The woman at the plough

A buff cardboard cover, an old-fashioned flourished script, a title specifying that this is a textbook for girls – this book could raise some nostalgia. When you open the innocent-looking work, you are confronted with a photograph of three happy children in national costume, the girl with plaits and a garland in her hair, and the Prime Minister holding his arms around them, looking like a man who cares for his people.

Except, this reader for ten-year-olds was published in 1941, the man is Hitler, and he wears a uniform with a swastika.

Germany_1941_FlagFrom the view of posterity, even the anthems on the first pages of the Deutsches Lesebuch (German reader) take on a decidedly sinister tinge: Our flag flutters before us…; The day for liberty and bread is breaking…; Germany, you will stand shining, even if we perish. Within a few years, the children in the photo would be likely to be homeless and hungry, and any men in uniforms prisoners or dead – so much for ‘liberty and bread’, which are evoked again in the very last line of the book. (I know because my mother was one of these schoolchildren and my father one of these soldiers.)

The editor of this series of German textbooks for secondary schools, Wilhelm Kallbach, has bent every topic toward the ideology of the day. The cycle of the year ends with three poems: a romantic impression of Christmas by Eichendorff, a Christian prayer for the New Year by Mörike, and a praise of the fatherland to round it all off. The myths and fairy-tales are full of belligerent Goths and valiant knights, as well as goblins and princes, horses and mice – and St Peter and the Devil. The history section is full of war heroes from the First World War which had blighted the world less one generation before.

Germany_1941_SoldierInteresting in a book specifically for girls, the role models remain overwhelmingly male. The tales muster a pagan goddess – at least this is a goddess of peace! – and the war stories rally the labour at the home front in the rousing song The German woman at the plough. Some poems praise the German mother and the German wife, evidently from a male viewpoint and as a mere support of the male rule.

Well, the texts in the Edition for girls are chiefly written by men; less than 12% are by women writers or anonymous girls. Over 88% of items are authored or compiled by men (the fact that many of the fairy-tales and folksongs were orally transmitted by women is not mentioned here).

We have to imagine that a person who started secondary school in 1941 might, due to Hitler’s systematic ‘coordination policy’, never have had access to any other world view. The Deutsches Lesebuch is a fascinating testimony of history: of education used as an instrument of indoctrination instead of enlightenment.

I was thrilled to discover the same lyrics, Die deutsche Frau am Pfluge, in another teaching resource, of War poetry lessons – for World War I. A collection of 150 compositions, published 1915 and now digitised by Staatsbibliothek Berlin, demonstrates how the children have internalised the ideology: one of many correct answers to the question ‘What do our soldiers die for?’ was evidently that English soldiers fight for ‘wretched money’ but German soldiers for ‘sacred Germanness’.


This Germany of my grandparents’ and my parents’ youth is as far from the Germany I grew up in as the North Pole is from the equator; and we need to keep and study these old teaching materials to understand how societies get into war and oppression and out again.

Amongst the historical textbooks in the Newsam Library, mainly from the United Kingdom, this foreign one is a gem. Our collection of geography books and atlases from the United Kingdom consists of over 4,000 titles, so why not check out a few for their philosophy or ideology – there are bound to be some interesting maps of appropriately ‘discovered’ colonies or hierarchically arranged illustrations of ‘races’…!

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