The Third Reich based its elite schools, set up to train Nazi Germany’s future leaders, on British private schools like Eton and Harrow, a new book reveals.
Historian Helen Roche has written the first comprehensive history of Nazi elite schools, known as Napolas.
Drawing on widespread archival research and testimony from more than 100 former pupils, she discovered how keen the Nazis were to learn from the “character-forming” example of the British private school system.
Between 1934 and 1939, there was a significant degree of exchange between British and German schools, with boys from the UK’s most prestigious private schools spending time at the Napolas.
The Oranienstein Napola, for example, took part in exchanges with Westminster, St Paul’s, Tonbridge, Dauntsey’s and Bingley school in Yorkshire between 1935 and 1938 – and held sport tournaments with Eton, Harrow, Westminster, Winchester, Shrewsbury, Bradfield and Bryanston.
‘The new Germany’
The Napola pupils who took part in these exchanges were seen as performing the function of cultural ambassadors for the “new Germany”.
Roche – an associate professor at Durham University – said the Napola authorities wanted to learn from the British system, and ultimately hoped to create a superior model for their own schools.
Just as British private schools had been educating “the rulers of the centuries-old British empire”, Roche said it was believed “that the Napolas should train the rulers of the ‘thousand-year Reich’.”
The first three Napolas were created as a birthday present for Hitler in 1933, by then Prussian culture minister Bernhard Rust. There were 40 Napolas – including four for girls – by the end of the war.
Archives show that one German education inspector often praised British public schools for being character-forming.
‘Admiration for German boys’
According to Roche, the Napolas were much more effective at indoctrinating pupils politically than the Hitler Youth – because children attended from a young age and were highly segregated.
“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.
Records show that the attitudes of the boys and masters to each other changed over time as relations between the two countries deteriorated.
Dr Roche said: “In the early days of the exchange programme, the English boys and masters often felt that what they saw in Nazi Germany and at the Napolas was in some ways superior to the state of affairs in England.
“There was a feeling, which found its way into wider British attitudes towards Germany, that Britain would do well to emulate Germany’s racial confidence, and there was an admiration for the sheer strength and physical development of the German boys.”
She added: “We can see the exchange programme as providing a microcosm for more general attitudes to the Nazi regime on behalf of the middle- and upper-class British public – 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.”
The Third Reich’s Elite Schools – A History Of The Napolas, is published by Oxford University Press.