Childhood under National Socialism: A truly "Horrible History"?

Presented at the inaugural conference of the Children’s History Society, ‘Horrible Histories? Children’s Lives in Historical Contexts’, King’s College London, 16 June 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, politically correct, attitudes towards 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 paper 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’.

In reaction to media coverage which they see as tendentious, sporting headlines such as “Cadets of the Devil” or “Brutality and Beethoven”, former pupils have frequently attempted to to fight back, asserting that their personal histories were by no means as “horrible” as one might think. Some have attempted to reach wider audiences through publishing (sometimes self-publishing) memoir literature; others have deliberately put themselves forward as contributors to TV series on topics such as childhood in the Third Reich, or served as historical advisors to the recent Napola film.

Drawing upon freshly-elicited eyewitness material, this paper analyses the depoliticisation and contestation of these memories from the Nazi past, demonstrating some of the ways in which such conflicts over memories of childhood can have a life-long impact upon their subjects.

Material from this research has now been published in Chapter 12 of Helen’s monograph The Third Reich’s Elite Schools: A History of the Napolas.