Originally the name of comprehensive elementary schools with four classes and a teachers’ seminar, established in the capital city of each province of the Habsburg monarchy in the 1770s. The Normalschulen were distinct from smaller schools (with one to three classes) in towns and villages, known as Hauptschulen and Trivialschulen. The term, however, soon became a synonym for all public schools that taught a modern curriculum, with an emphasis on secular subjects, and that applied a method focusing on an understanding of the subject (Normalmethode) rather than on mechanical repetitions.
Compulsory elementary education was introduced in the Habsburg monarchy as early as 1774, but it was not well accepted initially among the population. Among the upper classes, public schools had to compete with private education, whereas the lower classes were deterred by high tuition fees. A survey in 1781 showed that not even one-third of children in fact attended school. Therefore, Joseph II (r. 1780–1790) ordered legal sanctions against parents who did not educate their children (especially boys). As an incentive, the tuition fee for boys (but not for girls) was abolished. Consequently, the attendance rate for boys rose considerably, whereas for girls it stagnated. Up to the mid-nineteenth century, however, public schools were generally considered to be schools for the lower classes.
With the Edicts of Toleration, issued for each province at a different time (Bohemia and the Italian Provinces, 1781; Vienna and Moravia, 1782; Hungary, 1783; Galicia, 1789), the laws about compulsory schooling were also applied to Jewish inhabitants of the Habsburg lands. Jewish communities were required to set up German-language schools (Normalschulen), even in the non-German-speaking provinces of the empire. In these institutions, Jewish children acquired the basics of secular education, namely reading, writing, arithmetic, and German language, from teachers who held official teaching diplomas. State authorities launched an extensive campaign for the establishment of these schools. To win over the mostly traditional Jewish elite and the Jewish masses, state authorities agreed to a radical segregation between religious and secular subjects. Only the latter would be taught in the state-controlled German Jewish schools, whereas the former would continue to be studied at traditional Jewish institutions.
Disappointing as this compromise was for maskilim, who strove to integrate religious and secular studies, it provided a solid base for the establishment of new schools in Bohemia and Moravia. As the first of its kind, the German Jewish boys’ school of Prague was inaugurated on 2 May 1782. A girls’ school opened in the fall of 1784. For the founding of the school, state authorities contributed 3,000 florins from Jewish taxes, but the Jewish community had to bear all ongoing expenses. The school proved to be extremely successful and served as a model for German Jewish schools in Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary, Galicia, and Bucovina. By 1787, there were 25 additional schools in Bohemia. In Moravia, where schools were set up with the aid of the private Jewish Eskeles Foundation, there were 42 Normalschulen listed until 1784, and 51 by 1807. In the lands of the Bohemian Crown (Bohemia and Moravia), German Jewish schools continued to function until the Czech national movement swept them away at the end of the nineteenth century.
In Hungary, the Josephinian normal school system appears to have been less successful, both in the Jewish and the non-Jewish populations. In the 1780s, only 22 German Jewish Normalschulen were set up in the Hungarian part of the monarchy. Most of them were closed down almost immediately after the emperor’s death. The rest were generally transformed into religious institutions. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, several new schools were established that combined a religious with a secular curriculum, mostly upon private initiative.
Although at least 107 German Jewish boys’ and several girls’ schools were founded in Galicia in the late 1780s and 1790s, the new schools never became popular with Galician Jews, in part because of coercive methods applied by Herz Homberg, the state supervisor for Galicia. Instead of seeking a compromise with traditional Jewry, Homberg imported teachers from his native Bohemia and tried to force Enlightenment upon a reluctant population. As in Hungary, the Normalschulen were closed down as soon as the state coercion ceased in 1806. Private Jewish initiatives, among them the Haskalah school founded by Yosef Perl in Tarnopol in 1813, proved to be much more successful. In Bucovina, the establishment of the German Jewish school system faced many of the same obstacles as in Galicia. In 1789, two Normalschulen were established, in Czernowitz and Suceava.
In the Italian provinces, the Jewish communities proposed to integrate German studies into the curriculum of their religious schools. Thus, they combined religious and secular studies and fulfilled the expectations of the maskilim. The German normal classes were restricted in scope, but pupils studied arithmetic and Italian within the framework of the religious curriculum. On 14 May 1782, the Scuola Pia Normale sive talmud Torà opened its gates in Trieste. Similar schools were established in Gorizia, Mantua, and Venice. Because of their semireligious character, the Italian schools were reserved for boys alone. Contrary to other Normalschulen, they did not renounce tuition fees and were attended by the sons of well-to-do families. Owing to a broad consensus regarding secular education, the Italian schools proved to be well-functioning educational institutions. The Jews of Vienna, meanwhile, did not set up a Normalschule, since they neither had an official synagogue nor constituted a legal community, which were the prerequisites for the establishment of schools according to the Edicts of Toleration. Nevertheless, they were able to open a state-approved religious school for boys in the fall of 1814.
Whereas German maskilim had to struggle for the official authorization of every Jewish school, in the Habsburg lands the state itself enforced the establishment of an impressive network of German Jewish schools during the reign of Joseph II. As a result, a considerable proportion of Jewish children in the Habsburg monarchy attended secular schools even before the French Revolution. In the end, however, the school system could not be maintained against the will of the (mostly traditional) Jewish elites. Where the state representatives failed to come to an understanding with rabbis and community leaders, the schools were doomed to failure.
Lois C. Dubin, The Port Jews of Habsburg Trieste: Absolutist Politics and Enlightenment Culture (Stanford, Calif., 1999), pp. 95–117; Louise Hecht, “Die Prager deutsch-jüdische Schulanstalt, 1782–1848,” in Jüdische Erziehung und aufklärerische Schulreform, ed. Britta L. Behm, Ingrid Lohmann, and Uta Lohmann, pp. 213–252 (Münster, Ger., 2002); Louise Hecht, “‘Gib dem Knaben Unterricht nach seiner Weise’ (Spr. 22,6): Theorie und Praxis des modernen jüdischen Schulsystems in der Habsburger Monarchie,” Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Gesellschaft zur Erforschung des 18. Jahrhunderts 18–19 (2004): 117–134; Hillel Kieval, “Caution’s Progress: The Modernization of Jewish Life in Prague, 1780–1830,” in Toward Modernity: The European Jewish Model, ed. Jacob Katz, pp. 71–105 (New Brunswick, N.J., 1987); Isabel Röskau-Rydel, Kultur an der Peripherie des Habsburger Reiches: Die Geschichte des Bildungswesens und der kulturellen Einrichtungen in Lemberg von 1772 bis 1848 (Wiesbaden, Ger., 1993), pp. 107–125.