Between 1934 and 1939, pupils from the Nationalpolitische Erziehungsanstalten (aka Napolas), the most prominent type of National Socialist elite school, engaged in a series of exchanges with boys from British public schools, including Harrow, Winchester, Rugby, Lancing, and the Leys School in Cambridge. The Napola pupils who embarked upon these exchanges were seen as performing the function of ‘cultural ambassadors’ for the ‘new Germany’.
Using a mixture of contemporary documentary evidence and eyewitness testimony from former pupils on both sides of the Anglo-German divide, this article analyses the development of the attitudes which the participating English and German boys bore towards each other during this period. Since the schools tended to carry out a number of reciprocal exchanges, with German pupils travelling to England one year, and English pupils returning in the next, the ways in which boys’ (and masters’) stances changed over the course of time can often be reconstructed in some detail.
For instance, during the early to mid 1930s, Anglo-German familiarity by no means always bred contempt, although there was often surprise – and occasionally some chagrin – among the English pupils when the Napolaner succeeded in beating them at cricket, or at other quintessentially English team-games which the German boys had never played before.
However, by the later 1930s, mutual understanding seems to have become less assured; the Napola pupils were more likely to mock their English counterparts for their regular attendance at church services and their insistence on praying before lights-out, and found their insouciant attitude to institutions such as the Officer Training Corps both shocking and incomprehensible. Meanwhile, English pupils tended to see the fundamental secularisation and militarisation of life at the Napolas as unnecessary and potentially dangerous.
The article aims to explore in detail the Anglo-German relationships – including tensions and prejudices – which were forged between pupils and staff during these exchanges. Additionally, the ideological conceptions behind the exchange programme are examined. The British public schools had long been perceived as an important model for the Nationalpolitische Erziehungsanstalten in general, but the Inspectorate of the Napolas intended that the National Socialist model of Gemeinschaftserziehung should prove itself incontrovertibly superior to that of the ‘Eton schools’.
In the minds of the Napola authorities, then, 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. The public schools might have educated the rulers of the centuries-old British Empire, but it was ultimately envisaged that the Napolas should train the rulers of the ‘Thousand Year Reich’.