Spartan Youth vs. the Spartacists? Ideas of ‘Sparta' as ideological weapons in Germany's battle against Social Democracy (1900-1925)

Presented at the first Annual Meeting of Postgraduates in Reception of the Ancient World (AMPRAW), University College London, 16 December 2011.

An expanded version of this paper was presented at a seminar hosted by the Centre for Contemporary German Culture and the Research Institute for Arts and Humanities at Swansea University, 23 April 2013.

The Prussian Cadet-Corps was well-known – and decried – as a bastion of reactionary conservatism during Germany’s Second Reich. In this ‘nursery’ for the ultra-monarchist Prussian Officer-Corps, whose loyalty lay far more with the Kaiser than with new-fangled notions of democracy, cadets were taught to abhor above all else the evils of Social Democratic politics (which had been banned until 1890).

The cadet-schools also cultivated a tradition of encouraging their charges to identify themselves with Spartan boys, and to see their tough training in the cadet-corps as a modern-day reflection of ancient Spartan educational methods. Thus, cadets took an extraordinary amount of pride in designating themselves as ‘Spartanerjünglinge‘ (Spartan youths), and a hugely popular cadet-school novel of that name was published at the turn of the century by Paul von Szczepanski, which went into more than a dozen editions over the next two decades.

This Spartan self-identification did not go unnoticed amongst those critics of the cadet-corps with Spartacist or Social Democratic sympathies, who saw the schools as a blight upon the nation, and wanted them abolished. After Germany’s catastrophic defeat in World War I, no holds were barred in their accusations of brutality, which they often saw as being caused by the schools’ flawed appropriation of ‘Spartan’ values. Thus one Social-Democratic author, Hans-Joachim Freiherr von Reitzenstein, wrote a short story entitled ‘Sparta’, in which the hideous consequences of a ten-year-old cadet’s bullying by his seniors nearly led to his losing a hand.

Similarly, the new Social-Democratic teachers at the schools – which the Ebert government tried to demilitarise following the demands of the Treaty of Versailles – attempted to demonise the way in which the cadets had always been taught Spartan history (focussing on the glories of Spartan warrior life and the spirit of Thermopylae). The new teachers insisted instead on the selfishness and bloodthirstiness of the Classical Spartan kings, and on the primacy of the ‘democratic’ innovations of the Hellenistic reformer-kings Agis IV and Cleomenes III. In disgust, the ex-cadets and their reactionary supporters fought back by emphasising what they saw as the true Spartan virtues of the cadet-corps, identifying themselves ever more strongly as ‘Spartanerjünglinge‘ in the teeth of Spartacist and Social-Democratic opposition.

This paper explores the ideological struggle over the ‘true’ meaning and value of Spartan identification during the Second Reich and the Weimar Republic in detail – a subject which has thus far found no mention in any of the relevant scholarly literature.

A monograph based on this research project, entitled 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, has now been published by the Classical Press of Wales.