Education in Germany before and after the First World War - part two

Posted on on 20 June 2014
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Centenary News contributor Claire Wotherspoon continues her series on German education with an article on what happened in schools after the First World War.


When the First World War ended, the organisation of schools underwent a series of significant changes, reshaping the structure of the system and how subjects were taught.

The Nazi party coined the phrase ‘crisis of education’ to describe the state of schooling in Germany, arguing for a radical shape up in schools, with the aim of introducing a number of reforms to develop teaching methods and the curriculum across the country.

Laws were brought in to govern schools more effectively through from elementary to secondary education.

Some fundamental school rules changed, including the decrease in the number of years youths spent in secondary education, so instead of the previous requirement of nine years, only eight were now compulsory.


As well as reducing the amount of time spent in education, schools were also no longer allowed to set homework for more than four out of the six day school week.

This suggests that intellect was not as highly valued as it had been pre-war and the cut in university placements offered to pupils reinforces this idea. Instead of focusing on intellect, development of physique and character now took precedent, transforming students into useful tools for the community.

As well as making changes to how schools ran, the teaching of some subjects began to undergo a transformation. In 1933 Hitler’s cabinet brought the teaching of History to the forefront, arguing that instead of providing an overview of world history, the subject should focus on the previous two decades of German history.

Treaty of Versailles

The government intended the main objective of lessons to get across to pupils the struggle of the German people after the First World War and all the restrictions caused by the Treaty of Versailles.

War history portrayed German citizens as the victims, while the Allied forces were shown to be persecutors. Some history textbooks only began at the First World War and ended with a celebration of Hitler’s revolution, reinforcing a patriotic standpoint.

Other subjects also underwent changes; Religion was no longer a compulsory subject, while the sciences and physical education became prominent. Teaching methods developed throughout education to emphasise and prepare youths for war.

Patriotic songs

In elementary schools, this amounted to teachers using more visual aids, patriotic songs and poems in daily classes. Photos of storm troopers were regularly used as teaching aids and history was taught through stories, often focusing on one hero and the story of their struggle.

This period saw the introduction of the school garden, which teachers utilised to encourage children to nurture the plants growing there, teaching them how to live off the land by utilising what they had grown. Such hands on experience of experimental biology also enabled children to identify ‘pure’ plant species.

Primary education was not intended as preparation for high school, but to mould youths into useful members within their national community.

By secondary school, gender distinctions in subject teaching became much more apparent. All boys were required to attend courses on military subjects and in some schools subject names were changed to reflect their immediate and practical use for war purposes.

From 1936 onwards, schools introduced the physics of warfare, to include instruction on orientation, measurement, communications, ballistics and military engineering.

Physics, for boys, had the purpose of preparing youths for the air force, emphasising aviation teaching to create an enthusiasm for flying. German physicists were also celebrated and focused on during lessons, while important physicists from other countries were omitted from text books.

Competitive sport

As well as this, other aims of the Nazi party included promoting competitive sport in schools, favouring the development of physique over intellect. This not only prepared young men for the physical trial of being a soldier, but also mentally prepared their minds for the essential ability of following instructions.

By focusing on sports competitions, the government hoped to create in youths the drive to succeed and become victors over their opponents. Boxing was emphasised as a method of instilling this idea and grew in popularity at schools during this period.


For boys at secondary school, the emphasis on science increased and it was taught in relation to Nazi ideals and use in war. The teaching of biology brought with it new experiments on plants, so that boys could identify the differences between pure bred plants and those that were a result of cross breeding.

Most schools also created a school garden, where boys were required to take care of the plants, intended as a mirror of a socialist state. This was intended to develop not only their physical skills, but also increase their sense of duty at a young age.

Physics developed into a subject centred about military warfare. This included learning about orientation, measurement, communications, ballistics and military engineering. Boys were conditioned into what life would be like working in the air force, through schools emphasising aviation and creating an enthusiasm for flying.


As far as gender distinctions went, there was little progress in attaining equality in the schooling system. The experience of girls in education was vastly different to the war-related subjects taught to boys.

Similarly to before the First World War, lessons continued to be focused on training them to become wives and mothers. Whereas boys learnt biology to be directly applied to war, girls were taught to apply it to marriage and family life, nurturing their ‘motherly instinct’.

Job vacancies

When the Nazi party came to power they had a number of problems to deal with, which impacted massively on their education policies. One of the most significant policies on the manifesto was the promise to fill the numerous job vacancies available in Germany.

To resolve the problem the amount of university placements was cut, so that would-be students could instead leave school and enter the workplace. As well as a means of filling the many vacancies, it was also a method of controlling university entry.

There were so many people attending higher education establishments by the time that the Nazi party came to power, they feared that the amount of unemployed students could dramatically increase.

As well as this, there was an underlying fear that too many students could threaten Hitler’s power, and to combat this, non-Aryans began to be excluded from university. This was then extended non-Nazis eventually becoming unable to attend university.

By 1933 Germany prided itself on being the most educated country in the world and often the most prominent figures in the Nazi party attended university.

Pure bloods

To achieve this, Hitler began to introduce his new education aims, directed at fostering healthy ‘pure bloods’ and develop suitable characteristics, including obedience to authority and responsibility.

Before the First World War education was focused on preparing students, in particular boys, for entry into higher education and thus improving future work prospects. After the First World War the aims of education shifted, with importance attached to physical fitness and the ability to follow instructions. The Nazi party wanted useful members of the community to fight their war instead of fostering intellectualism.

Image in the public domain

 © Centenary Digital Ltd & Author