Nazi Germany’s elite schools, which were set up to train future leaders of the Third Reich, used British private schools such as Eton and Harrow as their models, a new book reveals.
The historian Helen Roche has written the first comprehensive history of Nazi elite schools, known as Napolas. Drawing on research undertaken in 80 archives in six countries as well as testimonies from more than 100 former pupils, Roche discovered just how keen the Nazis were to learn from the “character-forming” example of the British system.
Between 1934 and 1939 there was a blizzard of reciprocal exchanges between British and German schools, with boys from Britain’s most prestigious private schools spending extended periods at the Napolas.
Roche, an associate professor at Durham University, said the Napola authorities wanted to learn from the British system, ultimately hoping to create a superior model for their own schools.
While British private schools had been educating “the rulers of the centuries-old British empire”, Roche said it was envisaged “that the Napolas should train the rulers of the ‘thousand-year Reich’.”
The first three Napolas were created in 1933 as a birthday present for Hitler by the then Prussian culture minister, Bernhard Rust. By the end of the war there were 40 Napolas, including four for girls.
Roche’s research found the Napolas were much more effective at indoctrinating pupils politically than, for example, the Hitler Youth. That was because children attended from a young age and were highly segregated.
They were tough places. One of Roche’s witnesses described the regime at Napola Rügen in Putbus. One common ordeal during the entrance exam, the witness said, was making 10-year-old non-swimmers walk 80 metres along a jetty and jump from a 3-metre diving board into the Baltic Sea.
“We older ones brought them out again. No one should hesitate! The swimmers had to jump out of a third-storey window into a blanket. Anyone who hesitated could go right home again.”
The sheer amount of school exchanges is eye-opening. Between 1935 and 1938 the Oranienstein Napola, for example, took part in exchanges with Westminster, St Paul’s, Tonbridge, Dauntsey’s and Bingley school in Yorkshire. It entertained headmasters and exchange teachers from Shrewsbury, Dauntsey’s and Bolton. There were also sport tournaments with Eton, Harrow, Westminster, Winchester, Shrewsbury, Bradfield and Bryanston.
“The ideal outcome of the programme would be for Napola pupils and staff to learn how things were done in England, and then use that knowledge to improve their own educational techniques,” said Roche, who has been researching Napolas for more than a decade.
August Heissmeyer, an inspector for the Napola authorities, often praised the British private school system as a paradigm par excellence of that “character-forming” education, which was the Napolas’ highest aim.
Heissmeyer believed that “after such trips, the young man will see Germany with new eyes; he will return rich in experiences; his horizons will be broadened … he will detect weaknesses at home which he must help to remedy. He will learn to love his fatherland more deeply.”
He also saw the largely independent role of the private school headmaster as an embodiment of the “Führer-principle”, said Roche.
The Napola boys taking part in the exchanges were seen as being “cultural ambassadors” for the “new Germany”.
Roche said many of the British boys and masters were impressed by what they saw in Germany, although attitudes changed as relations deteriorated.
“We can see this exchange programme as providing a microcosm for more general attitudes towards the National Socialist regime by the middle- and upper-class British public,” she said. “Not wholly convinced by the aims and ideals of the Third Reich, but nevertheless prepared to give their German counterparts the benefit of the doubt, until Nazi belligerence reached its fatal climax.”