Contested Youth? The instrumentalisation of testimony in life-writing by former Nazi elite-school pupils

Presented at an international conference entitled ‘Life of Testimony / Testimony of Lives: A Life-Writing Conference’, Queen Mary, University of London, 6 May 2016.

How do individuals manage adequately to remember and commemorate their childhood, when it occurred under a political regime which has become synonymous both with utter evil, and with the ultimate horror of modernity? More specifically, how do German children who grew up under National Socialism cope with negotiating the tension between an often happily remembered personal “reality”, and current censure of the Nazi past?

This problem is particularly acute when considering the experiences of former pupils of the Napolas (aka Nationalpolitische Erziehungsanstalten), the Third Reich’s most prominent type of elite school. This therefore aims to explore the diverse ways in which men of this peer-group – too young to be implicated in the Nazi regime’s crimes, yet old enough to have lived in its embrace from infancy to late adolescence – have come to terms with memories of their schooldays at these elite educational institutions, which aimed to prepare them for positions as future leaders of the ‘Thousand-Year Reich’.

Drawing on a completely original corpus of ego-documents, eyewitness testimony and life-writing by former Napola-pupils, this paper would aim to explore the instrumental uses of such consciously-constructed types of testimonies. Ultimately, the authors are seeking to rehabilitate their own pasts, and to convince those receiving their testimony of the ultimate benefits of their education.

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

Material from this research has now been published in Helen’s monograph The Third Reich’s Elite Schools: A History of the Napolas.