Ask an academic: Dr Helen Roche, Alice Tong Sze Research Fellow

by Jeanette Ariano, Marketing Manager on 20 October 2015

Dr Helen RocheDr Helen Roche is currently the Alice Tong Sze Research Fellow at Lucy Cavendish College. She is based in the Faculty of History and the Faculty of Classics in the University of Cambridge. 

We recently caught up with Helen to find out more about her current research activity. 

What is your particular area of expertise?

I currently work on modern German History – though I actually started off as a Classicist, studying Latin, ancient Greek, and Ancient History. There is a connection between the two disciplines, though – for my PhD (now published under the title Sparta's German Children), I looked at the ways in which the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta was idealised in German military education during the 19th and 20th centuries. Not quite 300 meets the Hitler Youth, but you could potentially market it that way!

How would you explain your current work to a stranger on the bus?

I’m writing a history of the most prominent type of Nazi elite-school, the National-Political Education-Institutes, or “Napolas” for short. These schools aimed to train the future elite of the Third Reich in all walks of life, and were substantially modelled on British public schools. (In fact, the Napolas even arranged numerous exchanges with public schools during the 1930s. If you were to name any famous English school, including big names like Eton or Harrow, they would most probably have had an exchange programme or, at the very least, taken part in sporting fixtures with the Napolas.) Amazingly, given how many books have already been written on the Third Reich, no one has actually written a comprehensive history of these schools yet; mine will be coming out with Oxford University Press next year.

Where do you do most of your work?

For this project, I’ve had to visit getting on for 70 archives in half-a-dozen different countries, including over 50 in Germany and Austria. I’m now an expert on German regional public transport networks(!), but also on all the possible foibles of German archives and archivists. I think the prize for best archive ever has to go to the Prussian “Secret State Archive” in Berlin, which has its name boldly emblazoned across the front of its neoclassical façade (so, not all that secret, then!). More importantly, it also boasts a lovely, sunlit, spacious reading-room, with beautiful wood-panelled, book-lined walls. If you have to suffer the dreary fluorescent-tube-lit grey décor of the majority of archives on a regular basis, then the Geheimes Staatsarchiv makes a very pleasing exception to the rule.

What kind of student were you at school?

Über-diligent! I was also constantly doing music (which is still a massive part of my life now) – so, for instance, when other people at my boarding-school were desperate to go out on the town at weekends with guys from the local boys’ public school, I was quite content to practise the violin or the organ instead. (Sad or sensible? Take your pick …)

What’s the most exciting part of your job?

Both for my PhD, and for my current book, I’ve ended up corresponding with and interviewing over 100 former pupils of the Napolas, who were mostly in their teens in 1945, and are now in their 80s or thereabouts. Meeting these eyewitnesses over the past half-dozen years or so, and hearing their narratives at first hand, has been an absolutely fascinating experience. You really feel that this is “living history”, and that you are helping these men to tell stories which might otherwise have been lost for ever.

What’s the worst thing about your subject?

Often, working on documents from the Third Reich all the time leaves you feeling that you have to laugh or you’ll cry. Some of the manifestations of racism and cruelty that you end up coming across in the archival files, even quite randomly, have to be seen to be believed (I’ve mentioned one example below).

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve worked on this week?

A seemingly innocuous file from the German Interior Ministry during the mid-1930s, collated by one Hans Pfundtner, who was a Staatssekretär (a very high-ranking civil servant) in the Ministry. It contains a series of letters to (and about) Pfundtner’s son Reinhard, who has just been sent to a Napola. Some of the father's letters to his son are so banal, but also so strangely familiar to anyone acquainted with boarding-school life, that from time to time one can’t help inwardly exclaiming in recognition: stern admonitions for having left an expensive piece of sports-kit behind somewhere; constant responses to requests for more pocket-money.

There are also some odd moments of humour – for example, the father’s keenness on huntin’, shootin’ and fishin', such that he won’t even be home to welcome his son at Easter because he will be off hunting capercaillies instead!

And yet … as we read through the file, small intimations of Hans Pfundtner’s engagement with the Nazi regime begin to mount up – enough to give us pause. Firstly, in a letter dated 12 January 1935, we learn that he has been nominated as Gauehrenarbeitsführer – certainly some indication of a high degree of political loyalty to the Nazi state, over and above his status as a civil servant. He is also heavily involved with organising the forthcoming Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen – something which later leads him to send a press release to the Headmaster of the American school where Reinhard spends several months as an exchange student (Tabor Academy in Massachusetts). The content of this missive may or may not have had some small role to play in persuading U.S public opinion of the rightness of sending teams to the Berlin and Garmisch-Partenkirchen Olympic Games, despite suspicion of Nazi atrocities.

But it is on 25 September 1935 that Pfundtner drops what, to anyone unacquainted with his biography, must be the ultimate bombshell:

 ‘… the Party conference went splendidly. No one else in the world could have given a speech to equal the one the Führer gave. The sitting of the Reichstag in which the Jewish Laws were passed was an experience. I had played a substantial role in formulating the laws, and because of this had an especially great deal to do ...'

Pfundtner isn’t just a family man with four sons, who signs off his letters “your loving father”, and ticks Reinhard off for spending his pocket money too quickly. He is also one of the key architects of the Nuremberg Laws, which demoted Jews and Gypsies to a pariah status within Nazi Germany, and which were instrumental in the genesis of the Holocaust.

This damning ambiguity in historical actors’ personal lives is one of the things which any historian of the Third Reich has to deal with on a daily basis. Still, that doesn’t make it any easier to reconcile two such conflicting images – the Schreibtischtäter, the murderer at his desk, formulating the laws which destined whole "races" to persecution and death – and the harassed, sometimes stern, but ultimately affectionate father.

Is this the banality of evil? Or something far less iconic? 

What false preconceptions do people have about your field?

German History isn’t all about the Nazis – despite the massive emphasis that’s always been placed on “bad men with moustaches” in the secondary school History curriculum. A book like Peter Watson’s The German Genius has made this point very well for a popular audience – stressing the great importance of German intellectual and artistic figures for European culture. Often, though, there’s a danger of Britons perpetuating that Basil Fawlty mock goose-stepping “don’t mention the war” attitude to Germany, which still comes to the fore in German government surveys of the general British public – or, most obviously, during the World Cup!

What keeps you awake at night?

Probably, like most people, financial anxieties. And, more specifically, not knowing how new developments in Government (however well-intentioned) may end up having a negative impact on the freedom of researchers and universities.

What one thing don’t your students or colleagues know about you?

I’m distantly related to the novelist Charles Dickens, which is quite a fun fact, but not one that you’d idly bring up in conversation!

What’s the best thing about working in Cambridge?

The amazing community of researchers that exists here – both within one’s own discipline, and in other fields. If you have a question about almost any subject in the world, there will be someone in Cambridge who can answer it! Also, the collegiate system here is a great advantage, since it gives one a freedom and a sense of community which are very different from those found in most other academic institutions.

What do you think will be the next big discovery in your field in the next 10 years?

If the Royal Archives were actually made fully open to the public – and, in my view and in that of many other, far more eminent, Historians, it’s an absolute scandal that they aren’t – then I think there could be some fascinating revelations in store, particularly in terms of the Royal Family’s relationship with the Third Reich.

You can find out more about Helen's work at:



Twitter: @Dr_Helen_Roche

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