The Challenges of Engaging with Childhood under the Nazi Regime

Presented at an international conference on Challenges in the History of Childhood, Queen Mary, University of London, 16 January 2015.

This paper focused upon some of the challenges raised by researching the history of the Napolas (Nationalpolitische Erziehungsanstalten or National-political Education Institutes), the most prominent type of Nazi elite school. Pupils who passed the schools’ rigorous selection process were educated from the age of ten upwards with the aim of their subsequently becoming the future elite of the Third Reich in all walks of life – whether political, military, economic or intellectual. However, during the Second World War, the age of those pupils who were mobilised for the armed forces decreased ever more rapidly, with many boys going into battle as young adolescents.

Correspondence and oral history interviews with a selection of former pupils potentially allow for a rich and wide-ranging analysis of their experiences, as children who were being explicitly trained in the service of the Nazi regime. However, working with such material also raises a number of significant methodological challenges which apply more generally to the study of childhood during this period – for instance, how far is it possible to move beyond the standard ‘perpetrator/victim’ dichotomy when considering the actions of children or adolescents?

As Nicholas Stargardt has noted, although reconstructing what children and young people experienced during the Second World War necessarily involves breaking a scholarly taboo, in that it obliges one to gain historical empathy and understanding for the actions of those on the ‘wrong side’, not just for the ‘noble victims’, it can also provide us with an invaluable framework for understanding the transformatory effect of war on the colonisers as well as the colonised.  The paper therefore explored some of these broader problems, using the experiences and memories of former Napola-pupils as a case-study.

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.