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Adolf Hitler and the End of Education: a Second Grade Story
  • Formation
  • History
Laura Nicol

“Hitler must not have been very smart.”

This comment came from a sweet, attentive student at the back of the room. She had raised her hand politely for permission to voice it in the midst of an introduction to Hitler, the National Socialist German Workers' Party, and the troubles that were brewing in Germany following World War I and the Great Depression. For three years, I’ve begun our unit on World War II with this lecture. My students – second graders who generally know very little about the war aside from the fact that “Hitler is bad” – are always rightly fascinated by the events that led the world to this point. But I had never heard that comment before. 

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“Well, because he was evil. He did bad things. He couldn’t have been very smart.”

I told my student that she was right: Hitler was evil. He did bad things.

“But he actually was very smart,” I went on. “He knew a lot about how to get people to listen to him. That means he spent a long time learning how to speak well and understand how different kinds of people think. He probably had a good education; I’m sure he went to school and learned a lot, just like you do.”

This, it turns out, is true. I spoke in generalizations to my student, because I didn’t know the facts of Hitler’s childhood and education off the top of my head and didn’t want to say something that was false. But in the days following this class period, I’ve done some research.

Little Adolf, along with every other German child of the era, attended primary and secondary school; they were required by the government to do so. The schools he attended were state-funded, but the quality of education received there would have been much more akin to America’s private classical schools of today. Despite having a very capable mind, Adolf Hitler was, by all accounts, not a good student: family troubles, particularly a bad relationship with his father, resulted in him despising his studies and authority figures and, so, doing very poorly. Just as significant was his belief – as expressed later in Mein Kampf – that if he did poorly in school, his father would finally allow him to quit and study art, as he had always wanted. Following his graduation from secondary school at the age of sixteen, and after the death of his father, Hitler left formal education for good.

“So,” my student said, frowning. “If he went to a good school, why did he grow up to be bad?”

As a teacher, these kinds of questions are the highlight of my day. Because instead of barreling through the politics of reparations, which countries allied with which, and a timeline of important events (all of which we did, eventually, get to), I got to discuss these questions with my crew of seven and eight-year-olds:

  • What is the difference between being smart and being wise?

  • Why is it important for kids to have good adults (parents, teachers, clergy, and other mentors) around them as they grow up?

  • How might education (even a good one) be used for evil instead of good?

These questions, and questions like them, are the reason that a study of History continues to be an essential enterprise for all ages. It is so, so easy to hear the name “Adolf Hitler” and say – as many of my students did at the name’s first reference – that he was evil, and that “I would never have listened to him.”

Yes, Hitler was evil; he did evil things. That fact is set in stone, unchangeable through time.

But if my students were German children in the 1930’s, if they didn’t know how all of it would end, would they have listened to what he had to say? Would they have supported his cause as they grew older, have wished to go to war to fight for it? I might have, at least in the beginning. The German people were incredibly poor and desperate during the Great Depression, and Hitler spoke confidently and reasonably about a solution. After leaving secondary school, he had spent a few years traveling through Germany and Austria, witnessing firsthand the devastation of his beloved homeland. He was right to want to help them. But he lacked the moral virtue to help them well; he had learned to be smart, but not to be wise. And so his good intention became an unimaginably wicked reign of terror, the shadow of which is still cast over central Europe today. A professor at Wheaton College, a second-generation Polish immigrant, once told me that World War II will never be over until German parents begin naming their sons “Adolf” again, without anyone’s first thought returning to the 1930’s and 40’s.

So will it ever be over?

History does not belong to the past; it belongs to the future. We study past events so that, with God's help, we can learn from mistakes and grow toward wisdom, goodness, and courage – for today, and tomorrow, and five hundred years from now, and on.

A good education matters deeply. But, as another student said at the end of class, “Only if you use it right.”