Nazi Germany’s elite schools, set up to train future leaders of the Third Reich, using British private schools like Eton and Harrow as their models, reveals a new book.
Historian Helen Roche has written the first comprehensive history of Nazi elite schools, known as Naples. Drawing on research conducted in 80 archives in six countries as well as testimonies from more than 100 former students, Roche discovered how eager the Nazis were to learn from the “character-forming” example of the British system.
Between 1934 and 1939, there was a snowstorm of reciprocal exchanges between British and German schools, with boys from Britain’s most prestigious private schools spending longer periods on Naples.
Roche, an associate professor at Durham University, said the Naples authorities wanted to learn from the British system, ultimately hoping to create a superior model for their own schools.
While British private schools had educated “the rulers of the centuries-old British Empire”, Roche said it was foreseen “that Naples would train the rulers of the ‘millennial kingdom’.”
The first three Napolas were created in 1933 as a birthday present for Hitler by the then Prussian Minister of Culture, Bernhard Rust. By the end of the war, there were 40 Naples, four of them for girls.
Roche’s research found that the Naples were much more effective at indoctrinating students politically than, for example, the Hitler Youth. This was because children participated from a young age and were very separate.
It was tough places. One of Roche’s witnesses described the regime at Napola Rügen in Putbus. A common ordeal during the entrance test, the witness said, was to get 10-year-old non-swimmers to walk 80 meters along a jetty and jump from a 3-meter-long seesaw into the Baltic Sea.
“We elders brought them out again. No one should hesitate! The swimmers had to jump out of a third-floor window into a blanket. Anyone who hesitated could go home again. “
The amount of school exchange alone is eye-opening. Between 1935 and 1938, for example, Oranienstein Napola participated in exchanges with Westminster, St Paul’s, Tonbridge, Dauntsey’s and Bingley schools in Yorkshire. It entertained principals and exchange teachers from Shrewsbury, Dauntsey’s and Bolton. There were also sports tournaments with Eton, Harrow, Westminster, Winchester, Shrewsbury, Bradfield and Bryanston.
“The ideal outcome of the program would be for Naples students 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 researched Naples for more than one decade.
August Heissmeyer, an inspector for the Naples authorities, often praised the British private school system as a paradigm par excellence for the “character-forming” education that was Naples’ highest goal.
Heissmeyer believed that “after such trips, the young man will see Germany with new eyes; he will return rich in experiences; his horizon will be broadened … he will discover weaknesses at home which he must help to remedy. He will learn to love one’s homeland more deeply. “
He also saw the largely independent role of the private school leader as an embodiment of the “Führer principle,” Roche said.
The Napoleonic boys who took 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 with what they saw in Germany, though attitudes changed as the relationship deteriorated.
“We can see this exchange program as a microcosm of more general attitudes towards the National Socialist regime among the British middle and upper class public,” she said. “Not entirely convinced of the aims and ideals of the Third Reich, but nonetheless prepared to give their German counterparts the benefit of the doubt until Nazi warfare reached its fatal climax.”