"Why we knew nothing about Auschwitz": Former Nazi elite-school pupils' attempts to come to terms with the Holocaust

Public lecture, given at the Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide, London, 24 May 2013.

Using new evidence, including unpublished documentary sources and freshly-elicited eyewitness testimony, this paper sets out to explore former Napola pupils’ diverse reactions to the troubled legacy of the Holocaust.

Often, these men’s reflections, whether private or public, touch upon the idea of whether they ‘really knew about the Holocaust’ at school, while the genocide was taking place. For instance, one published memoir by a pupil of Napola Ballenstedt is actually subtitled ‘Der Versuch einer Antwort, warum ich von Auschwitz nichts wusste‘ (‘The attempt to find an answer to why I knew nothing about Auschwitz’). However, other former pupils remember seeing or being tangentially involved with evacuations of concentration-camp inmates during the final days of the Third Reich.

Some initial findings of this research have already been published in German in a piece entitled ‘Antisemitismus und Eliteerziehung in den Nationalpolitischen Erziehungsanstalten’, Stiftung niedersächsische Gedenkstätten – Jahresbericht: Schwerpunktthema – Kindheit im Nationalsozialismus (2017), pp. 12-17.

A full-length article based on this lecture, entitled ‘”Der Versuch einer Antwort, warum ich von Auschwitz nichts wußte”: The evolution of Napola-pupils’ responses to the Holocaust’, is forthcoming in a volume entitled Früher/später: Zeugnisse in der Zeit, ed. A.S. Sarhangi, A. Bothe.