Spartan pedagogy, German style? Prussian military education and the Spartan paradigm

Presented at an international conference entitled ‘Married to the Military: Soldier’s Families in the Ancient World and Beyond’, The Open University in London, 12 November 2016.

The Royal Prussian Cadet-Corps, which educated boys from the age of ten upwards in order to train them to become brave and loyal officers in the Prussian Army, explicitly inculcated its charges with a supposedly “Spartan” ethos. Indeed, cadets were often described in the press, in literature, and even in Parliament, as well as in their own private ego-documents, as “Spartanerjünglinge” (Spartan Youths).

One of the manifold ways in which cadet-school life was supposed to emulate the life of ancient Spartan youths was in the stark separation from home and family which it inevitably entailed. Despite having been subjected to the (often highly brutal) military discipline of the cadet corps at such a tender age, boys were often able to find some comfort in the fact that they were following a Spartan paradigm, replacing the comfort of familial relations with the companionship of a hierarchy of likeminded peers.

This paper aims to explore the ways in which cadets’ partial estrangement from their families – a very large proportion of which would already have had strong military connections – affected their relationships, both with family members and with each other, whilst also demonstrating the ways in which cadets sought to find and cultivate affinities with a more ancient mode of military life, in order to help them to bear the trials and tribulations of life in a total institution.

An article based on this paper, ‘”Spartanische Pädagogik deutscher Art“: The Influence of Sparta on the Royal Prussian Cadet-Schools (1818-1920)’, has now been published in an edited volume entitled Das antike Sparta, ed. Anton Powell, Vassiliki Pothou (Stuttgart, 2017), pp. 157-80.