Hands up for Hitler

23rd June 2000 at 01:00
(Photograph) - What's the story

Words by: Sean Coughlan Photographer: unknown

Small hands raised in a Nazi salute, a reflection of how Hitler's ideology was imposed from the earliest years. The caption on the back of the original picture noted approvingly that "schoolchildren do not pour out of schools at the end of the day whooping and rejoicing at being set free, but march out in military formation".

From Hitler's rise to power in 1933, through to the end of the war, Germany's national education system became a training ground for young racial warriors and mothers of a supposed master race.

A 1936 propaganda tract on the purpose of schooling declared that all teachers, parents and pupils must recognise that "the four iron pillars of the national school and educational system are race, military training, leadership, and religion". There was to be no dissent and "pupils must accept the idea of following the Fuehrer absolutely and without question".

In the national curriculum imposed by Nazi education minister Bernhard Rust - a former teacher sacked for mental instability - intellectual pursuits were downgraded in favour of physical fitness. Boxing became compulsory and children could be expelled for being bad at sport.

The Nazis believed the Germans were a superior people. The study of notions of racial supremacy and racial purity became mandatory from the age of six, and racist theories were put into practice in the classroom, with Jewish pupils banned from school in November 1938.

Deeply politicised textbooks reinforced the ideology. A geography textbook showed how the Germans needed to expand eastwards and how the dispossession of "inferior" peoples was an act f self-defence.

And a biology textbook from 1942 used the analogy of struggles between species in the animal kingdom to legitimise notions of racial supremacy and anti-Semitism.

While boys were trained to be political soldiers, girls were to prepare for motherhood. Under the Nazis, grammar school and university places were limited for girls, and there were almost no places for girls in the elite boarding schools set up by the Nazis as academies for future leaders.

Teachers had little scope to oppose this indoctrination. Jewish teachers and opponents of the regime were removed, and staff who remained had to swear allegiance to Hitler, attend ideological training camps and join the National Socialist Teachers' League.

But there was also much voluntary support for Hitler among teachers. By 1936 one teacher in three was a member of the Nazi party. And many Nazi gauleiters (local leaders) were former teachers.

But the Nazi schools experiment ultimately failed. The political ransacking of the curriculum, the disruption of sports and Hitler Youth events and the blocking of lessons for girls all contributed to a collapse in standards. Ironically, for a system designed to produce warriors, it was the German army which raised complaints that its recruits lacked basic levels of general knowledge.

Books: Social History of the Third Reich Richard Grunberger (Pelican)Rise and Fall of the Third Reich William Shirer (Mandarin) Nazi Germany: a new historyKlaus P Fischer (Constable) Web Links Simon Wiesenthal Center links, including Museum of Tolerance Multimedia Learning Center: www.wiesenthal.com Nazi propaganda 1933-1945: http:www.calvin.eduacademiccasgpaww2era.htm

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