A post by Jenny Coulton, Archives and Special Collections Graduate Intern
This month marks ninety years since a series of events which culminated in the Nazi monopolisation of power in Germany. On March 23rd 1933, the Enabling Act was passed, allowing the Nazi party to pass legislation without the approval of the Reichstag. From this point onwards, a slew of vitriolic propaganda and indoctrination was produced, mentally preparing citizens for war, and encouraging them to denigrate certain social groups. Much of this indoctrination occurred within the classroom, and this month’s item was produced in such an environment.
It is a 1933-1934 schoolbook once belonging to Georg Backhaus (3 March 1921 – 20 January 1942). He would have been twelve years old when the Nazis came to power and started writing in this schoolbook.
Entitled ‘Aufsatz (Essays), this exercise book contains numerous writings on explicitly ideological topics, presumably set by Georg’s teachers. The first essay discusses the 1933 propaganda film “Der Hitlerjunge Quex”, describing the plot wherein a boy is let down by a Communist Youth group, and is persuaded to join the Hitler-Youth due to their diligence. The next, titled “Drei Historische Tage” (“Three Historic Days”) recounts three moments of the Nazi takeover of the government: Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor (30th January, where Germany became “one again” (“wieder einig”)), Potsdam Day (21 March), and the day the NSDAP party received 90% of the vote (12th November). Other topics include “Blut und Boden” (“Blood and Soil”), which describes a German farmer unable to earn any money because “foreign goods were preferred” (“[d]ie ausländischen Waren wurden vorgezogen”), and therefore “so 16,500 farms went under the hammer and the cities were flooded [with people]!” (“so kamen 16500 Bauerhöfe under den Hammer, und die Städte wurden überschwemmt!”). The schoolbook ends with an essay about visiting a history museum, where Georg Backhaus notes that the prehistoric German tribes “were not barbarians, but already a great civilised people” (“keine Barbaren gewesen sind, sonder schon ein grosses Kulturvolk”). Ideological infiltration is consistent throughout the schoolbook, and it is notable just how quickly these topics had become a part of the curriculum– the first essay is from October 23rd 1933, exactly seven months after the Nazi seizure of power and the Enabling Act.
The Aufsatz school book is the most explicitly political, but from essays on “what is inheritance?”, to history focusing on German exceptionalism, to a whole exercise book on “Erbbiologie” (Hereditary Biology), the rest of Georg Backhaus’ surviving schoolwork are marked by the Nazi propaganda machine. Moreover, his Hitler Youth membership card is a reminder that the classroom was not the only space of political education, and that the boy would have received a military education within the youth group, which would culminate in his service and eventual death on the Russian front in 1942.
Georg Backhaus’ papers are part of a larger group within the Else Headlam-Morley collection. The Backhaus family had originally been Else Headlam-Morley’s agents, looking after performances of her compositions in Germany. However, facing financial ruin after the war, Georg’s mother Frieda Charlotte Backhaus (19 February 1893- 3 August 1968) emigrated to England to become Else and subsequently Agnes Headlam-Morley’s housekeeper – because she brought her papers with her, we now hold many items about this family in our archive, which provide an interesting insight into a family reacting to the war, and their attempts to rebuild their lives after it ended.
Moreover, we find a variety of perspectives and experiences of the war, even within one family. On the one hand, Georg Backhaus’ paternal uncle Wilhelm Backhaus, the German pianist, personally met Adolf Hitler and was appointed as an executive advisor to the Nazi organization Kameradschaft der Deutschen Künstler (Fellowship of German Artists) in 1933. On the other, Georg’s maternal grandfather was explicit in his anti-fascist beliefs, writing in one letter that the Nazi ideology is “not a world view, but the idea of a totally crazy person!” (“keine Weltanschauung, sondern die Idee eines total verrückten Menschen!”). This grandfather even wrote a letter to the leader of the Russian occupation of Berlin, praising and thanking the Red Army for occupying Berlin only days after Germany’s surrender. Frieda Charlotte Backhaus’ obituary reads that she “used her foreign connexions to help the escape of her Jewish friends”, at the exact same time Georg was writing his essays. Whether Georg Backhaus internalised what he wrote about is impossible to say, but nonetheless it remains as a testament to the insidious ways in which an extreme ideology became commonplace, and the variety of response such an event triggered, even within one family.
This collection is currently being catalogued and will be made available at Catalogue of the Else Headlam-Morley Collection (dur.ac.uk).
Leave a Reply