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From the NS archive: A schoolgirl in Germany

29 September 1934: The Nazis’ lessons in indoctrination.

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In 1934, an English teacher who had previously worked in German schools had returned home and “Else”, a ten-year-old former pupil, came to stay. She described school life under National Socialism and her testimony informs this remarkable report in which the teacher gives a chilling picture of German education under Hitler: schools had become places in which children are indoctrinated with a hatred of other countries, the conviction that Germany is the chosen realm and that the Führer is a reincarnation of Jesus. To achieve their ends, the Nazis had fired all teachers of a liberal persuasion, leaving them destitute and forcing the remaining staff to work in fear of reprisals for a loose word or an unconvincing adherence to the regime. This was not proper “teaching”, since “Nazi educational policy ignores the nature and needs of the child, and takes advantage of his tender age and inexperience to mould him into a political fanatic.”

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Far more important than anything Hitler may say under pressure of circumstances is the sort of teaching actually given to the coming generation in Germany. When I reported my impressions of Nazi education on my return from Germany in June last year, some of my friends, who had not been living in Nazi Germany, urged me to suspend judgement: “It will all come right in the end. They will modify their aims and methods.” Hitler has now been Chancellor for a year and a half. It is surely not unfair to inquire again.

I have been hearing from a German girl of ten, who has been spending her holidays with us, what goes on in her school. It used to be a very good Volksschule with enterprising teachers, whose experimental work was well known in Germany. Most of the old staff have been replaced by Nazis; two have managed to remain by adapting themselves outwardly to the new conditions, which meant joining either the SA or the Stahlhelm. Of the dismissed teachers, only those who were very harmless Liberals or Social Democrats receive a small pension; the others receive none at all, and one at least was imprisoned. The former headmaster has nothing to keep himself and his family on but what he can earn hawking wares from door to door.

In many schools in Germany the transmission of some element of human culture is still carried on, but solely through the few teachers who have survived from before the coup d’etat; under terrible difficulties they try to preserve something of the former ways and to counteract unobtrusively the politicising of all instruction. This handful of brave men and women deserve the admiration and gratitude of the world, and above all of the future generations of Germans. For an indiscreet word, reported at home by a child, would be enough to throw the teacher out of work, pensionless. It requires great courage and tact to carry on in this way. One teacher, for instance, contrives to retain something of the old friendly atmosphere by returning a kindly Guten Morgen, Kinder to the mechanically raised hands and Heil Hitler! which greet him every morning. This sounds a ridiculously trivial fact to mention, but in the state of things which prevails under Hitler it is an act of courage which may one day cost the man his livelihood. My little informant (whom we will call Else) tells me the children notice it, admire his courage, appreciate his “different” way with them, and hold their tongues.

It seems that some of the more intelligent children are sick of the eternal politics with which they are plagued, and say, “We used to learn much more interesting things with the old teachers.” They resent hotly, but in silence, the habit Nazi teachers have of constantly making offensive remarks about their predecessors. They also feel that it is somehow not fitting to fill up religious lessons with Nazi propaganda. (Teachers who are not trustworthy Nazis are not allowed to give religion lessons.) The sort of story told to the children is this, one of the last Else heard. After the murders of 30 June, Hitler retired to Berchtesgaden. An old lady visited him there and asked how he managed to do his great work. His answer was to pull a copy of the New Testament out of his pocket!

[see also: From the NS archive: Return of the dictators?]

The teacher asks leading questions, such as “Who, at the present day, reminds us most strongly of Jesus by his love of the people and his self-sacrifice?” to which the answer is “Herr Hitler”, and “Who remind us by their devotion and loyalty of the Disciples?” – “General Göring, Dr Goebbels, Hauptmann, Röhm(!),” etc, etc. Although the children know perfectly well what the answers should be, and although marks are distributed according to the answers, many of them deliberately hold back, so unseemly does it appear to them to mix up Nazidom and Christianity in this way. The result is that some of the best pupils have very poor marks for religion in their terminal reports. Else tells me that last term, during which her class had two religion lessons a week, there were only two lessons in which Hitler was not compared to Jesus.

The New Testament is taught in the spirit of the New Germany. For instance, the teacher said of the betrayal of Jesus, Judas der Jude verriet Jesus den Deutschen den Juden (Judas the Jew betrayed Jesus the German to the Jews). Else added by way of explanation, Siehst du, in unserer Religion ist Jesus ein Deutscher (You see, in our religion Jesus is a German).

Political teaching is given to children of even seven and eight, teaching directed against communism, social democracy and liberalism at home, against the Treaty of Versailles, France, England, and other nations abroad. Every week the children have to learn a saying (Wochenspruch) which they repeat every day for that week. Many of these sayings are designed to instil into the young minds a hatred of other nations, a wildly exaggerated opinion of Germany, and an admiration for fighting. Here is one Else had to learn, a quotation from Schiller interpreted by Nazi teachers in a sense which Schiller did not mean: “You must learn everything; he who will force his way through life must be armed for defence and attack.” On the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles they had to learn: Versailles ist Lüge, ist Schmach und Schand/ Versailles ist dein Tod, O Vaterland!/ Du bist ein deutsches Kind, so denke d'ran,/ Was dir der Feind in Versailles angetan. (Versailles is a lie, is dishonour and shame, Versailles is thy death, O Fatherland! You are a German child, so think of it, what the enemy did to you in Versailles.)

Two days before Else left for England, the teacher made her read aloud to the class a passage from a book about the Treaty of Versailles, in which England was reviled (beschimpt wurde). This she thought rather mean (ein bisschen gebein). Before Hitler came to power, Else was a member of a peace association called the Weltfriedensbund. Soon after she came to us, she showed me her badge, which she had brought over to England and wears here. She said, “How nice that here I can wear it again!” I asked if she did not wear it in Germany now. “Oh, no, you are not allowed to wear anything like that.”

The school entrance hall is decorated with pictures of the First Sixteen Nazis, and lessons are given on their lives. Of course, every classroom has its picture of Hitler. Else showed me her notes taken down in history lesson. They had been hearing of the first contact of the primitive Germanic tribes with the Romans, and the notes consisted of a list (very short, it is true) of things that the Germans had taught the Romans or introduced to them, but not a word was said of all that the Romans introduced to the Germans. The impression given was that the Romans made their first contact with civilisation when they met these tribes.

Special lessons inculcate Deutschtum, but, apart from them, no opportunity is missed of driving home the idea that the Germans are the greatest and most gifted of peoples, and that they are suffering from nothing but the monstrous injustices inflicted on them by their barbaric neighbours, and such foreigners or hirelings of foreigners (Jews and Marxists) as live in their midst. These ideas are drummed into the children’s minds day after day. It is Germany, Germany, Germany, all the time. They have to spend hours learning verses and songs (of very mediocre literary quality) in praise of Germany and the Nazis and fighting or expressing Germany's grievances, eg, Deutsch ist die Saar. New Nazi verses have been added to old songs, while old tunes, at first forbidden, have reappeared with new words; one, for instance, describes the burial of an SA man who was shot by communists and how his comrades swore eternal vengeance. Occasionally the children are compelled to go to some special Nazi-propagandist film; the cost is paid by the parents who often can ill afford it.

The school morning prayer deals with no other subject but Germany, nothing to do with school work, children's needs, their families, and so on, and includes the customary flattery of Hitler, in which even Almighty God is not spared:

“Lord, we German children tread before Thy countenance, beseeching Thee to make us as our fathers were. Give us already in our early years a pious mind and strong hands. Protect our Fatherland, this most glorious on Earth. Let it be free and united, let it flourish proud and strong. And do Thou protect with Thy strong hands the great and bold Chancellor and the President of the Reich. Our leaders. Amen.”

What an obsession these ideas are is shown by their teachers’ contributions to her autograph album, where other people had written or drawn the usual kind of thing, one wrote in large letters: “NEVER FORGET that you are a GERMAN! Be ever mindful of these words.”

Else is at this moment writing a letter to her class, as school has begun again. We were making a list of things to tell them about her visit to England. She had been to Quarr Abbey, which is inhabited by French monks, and I suggested that she had better tell them about it. “I’ll tell them we visited Quarr Abbey, but I won’t say anything about the monks being French. You see, Herr X (the teacher) be so Nazi that he would get angry and only use it to curse the French (fluchen auf die Franzosen). And the monks were so nice.”

It is not always easy for the authorities to keep with the demands of the Nazi gospel. Some time ago a visit by great and bold Chancellor himself to Else’s school was announced. They made great preparations and the headmaster decided that it would be proper for one of the girls to present a bouquet to the Führer and recite a little verse. He hunted through the school for an appropriate-looking girl. She had to be blonde, with blue eyes, with pigtails, and well-built – the real little Nordic. To his great distress the only girl in the school who fulfilled all these qualifications was Else, whose parents were known to be of the wrong political complexion. However, as the complexion of her skin was correct and the only other blond girls were either dark-eyed, or undersized, or had no pigtails, she had to be chosen. Else was very chagrined when the visit was called off and she never had her chance! One cannot help thinking that in many districts the schools must have to borrow a girl from elsewhere for such occasions.

[see also: From the NS archive: The final curtain]

It is clear from what my little informant tells me that teaching in a public elementary school is as deliberately and thoroughly moulded towards certain ends as the propaganda for adults. The ends seem to be: (1) the creation of a morbid self-consciousness as Germans; (2) the creation of an exclusive admiration for the Fatherland combined with depredation of all other lands; (3) the creation of a conviction that other lands are trying to “do down” the Germans; (4) the creation of a blind devotion to Hitler and National Socialism, combined with violent hostility to every other form of political opinion. To gain these ends, all subjects of instruction are laid under contribution: everything has to aufpeitschen zut vaterländischer Leidenschaft, to whip up patriotic passion. The subjects which suffer most from this treatment are history and religion.

Nazi educational policy ignores the nature and needs of the child, and takes advantage of his tender age and inexperience to mould him into a political fanatic, and to feed him on information which every honest student knows to be untrue.

The urgent point is this: does a self-conscious and aggressive national megalomania, based on compulsory ignorance, compulsory falsehoods, the abolition of the individual's right to form opinions for himself, and a scrupulous prevention of intellectual contact with the rest of the world, breed a state of mind favourable to peace? When one remembers of extreme teachability of the Germans, and the influence of teaching on the nation in the past as, for example, in the remarkable change, noted in the Seventies by Sir Robert Morier (and other observers) which came over the German character in the last three or four decades of the 19th century, one has no right to view the present training of the new generation in Germany with complacence.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)