Holly Perril, second year German and English Literature student and a Laidlaw scholar, writes:

Over the course of the summer, I had the opportunity to work in collaboration with Special Collections to explore how changing international relations between Britain and Germany have influenced the teaching of German at the University of Leeds. In approaching this project, I was particularly fascinated by the prospect of exploring how the perception of German language learning and ‘Germanness’ was influenced by major global conflicts of the 20th century, such as WWI and WWII.

Despite this, it was not until the period directly following the war that German Studies at Leeds was dramatically shaken by anti-German prejudice. This is evident in the decisive shift in assessed content in 1919, when all German literature within the curriculum was replaced with epic Greek narratives. At first, I thought that the decision to replace German literature with ancient Greek texts was random. Why would the works of Goethe be replaced with works written centuries earlier, that were not even written in the German language? However, throughout my analysis, I developed an understanding of how epic literature was manipulated as a means of reviving the memory of British imperial glory. In this way, I gained insight into how the emergence of epic in German Studies allowed a celebration of the supposed ‘heroism’ of Britain without directly fetishising the recent conflict with Germany.

black and white postcard of WW1 German soldier being attacked by the Allies
Postcard ‘Souvenir of the European War 1914’ Liddle/WW1/POW/068. Image credit Leeds University Library.

Following this major discovery, I was curious to look into how this troubled relationship within German Studies developed during World War II. How was the German language perceived in Britain when we were at war with Germany? Through my research in the archive, I noticed that the attitude towards the study of German was divided into two camps. Firstly, there was the belief that as German was the language of the ‘arch enemy’ it should cease to be taught within Britain as it represented the ‘low ideals’ of a backward society. Secondly, there was the belief that the study of German within Britain was imperative to ensuring that the economic and political progress of Germany could be monitored by an insecure Britain desperate to maintain its precedence on the world stage.

But how would this impact the curriculum at Leeds? I was shocked by the dramatic changes , such as the complete removal of Old High German texts from the German curriculum. Throughout my analysis, I found that this decisive shift demonstrated the desire to remove all connection between the roots of Old English and German language and culture. This allowed me to draw conclusions concerning how closely the demonisation of German identity, such as Churchill describing the ‘vile’ character of the enemy, impacted the representation of Germany and Germanness within British education.

black and white photograph of the Michael Sadler Building, University of Leeds
The Michael Sadler Building, University of Leeds. Image credit Leeds University Library. Arts Block/New Arts Block, LUA/PHC/003/5.

Thus, throughout my research over the summer, I discovered that the portrayal of Germany and the German language within British education was constructed by changing international relations between Britain and Germany across the 20th century, often to perform a political function. This is most notable during WWI and WWII in which the pedagogy, curriculum and examination of German Studies at the University of Leeds was transformed to promote anti-German sentiment. Throughout the summer, I developed not only my critical thinking skills, but I also learned more about the process of carrying out academic research in my collaboration with Special Collections.