Kadettengeschichten: Exploring the Prussian cadet-school story

Presented at Approaching War (Europe): Childhood, Culture and the First World War, 1880-1919, University of Newcastle, 16 March 2013.

An expanded version of this paper was presented at an Anna Bidder Research Evening, Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, 30 April 2013.

Stories and novellas based upon the experiences of pupils at the Royal Prussian Cadet-Schools (Königlich Preußische Kadettenanstalten), which trained boys from the age of ten to take up a career in the Prussian Officer-Corps, were a publishing phenomenon in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Germany. Largely written by former cadets, these works, such as Paul von Szczepanski’s Spartanerjünglinge (Spartan Youths) and Johannes van Dewall’s Kadettengeschichten (Cadet-Tales), were serialised, published in multiple editions, and even hailed in the Reichstag, the German parliament, as ‘famous novellas’ and ‘best-beloved treatments of cadet-school life’.

After the constitutional crisis of 1918 following Germany’s defeat in World War I, critics of the cadet-corps with liberal and Social Democratic leanings then subverted the genre to denounce the schools’ brutality, and the culture of merciless bullying which the cadet-school authorities had condoned. A prime example of this is Hans-Joachim Freiherr von Reitzenstein’s collection of cadet-school stories from 1919 entitled Vergitterte Jugend. Geschichten aus dem Kadettenkorps (Youth Behind Bars. Tales from the Cadet-Corps). In total, the twelve stories in the collection contain two suicides, three instances of cadets being beaten or bullied until they are in a critical condition, and countless instances of cruel and pointless punishments.

Due to the destruction of a very large proportion of the archival material relating to the Prussian Cadet-Corps during World War II, the content of these works also constitutes a substantial amount of the extant evidence with which we can hope to reconstruct daily life at the cadet-schools. This paper therefore aims to explore this little-known genre, which has gone almost entirely unremarked in modern scholarship.

What did being a cadet mean to these authors, and what were the traits which characterised the ‘ideal cadet’ from their viewpoint? How were patriotic feeling and the prospect of a martial career justified or glorified in these volumes, and would they have contributed to boys’ commitment to militarism and self-sacrifice prior to and during World War I? Were liberal critics of the schools justified in their view that authors such as Johannes van Dewall peddled a bowdlerised, sanitised version of corps-life which deceitfully entranced the general public, when the harsh truth of life at the schools would have shocked them to the core? Certainly, it seems that the brutal treatment of younger boys by their seniors often exceeded that described in English public-school literature from the same period; this could provide interesting material for comparison.

An essay based on this talk has now been published in Books for Boys: Nation, Literacy and the First World War, ed. Simon James, Durham 2014, pp. 20-25.