Archival Violence and Violent Institutions: Researching the Royal Prussian Cadet-Corps (1818-1920)

Presented at an international interdisciplinary conference entitled The Nineteenth-Century Archive as a Discourse of Power, Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies, University of Durham, 8 February 2019.

This paper used the Prussian system of military secondary schools as a case study, exploring some of the pitfalls inherent in researching nineteenth-century institutions which have been more or less neglected in recent scholarship due to their violent nature. 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, and was widely seen in post-war Germany as providing a breeding ground for the cruelties and excesses of National Socialism. Drawing on my own experiences researching these schools, I engage with some questions relevant to the aims of the conference more generally – for instance: What can we do to encourage the preservation of archival material when the institutions in question are at least partially taboo? And how can we effectively create – and curate – archives of material on topics which we believe to be important, in the face of bureaucratic or institutional intransigence?

This paper draws on material from my first book, 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.