For the best part of half a century before WWII, private education was one of Bexhill’s major local ‘industries’. Scores of schools of all sizes opened their doors to pupils during those years. None could have been stranger than the town’s finishing school for daughters of the Nazi elite - the Augusta Victoria College in Dorset Road, Bexhill-on-Sea.
A dramatised version of the school’s history is key to the new film Six Minutes to Midnight, the inspiration of Bexhill Museum patron, Hollywood actor, iconoclastic performer and Bexhill scion, Eddie Izzard. Eddie, Bexhill Museum curator Julian Porter, visiting German student historian Malte John, and museum oral history archivist Sally Hemmings have spent long hours unpicking the truth of the story from a good deal of post-war gossip. But in the years between 1932 and the war’s outbreak in 1939, contemporary accounts suggest that the town was fairly tolerant of the Augusta Victoria College and its usual roster of two dozen pupils and their German teachers.
The school building, Lindsay Hall at No.88 Dorset Road (now No.128), still stands, now converted into flats. The College’s founder Frau Helena Rocholl, with her chief assistant Baroness Pia von Korff, started accepting German girl pupils in Bexhill in 1932, and moved the school into the building in 1935. During this period for about six months a year the Augusta Victoria College would prepare some 24 students aged between 16 and 21 for the Cambridge Certificate of Proficiency in English. But as the film fairly recreates, its main role was as a Swiss-style finishing school focussing on teaching social graces to the daughters of the Nazi-era elite.
At various times the class register included Isa von Bergen, daughter of Hitler’s envoy to the Vatican, Carl-Ludwig Diego von Bergen; Bettina von Ribbentrop, daughter of Hitler’s Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop; and Princess Herzeleide of Prussia, the granddaughter of former Kaiser Wilhelm II, the grandson of Queen Victoria. Baroness von Korff took charge of the girls' care and education, Frau Rocholl was based in Kassel in central Germany and, unusually for the time, would regularly fly over to inspect activities.
Most of what is known about the College comes from a former English au pair, Mollie Hickie (neé Willing), who worked there from 1935 to 1939, and a few local newspaper articles. Mollie’s family donated its only known surviving school blazer badge and a school prospectus to the museum.
Today sight of the badge makes you catch your breath, incorporating as it does the Nazi swastika alongside the British union flag. On the left sat the former Imperial German flag beside the heraldic lion rampant of the Ludovingian dynasty that once ruled 11th-13th century German Thuringia & Hesse. A group of girls from the school visited the German embassy in 1937 to meet Field Marshal Werner von Blomberg, Hitler’s first War Minister and the dictator’s pointed choice of representative at the coronation of King George VI.
The Bexhill Observer reported von Blomberg’s admiration for the students’ pretty light blue blazers and the swastika on the badge. “Their healthy sunburned bright faces were all raised to the tall marshal as he asked them about the college and their studies in England,” the paper noted. “The youngest student presented a bouquet of carnations, while the others greeted him with the Nazi salute.” The Ambassador followed up with a visit to the College at Bexhill, “which is working for international friendship and good understanding,” it added.
All the girls were exceptionally well connected to the German aristocratic elite, and that elite’s own connection to its British opposite number is well documented. Dr Karina Urbach, author of the book Go-Betweens for Hitler, relates how members of the German aristocracy were a key conduit for back door ‘diplomacy’ with Britain between 1933 and 1939. Many of them, including the Royal Family’s German cousins, were infatuated with Hitler, she writes. “These German relatives had an agenda and their agenda was written by Hitler: an alliance with Britain”.
As Bexhill Museum’s Julian Porter relates, putting aside speculation that the College was a front for a network of spies, in truth “its role was more subtle and much more insidious”. These were Nazis hiding in plain sight, helping establish Hitler’s hoped for future relationship between the British Empire and the Third Reich. “The girls came from Germany,” said the Reverend Dr F.E. England, in 1935 the minister of Bexhill’s Presbyterian Church and quoted by the Observer at the time, “not merely to study English – they could do that in Germany – but in order to get an insight into our English life and understand us, and to give us an opportunity of understanding them.”
As Dr Urbach wrote, and Mollie Hickie also recalled in her interview with Eddie Izzard, the principal motivation of the aristocracy, one shared with the Duke of Windsor, the Royal Family and their German cousins, was fear of a communist takeover in Germany.
Class played a part: In her interview Mollie Hickey remembered the ordinary Frau Rocholl as "a genuine Nazi", but thought National Socialism "didn't really go" with the aristocratic and sporty Baroness von Korff. She was, Mollie recalled, laughing, more concerned with the ranking of her charges, whose status was marked by the kinds of tines, spikes, on the coronets stitched on the girls' woven nametags.
The school’s final year in the town must have been a strange one. Having briefly fled Bexhill during the Munich Crisis in September 1938, the girls returned to a town grimly preparing for war with Germany. Officials started issuing gas masks to civilians and training volunteers in ways to help people trapped in bombed buildings. Popular literature and media accounts of Nazi bombing raids on civilians in Spain that year drove fears of mass casualties under Nazi Luftwaffe air attack.
In February 1939, the Earl De la Warr – who had earlier championed the work of German architect Erich Mendelsohn, a refugee from Hitler’s anti-semitic regime, as co-designer of the Pavilion that bears his name in Bexhill – was in Paris marshalling support for the Anglo-French alliance against Nazi aggression.
“We assert the right to think and to speak what we feel,” the Bexhill Observer reported the Earl as saying, “the right to read the books and see the pictures and hear the music of artists, not only of our own but of all races, including Jews, and finally the right of human beings to enjoy and develop the more decent and friendly things in their nature.”
Yet as late as April 1939 the school was still making a special effort to celebrate Hitler’s birthday in Bexhill. One of the last new arrivals at the school, Countess Reinhild von Hardenberg, recalled her astonishment to see Frau Rocholl’s solemn celebration of the anniversary on 20 April. “The swastika was hoisted, the food was a little better than usual, and we had to sing National Socialist songs,” she wrote in her autobiography. “It was all very embarrassing for me.” (This was not post-war revisionism: Reinhilde and her father were committed anti-Nazis, eventually playing a key role in the failed July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler.)
A month later Frau Rocholl was still holding out hope that she and her girls might continue their slightly surreal lifestyle on the Sussex coast. The Sunday People newspaper interviewed Frau Rocholl, “tall and stately,” and Baroness von Korff, “dark and smiling,” in Bexhill in May 1939.
The People reported their surprise when asked if, in view of the international situation, any of their distinguished pupils had returned to Germany. “Why should they?” Rocholl replied, “There’s not going to be a war. There is no need for panic of any kind, and it’s lessons as usual here.” So convinced she was of peace, she was even planning a Nazi boys school in England as well.
Augusta Victoria College did not finally close and its last girls return home until 26 August 1939. Six days earlier Hitler had shocked the world by announcing a non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, making war in Europe a certainty. Two days before the House of Commons had met in special session to pass the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act in response. A day earlier Germany had cut telecommunications with Britain to all but high echelon connections.
The girls and their teachers hurried onto civilian planes and boats to return home to Germany before they too were cut off. The film tells a slightly different story, but by that time, Frau Rocholl’s optimism notwithstanding, they were all out of options. Just over a week after they departed, Germany and Britain were at war.