One of the great pleasures when following debates about home education on the Internet lies in observing the astonishing frequency with which Godwin's Law is violated. Godwin's Law is of course a piece of Internet lore which holds that the longer an exchange on any subject at all continues, the more likely is it that somebody will try to use Hitler and the Nazis to support an argument. It is a tradition on some lists that the first person to resort to this tactic has lost the debate and the thread ends. This convention is not, for obvious reasons, adhered to on home education lists!
It is of course the one 'fact' that all home educators seem to know; Hitler banned home education. Is it true? Not really, but the myth itself has now gained a life of its own and there is probably very little point in trying to explain what really happened to people. Never the less, as much for my own satisfaction as anything else, here are the facts.
Until the middle of the Nineteenth Century, what we today call Germany was a collection of small kingdoms and states; Mecklenburg, Bavaria, Hesse and Saxony, to name a few. The largest and most influential of these kingdoms was Prussia, which included Westphalia, Pomerania and Silesia. Bismarck was a Prussian statesman from Brandenburg who unified many of these little states into one country called Germany. His aim was that the other German states would be submerged into Prussia, not that Prussia would be submerged in Germany. A consequence of this is that a lot of what we call typically German now is actually typically Prussian, rather than German per se.
Prussia had adopted compulsory education, or to be more exact compulsory schooling, under Frederick II in 1763, well over a hundred years before Hitler was born. By the time that Britain passed the Forster Act providing for compulsory education, Prussia had long been a byword for its compulsory schools. The Newcastle report on education in 1861 made reference to the Prussian system and thought it a bad idea.
Gradually, in keeping with Bismarck's ideas of forming the new nation of Germany in Prussia's image, the laws of the other little states were over ruled by Prussian laws. By 1900, the process was more or less complete and the whole of Germany followed the Prussian system in practically everything, including compulsory schooling. The way some people talk about the Nazis introducing the law on compulsory schooling, one would think that Weimar was a thriving hotbed of autonomous home education. It was of course nothing of the sort. Schooling was compulsory everywhere, because that was how it had been in Prussia for over a hundred years.
The Nazi law was not a new thing at all. It was part of this same process of unifying the entire country under one, predominantly Prussian, system which had been started by Bismarck in 1866. It really just reminded everybody of what the situation actually was; that children had to attend school. This is one of the things that you have to do from time to time, especially in federal republics or those made up of many formerly independent states. Otherwise you will find that some town will end up a few years down the line arguing that they have had such and such a tradition since the Middle Ages and they do not agree with the central government's new law on the subject. Compulsory school attendance certainly wasn't something dreamed up by the Nazis. It is of course perfectly true that the Germans today stick rigidly to the letter of this law, in a way that we do not in this country. We must remember that for the first twenty years or so after the passage of the 1944 Education Act, absolutely everybody in this country thought that this law too made schooling compulsory. The fact that it did not says more about our judiciary than it does about the law itself.