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The Hitler Youth, or Hitlerjugend, were a youth corps in pre-Nazi and Nazi-controlled Germany. Their function was to indoctrinate the country’s youth with the ideals of the Nazi Party, with the ultimate goal being to recruit them into the armies of the Third Reich.
In Munich, in 1922, the Nazis established a youth group designed to educate young men and inculcate them with Nazi views. The objective was to induct them into the Sturmabteilung, the main paramilitary wing of the Nazi party at that time.
In 1926, the group was renamed the Hitler Youth. By 1930, the organisation had over 20,000 members, with new branches for younger boys and girls.
Hitler’s rise to power
Despite attempts by the political elite to ban the group, with Hitler’s rise to power it would go on to become the only legal youth group in Germany.
Students who did not join were frequently assigned essays with titles such as “Why am I not in the Hitler Youth?” They were also the subject of taunts by teachers and fellow students, and could even be refused their diploma, which made it impossible to be admitted to university.
By December 1936, Hitler Youth membership had reached over five million. In 1939, all German youths were conscripted into the Hitler Youth, even if their parents objected. Parents who resisted were subject to an investigation by the authorities. With every other youth organisation being merged into the Hitler Youth, by 1940, membership was 8 million.
The Hitler Youth constituted the single most successful mass movement in the Third Reich.
The uniform consisted of black shorts and tan shirt. Full members would receive a knife with “Blood and Honour” engraved onto it. Training often included the introduction of antisemitic ideas, such as linking Jews with the German defeat in the First World War.
Historian Richard Evans notes that:
“The songs they sang were Nazi songs. The books they read were Nazi books.”
As the 1930s progressed, the activities of the Hitler Youth focused more on military tactics, assault course training and even weapons handling.
The Hitler Youth was a means to ensure the future of Nazi Germany and as such members were indoctrinated with the Nazi racial ideology.
The notion of an honourable sacrifice for the Fatherland was instilled into young men. Franz Jagemann, a former Hitler Youth, claimed the notion that “Germany must live”, even if it meant their own death, was hammered into them.
Historian Gerhard Rempel argued that Nazi Germany itself could not exist without the Hitler Youth, as their members acted as the “social, political, and military resiliency of the Third Reich”. They consistently “replenished the ranks of the dominant party and prevented the growth of mass opposition.”
Nevertheless, there were a few members of the Hitler Youth who privately disagreed with Nazi ideologies. For instance, Hans Scholl, one of the leading figures of the anti-Nazi resistance movement the White Rose, was also a member of the Hitler Youth.
World War Two
In 1940, the Hitler Youth was reformed into an auxiliary force which could perform war duties. It became active in German fire brigades and assisted with recovery efforts to German cities affected by Allied bombing.
Members of the Hitler Youth worked with the army and in the early parts of the war frequently served with anti-aircraft units.
By 1943, Nazi leaders were intent on using the Hitler Youth to reinforce severely depleted German forces. Hitler approved the use of Hitler Youth as soldiers in February of the same year.
Nearly 20,000 members of the Hitler Youth were part of the German forces resisting the invasion of Normandy, and by the time the Normandy assault was completed, some 3,000 of them had lost their lives.
Hitler Youth army battalions earned a reputation for fanaticism.
As German casualties increased, members were recruited at an ever younger age. By 1945, the German army was commonly drafting 12 year old Hitler Youth members into its ranks.
During the Battle of Berlin, the Hitler Youth formed a major part of the last line of German defence, and were reportedly among the fiercest fighters.
The city commander, General Helmuth Weidling, ordered that Hitler Youth combat formations be disbanded. But in the confusion this order was never carried out. The remnants of the youth brigade took heavy casualties from the advancing Russian forces. Only two survived.
After World War Two
The Hitler Youth was officially abolished on 10 October 1945 and later banned by the German Criminal Code.
Some of the Hitler Youth membership were thought to be guilty of war crimes but no serious effort was made to prosecute them due to their age. Adult leaders of the Hitler Youth were put on trial, however, although relatively few harsh punishments were meted out.
Since membership was compulsory after 1936, many of the senior leaders of both East and West Germany had been members of the Hitler Youth. Little effort was made to blacklist these figures, since they had been forced into the organisation. Nonetheless, the teaching and skills they learned from Hitler Youth must have shaped the leadership of the newly divided country, even if only unconsciously.
For many former Hitler Youth members, it was a long process to reach the realisation they had worked for a criminal cause. After coming to terms with their past, many described a feeling of having lost their freedom, and that the Hitler Youth had robbed them of a normal childhood.