National Socialist Elite-School Pupils on the Move: The Nazi Exchange Programmes with British Public Schools

Presented at Children and Youth on the Move: The Children’s History Society Biennial Conference, University of Greenwich, 23 June 2018.

Between 1934 and 1939, pupils from the Nationalpolitische Erziehungsanstalten (aka Napolas), the most prominent type of Nazi elite school, engaged in a series of exchanges with boys from British public schools, including Harrow, Winchester, Rugby, Lancing, and even the Leys School in Cambridge. Some of these trips were themselves funded or facilitated by the German government, and the Napola pupils who embarked upon them were seen as performing the function of ‘cultural ambassadors’ for the ‘new Germany’.

Using a mixture of contemporary documentary evidence and eyewitness testimony from former pupils on both sides of the Anglo-German divide, this paper explores the development of the attitudes which the participating English and German boys bore towards each other during this period. Since the schools tended to carry out a number of reciprocal exchanges, with German pupils travelling to England one year, and English pupils returning in the next, the ways in which boys’ (and masters’) stances changed over the course of time can often be reconstructed in some detail.

For instance, during the early to mid 1930s, Anglo-German familiarity by no means always bred contempt. However, by the later 1930s, mutual understanding seems to have become less assured; the Napola pupils were more likely to mock their English counterparts for their regular attendance at church services and their insistence on praying before lights-out, and found their insouciant attitude to institutions such as the Officer Training Corps both shocking and incomprehensible. Meanwhile, English pupils tended to see the fundamental secularisation and militarisation of life at the Napolas as unnecessary and potentially dangerous.

Above all, the paper seeks to emphasise the contingency of attitudes towards the movement of youth groups between Great Britain and Nazi Germany, at a time when the Holocaust, which colours this period so gravely with hindsight, was still literally unimaginable.

This paper is based on research for an article published in Angermion: Yearbook for Anglo-German Literary Criticism, Intellectual History and Cultural Transfers / Jahrbuch für britisch-deutsche Kulturbeziehungen.