Older historians would find it fascinating to read how the English school for daughters of members of the Third Reich is now the setting of a new film starring Judi Dench. It’s a long, distant, memory from my own war days.
To some, the school represents an alternative history where Britain collaborated with the Nazis out of fear. The girls were sent from the highest ranks of German society. One of them was a god-daughter of Heinrich Himmler. Von-Ribbentrop’s daughter attended the school.
In the 1930s, there were hopes that the seaside resort of Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, could hold the key to mitigating the risk of war with Germany. On Dorset Road, up to two dozen daughters of the Nazi regime were sent to improve their English and become eligible young women before being launched into society.
Even as anti-German sentiment grew elsewhere in Britain, the girls were welcomed in Bexhill. Germany would not go to war with Britain it was thought, when its high-ranking daughters could be at risk. Founded around 1934, the school took in up to 24 girls at any one time, aged 16 to 21. The school’s badge had a Swastika on one side, the German imperial flag on the other and a Union Jack in the middle.
As well as daughters of the Nazi regime, there were also girls from the aristocratic old German society, such as Princess Herzeleide of Prussia. There were English and Finnish girls, too, whose parents were presumably Nazi sympathisers. Countess Haldenberg, niece to the German ambassador Herbert von Dirksen, was a pupil at the school. She described celebrating Hitler’s birthday by singing Nazi songs, flying a swastika flag and having “food that was a little better than usual”.
Hitler wanted to run Europe, and the British Empire. If he could strike a deal with the empire then there wouldn’t be a war. This is one of the subtexts of the college, it’s infiltrating of British society.
The German government approved of the school. In 1937, the girls were taken to the German Embassy in London to meet the country’s war minister, Field Marshal von Blomberg. The Bexhill-on-Sea Observer reported that the girls greeted him with a Nazi salute.
On Sept 1st 1939, all the pupils and German staff fled, days before Hitler’s tanks crossed the Polish border. The school had various uses in the war, including as a hospital and an army billet.
It all brings back memories of how we lived and survived.
The disturbing story of the Augusta Victoria College is the subject of Six Minutes to Midnight, a film starring Eddie Izzard, who grew up in the town, and Judi Dench. The film will be released soon.