A Legal Odyssey: Denazification Law, Nazi Elite Schools, and the Construction of Postwar Memory

Tim Mueller. History of Education. Volume 46, Issue 4. 2017.


Scholarship on the legacy of the Second World War and the Holocaust in the divided Germany and the Berlin Republic has grown rapidly since 1990. Reunification has allowed historians to re-examine postwar German identity without passing guilt for the rise of Nazism ‘back and forth over the German–German border’. The surge of scholarly interest has not only generated positive responses. Scholars from across the political spectrum have increasingly advocated a return of the national master narrative. The years after the fall of the wall have also prompted a revival of tropes of German victimisation. Gilad Margalit notes that the ‘German public’s preoccupation with its own suffering during and after World War II enjoyed a renaissance after reunification’. Victims of air raids, expellees from Nazi-occupied territories, and German prisoners of war have figured prominently in these debates.

Within the larger ‘history of memory’, historians have focused more deliberately on the ways Germans came to terms with the past after 1945. Wolfgang Benz argues that National Socialism was treated with collective silence during the first postwar decades. Norbert Frei goes one step further and describes the basic elements of West Germany’s ‘policy of the past’ during the chancellorship of Konrad Adenauer as one of ‘amnesty, integration, and demarcation’. For some, a critical attempt to come to terms with the past did not take place until the student protest movement of the late 1960s. In recent years, historians have stepped away from the period’s conventional temporal categorisation: from repression and collective amnesia in the late 1940s and ’50s, to critical engagement with the Nazi past during the 1960s. Robert Moeller, in particular, has demonstrated that the Nazi past played a central role in cinema, education, parliamentary debates, and youth culture throughout the postwar period.

The prosecution of the National Political Education Institutes (Nationalpolitische Erziehungsanstalten, NPEA), popularly known as Napolas, and their former teaching staff showed that ‘postwar Germans did remember something of the Nazi past and the war years, but … their memories were directed, selective, and even self-serving’. The Napolas were boarding schools for ‘Aryan’ pupils from the age of 10 and upwards. Graduates were awarded the Abitur, the secondary school diploma necessary for university admission. Founded for the occasion of Adolf Hitler’s 44th birthday on 20 April 1933 by Prussian Education Minister Bernhard Rust, the Napolas remained formally under Rust’s auspices for the duration of the Third Reich. Between 1933 and 1945, the Napola inspectorate, the office embedded in the Ministry of Education and charged with the administration of the schools, established Napolas in the present-day Austria, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, and Slovenia.

By the end of the war, approximately 10,000 pupils were attending Napolas across the Reich. Throughout their existence, the Napolas were closely bound to Heinrich Himmler’s SS. Starting in 1936, August Heißmeyer, a senior SS official and member of Himmler’s inner circle, assumed control of the Napola inspectorate. Napola teachers who did not hold membership in Nazi formations at the time of Heißmeyer’s appointment were absorbed into the General SS. As Napola inspector, Heißmeyer facilitated the gradual transformation of Napolas into SS preparatory schools—with varying levels of success. Under his leadership, the SS took on an active role in the ‘political education’ of Napola pupils. The establishment of his own SS office during World War II, the Dienststelle SSObergruppenführer August Heißmeyer, allowed Heißmeyer to bolster the recruitment of Napola graduates into the armed SS. After the war, Heißmeyer and his wife, Reich Women’s Leader Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, went into hiding and escaped detection until 1948.

Yet even without the benefit of Heißmeyer’s testimony, the schools’ SS connection caught the attention of Allied officials before the war came to a close. Wartime directives issued instructions to military officials to permanently close the Napolas and other Nazi elite schools, and remove their former staff from public positions of responsibility. In some cases, Napola teachers were automatically arrested and sent to internment camps.

While some members of Nazi Germany’s civil service, who had been dismissed wholesale by Allied occupation policy, did not begin lobbying for reinstatement until after the promulgation of West Germany’s Basic Law (and its infamous Article 131), incriminated Napola teachers went to great lengths to convince occupation authorities of their and the schools’ innocence at the height of denazification. This article will demonstrate that the early timing of Napola activism was triggered by two legal developments: first, the branding of the SS as a criminal organisation by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg; second, the introduction of the Law for Liberation from National Socialism and Militarism in the US occupation zone.

The United States’ decision to put German agencies and officials in charge of denazification operations—under the continued supervision of the Office of Military Government, United States (OMGUS)—was a crucial turning point in the postwar history of the Napolas. Former Napola teachers benefited from the elasticity of occupation policy and the greater leniency of legal proceedings following the enactment of the Law for Liberation. The case of Otto Brenner will show that skilful interpretation (and manipulation) of denazification law could result in acquittal and immediate professional reinstatement.

The Law for Liberation also facilitated the construction of postwar memory. It provided a legal avenue for former Napola officials, teachers and students to record their selective interpretation of the schools’ history. Denazification trial records and sworn statements now allow for a closer glimpse at how this self-serving remembrance of the past—which I have coined the Napolas’ postwar legend—took shape and evolved. Generally speaking, ‘elitist’ efforts of shaping popular memory in postwar Germany have been well documented by historians. Yet a distinguishing feature of the Napolas’ postwar legend was not just the timing of its creation, or its impact on the outcome of as yet unknown number of denazification trials. As the conclusion of this article suggests, the legend survived the 1949 threshold and has continued to influence public debates on the legacy of the schools in unified Germany.

The Path to Indictment

Wartime Directives Target Nazi Elite Schools

The final draft of the Handbook for Military Government in Germany Prior to Defeat or Surrender was published in December 1944. It was produced by the German Country Unit, a subsidiary of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force’s (SHAEF) Civil Affairs Division. The Handbook provided preliminary instructions for denazification upon occupation of Germany territory. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the commander of SHAEF, decreed ‘this Handbook will be used as a basis of training for all officers who may be employed in the Military Government of Germany’. Yet a long-term Allied policy in occupied Germany remained forthcoming.

The manual outlined five objectives to achieve the ‘extirpation of Nazism and Militarism in Germany’. These included the dissolution of the Nazi party and its affiliated organisations, the demobilisation of the armed forces, the purging of the police, and the removal of fascist elements from government and other positions of influence. Military planning authorities also proposed the usage of questionnaires to identify and remove supporters of the regime from all levels of Germany’s civil service. Article 289, in particular, promulgated that ‘all removals will be summary’. Summary removals allowed for the dismissal of suspected Nazis from public positions without following procedural due process.

The Handbook moreover targeted Nazi schools for abolition. This marked the first time that SHAEF reported extensively on the fate of Germany’s postwar education system. Article 804 exposed the Nazi regime’s introduction of three ‘new special secondary school types’, which included the National Political Education Institutes, the German Boarding Schools (Deutsche Heimschulen) and the Adolf Hitler Schools (Adolf Hitler Schulen). SHAEF recommended the schools’ permanent closure due to their presumed ties to the SS and the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP). Boarders were to be returned to their homes as soon as conditions permitted. In addition, all persons employed ‘as teachers or administrators in NapolasAdolf Hitler Schulen, or other prohibited institutions, will automatically lose their present employment. They will not be re-employed in an educational capacity unless their suitability for employment is established after searching enquiry.’

SHAEF’s recommended course of action found its way into subsequent wartime directives. The Joint Chiefs of Staff Directive 1067, which received President Harry S. Truman’s approval in April 1945, highlighted the United States’ push for a comprehensive re-education programme which involved, among other things, the wholesale elimination of ‘Nazi features’ from German textbooks and schools. According to Brian M. Puaca, the denazification of schools resulted in the removal of an average of 50% of German teachers from their classrooms in the US zone by 1946. JCS 1067 also reminded General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who at the time served as Commanding General of the United States Forces of Occupation in Germany, to close down all Nazi elite schools, including the Napolas.

The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg

Wartime directives laid the groundwork for a new postwar order. Yet approaches towards demilitarisation and denazification were not formalised until the Potsdam Conference in the summer of 1945. The Conference led to the establishment of the Council of Foreign Ministers. The Potsdam Protocol also provisionally partitioned Germany into four zones of occupation, which could be administered jointly by the Allied Control Council. The re-organisation of Germany’s education system was, however, relegated to the margins of the proceedings. Allied leaders instead agreed that the trial of major war criminals ‘should begin at the earliest possible date’. The participating heads of state at Potsdam were eagerly awaiting the results of the International Conference on Military Trials, held in London. On 8 August 1945 the decision was reached to establish an International Military Tribunal and for the Charter of the International Military Tribunal to govern legal procedures. A report by Robert H. Jackson, the American representative at the Conference and future Chief Prosecutor for the United States at Nuremberg, described the adoption of the Charter as a ‘landmark’ and remarked that the principles of the Charter constituted the ‘solemn judgment of 23 governments, representing some 900 million people’.

Three categories of crimes fell within the Tribunal’s jurisdiction: crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. On 18 October 1945, the prosecution issued indictments against 24 Nazi leaders and seven ‘criminal organisations’ to the International Military Tribunal (which sat in the Supreme Court Building in Berlin prior to its move to the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg on 20 November 1945). The latter included the Reich Cabinet, the Leadership Corps of the Nazi Party, the Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst, SD), the Secret State Police (Gestapo), the Storm Troops (Sturmabteilungen, SA), the General Staff of the High Command of the German Armed Forces, and the party’s Protection Squad, more commonly known by its German abbreviation SS (Schutzstaffel).

The signing of the London Agreement and the establishment of the International Military Tribunal did not immediately spell disaster for the Napolas and their former staff. Allied prosecutors concentrated their efforts on high-ranking members of the Nazi regime who were responsible for initiating a war of aggression and committing acts of atrocity against civilian populations. A uniform policy to bring lesser offenders to trial had not been formulated. Article 10 of the Charter proposed but never implemented a plan to have members of an organisation declared criminal by the Tribunal tried by ‘national, military or occupation courts’. It took until the enactment of Control Council Law No. 10 on 20 December 1945 to govern prosecutions in domestic courts.

For former Napola staff—whose employment history had gone unnoticed up to this point—Control Council Law No. 10 marked the starting point of a legal odyssey that, in some cases, lasted beyond the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Jackson Maogoto notes that ‘the law [No. 10] was the fulfillment of the vow made by the Allied Powers in the course of World War II to return war criminals so they could stand trial before tribunals in the territories in which their crimes had been committed’. Like the Nuremberg Charter, Control Council Law No. 10 criminalised mere membership in organisations found criminal by the International Military Tribunal. Domestic tribunals, however, differed from the International Military Tribunal in two important ways. First, they were charged with the prosecution of lesser war criminals. Persons wanted for trial by the International Military Tribunal had to be delivered to the Committee of Chief Prosecutors. Second, zonal commanders were allowed to determine the rules and procedures for trial of all wanted persons in their respective zones of occupation.

Guilty by Association?

Wartime directives targeted the Napolas for dissolution because of their ties to the SS. Further details regarding the nature of this relationship were not added by Allied prosecutors during the immediate postwar period. Dr Ludwig Babel, who served as counsel for the SS and SD at Nuremberg, inadvertently turned the spotlight on the Napolas when he proposed a severance motion to the International Military Tribunal on 1 March 1946. Under the headline ‘Nazi Groups Ask Separate Trials’, the Pittsburgh Press reported that counsel for six Nazi organisations, including the counsel for the elite guards, Dr Ludwig Babel, ‘asked the War Crimes Tribunal today to sever charges against them from the overall case and give them a separate trial’. Babel, on this 71st day of the Nuremberg proceedings, voiced his dissatisfaction with the scope of the trial and the fact that under the current indictment millions of Germans could be punished, and even sentenced to death. According to Babel, the trial proceedings lacked due process and the legal definition of the criminal character of the SS was flawed. He called into question the wholesale condemnation of the SS as a criminal organisation, when he presented the following hypothetical scenario to the court: ‘May it please the Tribunal, there are businessmen who are owners of several firms. If, now, the owner uses one of these firms to commit criminal acts, can we say that the other firms and their employees are also criminal?’ Babel was also concerned about the fate of those with only indirect ties to the SS. ‘The verdict’, Babel explained, ‘will also affect the members of the families of all SS members, at least indirectly, so additional millions will be affected personally, morally, and financially’.

Robert H. Jackson, the United States’ Chief Prosecutor, responded to Babel’s plea, calling the wholesale punishment of Germans ‘a figment of imagination’. He did, however, address the issue of the SS’s innumerable subdivisions in greater detail: ‘The trial of each of these subdivisions would take—I would not venture to say how long. We do not want to see this Court trivialized. This is not a police court.’ Jackson added, ‘I do not know whether SS motorcycle mounted traffic officers are less dangerous than those who do not have motorcycles, or were less criminal’. Jackson and Babel’s back-and-forth forced the status of the Napolas into the open. Babel, who was determined to illustrate the far-reaching ramifications of the prosecution’s indictment against the SS, prepared a list of 16 SS units. The Napolas were part of that list.

According to a sworn statement by 17 former Napola teachers who were imprisoned at the former Nazi concentration turned political internment camp in Neuengamme (near Hamburg), the International Military Tribunal listed the Napolas as SS affiliates in its questionnaires as early (or late) as May 1946. Generally speaking, denazification questionnaires provided an effective means for prosecutors to connect the Napolas and the SS more firmly together. A Special Branch of the Internal Affairs and Communication Division processed all submitted questionnaires inside the US zone of occupation. Questionnaires were typically six pages in length (printed in both English and German), consisted of 131 questions, and were designed to elicit self-incriminating information. Respondents had to provide detailed information about their education, employment and military service history, membership in party organisations, scholarly publications, income and assets, and travel and residence abroad. Under Section B, ‘Secondary and Higher Education’, Question 26 asked whether the respondent had taught at a Napola, Adolf Hitler School, Nazi or military academy. The very next question probed into the schooling of the respondent’s children: ‘Have your children attended one of the aforementioned schools? Which one, where and when?’

The fact that occupation officials listed the Napolas alongside other Nazi elite schools was significant. It was a deliberate effort to classify the Napolas as sites of indoctrination, and not public schools of higher education. From a practical standpoint, responses to Questions 26 and 27 allowed processing agents to collect information on the size of the Napola teaching staff. Moreover, a chart comprising over 50 Nazi organisations accompanied each questionnaire. Respondents had to disclose whether they had held membership in any of the organisations listed. Identification as both a Napola teacher and SS member provided further evidence of the close-knit relationship between the two organizations.

The Path to Redemption

The Law for Liberation from National Socialism and Militarism

On 5 March 1946, OMGUS officials turned denazification over to German authorities. The Law for Liberation from National Socialism and Militarism became the culmination in a long line of military government directives to fix issues of bureaucratic backlog and boost public opinion. With the assistance of German tribunals—some comprised individuals with no prior legal training—OMGUS hoped that denazification could be expedited. Every resident aged over 18 years in the US zone was required to fill out a questionnaire. To distinguish between earlier denazification questionnaires, authorities referred to the post-Law for Liberation questionnaires as registration forms (Meldebogen). More than 13 million Germans completed registration forms in the US zone alone after 1946.

The Law for Liberation classified Germans according to five categories: Major Offenders, Offenders, Lesser Offenders, Followers, and those exonerated. The strong (albeit still unsubstantiated) connection between the Napolas and the SS provisionally assigned former Napola teachers to the category of major offenders. This category was reserved for leading Nazis and mandated harsh penalties in the event of conviction. Under Article 15, major offenders could face political internment, confiscation of property, or a permanent loss of their pension. Article 15 moreover had a direct impact on former Napola teachers. It could prohibit individuals from working as teachers, preachers, editors, writers, or radio commentators for a period no less than 10 years.

The Law for Liberation afforded the accused the opportunity to challenge accusations in court. This marked a clear departure from earlier denazification directives that had tried suspected Nazis summarily. Article 33 decreed that respondents who had been allocated to the category of major offenders would receive an oral hearing. Article 34 also allowed a respondent ‘to show in a clear and convincing manner that he falls within a group more favorable to him. He shall immediately submit his evidence to the Tribunal.’ The leniency of the tribunal process, aided by the introduction of pre-trial evidence and the hearing of witnesses and experts in court, played into the hands of Napola supporters. The case of Otto Brenner shows that former Napola teachers and their personal and professional networks used the enactment of the Law for Liberation to their advantage: first, to downgrade their charges as major offenders and second, to rehabilitate the tainted postwar image of the Napolas.

The Trial(s) of Otto Brenner

Otto Brenner, the son of medical doctor Arthur Brenner, was born in Coburg, Bavaria on 12 April 1904. From 1914 to 1923, Brenner attended the local Gymnasium in Coburg. After graduation, he studied at business schools in Cologne and Berlin and was awarded a teacher’s certificate in economics and business education. Two years after the Nazi takeover in 1933, Brenner accepted a position at the newly founded Napola in Oranienstein, near Koblenz. According to his court records, Brenner, who had officially joined the National Socialist Teachers League (NSLB) in 1937, remained in this role until 1939. From August 1939 to October 1940, Brenner served in the Wehrmacht as first lieutenant of an infantry regiment. Between 1941 and 1943, Brenner taught at the Napola in Rufach; the school was located in Alsace, France and also served as a School for Ethnic Germans (Schule für Volksdeutsche). Following his two-year teaching stint in Rufach, Brenner spent the remainder of the Second World War teaching at a Napola in present-day Saxony-Anhalt.

Unfortunately, Brenner and his family’s immediate postwar fates were only partially preserved in archival records. What we can deduce with absolute certainty is that Brenner, his wife, and his five children, all below the age of 11, fled from advancing Allied troops during the final months of the war. Brenner was then held in a prisoner-of-war camp from April 1945 to January 1946. After the introduction of the Law for Liberation, Brenner’s file was handed over to German officials who formalised his indictment as a major offender. While the exact date of his indictment cannot be established, Brenner’s colleagues, friends and former students began petitioning German tribunals sometime in 1946. Their sworn statements ultimately swayed the court’s decision to downgrade Brenner’s charges to that of a Follower on 12 April 1948. He was sentenced to a fine of 400 Reichsmark (RM). The court’s favourable ruling was, however, not the end of the story. A review was filed and on 9 June 1948 the tribunal in Marburg officially declared ‘the person affected, [Otto Brenner], had not been an activist, militarist, or Nazi beneficiary’. The new ruling, which exonerated Brenner of all charges, also retracted the original fine of 400 RM since the Brenners had allegedly endured considerable hardships as refugees. Less than three months after the court had reached its final verdict, Brenner received a letter from the Department of Education in Kassel informing him of his formal reinstatement as a teacher.

Brenner was able to continue his teaching career for several decades after the founding of the Bonn Republic. Witnesses who aided Brenner’s plea for acquittal had a decisive impact on the outcome of the case. The collection of witness statements related to the Brenner trial has been preserved at the Landeshauptarchiv in Koblenz and merits a closer look.

During the final years of the Weimar Republic, Brenner had worked as a supply teacher at the Coburg Business School. The former (unnamed) principal of the school submitted one of the earliest sworn statements to the tribunal. He testified that Brenner had tried to transfer from the Napola in Oranienstein to Coburg in 1937, but his request had been denied. Brenner’s application, albeit unsuccessful, signalled to denazification officials that he had made a reasonable effort to turn his back on the Napola system.

Character witnesses knew that evidence of both active and passive resistance against the Nazi regime was of tremendous value to a defendant. Margret Kah’s statement from 3 August 1946 strengthened Brenner’s defence in that regard. Kah, who had worked in the Brenner household in 1940, wrote: ‘Herr Brenner was not a fanatical Hitler supporter. He only attended party meetings on very rare occasions. He was not interested in participating in any SA duties because his boys [students] had to be cared for day in and day out. As an eyewitness I am convinced that Herr Brenner belonged to this formation for appearance purposes only.’

Kah’s portrayal of Brenner as a reluctant NSDAP and SA member made an impression on the court, but was presumably not decisive in the outcome of the case. To secure his acquittal, Brenner also needed reports that demonstrated his outright refusal to follow party directives. Elfriede Lakenmacher’s sworn statement described Brenner as an outspoken critic of the regime. Lakenmacher, a former secretary at the Napola in Ballenstedt, remembered that Brenner had been notorious for his ‘objectionable political behaviour’. Much to the annoyance of the headmaster, Brenner had contested the indoctrination of his students. Lakenmacher also claimed that Brenner’s disillusionment with the regime had driven him to disobey a direct order to conscript students into the Volkssturm at the end of the war.

Denazification specifically targeted individuals born before 1919. Since youth or immaturity was not a relevant extenuating factor, Brenner had to show proof of anti-fascist behaviour before 1933. On 11 September 1947, Eberhard Dabritz did precisely that. In his sworn statement, Dabritz recounted his and Brenner’s involvement with the German Boy Scout Movement. ‘Herr Otto Brenner was well known to me since 1928’, he remembered. Dabritz continued, ‘we were members of the Boy Scouts in Coburg, which were affiliated with the International Boy Scouts’ Movement based in London which stood for peace, understanding, and mutual respect amongst youth from all nations’. The Boy Scouts, along with other liberal youth organisations, were banned and its membership absorbed by the Hitler Youth in 1933.

Overall, Brenner’s friends and former colleagues described him as an individual of ‘fine character’, who was known for his ‘tolerance toward different-minded people’ and commitment to his students. Brenner was portrayed as a teacher who had no other choice than to teach at a Napola. He was a member of the SA in name only. Despite his best efforts to force his superiors’ hands, Brenner was not dismissed from his position; not even after his refusal to accept last-ditch total war measures. Brenner’s defence was skilfully woven. It met many, if not all the requirements outlined in the Law for Liberation to lower the initial charges against him.

The Law for Liberation clearly stated:

upon proof of membership in an organization found criminal by the International Military Tribunal, a presumption shall arise that the member joined or remained a member with knowledge of the criminal acts and purposes of the organization. This presumption is rebuttable and may be overcome by evidence to the contrary.

By shifting the burden of proof onto the defendant, the Law for Liberation set events in motion that would rewrite the recent history of the Napolas. With each hearing, a collective defence of the Napolas began to emerge, growing in repute and complexity as denazification continued. Incriminated Napola teachers and their personal networks (family and friends) mobilised and assisted each other across occupied Germany—denazification fostered a sense of solidarity among Napola alumni from different Napola institutes that had not existed previously. By 1949, the Napolas’ postwar legend, an exonerative tale of the schools’ history during the Third Reich, had not only stalled prosecution indefinitely, but also successfully reintegrated alumni into West German society.

The Napolas’ Postwar Legend

Individuals from all levels of the Nazi education system lent their support to the Napolas’ postwar legend. One influential Napola advocate was Kurt Petter, the former inspector of the Adolf Hitler Schools. Reich Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach and head of the German Labour Front, Robert Ley, had founded the Adolf Hitler Schools in 1937. The schools prepared high school-aged students for leadership roles in the NSDAP and its formations. Despite the rivalry between the Napolas and the Adolf Hitler Schools, Petter came to the defence of the former in his affidavit from 9 February 1947.

Petter, who was held captive at the Darmstadt internment camp at the time of his testimony, listed several characteristics of the Napolas that contradicted their portrayal by Allied prosecutors as party schools. ‘The Napolas’, he wrote, ‘were public schools that received their funding from the German state and [exclusively] employed government-certified teachers’. Petter also insisted that the party did not exert influence on the Napolas. Orders and instructions came directly from the Ministry of Education. In his statement’s concluding remarks, Petter addressed the Napolas’ alleged connection to the SS. He argued that the Napolas’ emphasis on free choice of employment foiled SS plans to monopolise the recruitment of their graduates. According to Petter, only 20% of matriculated Napola pupils had joined the WaffenSS by the end of the war.

Dr Albert Holfelder, the former deputy secretary and head of the department for education from 1938 to 1945, corroborated Petter’s claims. Holfelder insisted that the Napolas did not receive any funding from the party. The fact that August Heißmeyer’s substantial annual salary of 18,000 RM, for instance, was paid in full by the SS was conveniently ignored. Holfelder also issued the following statement regarding the qualifications of the Napola teaching staff: ‘To my knowledge as head of the department for education, the Napolas employed teachers who, apart from their unique skills as educators, possessed above-average academic and pedagogical talents.’ Holfelder’s comment was as much a personal attempt to save face, as it was a product of the occupation years themselves. Former Napola teachers needed proof of their skills as liberal and reform-minded educators to successfully apply for reinstatement in Germany’s postwar school system. Holfelder demonstrated that Napola teachers were not party ideologues, but highly qualified civil servants working for the Ministry of Education.

Incredulity concerning the Napola inspectorate’s ties to the SS found perhaps its best expression in the sworn statement by Erwin Gentz, a former legal consultant and undersecretary at the Reich Ministry of Education. Gentz noted, ‘after 11 years of experience in the ministry, I can contend with absolute certainty that the office in charge of the Napolas was as much part of the [Reich] Ministry [of Science, Education and Culture] as all the others’. Despite the fact that he was held prisoner for his service record in the WaffenSS at the time of his testimony, Gentz wrote that he ‘had been extremely surprised to hear allegations of the Napolas’ SS affiliations over the course of the Nuremberg trials’.

The sworn statement by Hermann Reinecke, a former Napola teacher at institutes in Plön, Berlin-Spandau and Potsdam, summarised aptly the key components of the Napolas’ postwar legend. In contrast to Petter, Holfelder and Gentz, Reinecke had not held senior office during the Third Reich. Yet his statement demonstrates that individual memories had been absorbed into a collective narrative: one that was universally accepted even at the bottom of the Napolas’ institutional hierarchy. Reinecke divided his statement into five sections. Each section offered a rebuttal to different Allied accusations. The first section offered insight into the administrative structure of the Napolas:

  1. The man in charge of the Napolas was Reich [Education] Minister Rust. The name for the NPEA was adopted from educational scientist E. [Ernst] Krieck. National political means something along the lines of ‘civic’ … 2. The highest authority was a department within the Reich Ministry of Science, Education and Culture … 3. The Napolas’ personnel, material, and general expenses were covered by the Reich budget. 4. All Napola educators were government-certified teachers … These teachers were government employees and transferred to the [Napola] institutes voluntarily … 5. The Napolas were either humanistic GymnasienOberschulen, or Aufbauschulen. They had the same curriculum and textbooks as all other German higher secondary schools … 6. The selection of prospective students was facilitated entirely through state channels; registration was done through parents, district school inspectors, or elementary school headmasters. Party and Hitler Youth had no impact [on the application process] … 7. Free choice of occupation for students … was guaranteed until the end of the war.

Reinecke discussed the relationship between the Napolas and party leadership in greater detail. Based on his assessment, the Napolas stayed free of party control throughout the Third Reich:

  1. Neither Gauleiternor other party offices had authority or influence over the institutes. 2. The Napolas were not listed in the party handbook. 3. The Napolas did not participate in any party congresses. 4. According to Dr. Ley and v. Schirach’s founding appeal for the Adolf Hitler Schools, the Napolas were not responsible for bringing new blood into the party. 5. The teaching staffs did not enjoy a special position within the party, or within the state. 6. The Napolas had strained relations with local and regional party authorities. In 1936, the party attempted to close down the institutes because they were not deemed sufficiently national socialist.

After the Nazis promulgated the first Hitler Youth law in 1936, all German youth organisations were absorbed into the Hitler Youth. Although most Hitler Youth members were too young to attract attention from Allied prosecutors after the war, Reinecke was careful to separate the activities of the Hitler Youth from those of the Napolas:

  1. The institutes did not acknowledge the Hitler Youth’s claims to be the sole authority over education…2. Following the introduction of the 1936 Hitler Youth Law, the … absorption of NPEA pupils into the HJ was merely a formal solution. [In spite of this legislative change], the students were not subordinated to the local Bannführer, nor any other higher Hitler Youth office. 3. The Adolf Hitler schools, not the Napolas, were the only training centres for aspiring party leaders.

Most importantly, Reinecke shed light upon the relationship between the Napolas and the SS. The appointment of Heißmeyer as Inspector, the introduction of SS ranks after 1936, and Himmler’s involvement with Napola openings in Nazi-occupied and annexed territories created a dilemma for Napola supporters after the war. In a stunning turn of events, Reinecke insisted that SS patronage protected the independence of the schools:

  1. Prior to the appointment of SS-Obergruppenführer Heißmeyer as Napola inspector, the Napolas’ independence was seriously threatened by the Hitler Youth, the party, and various branches of the Wehrmacht…. Because of Heißmeyer, the public and autonomous character of the institutes was preserved. The founding of the AHS [Adolf Hitler Schools] in January 1937 was a direct result of this. 2. The SS had no overriding authority or influence over the schools. 3. … Service in the General SS was not required [for teachers who had been absorbed into the SS after Heißmeyer’s appointment in 1936]. 4. Since students were free to make their own career choices, it was not unusual for WaffenSSrecruits to come from the ranks of NPEA pupils. As we know today (through [Kurt] Petter, Inspector of the Adolf Hitler Schools), Himmler was angry with the inspectorate’s idleness regarding the recruitment of students into the SS and planned to relieve Heißmeyer of his position.

Finally, Reinecke compiled several arguments that attested to the liberal and even cosmopolitan elements of a Napola education:

  1. The Napolas objected to the military training of their students and rejected overt military forms of conduct, such as drills, saluting, etc. [sic] … 2. The institutes were able to enjoy a great number of liberties internally; each institute was different in the way it functioned … 3. The Napolas were founded on socialist principles. The selection of boys [prospective students] was done in accordance with their inherent talent and not the social status of their parents. [Reinecke uses the word Begabung,which can literally be translated as ‘gift’ or ‘talent’. It is, however, a euphemism for racial purity.] Three [admission] criteria were decisive: character—knowledge and skills—physical fitness. Tuitions fees were calculated according to income levels of the parents; scholarships and exemptions were offered to students who were not well off financially. 4. The Napolas organised student exchanges with other countries, especially England (Public Schools) and the United States (colleges) … Such exchanges also extended into France, Argentina, and the Nordic countries. 5. The Napolas offered a rich and diverse curriculum, which was not interfered with by the Hitler Youth …

‘In summary’, Reinecke declared, ‘the Napolas were not party schools; they were neither founded, supervised, funded, nor recruited by the party’. Based upon his testimony, other testimonies we have encountered previously in this article, and dozens more that can be found in German archival repositories, the Napolas and their teaching staff had to be acquitted of any wrongdoing—in hindsight, that is precisely what happened.

Ludwig Mütze, a journalist for the German newspaper Marburger Presse, wrote a scathing review of denazification in 1948. He described tribunals’ ‘comical leniency’ toward Nazi activists as a ‘tragicomedy’. In the summer of 1949, the US military government published a review of its denazification programme; the review validated Mütze’s concerns about the ineffectiveness of denazification. Over the course of the US denazification programme, 13 million Germans had been registered with the help of questionnaires. 945,000 cases were heard by denazification tribunals: of those a negligible 23,500 individuals were found guilty as major offenders and offenders. A total of 815,600 defendants, including Otto Brenner, were labelled as followers, persons exonerated, or had their proceedings ‘quashed’ altogether.


In her article ‘Surviving “Stunde Null”’, Helen Roche examines the experiences of Napola pupils who witnessed the end of the Second World War as adolescents. Roche suggests that former Napola pupils’ ‘unwitting recourse to somewhat Nazified paradigms of thought’ can provide insight into the continuities and discontinuities of Third Reich mentalities. She also speculates as to whether Napola students’ interpretation of the past ‘could perhaps form the basis of a specific form of collective identity’. Roche was right on both counts, despite the fact that her study bases many of its conclusions on ‘ego-documents’ (i.e. eyewitness testimonies) collected over the past five to 10 years. A collective identity had emerged. And the willingness of former Napola pupils to recast their experiences as Nazi elite students in a positive light may indicate that this identity has survived to date.

The history of the Napolas was a product of the immediate postwar period. That in itself is not unusual. History is rarely written while it is being made. Yet the proliferation and success of the Napolas’ postwar legend cannot be attributed to Western allies’ fading interest in denazification as the cold war conflict intensified alone. The timing of its creation suggests that ‘ordinary’ Germans—if ever there was such a category of people—actively resisted denazification. Resentment toward denazification was widespread among the German public. Wulf Kansteiner notes, ‘the longer the process lasted, the more difficult it became to find people willing to serve as judges [on denazification tribunals]’. Skilful exploitation of the legal intricacies of occupation law allowed Napola supporters to reclaim control over their professional future; in some cases, years before the Adenauer government passed its amnesty policies. The success of the Napolas’ postwar legend gave incriminated Napola alumni the opportunity not only to come to terms with the Nazi past but also to dictate the terms of that engagement.

The Napolas’ postwar legend did not come under attack during the first two postwar decades. The constructed narrative of defence and justification was reaffirmed when August Heißmeyer, the man responsible for the high level of SS influence in the schools, was pardoned and released from prison in November 1951. Only after West Germany’s student protests had reached their climax in the spring of 1968 did Napola supporters feel compelled to adjust the Napolas’ postwar legend according to the distinct political climate of the late 1960s. This time, however, the battle over the schools’ postwar image was not fought in courtrooms: it moved into the academic realm. Some Napola alumni were at the height of their professional careers when Germany’s student movement rallied against the remnants of the Nazi past (whether by accident or design, many had found themselves employed in West Germany’s civil service). Fearful that the case against the Napolas might be resumed, one former Napola pupil began to chip away at the Napolas’ postwar legend, without ever renouncing it completely.

Horst Ueberhorst earned his doctorate in Modern and Medieval History at the University of Bonn in 1953 and later became one of West Germany’s most prominent sport historians. In 1969, he published an edited document collection on the Napolas. Elite für die Diktatur remains a standard in the literature on the schools to this day. In the preface to his study, Ueberhorst explains that the selection of documents was intended to provide ‘an objective and just’ portrayal of the Napolas. Yet Ueberhorst failed to deliver justice when it mattered the most. On 11 March 1968, Ueberhorst interviewed former Napola inspector August Heißmeyer. A transcript of this interview was included in the final pages of Elite für die Diktatur. Over the course of the interview, Ueberhorst confronted Heißmeyer several times about the relationship between the SS and the Napolas. Heißmeyer’s answers demonstrated his unwavering commitment to the Napolas’ postwar legend. Heißmeyer insisted that the Napolas had not been connected to the SS in any way. Ueberhorst’s unwillingness to critically engage with Heißmeyer’s testimony allowed the Napolas’ postwar legend to endure.

With the exception of Harald Scholtz’s publication in 1973, West German scholarship on the Napolas during the 1970s and 1980s was virtually non-existent. The Napolas’ postwar legend did not attract scrutiny from historians, journalists or filmmakers until after Germany reunified. Historians generally agree that reunification has prompted a greater openness toward the past among Germans. Yet even today Napola alumni associations try to stifle revisionist attacks on the history of the Napolas. The Potsdamer Kameradschaft, for instance, has been in existence since 1953. It is an alumni association that comprises entirely former Jungmannen and their families from Napolas in Potsdam and Neuzelle. Newsletters produced by the Potsdamer Kameradschaft during the early 2000s demonstrate that its subscribers, despite their advanced ages, have continued to influence public opinion on Nazi elite education in unified Germany. Publications and film productions that painted the Napolas in a negative light became targets of their protests. The release of the popular film NapolaElite für den Führer was greeted with harsh criticism by Napola alumni across Germany. The film depicts life inside a fictional Napola during the war. Scenes of ideological indoctrination, pre-military training and death run counter to the narrative constructed by Napola apologists. Members of the Potsdam association dismissed this ‘caricature of reality’ and wrote letters to editors and producers, the reprints of which were in turn published in subsequent alumni newsletters. Although nothing came of their efforts, the willingness of former Napola pupils to petition authorities over the portrayal of the schools is reminiscent of the behaviour of Napola defendants during denazification.