In the spring of 1936, teenage schoolboy, and later war hero, Dick Hargreaves had the opportunity to go on an all-expenses-paid exchange trip to Germany. But this was no ordinary school exchange: Hargreaves’ destination was Oranienstein, one of a system of elite new boarding schools known as National Institutes of Political Education (“Napolas” for short).
These Nazi universities were explicitly inspired by an amalgamation of British public schools, the Prussian cadet corps, and the harsh educational practices of ancient Sparta. The schools educated children from the age of ten, training them as future leaders of the Third Reich. By participating in the exchange, Hargreaves and his ten companions Dauntsey School in Wiltshire, England, he would soon be exposed to Napolas’ “total” program of education, indoctrination and Napolas propaganda.
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Hargreaves’ initial impressions, recorded in his journal at the time, are overwhelmingly favorable. The school, located in the town of Diez an der Lahn, near Koblenz, is described as “a damn good place … a huge castle, modernly decorated and very stylish: armchairs, super labs, stables … bicycles. schoolchildren and the sky [knows] What! “According to the newspaper, everyone is” extraordinarily decent “, and the children’s Nazi uniforms are” really very stylish: light khaki corduroy pants, black riding boots, khaki coat, red armband with swastika, brown coat lapels, blue suspenders and a dagger ”.
Most interesting, however, is Dick’s dispassionate observation of Nazi May Day celebrations in neighboring Diez. On April 30, 1936, his diary records a trip “with our Kameraden” to see the Maypole hoisted and the Hitler Youth folk dances. The boys listened to the speeches of some of the “great critters of the town”. There was also community singing in which everyone participated.
There was a bit of ‘Heiling’ that we did as well because we were in a big crowd. It was a magnificent scene: the ancient castle towering above the market square with thousands of enthusiastic peasants lit by torches and candles …
The following Friday, May 1, which was the spring festival or “spring FestivalHargreaves’ diary records that the boys had to get up at six o’clock to salute the flag and parade. They then marched to Diez, where they met with the local Hitler Youth to listen to Hitler’s 90-minute speech broadcast on the radio.
That same afternoon, the boys returned to Diez to hear another lengthy speech by the “der Führer”. Hargreaves noted:
He got so frantic and was able to move the crowd so tremendously that we saw three people pass out. Not because of fatigue or crush, but simply because of his amazing speaking powers. Then after Hitler was ‘removed’ from the earth, Goering spoke for half an hour!
Here, the way in which foreign observers could easily be swept away by the fervor of “heiling” and the Hitlerism around it is poignantly clear, although the endless speeches of Hitler and his henchmen seem to have paled very soon.
My decade-long research project on the history of Napolas, just published as a book The elite schools of the Third Reich: a history of the Napolas – has shown that, during the 1930s, hundreds of students participated in this program of exchanges and sports tournaments.
Just to take one example, between 1935 and 1938, Napola Oranienstein participated in exchanges with British private schools, including Westminster, St Paul’s, Tonbridge School, Dauntsey’s, and Bingley School in Yorkshire. The school also entertained principals and exchange teachers from Shrewsbury School, Dauntsey’s, and Bolton School, and also participated in sports tournaments with Eton, Harrow, Westminster, Winchester, Shrewsbury, Bradfield, and Bryanston.
The Napolas also participated in exchange programs with various American academies under the auspices of the International Schoolboy Fellowship. American schools involved included Tabor Academy in Massachusetts, St Andrew’s Delaware, and Phillips Academy Andover, all considered top-notch educational establishments.
Ultimately, the Nazi regime wanted German children and staff to act as “cultural ambassadors” for the Third Reich, generating sympathy for Hitler’s policies and spreading pro-Nazi propaganda. Many British directors of the time were convinced of the wisdom of these exchanges.
EK Milliken, principal of Lancing House Prep School in Lowestoft, England, was so enthusiastic about his Napola experiences in Naumburg that he even wrote an article expressing his belief that the exchanges “would promote that spirit of true camaraderie that the world so desperately needs. ”, Exhorting all members of the High School Association welcome the Napolas with open arms.
Even those who were less easily convinced, such as Principal AB Sackett of Kingswood School in Bath, hoped that the program could provide “an opportunity to influence the sons of superior Nazis through discussion and friendship.”
The American reaction appears to have followed a similar pattern, with Tabor Academy principal Walter Huston Lillard still trying to persuade American schools to continue with the program, even after Kristallnacht, the infamous pogrom of November 1938, during which Jewish-owned homes, businesses and synagogues were systematically attacked in Germany’s major cities.
In general, both the British and American participants in the Napola exchange program appear to have initially been willing to give the Nazis the benefit of the doubt. While they may not have been convinced by the goals and ideals of the Third Reich, they continued to hope that their national differences could be set aside in the name of international cooperation, at least until the Nazi belligerence reached its fatal climax.