A Tale from the Third Reich’s Interior Ministry…

A few days ago, I happened to be working through a seemingly innocuous file from the German Interior Ministry during the mid-1930s, collated by one Hans Pfundtner, who was a Staatssekretär (a very high-ranking civil servant) in the Ministry. It contains a series of letters to (and about) Pfundtner’s son Reinhard, who has just been sent to a Napola, one of the Nazi elite-schools which I’ve been researching for the last few years.

Some of the father’s letters to his son are so banal, but also so strangely familiar to anyone acquainted with boarding-school life, that from time to time one can’t help inwardly exclaiming in recognition: stern admonitions for having left an expensive piece of sports-kit behind somewhere; responses to constant requests for more pocket-money…

There are also some odd moments of humour – for example, the father’s keenness on huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’, such that he won’t even be home to welcome his son at Easter because he will be off hunting capercaillies instead…!

A photograph of Hans Pfundtner (1881-1945), taken at some point before 1935

A photograph of Hans Pfundtner (1881-1945), taken at some point before 1935

And yet… as we read through the file, small intimations of Pfundtner’s engagement with the Nazi regime begin to mount up – enough to give us pause. Firstly, in a letter dated 12 January 1935, we learn that he has been nominated as Gauehrenarbeitsführer – certainly some indication of a high degree of political loyalty to the Nazi state, over and above his status as a civil servant.

He is also heavily involved with organising the forthcoming Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen – something which later leads him to send a press release to the Headmaster of the American school where Reinhard spends several months as an exchange student (Tabor Academy in Massachusetts). The content of this missive may or may not have had some small role to play in persuading U.S public opinion of the rightness of sending teams to the Berlin and Garmisch-Partenkirchen Olympic Games, despite suspicion of Nazi atrocities.

But it is on 25 September 1935 that Pfundtner drops what, to anyone unacquainted with his biography, must be the ultimate bombshell:

“… the Party conference went splendidly. No one else in the world could have given a speech to equal the one the Führer gave. The sitting of the Reichstag in which the Jewish Laws were passed was an experience. I had played a substantial role in formulating the laws, and because of this had an especially great deal to do…”

Pfundtner isn’t just a family man with four sons, who signs off his letters “your loving father”, and ticks Reinhard off for spending his pocket money too quickly. He is also one of the key architects of the Nuremberg Laws, which demoted Jews and Gypsies to a pariah status within Nazi Germany, and which were instrumental in the genesis of the Holocaust.

This damning ambiguity in historical actors’ personal lives is one of the things which any historian of the Third Reich has to deal with on a daily basis. Still, that doesn’t make it any easier to reconcile two such conflicting images – the Schreibtischtäter, the murderer at his desk, formulating the laws which destined whole “races” to persecution and death – and the harassed, sometimes stern, but ultimately affectionate father.

Is this the banality of evil? Or something far less iconic?

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“Nazis at the Leys”: British public school exchange programmes with the Third Reich

I was recently invited to give a lunchtime lecture to the Rotary Club of Cambridge, which took place on 7 July this year. I decided to take this opportunity to talk about my research on the exchange programmes which were organised during the 1930s between British public schools and the Napolas (the Nazi elite-schools which I’ve been working on for the past few years).

This wasn’t an entirely random decision – one of the English schools which took part in these exchanges was Cambridge’s very own The Leys School, so I calculated that the topic should arouse some local interest. (In fact, a couple of people in the audience had even attended or taught at The Leys!)

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My “speaker host”, John Holroyd (pictured left), wrote a wonderfully succinct summary of my talk for the Rotary Club website, which I have taken the liberty of reproducing here, as it gives a very good overview:

“Under the heading ‘Nazis at the Leys’, Dr Helen Roche, a Research Fellow at Lucy Cavendish College, gave us a fascinating and detailed description of exchange visits between English public schools and their German counterparts during the 1930s.

The German National Political Education Institutes, NAPOLAS, were aimed at training the future Nazi elite in all walks of life. Unlike our own public schools, they were open to boys of all backgrounds and offered a generous scheme of free or heavily subsidised places.

One of the attractions they offered was the opportunity of foreign travel, and it was on this basis that the exchange visits were founded. The impetus for these visits was enthusiastically endorsed on both sides.

The German authorities had for some time admired the English model, and were keen to discover how the public school system could help their own educational techniques. We were similarly eager to discover any advantages that could be obtained by adopting German methods.

Additionally it was hoped that social interaction between boys who might become national leaders would help future political relations.

In May 1936, a group from NAPOLA Naumburg, near Weimar, visited the Leys. An article in the Leys school magazine described a friendly and boisterous raid on the Leys dormitories. The parting words were not ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ but ‘Auf Wiederfechten’, until we fight again. How prescient!

Helen gave other illustrations of contacts between different schools such as NAPOLA Ilfeld and Kingswood School in Bath, whose magazine reported their visit in glowing terms. Exchanges and sporting tournaments between NAPOLAS and other public schools like Eton, Harrow, and Winchester, and many others were widespread. Unfortunately, the passage of time, and the highly political aims of the NAPOLAS, overshadowed the individual friendships that could have been forged between the boys had they been left to their own devices.

The final exchange between Ilfeld and Kingswood took place in July 1939, when attempts to downplay tensions were made. A hope that ‘May the bonds of friendship be stronger than political tensions’, expressed by a German visitor, was not to be fulfilled.

A final note was that out of a class of 25 from Ilfeld, only 2 survived the war.”