership, some Social Democratic observers complained, was a ‘coarsening’ of the young. The suppression of any discussion or debate, the military discipline, the emphasis on physical prowess and competition, led boys to become violent and aggressive, especially towards young people who for whatever reason had not joined the Hitler Youth.213 Hitler Youth groups travelling by train amused themselves by insulting and threatening guards who failed to say ‘Hail, Hitler!’ every time they asked a passenger for his ticket. Camps held in rural districts were liable to give rise to a flood of complaints from local farmers about thefts of fruit from their orchards. So rough was the training to which the children were subjected that injuries of one kind and another were a frequent occurrence. Training in ‘boxing’ made a point of dispensing with rules or precautions: ‘The more blood the lads saw flowing on such occasions, the more enthusiastic they became.’ In the Hitler Youth, as in the SA, the army and the Labour Service, one Social Democratic agent noted, a process of brutalization was setting in. ‘The kind of leader they have and the way they treat everyone degrades human beings to animals there, turns everything sexual into smut. There are many who get venereal diseases.’ ‘Once a month, in many divisions of the Hitler Youth, they carry out the kind of “sex parade” that we all remember from the war’.214 The Hitler Youth refused to provide sex education, declaring it a matter for parents. Cases of homosexual behaviour by Hitler Youth leaders in the camps were hushed up; there was no question of bringing them to the attention of the press, as had happened in the campaign of allegations brought against Catholic priests working in care institutions. In one particularly serious case in 1935, just as Goebbels was beginning his exposure of sex scandals in the Church, a boy was sexually assaulted by several others at a Hitler Youth camp then knifed to death to stop him talking. When his mother found out what had happened and reported it to Reich Commissioner Mutschmann, he immediately had her arrested and imprisoned to prevent the scandal from coming out into the open. Parents who complained about any aspect of their children’s treatment in the camps, or took their children out of the organization for their own good, were liable to be accused of undermining the Hitler Youth and could even on occasion be silenced by the threat that, if they continued, their children would be taken into care.215 An attempt by no less a personage than Heinrich Himmler, in collaboration with Schirach, to impose discipline through an internal Hitler Youth police force, established in July 1934, was effective mainly in providing a recruiting mechanism for the SS.216

The indiscipline of the Hitler Youth had a particularly disruptive effect in the schools. Its teenage activists, showered by the regime with assurances of their central importance to the nation’s future and accustomed to commanding groups of younger children considerably larger than the classes their teachers taught, behaved with increasing arrogance towards their elders in school. ‘By continually whipping up their self-confidence, ’ one Hitler Youth leader himself admitted, ‘the leadership encourages amongst many boys a kind of megalomania that refuses to recognize any other authority.’217 In the struggle between the Hitler Youth and the schools, the former was gradually getting the upper hand.218 The Hitler Youth wore their own uniforms in school, so that increasingly the teachers faced classes dressed to advertise their primary allegiance to an institution run from outside. A regulation of January 1934 giving the Hitler Youth equal status with the schools as an educational institution further boosted their self-confidence.219Adolescent rebelliousness was being channelled against socializing institutions such as the school, as well as parents, the family and the Churches. Former Hitler Youth members recalled in interviews after the war how they had gained more power in school through their membership.220 Even the Security Service of the SS expressed its concern in 1939 at the deteriorating relations between teachers and Hitler Youth.221 In 1934, one Social Democratic agent reported that a Hitler Youth ‘school leader’ told a sixty-year-old teacher who had put his hat on in the bitter winter cold of the weekly Monday-morning collective drill, when the whole school sang the national anthem and greeted the raising of the Nazi flag with doffed caps, that if he did this again he would be reported.222Only rarely were teachers ingenious enough to find a way of reasserting their control without running the risk of denunciation, as in the case of one mathematics teacher at a Cologne secondary school, who addressed particularly knotty arithmetical questions to two Hitler Youth leaders who appeared in his class in uniform, with the words: ‘As Hitler Youth leaders you must surely set a good example; surely you can solve this question!’223


The school system of the Third Reich was formally under the aegis of Bernhard Rust, who was appointed Prussian Minister of Education and Religion (Kultusminister) in 1933. A schoolteacher himself, Rust had joined the Nazi Party early on and became District Leader of Southern Hanover and Brunswick in 1925. He was fifty years of age when Hitler was appointed Chancellor, somewhat older than the other leading Nazis, who were mostly in their thirties or early forties. On 1 May 1934 Rust secured his own appointment to the new Reich Ministry of Science and Education, which took over the Prussian Ministry and, in effect, the regional Ministries, at the beginning of 1935, while responsibility for religion and the Churches passed to the new Reich Church Ministry led, as we saw earlier in this chapter, by Hans Kerrl. On 20 August 1937 the Reich Education Ministry took central control over the appointment of all established teachers, and in 1939 it set up a Reich Examination Office to oversee all educational examinations. Meanwhile, it had also acted on 20 March 1937 to rationalize the secondary school system, a long-standing demand of teachers, already planned under the Weimar Republic, into three basic types of school, concentrating on modern languages and the humanities, on science and technology, or on a classics-based curriculum.224 And on 6 July 1938 the regime issued another law extending the Prussian school structure established in 1927 to the whole of Germany, laying down a minimum requirement for all children of eight years at school - a step forward for Bavaria, which had hitherto only had required seven, but a step backward for Schleswig-Holstein, where the minumum had traditionally been nine. It was this law that also laid down a centrally determined curriculum, including ‘racial education’ for all.225

On Hitler’s birthday, 20 April 1933, Rust founded three National Political Educational Institutions or ‘Napolas’, boarding schools set up in the premises of former Prussian military cadet schools (rendered defunct by the Treaty of Versailles) and designed to train a new elite to rule the future Third Reich.226 The need to please President Hindenburg, who had been a student at one of these cadet schools, may have played a role as well. By 1939 there were 16 Napolas in existence.227 They were intended to provide a military training and were equipped with riding stables, motor-bikes, yachts and the like, all signs that the sports the students were trained in had a distinctly aristocratic tinge that would reinforce their elitist self-image. On graduating, the pupils usually went into the armed forces, the SS or the police as officers.228 The students were selected in the first place according to racial criteria, decided by a medical examination carried out by a qualified doctor, and then by character traits, displayed during an entrance test that consisted above all of competitive sports in which the applicants were required to demonstrate their courage and aggression.229

At the same time, however, at the insistence of the officials in Rust’s Ministry, the Napolas continued to teach the regular state school curriculum with its academic subjects, as befitted state educational institutions. At the Party Congress in 1934, and again in 1935, Hitler insisted that political education was a matter for the Party and not for state-run institutions or state-appointed teachers. In conformity with this view, the Napolas were run by SS and SA officers without any previous educational experience. The administration appointed a parallel staff of ‘educators’ from the same background to work alongside the trained teachers who provided the pupils with normal school lessons. All the staff had to undergo regular special training, and the students also had to spend time several weeks a year working on a farm or a factory to maintain contacts with the people. Under these circumstances it was not surprising that it soon proved difficult to find enough qualified teachers. Those who did serve in many cases did so because they themselves had had previous experience of the Prussian cadet schools, and some of the heads consciously revived some of the old Prussian cadet school traditions. It was apparent to some in the Nazi leadership by 1934 therefore that the Napolas were more reactionary throwbacks to the old Prussian tradition than modern institutions dedicated to the creation of a new elite for the Third Reich. They seemed to be more interested in supplying the army with officers than the state with leaders.230 The man in charge of the day-to-day management of the schools was Joachim Haupt, a professional educationalist who had published a number of writings under the Weimar Republic urging the foundation of a new educational system devoted to racial and political training. But in the wake of the ‘Night of the Long Knives’, Haupt came under attack from the SS, who more than hinted that he was homosexual and claimed that Rust wanted to be rid of him because he was too reactionary. As a consequence, Haupt was sacked in 1935 and the overall management and inspection of the Napolas transferred to a senior SS officer, August Heissmeyer; eventually, the administration of the Napolas was turned over to the SS altogether. As a new type of state educational institution, they had not been much of a success. Nor were their standards really high enough to provide the regime with a new elite cadre of leaders for the future.231

Map 7. Nazi Elite Schools

As these events illustrated, Rust was less than effective when it came to dealing with the big hitters in the Nazi power structure. He was subject to bouts of depression, alternating with periods of manic optimism and aggression, which made it difficult for him to carry out a consistent policy line; his civil servants distrusted him and often obstructed his orders and he was often in no shape to stand up to the predatory aggression of his rivals in the top echelons of the Party. Rust also suffered from a progressive paralysis of the facial muscles that caused him increasing pain as time went on, which further limited his ability to stand up to opposition.232 His Napolas were soon outflanked by two far more ideological institutions, run not, as the Napolas were, by the state, but controlled from the outset by organs of the Party. On 15 January 1937, Reich Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach and German Labour Front Leader Robert Ley issued a joint announcement reporting that Hitler, at their request, had ordered the founding of ‘Adolf Hitler Schools’, secondary schools run by the Hitler Youth, which would determine the curriculum and be supervised by Nazi Party Regional Leaders.233 Overriding Rust’s furious objections, the two leaders set up the first Adolf Hitler School on 20 April 1937. The intention was, as Ley declared, that nobody in future would be able to take on a leading position in the Party without first having undergone an education in these institutions. Two-thirds of the pupils at the Adolf Hitler Schools were boarders. The Hitler Youth determined the curriculum, which focused even more strongly than the Napolas on physical and military education. Like the Napolas, the Adolf Hitler Schools did not provide any religious instruction. There were no examinations but instead a regular ‘Achievement Week’ at which the students had to compete against each other in every area.234 Drawing on the Hitler Youth across Germany, these schools, which provided an education from the age of twelve free of charge, became something of a vehicle of upward social mobility, with 20 per cent of their pupils coming from backgrounds that could broadly be defined as working-class.235 Initially only physical criteria were applied to select students for admission, but by 1938 it had become clear that the neglect of intellectual abilities was causing serious problems, since a large proportion of the pupils could not grasp even the fairly basic political ideas that the teachers were trying to transmit to them. From this time onwards, therefore, academic criteria were added to the other elements in the admission process. The teachers appointed in the first couple of years, all leaders of the Hitler Youth, were not very competent either, and from 1939 onwards they were required to undergo proper teacher training at a university before taking up their posts. Ley’s idea was that there should be one of these schools in each Nazi Party Region, under the general management of the Party Regional Leader; but the Nazi Party management successfully objected that the costs would be too great for the Party to bear, and the full complement of schools was never reached. In 1938 only 600 pupils were taken on nationwide, far fewer than the original plan had envisaged. The buildings under construction to house the schools were never completed, and until 1941 the schools depended overwhemingly on rented premises in the Order Castle at Sonthofen.236

The Order Castles (Ordensburgen) were the next stage in the system of Party-based education dreamed up by Schirach and Ley. They were intended exclusively to teach graduates of the Adolf Hitler Schools, though before being admitted the students had to undergo vocational training or university education and prove their personal and ideological soundness. Not only did the students not pay any fees, they even received pocket-money from the schools. There were three Order Castles, located high up in remote country districts. They were designed by leading architects on a lavish scale. Construction began in March 1934 and the buildings were opened two years later. They were intended to form an interconnected system of education and training. Students were to spend the first year at the Falkenburg, on the Crössin Lake in Pomerania, being educated in racial biology and undertaking various sporting activities; in their second year the students were supposed to move to Vogelsang Castle, in the Eifel hills above the Rhine, which concentrated more exclusively on sport; and in their third year they were to move to Sonthofen Castle, in the mountainous district of Bavaria Allgäu, where they were to undergo further ideological training and to engage in dangerous sports such as mountaineering. The regime intended to build a fourth Order Castle, at Marienburg, to focus on instruction about Eastern Europe, and ultimately a ‘High School’ on the Chiem Lake, in Bavaria, to carry out research and to train teachers for the Order Castles and the Adolf Hitler Schools. In the meantime, however, the elite pupils of the Order Castles had to spend three separate monthly periods every year working in Party organizations in the regions, so that they had experience of practical politics; and the Order Castles in turn functioned as training centres for numerous Nazi Party officials on short courses, as well as teacher training centres for the Adolf Hitler Schools.237 As the name suggested, the aim of the Order Castles was to create a modern version of the medieval knightly and monastic orders of old: disciplined, united and dedicated to a cause; to underline this intention, the students were known as ‘Junkers’. Together with the Adolf Hitler Schools, they were the means by which the Party planned to secure its future leadership in the long term.238

Measured by normal academic standards, the level of education provided by the Order Castles was not high. The overwhelming emphasis on physical training and the ideologically driven curriculum made them poor substitutes for a conventional higher education, and the criteria on which the students were selected left intellectual ability more or less out of account. In July 1939 Vogelsang Castle was the subject of withering criticism by an internal Nazi Party report, which pilloried the low intellectual level of the graduates and expressed serious doubts about their ability to give a coherent account of Nazi ideology and added: ‘Only in the smallest number of cases does blooming health and strength also vouch for a pronounced intellectual capacity.’ As early as 1937, Goebbels’s paper The Attack had raised doubts about the institution’s effectiveness after a reporter had heard one of the earliest graduates ‘give an ideologically coloured lecture, but he didn’t say much to the point. Have the right people been selected at all?’ it asked pointedly. Two years later, the situation in Vogelsang Castle descended into chaos when its commander, Richard Manderbach, whose main claim to distinction was that he had founded the first branch of the stormtroopers in the Siegerland district in 1924, was discovered to have had his youngest child secretly baptized in a Catholic church. Although Manderbach denied any knowledge of this, the Junkers greeted him in the dining hall and the teaching room with rude choruses, songs and shouts demanding to know why he had been consorting with ‘Pope and priest’. Order was only restored with his dismissal on 10 June 1939.239 As one of the students of the Adolf Hitler School housed in the Order Castle at Sonthofen, the future Hollywood movie actor Hardy Krüger, later noted, the students were constantly told that they were going to be the leaders of Nazi Germany in the future, so it was not surprising that they did not tolerate ideological backsliding. In an atmosphere that encouraged physical toughness and ruthlessness, he added, bullying and physical abuse of the younger by the older boys was inevitably widespread, the general spirit brutal and rough.240

The same ideas that inspired the Adolf Hitler Schools, the Order Castles and to a more limited extent the Napolas were also evident in yet another elite school, founded under the aegis of Ernst Röhm and the SA: the National Socialist High School on the Starnberger Lake. A private school owned by the brownshirt organization, opened in January 1934, it had only been in existence for a few months when Röhm was shot dead on Hitler’s orders. In desperation, the school’s head sought to preserve it by putting it under the protection first of Franz Xaver Schwarz, the Party Treasurer, then of Rudolf Hess’s office, where Martin Bormann was the key functionary. On 8 August 1939 Hess renamed it the Reich School of the NSDAP Feldafing, by which time it had already become the most successful of the Nazi elite schools. Housed in forty villas, some of them confiscated from their Jewish owners, the school was under the academic control of the Nazi Teachers’ League, and all the pupils and teachers were automatically members of the SA. With its powerful patrons in the top ranks of the Party, the school managed without too much difficulty to obtain lavish funding and first-rate equipment, and, with its connections to the teaching profession, it provided a much better academic education than the other elite schools, although it shared with them a common emphasis on sport, physical training and character-building. Yet critics maintained that the pupils, often the scions of high-ranking Party officials, learned only how to be playboys.241All in all, none of the elite schools could match the standards of Germany’s long-established academic grammar schools. Eclectic and often contradictory in their approach, they lacked any coherent educational concept that could serve as the basis for training a new functional elite to rule a modern technological nation like Germany in the future. On the eve of the war, with a mere 6,000 male and 173 female pupils in the sixteen Napolas, the ten Adolf Hitler Schools and the Reich School combined, they formed only a small part of the boarding school system: at the same point in time, September 1939, other residential schools were educating 36,746 pupils of both sexes, or six times as many.242

Nevertheless, the low academic standards evident in the Napolas, the Adolf Hitler Schools and the Order Castles had also begun to become apparent in the state school system by the eve of the Second World War. At every level, formal learning was given decreased emphasis as the hours devoted to physical education and sport in the state schools were increased in 1936 to three a week, then in 1938 to five, and fewer lessons were devoted to academic subjects to make room for indoctrination and preparation for war.243 Children still learned the three Rs, and in grammar schools and other parts of the secondary education system much more than this, but there can be little doubt that the quality of education was steadily declining. By 1939 employers were complaining that school graduates’ standards of knowledge of language and arithmetic were poor and that ‘the level of school knowledge of the examinees has been sinking for some time’.244 Yet this did not cause any concern to the regime. As Hans Schemm, the leader of the Nazi Teachers’ League up to 1935, declared: ‘The goal of our education is the formation of character’, and he complained that too much knowledge had been crammed into children, to the detriment of character-building. ‘Let us have’, he said, ‘. . . ten pounds less knowledge and ten calories more character!’245 The progressive demoralization of the teaching profession, the growing shortage of staff and the consequent increase in class sizes also had their effects. As we have seen, the Hitler Youth proved a thoroughly disruptive influence on formal education. ‘School’, one Social Democratic report already noted in 1934, ‘is constantly disrupted by Hitler Youth events.’ Teachers had to allow pupils time off for them almost every week.246 The abolition of the compulsory ceremonies attached to the State Youth Day, which on one reckoning had taken up 120 hours of out-of-school preparation each year, in 1936, made little real difference in this respect.247 Despite the military-style discipline in the schools, there were numerous reports of indiscipline and disorder, violent incidents between pupils, and insubordination towards teachers.248 ‘One can’t speak of the teacher having authority any more,’ noted one Social Democratic agent in 1937: ‘The snotty-nosed little brats of the Hitler Youth decide what goes on at school, they’re in charge.’249

In the same year, the teachers of one district in Franconia complained in the half-yearly report of their branch of the National Socialist Teachers’ League that the attitude of pupils towards education was giving repeated cause for justified complaints and to concern about the future. There is a widespread lack of zeal for work and feeling for duty. Many school pupils believe that they can just sail through their school-leaving examinations by sitting tight for eight years even if they fall way below the required intellectual standard. In the Hitler Youth and Junior Hitler Youth units there is no kind of support for school; on the contrary, it is precisely those pupils who serve in leading positions there who are noticeable for their disobedient behaviour and their laziness at school. It is necessary to report that school discipline is noticeably declining and to a worrying degree.250

Educational standards had declined markedly by 1939. What really mattered was, as one Social Democratic observer noted ruefully in June 1937: ‘Whether one observes young people playing or working, whether one reads what they write or visits their homes, whether one looks through the school timetable or even follows what goes on at camp, there is only one will that rules the entire carefully devised and ever more efficiently operating machine: the will to war.’251

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