From Cradle to the Grave: A Child’s Life in Nazi Germany

Paul Garson

7 mins

03 Sep 2019

The month of September 2019 marks the 80th anniversary of the attack by Nazi Germany on its neighbour Poland, the act of aggression that ignited the Second World War and a conflagration that would engulf Europe in a storm of blood and steel.

Who were the soldiers that wore the iconic steel helmets and twisted cross on their uniforms? In effect, how were these implements of the Blitzkrieg, along with the panzers and Stukas, “manufactured.” Who were these purported Ubermensch, “Supermen” of the Third Reich?

In actuality, all began as children, as tabula rasa. They would be carefully, relentlessly moulded into that which the world famous German writer of the day, Thomas Mann, would describe as “machinists of death” motivated by a “terrible obedience.”

Some 20,000,000 Germans would don a uniform of one kind of another during the twelve year lifespan of Hitler’s promised Thousand Year Reich.

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Forming the Hitler Youth

Immediately after assuming full power on January 30, 1933, one of the dictator’s priorities was preparing the German young for his New World Order. He set his Nazi social engineers a task: make them

“as fast as a greyhound, tough as leather and hard as Krupp steel.”

The organisational framework had already been set by the country’s long history of youth group organisations geared toward providing youth with a healthy physical lifestyle and social cohesion.

They would be taken over completely or subverted as a mean for indoctrinating both boys and girls into the mindset and worldview of Nazi Socialism that demanded absolute fidelity to the Führer and obedience to the State.

The plan saw the formation of the Hitler Jugend or HJ (Hitler Youth) for males and Bund Deutscher Mädel or BdM (League of German Girls) as a Gliederung or extension of the Nazi Party, a breeding ground as it were for new generations of warriors and their female partners.

Hitler Jugend and Bund Deutscher Mädel members in China, 1935. Image Credit: Bundesarchiv / Commons.

Organisation of the new youth entities was paramount. As a result, several geographic areas or Obergebeite were created, specifically Nord, Sud, West, Ost, Mitte and Sudost, a patch bearing the designation part of the uniform worn.

Everything was to be kept “uniform,” especially their thinking. The unending series of events, outings, camps, competitions, songfests, marches and rallies also created wide scale loss of student school attendance, the attraction of HJ physical activities outweighing intellectual training, the game plan of the Nazi social planners.

Traditional studies of history no longer focused on the classics but on the history of the Nazi Party as indoctrination supplanted education.

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“Your real father is the Führer”

By 1936 the Hitler-Jugend would count 5.4 million members aged 10-18 with most pre-Third Reich youth groups, both for boys and girls, aggressively assimilated into the Nazi collective organisations.

Some groups balked, particularly the religiously affiliated, but all eventually fell under the steel-booted thrall of the State that sought to supplant the traditional family as the controlling social force.

Children were encouraged by rewards of money for reporting on their parents “anti-State” words or actions. Nazi doctrine stated,

“Your real father is the Führer, and being his children you will be the chosen ones, the heroes of the future.”

A member of the Deutsche Jungvolk (German Young People).

Hitler Youth formations for boys were divided into sections based on age: the so-called “Little Fellows” and known as Pimpf recruited 6-10 year-olds; the Deutsche Jungvolk (German Young People) took in those 10-13 and for whom their outdoor sports now focused on para-military training.

They in turn transitioned at 14 to the regular Hitler Youth, remaining there through the age of 18 during which they received enhanced martial training. At this juncture, they began fulfilling their required, as of June 26, 1935, six month civilian labour service for 19-25 year-olds via RAD (Reichsarbeitdienst).

The ultimate goal of Hitler Youth training was matriculation into regular military service within the Wehrmacht (army, navy, air force or SS).

Boxing and other combative sports were encouraged, even to injury and sometimes death, Hitler having declared,

“I want a brutal, domineering, fearless, cruel youth. Youth must be all that. It must bear pain.”

Hitler Jugend Security Officer and Nazi Party Member. Special groups of HJ males aged 16-18 worked closely with the Gestapo and SS, some going on to serve in concentration camps.

Hitler added,

“There must be nothing weak and gentle about it. The free, splendid beast of prey must once again flash from its eyes. That is how I will eradicate thousands of years of human domestication. That is how I will create the New Order.”

An estimated 1,500,000 million Hitler Youth boys received para-military training including the use of the rifle. 50,000 boys would earn the marksmanship medal indicating their proficiency at accurate firing to a distance of 50 meters (164 feet).

Evidence of the intensity of the indoctrination effort can be seen in use of some 200,000 special trains required to transport 5,000,000 German youth to the 12,000 HJ camps during the reign of the Third Reich.

Their schooling was also seen as adjunct of HJ and BdM membership. Traditional academics were cast aside. In keeping with the growing anti-Semitic regulations, Jewish teachers were summarily dismissed from German schools and universities.

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Nazi curriculum

By 1932 more than 30% of teachers were already sworn Nazi party members. Then after the full takeover by Hitler, “re-education camps” for teachers were established with a mandatory month long immersion resulting in two-thirds of grade school teachers processed by 1938.

Teachers were now instructors of National Socialism focusing on “racial awareness” in which science and biology were turned into indoctrination programs promoting the Aryan race over the “unworthy races,” especially fanning the hatred of Jews.

Hitler had achieved his avowed goal when saying,

“I will have no intellectual training. Knowledge is ruin to my young men.”

In 1939, with war about to be set into motion, the State mandated HJ membership for all boys and girls and as a result could count 7,000,000 recruited or nearly 82 percent of eligible German youth enrolled. Further decrees made it mandatory for the remaining hold-outs to join or suffer the consequences.

Women in Nazi Germany

The brown “climbing jacket” or Kletterjacke was a popular BdM wardrobe item, along with the standard white shirt and black scarf.

For girls, those aged 10-14 joined the Jungmädel (Young Maidens) with training emphasizing healthy habits, duties of the housewife and child-raising. Emphasis was also placed on Nazi racial dictums inflamed by its anti-Jewish virulence.

Between ages 15-21, girls took part in further State sponsored motherhood training via the BdM (Bund Deutsche Mädel) League of German Girls. Additional training in “domestic science and marriage preparation” could be granted to 17-year olds who applied to the Glaube und Schonheit (Faith and Beauty) program.

By 1936, total membership counted two million members girls supervised by 125,000 leaders.

Motherhood was sacrosanct in Nazi Germany. Mothers were ranked with the same status of frontline troops. A popular slogan was,

“I have given a soldier to the Führer.”

Motherhood was sacrosanct in Nazi Germany.

Prolific child bearers were awarded a special medal, the Honor Cross of the German Mother, in bronze for more than four children, silver for more than six, gold for more than eight. Hitler Youth members were required to salute any woman wearing the award.

In seeking to fill the ranks lost during World War One and the mounting casualties on the new war’s battlefields, the Third Reich encouraged high birth rates via various incentives including financial inducements. During the first four months into the war, December 1939 to May 1940, some 121,853 gold medals were awarded.

Additional efforts to increase the replenishment source for the fallen warriors of the Fatherland included the Lebensborn programs and homes where girls were housed and encouraged to welcome the visits by SS men in order to create more members of the superior race.

Child soldiers

In the last months of the war, as bombs rained down upon the German cities, the young anti-aircraft crews often manned their guns to the death.

In the last months of the war, as bombs rained down upon the German cities, the young anti-aircraft crews often manned their guns to the death.

After the Allied D-Day landings of June 1944, Hitler in his efforts to stem the invasion sent a newly formed unit, the 12th SS Panzer Division, most of its members under 18. Instead of receiving the usual rations of alcohol and tobacco, they received candies as they went to war.

But when they came up against the British and Canadians attempting to secure the French port of Caen, the child soldiers, though outnumbered and outgunned, fought fanatically, holding up the Allies for a month.

By 1945, the Third Reich disintegrating on all fronts, the HJ could still count 8,000,000 members, many still fanatical. As a result during the last weeks of the war, boys and girls as young as 10 would be manning anti-aircraft guns or sent against the Russian and American forces, some riding their bicycles mounted with grenade launchers.

A U.S. Signal Corp photo carried the following caption: Three small German boys were picked up on a road near Aachen for firing on advancing American soldiers. From left are Willy Eischenburg, 14, a Hitler Youth; his brother, Bernard, 10; Hubert Heinrichs, 10, and another Eischenburg Brother Victor, 8.

While thousands of such child soldiers, boys and girls, died in uniform, thousands more, having passed through the Nazi youth programs, were left bereft of their underpinnings at war’s end and found themselves coping with a transition beyond physical survival, rather a mental and spiritual re-evaluation and hopefully a rebirth.

The underlying message is that authoritarian states or ideologies have, and can, radicalise the young for their own dark purposes and all such efforts must not be ignored.

Paul Garson lives and writes in Los Angeles having produced over 2500 magazine features, often accompanied by his own contemporary photography. His previous books include science fiction, motorcycle history, and military history. Children of the Third Reich is his most recent book and will be published on 15 September, by Amberley Publishing