By Sarah Rainey
(c) The Telegraph (UK)
16 Aug 2013
Dressed in modest petticoats and starched white aprons, their hair pulled back into neat plaits, a group of women are pictured marching through a hayfield. Arms linked, broad smiles across their faces, they are carrying baskets laden with flowers, which later they will arrange into pretty garlands. In another photograph, they are purposefully huddled around a sewing machine, darning pairs of pinstriped trousers, while other images show them gleefully feeding livestock, chopping vegetables on a kitchen worktop and singing along to another woman’s accordion-playing.
These faded black-and-white pictures are reminiscent of scenes from the 1800s: surviving off the land, communal living, hard work and simple, wholesome pleasures. In fact, they were taken during the height of the Second World War – and far from depicting idyllic country life, they are a rare glimpse inside a Reichsbräuteschule, or Reich Bride School, one of a cluster of training academies set up by the Nazis to educate women, many of them teenagers, to be suitable wives. The photographs themselves took pride of place in the Nazis’ official biweekly magazine for women, NS-Frauen Warte.
Until recently little was known about these schools, where the Nazi marriage doctrine, ranging from domestic chores to worshipping the Führer, was instilled in the partners of Adolf Hitler’s personal bodyguards, the Schutzstaffel (SS). But, this week, a series of documents unearthed in Germany’s Federal Archive, based in Koblenz, shed light on their sinister operation. Historians discovered a rule book, detailing the disturbing oaths that prospective spouses had to swear, and certificates presented to those who passed the rigorous training course.
So just what were “bride schools”? And why, nearly 70 years after they closed down, are they still shrouded in mystery?
The first of them, a vast villa mocked up inside to look like a model household, was built in 1937 on Schwanenwerder island, on Berlin’s Wannsee lake, near the homes of Joseph Goebbels and Albert Speer, two of Hitler’s most trusted henchmen. According to a newspaper article from the day, its aim was “to mould housewives out of office girls”.
An official pamphlet explains: “In circles of 20 students, young girls should attend courses at the institute, preferably two months before their wedding day, to recuperate spiritually and physically, to forget the daily worries associated with their previous professions, to find the way and to feel the joy for their new lives as wives.” The live-in course lasted six weeks and cost 135 reichsmarks (about £400 in today’s money).
Attendees learnt household skills including cooking, ironing, gardening, child care, interior design and animal husbandry. No aspect of daily life was omitted: from cleaning a husband’s uniform to conducting politically correct conversations at cocktail parties. Among the pledges they made were to raise their children in accordance with Nazi beliefs, to marry in a neo-pagan ceremony before a party official (rather than in a church before a cleric), and to be loyal to Hitler until death. Only then, according to a decree issued in 1936, would they be granted permission to wed.
The bride schools, explains Jill Stephenson, emerita professor of modern German history at the University of Edinburgh, were designed “to give more intensive training and indoctrination than was possible at weekly training sessions. Courses were held at any time of day to suit the clientele.”
She adds: “Housekeeping was a much more labour-intensive business then than it is today. Cleaning, laying a fire, shopping, cooking and looking after children was very time-consuming.”
In a society that urged women to “take hold of the frying pan, dustpan and broom, and marry a man” (one of the Nine Commandments for the Workers’ Struggle laid down by Herman Goering, Hitler’s second-in-command), it was little surprise that marriage featured so prominently in the Nazi vision of the ideal family.
Young girls learnt the importance of the three Ks (kinder, küche and kirche; children, kitchen and church) through compulsory membership of the League of German Maidens, and later the National Socialist Women’s League (NS-Frauenschaft). Under the Law for the Encouragement of Marriage, newlyweds were given a state loan of 1,000 reichsmarks (approximately £3,000) of which they were allowed to keep a quarter for each child they had – in effect, a bribe to procreate. In this respect, explains Dr Marius Turda of Oxford Brookes University: “The bride schools perfectly illustrate the Nazi regime’s ambition to control its population, both privately and publicly. A good German wife was supposed to be at the same time a supportive mother and a promoter of racial values in the family.”
Once the first school was established, others followed, and by 1940 there were at least nine in Berlin, as well as others in Oldenburg and Tübingen.
The Nazis didn’t invent the concept; they merely adapted an institution that had begun in Stuttgart in 1917, the Mothers’ School, imbuing it with a slavish devotion to the Führer. “The First World War was a time when poor nutrition, infant mortality rates and busy working mothers were causing great concern,” explains Dr Julia Torrie, head of history at St Thomas University, Canada, and an expert on women in Nazi Germany. “That era gave rise to fears about the potential weakness of future generations, that these children were growing up without proper care and attention, and so people rushed to help mothers care better for their offspring.” With Nazism, however, these well-meaning schools took on a menacing new guise.
Initially the attendees were fiancées of prominent SS members and the Nazi party elite. Later, attendance was opened to all German women who were deemed suitable brides for Hitler’s superior race. Professor Randall Bytwerk of Calvin College in Michigan, who curates a large German propaganda archive online, has uncovered references to Nazi bride schools in magazines from the era. In May 1942, the following extract appeared in NS-Frauen Warte: “My fiancé wrote that as the bride of an SS member, I should attend a brides’ school, so I would have a sense of camaraderie with women of my age.”
The training was the result of a collaboration between SS chief Himmler and Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, leader of the NS-Frauenschaft. Scholtz-Klink was a charismatic, determined champion of the female cause – in a speech to the Nazi Party Congress in 1935, she described motherhood as “divine” and exalted women as “the secret queens of our people” – and it was her magnetic personality that helped ensure the courses were so well-attended and successful. “In this way, Scholtz-Klink was attaching herself and the NS?Frauenschaft to a rising player in the National Socialist state: the SS,” explains the historian Michael Burleigh. “They combined indoctrination with domestication…The anti-Christian thrust is noteworthy – the neo-pagan ceremonies and Führer worship, plus the exclusionary and racist features.”
Indeed, exclusion and racism formed the heart of the bride schools – the homely, wifely domesticity was simply a front. For while these women were learning to cook and clean and sew, they were also creating the perfect home in which to nurture the Nazi elite. Their understanding of “family” did not extend to anyone who didn’t fit the Aryan ideal. They were, in essence, training to become the nucleus of the Nazi state. “Exercising the kind of domesticity that a woman learnt at an SS bride school was, in a sense, ‘living’ her Nazism,” explains Torrie.
As the war continued Hitler’s policy towards women changed and many were encouraged to enter the workforce to make up for shortages in manpower. The role of bride schools diminished, though Bytwerk has found evidence that some were still operating as late as May 1944. Several decades later, however, historians admit that information about them remains scarce. “It is possible that, after the war, former Nazis and their spouses who had graduated were rather reluctant to talk about these schools,” says Turda.
There was another aspect to life at the schools – one that didn’t fit the image of the industrious housewife preparing herself for marital bliss. Himmler, it was said, was often seen skulking in the bushes around Schwanenwerder island, hoping to catch a glimpse of the students dancing in the garden.
Most disturbing of all just across the road from the bride school was the conference hall where, in January 1942, senior Nazi officials plotted the Final Solution, the most deadly phase of the Holocaust, in which they planned the annihilation of the Jewish people. One wonders if the girls in petticoats at the villa on the lake had any idea what was going on around them.