*** school : Germany chronological trends

German School Uniforms: Chronological Trends

We are compiling information on German schools over time. The task is somewhat confusing as until modern times there was no one Germany, but rather a conderation of German speaking states. German was an early leader in public education. but this varied from state to state with curious mixtures. Prussia gave consuiderable attention to public education, but some children esspecially the Poles if East Prussia into the 19th century grew up on stull largely Feducal estates. In the German Empire (1870-1918) education was a function largely related to the different Landen or states. Only with Weimar (1918-33) and more importantly the Third Reich (1933-45) did Germany begin to build a national educational system. This effort was truncated by World war II and the post-war division of Germany between East and West that did not end until after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.


Large areas of Germany as a result of Rome's defeat at Tuttenberg Forest were never brought within the Roman imperium. The Germanic tribes in antiquity had no formal schools or written lanuage. Schools were instituted in the German areas within the Empire, but were conducted in Latin with a Roman curriculum. HBC has no details on the dress at these schools. With the Germanic invasion of the Empire in the 5th century schooling throughout the Western Empire ended except for schools established by the Church for its novitiates and monks.

Middle Ages

The medieval Church, as in the rest of Europe, was the genisus of the educational systems which developed in the aftermath of the collapse of Rome. There was no continuity between Roman schools and the schools which were to develop several centuries after Rome's collapse. The first written records of formal education in Germany date to the 8th century and describe a monastic school at Fulda. At the time literacy was lost to the population, even the nobility. It was only in the Church that learning was preserved. Monks in the 8th century began opening church and village schools. One such monk Rabanus Maurus (776-856) as a result of his work is known as the "teacher of Germany". Gradually such schools expanded in number, eventually leading to the first institutiin of higher education when Charles V University was opened in Prague during 1348. Other universites were subsequently opened at Heidelberg (1386), Tübingen (1477), and Jena (1558). I do not have details at this time concerning student dress.

The Renaissance

Classical education was revived during the Renaissance. The work of classical philosphers and other writers fuled the intelectual ferment that we now call the Renisance. The gymnasium which developed during this period stress the learnung of Latin and Greek. These gymnasia formed the cornerstone of the country's future secondary school system. One of the earliest and most influential was the Strasbourg Gymnasium fonded by Johannes Strum in 1538. I do not have details at this time concerning student dress.

The Reformation

The Reformation had a profound impact on European education. The Protestant belief that the individual from all social srtata should read the Bible meant that education had to be provided to the general population--this led inevitably to the founding of the modern educational system, embodying state control and compulsory education. A school in Weimar, for examole, instituted compulsory attendance in 1619. I do not have details at this time concerning student dress.

Chronological Trends

The 16th century

Hans Holbein the Younger has provided us a glimpse of a school class in 1516. It is apparently a school operated by his friend Oswald Myconius, we think in Berne. While this is in Switzerland, it probably represents a reasonable depiction of schools throughout Germany. Myconius could not pursue a clerical career because he married. This was why many men turned to teaching at the time. His wife is helping in his school class. This of course changed with the Reformation when Protestant churches allowed clerics to marry. Note how few children that they are teaching. The painting here is very elongated, leading some art experts to speculate that it was hung over the door of the school in Berne as a kind of advertisement.

The 17th century

A reader reports a plaque on a building in Vienna about a most reputated school for girls run by nuns from 1665 till 1960, the former Ursulinen Gymnasium (Ursulinen is a catholic order for nuns involved in teaching girls. In a middle-size town nearby to where I am living there is still a famous private secondary school for girls, run by the Englische Schwestern. We don't know what the relation to England is .

The 18th century

The modern German education system began to emerge in the 18th century. Many German states in the 18th century began founding public primary schools. This was well before such free schools were founded in Britain. These schools were no under church control although religion taught by clerics was normally a required subject. Prussia introduced public primary schools with teachers which were lower-ranking army officers who had retired. At this time The „Volksschule“ appeared. It is now in Germany called „Grundschule“, I suppose in Austria still „Volksschule“, in Switzerland „Primarschule“. It was for children till 14 years in all towns and even in (smaller) villages. At 14 years of age (in Protestantic areas following confirmation) boys not persuing secondary studies started a „Lehre“. Only a small number of boys wentbon to any kind of academic secondary studies. The the girls were employed (well, not in the actual sense) as „Dienst-mädchen“ in upper and middle class families, very often in towns in higher and middle class families, where they learned how to do houseork and family work. These schools didn´t separate the genders. The boys, after three years of „Lehre“ had to do military service for 2 years. In the larger village there were „Knabenschulen“ for boys and „Mädchen-schulen“ for girls, These schools were organized and financially funded to some extent by communities, at earlier times by a local Lord, by the township, by a „Stiftung“ (a charitable foundation or so). Schools run by the churches continued, more from the Catholic side than from the Protestant side, in many cases separated for the genders. In some cases there were also socalled „Mittelschulen“ for pupils, 10-16 years old, the pupils prepared for business/merchandise/office work.

The 19th century

The foundation for German state-funded primary education was laid in the 18th century. The basic pattern of the „Volksschule“ (now called the „Grundschule“) was continued. The major development during the 19th century was the increasing number of children who were completed their primary schooling. The education of boys was given the greates priority. It became, however, increasingly common for girls to complere their primary school as well. Secondary education became increasingly important in the 19th century, although still only a small minority of mostly boys persued academic secondary education. The principal academic secondary school was the Gymnasium, although the realschule became increasingly important in the late 19th century. At about 18/19 years old the pupils finish secondary school with the „Abitur“ or „Reifeprüfung“ (in Switzerland „Matur“) allowing them to continue to a university. (Germany had no no under-graduate bachelors at earlier times, it is a new invention of politicians of the 2000s.) The boys completing their primary education began in the „Lehre“ when 14 years old which was a 3-year progeams, „Lehrlinge“. It is now called „Auszubildende“ oder „Azubis“ for short –, have to go for one day to a „Gewerbeschule“ or „Berufsschule“ giving some theoretical basis to the field of the „Lehre“.

Holy Roman Empire

There was no Gernan state until the German Empire was founded in 1870. Rather there were a number of independent principalities dominated by the varying strength of Protestant Prussia in the North and Catholic Austria in the South. This coflict proved ruinous in the 16th century. Astute leaders throughout Europe took the Protestant commitment to education one step further. They began to see an educated poulace as a national assett. Grederick the Great of Prussia made 8 years of education mandatory in 1763. Frederick also established a Secondary School Board in 1787 and to increase his control over the curuculum, brought all schools and universities under state control in 1787. Other leaders were less commited to education, realising that an educated populace might lead to social unrest. This was especially true of countries dominated by an landed aristocracy. Compare the Prussian developments to England which did not have a national school system until the late 19th century--abd even the country's educational system was dominated by private schools. Major curriculum changes occurred during the 17th and 18th centuries. Scientific developments which began in the enlightenment enriched the curiculum, although some conservatives fought to retain the focus on classical Greek and Latin. University clsses through much of the 17th cerntury. Slowly instruction in German began increasingly accepted. New universities were established in Halle (1694), ???tingen (1737), and Berlin (1810). Johann Julius Heclow in 1747 founded the conomic-Mathematical Realschule in Berlin during 1747. The school considerably modernized the curiculum, focusing on math, science, modern languages, geography, history, philosophy, and other subjects. Teacher semaries were aopened as early as 1694 at Halle. Some German educator sought to introduce Rosseau's child-centered educational appraocjhes. I do not have details at this time concerning student dress.

Germn cadet dchools
Figure 1.--Some of the few German and Austrian schools that required uniforms were the military preparation cadet schools. The Vienna Choir Boys in the Austro-Hungarian Empire wore military uniforms before adopting the sailor suits still worn today.

The German Confederation

A loose Confederation of German states was formed after the final defeat of Napoleon. In the aftermath of the French Revolution and humiliating defeats by Napoleon's armies. Leaders were determined to strngthen their states and armies. Again Prussia led the way, establishing a Ministry of Education--the first European country to do so. Major reforms were instituted at German schools. The curciculum of the Gymnasium was modernized, the universities were opened to the graduates of all recognized secondary schools, and kinfergartens were opened for younger children. The universities were modernized and achieved international recognition for academic freedom, scientific reserch, and scholarship

Imperial Germany(1870-1918)

German states had a highly regarded eduucational system at the time the German Empire was proclaimed in 1870. It was not, however, centalized. The states brought into the Empire retain considerable authority over internal matters such as education, not unlike Americam states. The quality of German education, however, was recognized throughout Europe. German schools and pedagoues were head up as examples. The Germans were particularly influential in America. American scholars studies in German universities. German boys in the years before and after the turn of the century dressed much like other boys in western Europre. Boys during the Imperial era, however, did not wear school uniforms--which is interesting as turn of the century Germans appear to have had a special penchant for uniforms. This included dress styles for boys. It was quite common to dress German boys, even older boys in sailor suits. Given this interest in uniforms, it is unclear to the author why uniforms were not introduced to German schools. Boarding schools like the many England boarding schools were relatively rare in Germany. There were, however, some military boarding schools called cadet schools. There were military-style uniforms at these cadet schools during the Imperial era following German unification. Similar cadet schools also existed in the Austro-Hungarian Emore. Several books and films have been set at these schools. One of the most famous books is Young Torless. Films have included Colonel Redl and the book and BBC TV serial A Legacy. The number of boys educated at these uniformes schools was a very small proportion of German boys. German and Austrian choir schools before the World war I had uniforms--primarily military uniformd. Even some schools which were related with the church, like the Thomas-School in Leipzig, home of the world-famous Thomanerchor (St. Thomas boys choir), were included in the normal school-system. The choir has a uniform, but only for performances on stage, not for school. The Vienna Boys' Choir also wore military uniforms orginally both at school as well as for performances. Interestingly, after the First World War, the Vienna Choir Boys changed from military (army) uniform to the sailor suits they wear to this day. It is interesting to speculate on this change of uniform. Probably the military was so unpopular after the War that the uniform had to be changed. Sailor suits were probably more acceptable because they were standard wear for a German boy and thus had less of an association as a real military uniform.

German school sailor suit
Figure 2.--A young German boy in the early 1920s prepared for school. The sailor suit was his mother's choice, not required by the school.

Weimar Republic (1919-32)

Germany's defeat in World War I (1914-18) brought about the abdicatin of the Kaisser and formation of the Weimar Republic. The disorders following the war, economic dislaocation, and rampant imflation brought on terrible hardships with the German people. Despite the difficicilties, Germany still had arguably the finest educational system in Europe. German scgools, universitiesm and technical institutes guaranted a quality basic education to all and advanced educatioj to those able to pass competitive examinations. The lack of school uniforms continued after the First World War. Given the horrors of the First World War it is understandable that German parents would have little reason to develop an interest in uniforms for school children, although the War did not affect British opinions on uniforms. Interestingly, sailor suits continued to be a popular style for boys, including older boys than wore sailor suits--both with short and long pants. This varied from Britain and America where it became increasingly rare in the 1920s for older boys to wear them. A few boys also wore smocks, at least in the early 1920s. Most boys that didn't wear sailor suits, however, wore short pants suits of various designs.

Third Reich (1933-45)

After the NAZIs seized power in 1933, totalitarian principles were applied to all aspects of education. Private schools were taken over or closed. Great emphasis was attached on racial "science" in NAZI education and this was quickly introduced into the ciriculum. NAZI idelogy and physical-military training became other important aspects of the school program. Many teachers embraced the new Germany, but others were fired or left teaching. Some of the best educators fled abroad. The quality of German education, once the leading system in Europe, declined. The German attitudes toward school uniforms did not change during the NAZI era. While it is understandable why there was no interest in school uniforms during the post War Weimar period, it is less understandable why the NAZIs did not instutute uniforms for school children. In the Nazi Germany there were uniforms for almost everybody and anyone without some kind of be-swastikaed uniform must have felt left out. So it is curious that uniforms were not instituted for school children. Of course all the Aryan children had their Hitler Youth uniforms and on occassion wore them to school. It is likely that the NAZI leadership understood that the German people as a whole did not want another war and that instituting school uniforms would not have proved popular. But this is just speculation on my part and would be interested in any actual historical insights visitors to this web site might have.

Figure 3.--Children in the old DDR, as children in BRD, did not wear school uniforms, although on special occasions they would wear their Young Pioneer uniforms.

Cold War Germanies (1945-89)

After the Second World War there was again such a general revulsion against all things associated with the war and the NAZIs, including the obsession with uniforms. The disaster of the Second World War had a profound impact on the German people. Any consideration of school uniform in post-war Germany would have been seen as enforced regimentation and asociated with the NAZI era and perceived military-like enforcement of conformity. The Cold War of course created two Germanies. After the War neither the Communist East (DDR) or the democratic West (BRD) introduced school uniforms.

Modern Unified Germany (1989-to date)

Germany today guarantees a free public education by law. All German children must attend school until at least till reaching their 16th birtday. In fact most students persue secondary studies until 18-19 years of age (if they had not to repeat a class due to poor performance). The schools (except private ones) are free, however there are normally fees associated with Kindergarten (a curious situation). Kindergarten was a German educational inovation in the 19th century. Kindergartens today are available for children 3 to 5 years of age. Many other countries have adopted kindergartens. Attendance is not mandatory and up the parents. Compulsory eduvation begins with primary scool at age 6 years. All students attend Primary School until 4th grade. Beginning with 5th grade thereare thre different types of school available to childrn, depending on their academic abilities and career goals. Germany also has Catholic schools. Catholic schools in many countries do generally have uniforms, even in America. I have no information, however, on German Catholic schools. Modern Germany is confronting many of the same problems faced by schools in the United States and other western countries. Based on the experiences of other countries some Germans are beginning to reconsider school uniforms. The absence of required school uniforms continues in today's unified Germany. Modern young Germans virtually live in jeans and closely follow the latest in fashions. The idea of wearing a school uniform would be a very unpopular idea indeed.

Undated School Images

We have found some images that we can not date with any confidence. The images are of limited utility unless we can date them or figure out the type of school involved. Hopefully our German readers can provide us some insights as to these images.


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Created: April 14, 1998
Last updated: 3:25 AM 7/21/2017