Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Helen Roche's "The Third Reich's Elite Schools"

Helen Roche is Associate Professor in Modern European Cultural History at Durham University. Her 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 has subsequently received critical acclaim from reviewers in several disciplines, including Classics, intellectual history, and the history of education.

Roche applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Third Reich's Elite Schools: A History of the Napolas, and reported the following:
From page 99:
A brown-skinned, short, thick neck leads into a broad body, completely enshrouded in a sack-like, greasy, much-tattered kaftan, from which the knock-kneed short flat feet still poke out. Short, drooping arms with gesticulating hands, often holding gnarled sticks, complete this unlovely picture.
As we can see from this depiction, Boneß has completely internalized the negative Nazified image of the ‘common-or-garden’ Jew, and approaches his subject with a seemingly anthropological or ethnographic interest, fuelled by contempt. There is no trace of sympathy or fellow-feeling with the people whom he is observing, and indeed, he goes on to extend his disparagement to every type of Jew that he sees, whether they be young or old, male or female:
Mostly some of them stand around, mumbling loudly and casting frowning, poisonous glances our way. Others cling to us with sinister importunacy, in order to ‘do a little deal’ with us (um ‘ä Geschäftsche’ zu tätigen). In between pale Jewboys buzz about…, rouged floozies (‘Schicksen’) with ever-painted nails, and abysmally ugly old women with snarled grey hair, crooked gait and usually a strongly pronounced Jewish nose. Here and there a few abject-looking peasants, the objects of exploitation by this sinister community. On the street, deals are being done; an elderly disciple of the Talmud has set himself up with a giant basket full of foul rubber balls. But then, a Jew can make a business out of anything…
No opportunity is lost here to use the most negative language, connoting disgust, filth, fear, or even suggestions of sexual depravity – as well, of course, as references to the supposed Jewish global economic conspiracy. This tendency becomes even more marked in the following description of the Jewish market hall, which is portrayed as incredibly unhygienic, full of vagrants, stink and unbearable noise. Metaphorical filth becomes ever more interchangeable with physical filth, as Boneß describes seeing thousands of flies swarming over a long table full of unprotected cuts of meat, some of which are apparently beginning to decay; or a single room in the cellar which serves as home to an entire family, from which an evil odour arises, and the stink of mouldering flesh. Thus, although we encounter no actual violence or specific antisemitic action in Boneß’s narrative, this trip nevertheless seems to denote an active attempt by the school authorities to instil loathing and repugnance for Jews by taking pupils to see them in their supposedly ‘natural habitat’ (as if they were mere animals in a zoo or nature reserve).

Such excursions appear to have been common at many of the NPEA; other surviving accounts document the experiences of Jungmannen at Bensberg, Klotzsche, Loben, Naumburg, Neuzelle, Rottweil, and Schulpforta, who made similar trips; many of these testimonies also concern visits to those ‘ghettos’ which had been deliberately created as part of Nazi occupation (and ultimately extermination) policy in Eastern Europe after the outbreak of World War II.
Page 99 of The Third Reich's Elite Schools: A History of the Napolas actually touches on a passage which originally wasn't part of the book at all - an in-depth analysis of an antisemitic account by a teenage pupil at one of these Nazi boarding-schools, written for a school newsletter following a school trip to the Jewish quarter in Sosnowice, Poland, in 1938.

This was one of the earliest parts of the book to be written, chronologically - it originally formed part of a stand-alone article on pupils' attitudes towards Jews and the Holocaust. So, it's fairly uncharacteristic of the book as a whole, since the sort of detailed linguistic analysis employed here is fairly uncommon throughout the narrative (it bears some hallmarks of my former incarnation as a Classicist, rather than my current profession as a modern Historian).

In general, the book aims to give readers a sense of how these Nazi elite schools fitted into the broader social and political context of the Third Reich, and to show how crucial they were to the National Socialist dictatorship's mechanisms of exploitation and domination. It also aims to tell the previously little-known story of everyday life at the schools. So, most of the narrative throughout the book as a whole is more straightforward and less overtly analytical, even though it synthesises a vast number of archival sources and testimonies from former pupils.

Still, there's a sense in which the content of this 99th page is rather apt, in that it gives the reader a real sense of the extreme kind of ideological indoctrination and racial hatred which was inculcated at the Napolas, which their young charges often swallowed unhesitatingly. It demonstrates that the Napolas were undeniably implicated in the regime's genocidal impulses, and the ways in which the schools deliberately trained future military leaders and SS officers who might easily have been conditioned to commit the worst of atrocities against the Jewish minority. (It's hard to know exactly how many former pupils might have been involved directly in the Holocaust, but some arguably will have been.) Overall, then, I would argue that this section of the book is still a highly significant one, since it enables us to draw a direct line between the ideological content of teaching at the Napolas, and the effect that this had in encouraging individual pupils to harbour extreme racist views.
Visit Helen Roche's website.

--Marshal Zeringue