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American Exchanges: Third Reich’s Elite Schools

In the summer of 1935, an exchange programme between leading American academies and German schools, set up by the International Schoolboy Fellowship (ISF), was hijacked by the Nazi government. The organization had been set up in 1927 by Walter Huston Lillard, the principal of Tabor Academy in Marion, Massachusetts. Its aim was to foster better relations between all nations through the medium of schoolboy exchange.

However, the authorities at the National Political Education Institutes (aka Napolas), the Third Reich’s most prominent elite schools, had other plans. Lillard and the ISF were informed on 12 February 1935 that they would be exchanging ten American boys for ten Napola pupils. However, the American organizers were wholly unaware that the German pupils and staff were charged with an explicitly propagandistic mission. Their aim: to counteract and neutralize the effect of anti-Nazi accounts in the American media; to form opinions, and influence future foreign views of the Third Reich.

To ensure the effectiveness of this pro-Nazi propaganda campaign at the highest level, one of the first German boys to be selected for the program was Reinhard Pfundtner, the son of a high-ranking civil servant in the Third Reich’s Interior Ministry. In his role as ‘state secretary,’ Hans Pfundtner was one of the key architects of the Nuremberg Laws, which demoted Jews, Sinti, and Roma to a pariah status within Nazi Germany, and which were instrumental in the genesis of the Holocaust. He was also a member of the Olympic Committee, and was keen to use the exchange as an opportunity to persuade Lillard, Reinhard’s American headmaster, to lobby in favour of U.S. participation at the upcoming 1936 Winter Olympic Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

Surviving letters between Pfundtner and Lillard, now preserved in the German Federal Archives in Berlin, show that the principal of Tabor Academy was completely taken in by the Pfundtners’ pretense of friendship. In one letter from 23 November 1935, Lillard even assured Pfundtner that his ‘excellent letter replying to…questions about the Olympic Games’ had been ‘quoted by several of our good newspapers, and was included in the Associated Press service throughout the country… Undoubtedly, this message of yours will be very helpful in submerging some of the false propaganda.’

Even after the ‘Night of Broken Glass’ pogrom in November 1938, known in Germany as Kristallnacht, Lillard was still urging the principals at the eighteen American preparatory schools involved with the Napola-ISF exchange to continue the programme into the 1939-40 academic year. In one of these letters, he asserted that ‘if we continue to bring the boys together, something constructive may be accomplished; whereas, if we abandon all efforts in the direction of Germany, we are closing the opportunity for the future leaders to be enlightened, and we are retreating back toward the condition of ill-will which prevailed after the World War.’

In general, then, the Napola exchanges seem to have achieved their goal, at least in the short term. After 1935, many leading academies took part in the programme each year, including Phillips Academy Andover and Phillips Academy Exeter, St Andrew’s Delaware, Choate, the Loomis School, and Lawrenceville. Between 1936 and 1938, each year fifteen American pupils lived as pupils of the Nazi elite schools for ten months, while two groups of fifteen Napola-pupils spent five months each at the American schools.

The Napola-pupils were often able to convince their American hosts that events in Germany were not nearly as dire as press reports might lead them to believe—and were also given the opportunity to put their political point of view across. Reports in school newsletters suggest that the American pupils also enjoyed getting to know the ‘new Germany’ and could quite easily be swayed into displaying some sympathy for their hosts’ political perspective.

One American pupil who attended the Napola in Plön claimed that the year he had spent there was the ‘greatest experience of his life.’ Another was even discovered practising the Hitler salute in front of his mirror. Meanwhile, many staff and pupils at the US academies kept in touch with their German partner schools even after the outbreak of war in 1939. Walden Pell, principal of St Andrew’s School, Delaware, continued to correspond with the parents of one of his German exchange pupils for decades, assisting them in their search for their missing son, sending them food parcels and care packages, and donating a large sum of money to enable a pilgrimage to his war grave in Italy once his final whereabouts were known.

To a present-day reader, the attitudes towards Nazi Germany depicted here might seem highly naïve. At the time, however, many educated Americans shared similar sentiments—curious, trusting in German good faith, and willing to downplay or disregard prior reports of Nazi atrocities, at least until Nazi belligerence reached its fatal climax.

Feature image by Australian National Library via Unsplash.

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