Sparta's German Children: The idealisation of ancient Sparta in the Royal Prussian Cadet Corps and at the Nationalpolitische Erziehungsanstalten

Guest lecture, presented to the Forschungskolloquium der Abteilung Historische Bildungsforschung, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, 4 June 2015.

This lecture gave a brief overview of the content of Helen’s first book, Sparta’s German Children, looking at the important role which the Spartan paradigm played in the personal lives of both Prussian cadets and Napola pupils, as well as the ways in which perceptions of Sparta were integrated into contemporary political attitudes and debates concerning both types of institution.

At the cadet schools, self-identification with young Spartans became instrumental in helping boys to accept the hardships of military socialisation in a ‘total institution’; this identification was encouraged both by older cadets and by the school authorities. In political debates concerning the cadet corps, ideas of Sparta then became conceptual weapons in the battle between the forces of monarchist conservatism and the adherents of Social Democracy and liberalism. Even in the post-war period, publications and archival material from the cadet-school Traditionsgemeinschaften show that former cadets clung to their Spartan self-definition right to the end of their lives – even up to the mid-1990s.

At the Napolas, meanwhile, National Socialist racial ideology was used to portray Sparta as an ancient precursor of the Third Reich, and boys were particularly encouraged to embrace Spartan models of courage and self-sacrifice, such as King Leonidas and the 300 Spartans who fought at Thermopylae.

Through correspondence and conversation with over sixty octogenarian ex-pupils of these schools, and by using contemporary documentary sources, the impact which such Spartan ideology had on Napola-pupils on a personal level has (at least partially) been reconstructed. The ways in which the politicians who founded the Napolas conceived of Sparta as a model for these schools have also been thoroughly investigated.

A monograph based on this research project, entitled Sparta’s German Children. The ideal of ancient Sparta in the Royal Prussian Cadet-Corps, 1818-1920, and in National Socialist elite schools (the Napolas), 1933-1945, has been published by the Classical Press of Wales.