Kurt Hahn was a German educationalist.
Hahn was born in Berlin in 1886. He was from a liberal Jewish family. His education was conducted in Germany. He suffered sunstroke as a child and this affected him permanently. He had to avoid hot climates which is why he gravitated to the frigid north.
Kurt Hahn attended a number of universities as was common for German undergraduates at the time. These were Heidelberg, Frieberg and Gottingen. An undergraduate would go to one university for a year, to another for two years and perhaps another for a further year. He matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford University. Hahn perfected his English. He was very broadminded and happily attended chapel. At that stage he did not convert to the Christian faith. Like many Germans he raved about Shakespeare. He was convinced that Shakespeare’s works were better in German than the original. In the summers of 1910-14 he took holidays in northern Scotland.
Hahn was in the United Kingdom when the First World War broke out. All voyages to and from Germany were forbidden. He attempted to reach the coast and take ship for the Netherlands. From there he planned to travel to his homeland.
Kurt Hahn was arrested an interned as an enemy alien. After two years an exchange of civilians was agreed between the UK and Germany. German civilians were repatriated to Germany by way of the Netherlands which was neutral.
Hahn then spent the war in a government office in Berlin. His task was to translate British newspapers into German so that his government would have an idea of what the Allies were thinking.
Kurt Hahn came to work for the Margrave of Baden as his private secretary. Max von Baden was a man of liberal nostra. This was unusual for a German nobleman. Von Baden had briefly been chancellor in 1918. He had been one of those who saw that the military outlook was utterly hopeless for Germany and the only sane thing to do was to seek an armistice immediately. The Margrave of Baden is credited as one of those people who ended the First World War.
Hahn had come to develop his own educational philosophy. This was predicated on the teachings of Plato. He wanted a school that provided an education that was both classical and modern. Pupils were to be taught integrity, teamwork and a respect for nature. He wanted to do away with the petty rules of most schools and the overemphasis on academic learning. He aimed to provide a holistic education encompassing sports, camping, music and theatre. Drama played almost no role in formal education at the time. He considered the example of Eton. He saw much that he admired in terms of scholastic achievement and sports. However, he looked askance at Eton’s snobbery, artificiality and frippery.
The Margrave of Baden invited Hahn to open at school at his palace in southern Germany: Schloss Salem. Salem is short for Jerusalem and means ‘peace’ in Classical Hebrew. The name is pronounced ”ZA – lem”.
Kurt Hahn opened his school at Schloss Salem. This has an idyllic setting by Lake Constance. The school was mixed. The uniform was unpretentious and allowed for ease of movement. He also promoted pupils to have power over the others. If a group of boys were found to be misbehaving and one of them was a prefect then only the prefect was punished. This was because he should have been responsible enough to stop it.Hahn was a very generous spirited person who despised national prejudices. He had remained friends with many Britishers despite the First World War.
Hahn used the hymn ”We kneel and appeal to the God of all justice” as the Salem school song. It was in German of course.
Hahn wanted to challenge pupils. He insisted that they must be made physically fit. They must all be imbued with manual skills. They must also provide a public service by learning first aid or helping the fire brigade. His ideas were too reformist for some. In 1923 a reactionary tried to assassinate him.
In the late 1920s the Nazi Party became prominent. Hahn admitted to having some respect for the Nazis discipline and energy but he was a centrist. He was horrified by the Nazism glorification of brutality. He was an outspoken critic of their mindlessness, their thuggery and their philistinism. Hahn recognised that after 2 000 000 deaths in the First World War the last thing Germany needed was another war. The Nazism virulent anti-Semitism worried him since he was Jewish by parentage. The increasing viciousness of the National Socialists alarmed Hahn. Hahn read about a left winger who was kicked to death by Nazis in the immediate presence of his mother. Kurt Hahn then wrote a letter to all past pupils of Salem and said they must either support Salem or the Nazis but they could not support both. The two philosophies were totally incompatible. It was a gallant thing to do but Hahn was a marked man.
Adolf Hitler became chancellor in January 1933. Hahn was immediately arrested and his school was closed down. He had notable friends iin the United Kingdom including the Prime Minister James Ramsay MacDonald. Ramsay MacDonald was contacted and he interceded for Hahn. After three days the Nazi Government released Hahn at the UK Government’s request.
Dr Hahn travelled to the United Kingdom. He cast around for suitable locations to set up a new edition of Salem. He visited Moray in Scotland. It was an area where he had holidayed before the Great War. He found out about an old stately home in Scotland called Gordonstoun. Gordonstoun House that had beloned to the Gordon Cumming family. Hahn had a look and decided it would be ideal. It was deep in the countryside and therefore far from the distractions and temptations of city life. The huge grounds provided plenty of scope for sports and camping. It was within walking distance of the coast.
Hahn opened his school in 1934. Gordonstoun School began with two pupils. Hats off to this parents who were courageous enough to take a gamble on Gordonstoun. The school grew rapidly.
The boys wore knee length shorts, grey shirts, blue jumpers. They did not wear ties expect on formal occasions. This was a marked contrast to the overly formal and restrictive uniforms of the time. Boys in almost every other school wore hats or caps. Gordonstoun was very go ahead right from the start.
Hahn tried to keep punishment to a minimum. Nevertheless he allowed caning and administered the punishment in person.
Sports were a major part of the time table. Everyone had to learn to sail. It was called seamanship. Everyone had to go on regular camping expeditions. There was also military training. This was perhaps the first outward bound school. Outdoor education was a crucial part of the curriculum. Hahn practised what he preached and was a fiercely competitive tennis player well into his 50s.
Dr Hahn also made sure that design and technology was in the timetable. Many independent schools sneered at this as being something for the working class. Pupils who could afford Gordonstoun were middle class or upper class. Hahn disliked snobbery but financial reality meant that his school could take very few proletarian pupils.
All pupils were required to join a service. This could be the fire brigade or coast guard service for example.
The school was founded as a Christian school but did not align itself with any denomination. The great majority of pupils were Church of Scotland or Church of England.
Hahn brought some of his colleagues with him from Germany. The school had very little money so some of them had to work for bed and board for the first couple of years. They received no salary! Some of his Jewish pedagogical friends were especially eager to get out of Germany for reasons that do not need stating. The boys of Gordonstoun gained an excellent grounding in German because most of their masters were German!
Gordonstoun founded a preparatory school called Wester Elchies in 1936. This was 20 miles away. Boys would attend Wester Elchies from the age of 7 to 13. Thereafter they would go on to Gordonstoun.
Hahn invented a flag for the school with a white and a purple bar. The white denoted purity and the purple honour. The motto is ‘Plus est en vous’ – there is more in you (than you think). Plus est en vous had been seen written on a wall in Belgium and it inspired Kurt Hahn.
The buildings of the school were very widely dispersed over the estate. This compelled boys to walk fast to all activities. Hahn thought this was tremendous for their athleticism.
In 1936 the school welcomed a most distinguished pupil. He was Prince Philip of Greece. Prince Philip had left Greece as a baby and grown up in London and Paris. He was a second cousin of King George VI. Prince Philip was partly of German extraction.
The school was soon attracting pupils from all over the United Kingdom.
Dr Hahn became a British citizen. This was vital since it meant he was not interned in 1939.Dr Kurt Hahn converted to Christianity. He sometimes preached in the Church of Scotland.
Dr Hahn helped to bring more Jewish Germans to the UK. He saved their lives.
Although Dr Hahn’s English was impeccable he had an unmissable German accent. It caused him to receive many frosty stares when travelling by train during the Second World War.
At the outbreak of the Second World War many called for Adolf Hitler to be assassinated. Hahn showed his extreme perhaps inane degree of humanity in saying that Hitler should not be assassinated. Dr Hahn said that shooting people solves nothing. He cited the example of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
Gordonstoun recruited a PE teacher who was a refugee from Russia. When he was exasperated with the boys he would recite gobbets of the Bible to calm himself down. This was the only thing they had been taught to do at school in Russia.
In the Second World War the army commandeered the school under the Defence of the Realm Act. The school was moved to Wales for a few years. It returned after the war.
Dr Hahn was prominent in seeking to restore amicable relations between Germany and the UK after the war. He reopened Salem as soon as was practicable. He visited his devastated native land. He arranged many exchanges between Gordonstoun and Salem. Except Salem was said to be haunted by a ghost named ‘Spookie’.
In 1947 Prince Philip wed Princess Elizabeth. This brought publicity to the school. This princess became queen in 1952.
In the 1950s it became the norm for Gordonstounians to spend one of their five years in Salem.
The Prince of Wales and other members of the royal family attended Gordonstoun.
With his former pupil Dr Hahn helped to found the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. This awards people a bronze, silver or gold for achievement. Someone on the D of E scheme must participate in sport, serve their community and go on an expedition.
Dr Hahn also helped to set up the United World Colleges. These exist around the world and provide two years of pre university schooling. One of them is Atlantic College in Wales.
Altyre School was founded about 10 miles away from Gordonstoun. Altyre was very small. For some lessons they had to cycle to Gordonstoun. This arrangement did not last. Eventually Altyre School was closed and a house called Altyre was built at Gordonstoun.
Wester Elchies outgrew its size. So another house was purchased across the river Spey in 1947. It was called Aberlour House. Wester Elchies and Aberlour House were one school on two sites. They were 3 miles apart. Juniors would be at Wester Elchies for three years. They would proceed to Aberlour House for a further three years. Therefater they would go on to Gordonstoun for five years. The prep school began to take girls in the 1950s but Gordonstoun did not.
A levels started to be considered important after the Second World War. Prior to that pupils had sat the schools certificates exams. Gordonstoun took the fateful decision to take A levels which are not a Scottish qualification. Almost every other school in Scotland does Highers which are a uniquely Scottish exam.
The school’s fame spread rapidly. It took pupils from the United States, India, Australia and many other lands.
One of the houses in Gordonstoun is called Round Square. This is because there are no corners in it. Gordonstoun established fraternal links with many schools around the world. They meet at Round Square conferences.
Hahn was loaded with honours. He was made a Commander of the British Empire. He was given the cross of merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.
In the early 1970s Gordonstoun admitted girls.
Dr Hahn retired in 1953. Except he did not. He returned to Salem and ran a house but taught no lessons.He jogged into his 80s! He died in 1974. He had never married.
Dr Hahn was fondly remembered by his pupils and colleagues alike.
Gordonsount is known as ”Stoun” to its pupils. He is the subject of a number of biographies.