Napolas: Nazi Public Schools

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The Nazis were ardent admirers of England. After all, England had triumphed in essentially the only arena that mattered to the Nazis, that of military might – her success apparent in the size of her globe-straddling Empire. Clearly, the English had to be doing something right. As such, the Nazis tried to emulate aspects of the English model, such as by recreating the boarding-school upbringing of the English ruling class. They created boarding schools of their own, called Napolas or NPEA schools.

In doing so, the Nazis aimed to ingrain their future leaders with the traits (bravery, decisiveness, callousness, stoicism etc.) that the British proudly claimed were the benefits of a boarding school education, and which the Nazis believed were partly responsible for England’s success. The Duke of Wellington’s quip that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton certainly did not fall on deaf Nazi ears.

The initial application to such schools usually involved only representatives from the Napolas and their scouts, primary school teachers. Candidates themselves were notably uninvolved in the process. A prospective candidate’s road to Napola entry often began with a group of unexpected men coming into their classroom to observe them. Whilst enterprising parents could apply privately, this often counted against their children; only 17% of private applications led to admission, compared to 50% of applications submitted by schools.

Subsequently, candidates had to pass numerous cognitive exams over eight gruelling days, provide proof of full Aryan heritage, and demonstrate their physical resolve. In one test of resolve at NPEA Rügen Putbus, 10-year-old non-swimmers were ordered to jump into the Baltic Sea, whilst those who could swim had to jump into a blanket from a third-storey window. Hesitators were sent off to start packing their suitcases. Another ordeal tested candidates’ heartlessness by having them race up a 10-metre-high wall while pushing each other off to fall to the snow-covered floor. Hazing rituals were pervasive and likely encouraged by the teachers’ aggressive stance against compassion and empathy; candidates could expect midnightly raids on their rooms.

Despite the Napolas’ obsession with selecting the most racially and ideologically pure children, Napola officials did not investigate the political views of a candidate’s parents, or even check if they were members of the Nazi party. For example, Max Habermann, a senior union leader involved with Stauffenberg’s assassination attempt on Hitler, had two sons at NPEA Schulpforta. Attendance at such schools was also hardly optional. A widow whose eldest son was fighting on the eastern front asked the principal of NPEA Bensberg to remove her son’s name from the nomination list. His answer: “Your son is … on loan to you, but he belongs to the German people. Objections to his name being suggested for an elite school would be tantamount to an insult to the Führer and the Reich.” Rifts grew between non-Nazi parents and their Hitler-revering progeny.

For those who were admitted, Anglo-Prussian virtues of discipline and order were performed to ridiculous extremes. Clothes-folding was honed into an art form; unless a Jungmann (student) folded and arranged his clothes and towels as straight as rulers, his entire wardrobe would be strewn across his room and he would have to remake it in perfect order. Similarly, during the thrice-daily rollcall, pupils’ appearance and the state of their rooms were closely scrutinised. Failure to meet the obsessive standards resulted in sadistic punishments. If an inspection of a younger year’s rooms revealed that a single article of clothing was out of place, all the students of that year could be forced to take part in a ‘masked ball’, in which the victims had to change into many different uniforms under intense time pressure before presenting the older years with a set of flawless wardrobes.

Imitating their Nazi role models, boys often took it upon themselves to enact vengeance on their slower colleagues, and enacted punishments for transgressions as minor as slips-ups in tidiness and poor performance in house sport. Bullying was also widespread and it was expected that the bullying victor would stand up to his tormentor. In one such instance, Jürgen Schach Von Wittenau took revenge on his bully, the Flashman Kartz, by making him believe that he had drunk poisonous ink.

School life focused on indoctrination and preparing students to help the war effort. Physical education took up half the school day. The other half was dedicated to ‘German academics’. Biology was dedicated to the study of race; in one exercise, students measured each other’s skulls with callipers to determine who had the most desirable racial mix. Chemistry paid unusually close attention to synthesising resources which Germany could not obtain due to the Allied blockade, such as rubber and fuel. Physics concerned itself with telegraphy, gunnery, and flight. Lower years could be given arithmetic word problems about aerial warfare from the Luftwaffe and School textbooks. History taught that the Roman Empire fell because of race-mixing. One could learn various modern and classical languages, but English was given the highest priority because it facilitated student exchanges with schools in the anglosphere.

The Napolas prided themselves on the volume and variety of their school exchanges. Education Minister Bernhard Rust boasted that Napola pupils had visited 13 European countries – including the UK – in 1939 alone. Exchanges were conducted in an imitation of British tradition. Indeed, as one teacher at NPEA Ilfeld explained: “just as the perspectives of English youth were broadened through constantly looking to their colonies and their associated challenges, so can this experience abroad give our own youth new strength and breadth.” Inspector-general August Heissmeyer expressed a similar sentiment: “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.”

Disguised though they were as benign cultural initiatives, such exchanges also aimed to improve Nazi Germany’s foreign image and to carry out political missions. Trips to Germany’s former provinces convinced Napola students of Germany’s need to reclaim these territories. For example, a group from NPEA Bensberg contacted a local German separatist group in Eupen-Malmedy (a German speaking area given to Belgium in the Treaty of Versailles), where they were updated on the ongoing ‘ethnic guerrilla war’. As the students walked the streets of the province, they were openly greeted with the Nazi salute as locals expressed their appreciation that they had not been forgotten by Germany. 

The students of the first exchange to the American Tabor Academy in Massachusetts in 1935 lobbied for US participation in the upcoming 1936 German Winter Olympic Games. The headmaster of Tabor Academy, replying to a letter from the German Secretary of State Hans Pfundtner (whose son was on the German delegation), wrote that his “excellent letter replying to … questions about the Olympic games [had been] quoted by several of our good newspapers, and was included in the Associated Press service throughout the country … Undoubtedly, this message of yours will be very helpful in submerging some of the false propaganda.”

Indeed, a 1937 article in the Nazi education journal Weltanschauung und Schule wrote that fourteen Napola pupils had spent the 1936 summer term in various American schools and succeeded in “winning many friends for Germany.” The journal also proudly noted that the Jungmannen met many students with “good German names”, and that in some schools, “the flag of the German Reich was flown.”

The Nazis were particularly interested in fostering cultural exchanges with British schools. In a letter to the headmaster of Exeter School in the UK, unsuccessfully trying to persuade him to organise an exchange with NPEA Bensberg, Rudolf Wasmann wrote that “we ourselves have been visited by the combined fencing team of Eton and Harrow.” Hitler Youth governor in the state of South Hanover-Brunswick Hartmann Lauterbacher visited Eton on 20 November 1937 and recounted the visit during a meeting of the Royal Empire Society. One attendee noted that Lauterbacher seemed “properly impressed” with the school.

The Jungmannen also reportedly fit in well with British society. Reports by the staff extolled their cheerfulness and physical prowess. Boys from NPEA Oranienstein on an exchange with Westminster School wore their swastika belt-buckles with pride without causing any issues. In contrast, Napola students who gave the Nazi salute before the Latvian Freedom Memorial in Riga were arrested on suspicion of being German agents, causing terrible headaches for the German diplomats sent to secure their release. 

Following the outbreak of war in 1939, such exchanges to British schools came to a sudden halt, but the Napolas continued to indoctrinate their pupils until the Nazi regime finally fell. Whilst they may be one of the less-well known aspects of Nazi rule, the Napolas are nonetheless an important indication of the obsession placed upon preparing the next generation of leaders in order to build a thousand-year Reich and the interest which the Nazis held for the British system.

Roche, H., 2021. The Third Reich’s Elite Schools: A History of the Napolas. Oxford University Press