“Evaluate the importance of the Youth Organisations in transforming Germany into a Nazi Society in the period from 1933 to 1939.”
The innocence and vulnerability of children was something Adolf Hitler understood and in everyway exploited. Through the formations of Youth Organisations, he was able to manipulate the hearts and minds of a whole generation into becoming the men and women of his own Nazi society.
Following World War I, the new Weimar government struggled in its early years to keep the nation stable. With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 this once again meant hard times for Germany as well as ‘discontent with the Weimar government’1.
This was the situation in which extremist political parties such as Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazi) thrived. Hitler preyed on the public’s disillusionment and made promises to give people jobs, override the Treaty of Versailles and restore national pride. His exceeding popularity propelled him to the head of government, the Chancellor, on 30th January 1933. By August 1934, after the death of President von Hindenburg, Hitler was titled with Fürhrer (leader) and had complete dictatorial powers. This was the beginning of Nazi Germany and the formation of a new society; one in which many people were under constant surveillance and strict authority.
The Nazis knew that not only was control of society necessary, but the transformation of it to adhere to their ideology was an important factor; thus the development of the concept of Volksgemeischaft (people’s community). Propaganda was used to emphasise the importance of working together for the good of the community to develop a strong and unified ‘racially pure’ Germany. This relates to the Nazis philosophies on race and the ideas that introduced a ‘common enemy’ for the German people, the Jews.
The Nazis implemented their ant-Semitism ideology very early on in their rise to power. Their philosophy was that true Germans of the Aryan race were far superior to those of the Jewish race. The situation for Jews in Germany soon began to deteriorate as their civil and political liberties were slowly removed.
For many, life in Nazi society was very regimented and without many personal freedoms that had come to be known during the Weimar government. Hitler’s ‘totalitarian-like’ control of Germany became known as Gleichschaltung, or the process of coordination. This ‘Nazification’ of Germany ensured that every aspect of society would be ‘brought under the authority of the Nazi Party’2 whichincluded the armed forces, the political system, civil service, trade unions, the law, education, the economy, cultural, social and artistic life. Examples of measures taken during this process were the abolition of all other political parties, strict control of mass media, and use of violence against any opposed to him and the targeting of young people. Hitler knew that to create a Germany completely devoted to the Nazi Party, he would have to start with the children. This was done by a revised school curriculum based on Nazi ideology and the formation of Youth Organisations.
Hitler Jugend(Hitler Youth) had existed since July 19263 yet it was only in April 1929 that the Hitler Youth became the only official youth group (for boys only) of the Nazi Party. The equivalent organisation for girls had also been formed in 1927, Bund DeutscherMädel (League of German Girls) or BDM, and it too became the official party group for girls in July 1930. Once the Nazis had come to power, other youth organisations began to shut down ensuring all children involved in youth organisations would be under the Nazi’s control. Along with the Nazi ideology-based education system, the Hitler Youth and BDM were designed to shape the youth of Germany around the policies and teachings of the Nazis thereby becoming completely dedicated men and women once they came of age. These organisations became a key factor in Hitler’s creation of a complete Nazi Germany.
Until 1939, becoming part of the Hitler Youth was completely voluntary. However, with increasing numbers of children joining up ‘very few children could stand…the [persuasive] pressure and the lure of belonging...’4 This peer pressure seemed to have worked as reflected in the growth figures of membership: from over 100,000 in early 1933 to 5.4 million by December 19365.
From a very young age, children were encouraged to join some form of the Hitler Youth. Boys aged six to ten became part of the Pimpf (Little Fellows). From ages ten to fourteen, boys joined the Junvolk (Young People) and girls the Junmädel(Young Girls). Once aged fourteen, boys could now enter the Hitler Youth and girls the BDM and were required to stay until they reached eighteen.
Because these organisations were created in accordance to Nazi policies, it is not surprising to find that not all German children could join. Members of the Hitler Youth were required to be healthy, athletic, without physical or mental handicaps, and most importantly, able to prove themselves true Aryans without a trace of Jewry in their family.6
Part of the Nazi ideology was for Germans to be physically fit and healthy. Boys were to become good soldiers and girls the future wives and mothers of healthy children, thus there was a great emphasis placed on physical training for both boys and girls alike. Activities offered for both sexes included track and field, gymnastics, swimming, hiking and camping. Not only did these promote physical fitness but they also tapped into the natural competitiveness of young people, keeping them interested and driven toward success. Additionally, boys were also prepared for military service by participating in war-games, map and compass skills, giving reports and training in small-calibre firearms7. Alternatively, girls were instructed how to become good German women through domestic skills such as cooking, sewing, housekeeping and caring for young children.
Despite the huge popularity of the Hitler Youth and BDM, there were in fact youth groups opposed to the Nazi controlled organisations. Two of the most prominent groups were the Edelweisspiraten (Edelweiss Pirates) and Swing Jugend (Swing Youth). The Edelweiss Pirates emerged in the late 1930s as a group of working-class youths, aged about twelve to eighteen. The Pirates were generally those youths without a political ideology but were dissatisfied with the strictly ran Hitler Youth and ‘general lack of freedom in Nazi Germany’8. They took part in ‘non-conformist actions such as provoking and fighting Hitler Youth Groups’9.
The Swing Youth or Swing movement was a typically middle-class group of young nonconformists. They participated in protests against ‘the rigid cultural uniformity’10 associated with the Nazi regime. They rebelled typically by listening to the Swing and Jazz music coming out of America at the time, and disregarding the concept of Volksgemeinshaft.
Hitler sought to win the hearts and minds of the entire public through his policies. However the devotion that he received was mainly in fact due to fear and intimidation. People were not ignorant to Hitler’s ruthlessly violent techniques to dealing with opposition. As he gradually removed all forms of democracy from Germany, people were faced with less and less choice but him. Everywhere they turned his control could be seen; in industries, the police force, foreign policies and schools. By having his influence spread to every aspect of life in Germany, he was able to slowly transform the country into a Nazi society due to people’s terror-inspired compliance. Children were no less exposed to his command.
“I am beginning with the young…We older ones are used up…With them I can make a new world.”11 This quote by Hitler himself can describe the importance of Youth Organisations to the transformation of Germany into a Nazi Society. Hitler knew there was war on the horizon for Germany, and to be successful he needed a powerful and disciplined army supported by a strong and obedient home front. By creating a nation near completely devoted to him, he would have as many hard soldiers and healthy, child-bearing mothers as he needed. Yet why start with the children? As he said, to start with adults is no use as they have already experienced life before his government and are therefore more likely to question Nazi policy and authority. Children have yet to experience disappointment and deceit and are therefore more impressionable and naive. If brought up from a young age and trained to do, say and think whatever the Nazis desire, by the time they reach adulthood they have nothing to question; they live for the Fürhrer and if need be, die for him. Therefore schools alone were simply not enough to train the youth of Germany. Constant involvement with Hitler’s regime through Youth Organisations was vital to bringing up the future Nazis, willing to obey their leader and defend Germany.
Children of Nazi Germany learned many valuable skills from their participation in Youth Organisations. Not only did these skills help them become the citizens of Germany they were required to be, but unbeknownst to them, they effectively transformed the nation into an absolute Nazi society.
Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow. Singapore: Scholastic, 2005.
Heyes, Eileen. Children of the Swastika. United States of America: The Millbrook Press, 1993.
Kater, Michael H. Hitler Youth. United States of America: Harvard University Press, 2004.
Knopp, Guido. Hitler's Children. England: Sutton Publishing, 2002.
Mason, K. J. Republic to Reich: a history of Germany, 1918-1945. Australia: McGraw-Hill Australia Pty Ltd, 2007.