Researching Children's Histories under the Third Reich: Some challenges explored

Invited lecture, presented to the Wolfson College Humanities Society, Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, 8 November 2016.

This paper focuses 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?

This paper forms part of a long-standing research project on the history of the Nationalpolitische Erziehungsanstalten.