Comment: Schools can serve authoritarian aims; or thwart them

Schools in Nazi Germany indoctrinated children. The same is now happening in Russia.

By Deborah Cadbury / Special To The Washington Post

In Russian schools today children can have “world peace” lessons in which they learn how President Vladimir Putin’s “special operation” is protecting Russia from neo-Nazis.

Any student or teacher who might wish to make a public stand, pointing out that Russia invaded Ukraine and that Russia has waged war, rather than engaged in a special military operation, runs the risk of imprisonment. Such repressive measures highlight the Kremlin’s increasing attempts to control young minds in the Russian Federation and the insidious way this can perpetuate fear and enmity.

This is not new. Authoritarian rulers have long tried to assert control over the classroom as part of their totalitarian governments.

In Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler’s regime worked diligently to subvert German education with Nazi ideology. History was reinterpreted as a struggle between races with Germany’s enemies identified as the Jews. Geography became infused with Nazi ideas of “living space” for the German people. Arithmetic, too, could have a racial bias with pupils asked to do calculations on how many blonde people there were in Germany. Art, literature and even religion became about patriotism and loyalty to Hitler. Any schoolteacher who dared reveal their disagreement risked arrest if they were reported to the Gestapo. Outside school, millions of boys and girls were indoctrinated in Nazi ideology through the Hitler Youth and its affiliated organizations.

But there are lessons to learn from the little-known story of the one school that escaped Nazi Germany. The principal, Anna Essinger, or “Tante Anna” as she was known to her pupils, outmaneuvered Hitler’s regime and smuggled her entire school to the safety of Britain. Her success rested in part on her shrewd judgment, prompt action and firm commitment to freedom of thought inspired by the American educational system.

As a young woman, Essinger had funded herself through several years of study at the University of Wisconsin and believed that through education, humanity could progress. All this was in jeopardy when Hitler came into power in 1933. After reading Hitler’s autobiography, “Mein Kampf,” in the 1920s, Essinger believed Germany would plunge into an abyss under him. Well before the first racial laws were introduced in April 1933, she could see that the hatred and violence openly promoted by the Nazi Party stood in opposition to everything she was trying to show her pupils about tolerance, respect, justice and compassion.

As Germany’s fledgling democracy was being dismantled around her, she saw at once what this could mean for education. For her, it came down to one core issue: freedom. Freedom to question, to challenge, to live without fear and freedom of spirit. This was the reason for her life’s work.

While other German school principals tried to accommodate Nazism, Essinger would not compromise. But the husband of a staff member reported her resistance to the authorities, recommending that a Nazi inspector be appointed immediately. His letter of denouncement not only threatened Essinger’s school — which could be forced to close — but also put all those involved in danger. And so, Essinger began to plot how to save her school from Nazi ideology.

In October 1933, Essinger led her first 70 pupils in an escape to England. Over the next few years, she accepted waves of increasingly traumatized children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and then Poland as the crisis spread. Following the violent pogrom against Jews known as Kristallnacht in 1938, confused and bewildered children started to arrive in Britain on kindertransports. Many of these children had been violated by five years of escalating deprivations that had seen their families impoverished and abused, and their parents imprisoned or even killed.

With the German Blitzkrieg on Poland and the outbreak of World War II, Essinger’s pupils were cut off from their parents in a wholly unpredictable way. Later Tante Anna would take in children who had survived the war in Nazi-occupied territories in concentration camps, labor camps or living underground. These orphans had given up all hope; they were survivors of unimaginable horrors.

In her new school, Bunce Court, in Kent, Tante Anna sought to create a home where children, traumatized by persecution and war, could not only recover but be inspired. She emphasized the importance of assimilation into their host country. Children learned English, sat for British exams and were increasingly taught by British teachers.

All this gave pupils broader options when it was not safe to return to their home countries. Yet the children were not cut off from their cultural roots. The refugee pupils — most of whom became orphans — had endured similar traumas, and many described how classmates became like brothers and sisters and the staff felt like parents. Soon, the school became self-sufficient, and the children also cooked, cleaned and helped carry out repairs. Many children found the practical tasks helpful, reducing stress and rebuilding their confidence.

But, above all, Essinger created a safe environment in which children could be inspired about the very best of human achievements. She aimed to show her pupils a path that would lead them away from pain and hatred toward healing and love. Whatever the background, race or religion of her pupils, they were expected to help each other. “Children you must love one another, and if that is not possible, at least respect each other,” she would say to them.

It worked. Years later, pupils would refer to the “Bunce Court spirit” that spurred all their efforts and pervaded the atmosphere. For them the school seemed to stand apart, an oasis in a world that was overwhelmed by the forces of Nazi evil. For former German pupil Leslie, “all the violence I had experienced before felt like a bad dream. It was paradise. I think most of the children felt it was paradise.” Essinger’s school helped to transform the lives of the over 900 children who passed through it, many of whom went on to have distinguished careers.

Today Putin’s war has damaged or destroyed more than 1,000 Ukrainian schools and inflicted severe trauma on yet another generation of children. Five million Ukrainian children have been driven from their homes to an uncertain future, and millions in Russia face a future of repression and indoctrination. With rising numbers of refugees worldwide, Essinger’s school is an intriguing model for our times and reminds us why freedom of thought matters. Without it, we succumb to oppression and fear.

Deborah Cadbury is the author of “The School That Escaped The Nazis” and eight other novels.

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