Narrating the Nostoi of the Napolaner: Nazi elite-school pupils' travels during the collapse of the Third Reich

Presented at a conference on War, Travel, Travel Writing, organised by the War-and-Representation Network (WAR-Net), University of East Anglia, 29 November 2014.

Drawing upon a wealth of original material, including unpublished memoirs and freshly-elicited eyewitness testimony, this paper explores the experiences of pupils of the Nationalpolitische Erziehungsanstalten (aka Napolas), the most prominent type of National Socialist elite school, during the closing weeks and months of the Second World War. In particular, the paper looks at the hardships and dilemmas which Napola-pupils (often as young as 12 or 13) faced once their schools had been disbanded, and they had no alternative but to try to find their way back to their homes and families alone.

The dangers encountered by the ‘Napolaner’ during these enforced odysseys were often considerable, particularly for those older boys who had already been compelled to join up and serve as child soldiers. Many feared that capture by the Russians or failure to escape the Soviet sphere of influence would lead to prolonged internment, or even execution, and even in the other zones of occupation, they could not expect lenient treatment if their school affiliation were discovered. Encounters with enemy aircraft which might strafe railway carriages or lines of evacuees were also a constant threat. Even if one finally managed to reach one’s home town, there was no guarantee that one’s family would be there waiting – or even that one’s home would still be standing.

In the narratives which former pupils recount about their travels through war-torn Germany, certain themes recur again and again. For instance, eyewitness’ accounts of these journeys tend to stress their narrators’ perseverance, pluck and heroism, as well as praising the toughness of their ‘elite’ education, which they believe to have been instrumental in endowing them with the requisite capacity for extreme physical endurance. Thus, from a narratological perspective, these tales can also contribute to ex-pupils’ sense of a collective identity, as well as constituting a source of personal pride.

An article based on this paper, entitled ‘Surviving Stunde Null: Narrating the fate of Nazi elite-school pupils during the collapse of the Third Reich’, has now been published in German History journal, and was awarded the journal’s ‘Best Article Prize’ for 2015.