German History 33 (4), 2015, pp. 570-587.
Winner of German History journal’s “Best Article of 2015” prize.
This paper considers the experiences of one particular, rarely-discussed group of ‘war children’: former pupils of the Napolas, aka Nationalpolitische Erziehungsanstalten – the most prominent type of Nazi elite-school.
Drawing upon a variety of original testimonies, the paper explores the hardships and dilemmas which Napola-pupils (often as young as 12 or 13) faced as the Second World War drew to a close, and the ways in which former pupils have attempted to present this aspect of their past in autobiographical memoir-literature and personal recollections.
A number of recurring themes tend to emerge from the stories which the former pupils tell. Firstly, we find an emphasis on the benevolent and caring nature of the school authorities in a time of total chaos and destruction. Secondly, we encounter a persistent emphasis on the usefulness of pupils’ Napola training – both in overcoming the trials of Stunde Null, and in the witnesses’ later lives. Thirdly, narratives of victimhood come to the fore, which stress post-war persecution or discrimination suffered by former pupils due to their previously having attended a Nazi elite school.
Like many other Germans after the war’s end, former Napola-pupils began to construct their experiences in terms of ‘survival stories’ – and yet, unusually, they often present their actions during the Zusammenbruch and after capitulation not merely as passive, but as a series of active steps at the beginning of the first chapter of their post-war life. Their accounts are not simply immersed in a narrative of wholesale victimhood, but have been reframed in a positive way which stresses both their strength and capability.
Similarly, while the ‘success stories’ which the Napolaner tell about their achievements in later life have much in common with those told by their civilian counterparts, they are often predicated on the very specific advantages which their Napola education had (allegedly, if not actually) instilled in them. We might even see these recurring themes as constituting the basis of the former pupils’ own miniature Meistererzählung (master narrative) – which could perhaps, if disseminated widely enough, form the basis of a specific form of collective identity.
The paper makes a substantial contribution to current discussions concerning the value and contested nature of eyewitness evidence from former citizens of the Third Reich, as well as illuminating recent debates about the ease with which former elites under National Socialism could be assimilated into post-war society.