On the night of January 30, 1933, Nazis in Berlin
celebrated the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany by
conducting massive torchlight parades. Hitler Youth units were among those
in the columns passing under the watchful gaze of Hitler and Paul von Hindenburg,
the elderly president of Germany.
Within two months, Hitler acquired dictatorial
powers resulting from the Enabling Act passed by the Nazi-controlled Reichstag.
Hitler's acquisition of power meant the Hitler Youth and all other Nazi
organizations now had the official power of the State on their side. The
period of Nazi Gleichschaltung (forced coordination) immediately
began in which all German institutions and organizations were either Nazified
or disbanded. Hitler Youth Leader Baldur von
Schirach now sought to eliminate all 400 of the other competing youth organizations,
large and small, throughout Germany.
On April 3, 1933, Schirach sent fifty Hitler Youths
storming into the Berlin offices of the Reichs Committee of German Youth
Associations, an organization representing nearly six million German children
involved a huge array of youth programs. Staff members inside the building
were told to continue working and were simply informed they were now under
the authority of the Hitler Youth. Thus the majority of Germany's youth
organizations had instantly been placed under Schirach's control.
The 1933 Greater German Youth Camp in Grunewald--still includes many non-Nazi holdouts. Below: Hitler Youths on bicycles with publicity signs saying "Are you a German boy?" and "Come into our Jungvolk!"
Many leaders among the conservative and nationalist
youth groups willingly joined ranks with the Hitler Youth. Others, such
as the Communist and Jewish youth organizations were quickly disbanded.
Various Protestant groups were pressured by the Nazis to join and soon
yielded. Offices of the Socialist Workers' Youth were also raided. Other
groups were prevented from holding any gatherings by order of the police
and Nazi storm troopers under the pretext of being a "public nuisance."
Within months, most of the competing political and religious youth organizations
in Germany vanished.
The only major holdout was the Catholic Youth
Organization due in part to the international clout of the Church and an
agreement (Concordat) that had been signed between the Vatican and Hitler's
government protecting Catholic institutions in Germany. In Catholic sections
of Germany, high ranking Nazis could still be found at Sunday mass along
with groups of Hitler Youths in uniform and Hitler Youths serving at the
altar wearing their uniforms beneath altar boy robes.
On June 17, 1933, Hitler promoted Schirach to
Jugendführer des Deutschen Reiches (Youth Leader of Germany). Schirach was
now answerable only to Hitler, with all youth activities in Germany placed
under Schirach's sole command. In July, Schirach dissolved the old Reich's Committee
of German Youth Associations since it no longer served any purpose.
Schirach soon introduced a new structure to the
Hitler Youth based on age. Little boys aged 6 to 10 were allowed to hang
around the older boys and participate informally. Boys 10 to 14 belonged
to the Jungvolk, then from 14 to 18 were in the actual HJ, the commonly
used abbreviation for Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth). Each boy was
given a performance booklet detailing his progress in athletics and Nazi
indoctrination throughout all of his years in the HJ.
Girls 10 to 14 joined the Jungmädel
and from 14 to 18 belonged to the BDM, the commonly used abbreviation for
Bund Deutcher Mädel (League of German Girls). They wore
a schoolgirl-style uniform with skirts and blouses along with army-style
However, the Hitler Youth organization was primarily
male oriented and would remain so throughout the duration of the Third
Reich, although the HJ and BDM did share common traits including a
heavy emphasis on competition. Just about every task, no matter how big or small,
was turned into an individual, team, or unit competition. This included
boys and girls sports, the quality of singing during propaganda marches,
and Winter Aid collections.
Boys and girls were kept constantly busy. The
Nazis capitalized on the natural enthusiasm of young people, their craving
for action and desire for peer approval, hoping that each young
person would come to regard his or her HJ or BDM unit as a home away from
home, or perhaps as their real home.
Activities for boys included vigorous games of hide and
seek called "Trapper and Indian." They also played war games in which the boys formed
platoons, put on red or blue arm bands, then were supposed to hunt down
the "enemy" and rip off their arm bands. This sometimes resulted
in fist fights and outright brawls between platoons. Younger, weaker boys
got pummeled while platoon leaders stood by or even encouraged the fighting.
Ripped shirts, scraped knees and elbows along with bruises were common during these
field exercises which were intended to toughen them up.
By the end of 1933, the Hitler Youth organization
had absorbed twenty German youth leagues and totaled over 3.5 million
members, an enormous increase from a year earlier, before Hitler's acquisition
of power, when it had numbered 107, 956. But this rapid increase also
brought big problems, namely the lack of trained, politically reliable
local youth leaders. New members absorbed from non-Nazi youth groups brought
along non-Nazi sentiments and also struggled to adjust to the strict regimentation
and tighter discipline of the Hitler Youth.
A common scene in the German countryside--Hitler Youths on a brisk military-style hike, singing one of the numerous HJ or Nazi marching songs they've memorized. Below: The summer solstice is celebrated with HJ members leaping over the Sonnenwendfeuer.
Below: Roll call for 10-year-old Jungvolks at camp.
To resolve this problem, Reichsführer
(leadership) schools were established throughout Germany offering three
week cram courses on Nazi racial principles and German history along with
practical leadership training, rigorous physical activity and rifle shooting.
By August 1934, Schirach reported that over 12,000 Hitler Youth leaders
and 24,000 Jungvolk leaders had completed these courses.
The Year of Training
Schirach labeled 1934 as "The Year of Training,"
and proclaimed during a speech: "Whoever marches in the Hitler
Youth is not a number among millions but the soldier of an idea. The individual
member's value to the whole is determined by the degree to which he is
permeated by the idea. The best Hitler Youth, irrespective of rank and
office, is he who completely surrenders himself to the National Socialist
Vocational training was also emphasized as Schirach
and Nazi labor leader Robert Ley initiated the annual National Vocational
Competition for Hitler Youth in which teens learning various trades were
judged and rewarded, with the winners in each category getting to meet
In September 1934, the Hitler Youth made a notable appearance
at the annual Nuremberg rally, an event well-documented in the propaganda
film Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl. A ten-minute sequence
shows Hitler's emotional appearance before the enthralled assembly inside
the sports stadium amid frequent shouts of "Heil." In his speech
he told them, "Regardless of whatever we create and do, we shall pass
away, but in you, Germany will live on."
In October, amid the slogan "Blood and Soil,"
the Reich's Land Service was introduced, offering young city dwellers the
opportunity to experience life on a German farm. All HJ and BDM members
were expected to participate, helping to bring in the harvest, while learning
the value of hard labor and the simple life.
Junior Gestapo Agents
An ominous new development within the HJ was the
appearance of HJ-Streifendienst (Patrol Force) units functioning
as internal political police, maintaining order at meetings, ferreting
out disloyal members, and denouncing anyone who criticized Hitler or Nazism
including, in a few cases, their own parents.
One case involved a teenager named Walter
Hess who turned in his father for calling Hitler a crazed maniac.
His father was then hauled off to Dachau under Schutzhaft (protective
custody). For setting such an example, Hess was promoted to a higher rank
within the HJ.
HJ-Streifendienst members also secretly
infiltrated remnants of the old German Youth Movement and provided tips
to the Gestapo which led to the arrest of several leaders of these now-clandestine
During the 1934 Blood Purge, the top leadership
of the SA was systematically murdered on Hitler's orders. The Nazis also
used the occasion to settle old scores with a variety of political foes.
Several former rival youth leaders were executed including Catholic Youth
Leader Adalbert Probst who was "shot while trying to escape."
The close working relationship between the HJ-Streifendienst
and the Gestapo aroused the attention of SS-Reichsführer Heinrich
Himmler. Members of the HJ-Streifendienst were targeted for recruitment
into the SS and proved to be very valuable additions. Many entered directly
into SS officer training schools. Others joined the SS-Totenkopfverbände,
the brutal Death's Head Brigades that operated Dachau and other concentration
camps, and later ran the extermination centers in occupied Poland.
Bronze Over Brains
By 1935, about 60 percent of Germany's young people
belonged to the Hitler Youth. Schirach declared it as "The Year of Physical
Training" and introduced the second major annual HJ event – the Sports
Competition. Medals were awarded to youths who performed rigorous athletic
drills and met strict physical fitness standards. Every summer, a day would
now be set aside as the "Day of the State Youth" for these
Jungvolks ride atop older HJ members to compete in "Knight Fights." Below: HJ boys navigate an obstacle course under the guidance of their leaders.
Below: A classroom run by the Hitler Youth in the Odenwald School features rifle instruction.
Physical fitness, according to Hitler, was much
more important for his young people than memorizing "dead facts"
in the classroom. In his book, Mein Kampf, he stated that "a
less well-educated, but physically healthy individual with a sound, firm
character, full of determination and willpower, is more valuable to the
Volkish community than an intellectual weakling."
School schedules were adjusted to allow for at
least one hour of physical training in the morning and one hour each
evening. Prior to this, only two hours per week had been set aside. Hitler
also encouraged young boys to take up boxing to heighten their aggressiveness.
Hitler believed tough physical training would
instill confidence and that "this self-confidence must be instilled
from childhood into every German. His entire education and training must
be designed to convince him of his absolute superiority over others."
Hitler viewed education as a means of raising nationalist
enthusiasm in German boys while teaching them to be ready to sacrifice
themselves for the Fatherland. Special assemblies were often held in school
halls featuring themes of heroism and readiness to die for "the cause."
The Nazi Classroom
A portrait of Hitler hung in every classroom. Particular
emphasis was paid to the subject of history, which was rewritten to emphasize
Nazi themes of racial struggle and German pride. "It is the task of
the racial state," Hitler declared, "to ensure that at long last
world history will be written and that within its context the racial question
will be elevated to the dominant position...so that a generation will emerge
capable of facing the final and decisive decisions on this globe."
Hitler's life and struggle for power from 1918 to 1933
was emphasized, glorifying events such as the Beer Hall Putsch and offering
hero-worship of Nazi figures such as Horst Wessel (a Berlin SA leader killed
by Communists) along with Nazi mythology concerning Hitler's liberation
of Germany from the "international Jewish/Bolshevik world conspiracy."
Racial indoctrination in the classroom included teaching young children
how to spot a Jew by describing the physical traits which Nazis believed
were associated with inferior peoples. In some classrooms, where Jews were
still present, a Jewish child would be brought to the front of the class
as an example. The teacher would then use a pointer, highlighting certain
Hitler Youth songs also contained anti-Semitic lyrics including one
song that said: "Yes, when the Jewish blood splashes from the knives,
things will go twice as well."
In addition to the traditional German school system,
the Nazis established three types of elite schools for the training of
young Nazis: the Adolf Hitler Schools run by the Hitler Youth organization;
the Napolas (National Political Institutes of Education) and the
Ordensburgen (Order Castles) both run by the Nazi Party.
There were eventually ten Adolf Hitler Schools
which took boys at age 12 from the Jungvolk and provided six years of intensive,
highly disciplined leadership training under Spartan-like conditions, in place of a regular education. Top
rated graduates of these schools were eligible for the exclusive Ordensburgen
for another three years of training after which they would be ready
to assume high level positions in the Nazi Party. It was from these Ordensburgen,
steeped in Teutonic mythology, that Hitler hoped would emerge a "violently
active, dominating, brutal youth...indifferent to pain, without weakness
Lowered Educational Standards
Throughout Germany, the entire teaching profession
all the way up to university level had been purged of Jewish professors
and anyone deemed politically unreliable regardless of their proven teaching
abilities or achievements, including Nobel Prize recipients. Teachers who
remained in the college classroom lived under the constant fear they might
be denounced by one of their students and wind up in a concentration camp.
This insecurity resulted in gross academic timidity which further lowered educational
National Socialist teachers of questionable ability
stepped into grammar school and high school classrooms to form young minds,
strictly abiding by the Party motto: "The supreme task of the schools
is the education of youth for the service of Volk and State in the
National Socialist spirit." They taught Nazi propaganda as fact which was
then recited back by their students as unshakable points of view with no
room for disagreement or discussion.
Over the years, the Hitler Youth organization
would gradually supplant the traditional elementary and secondary school
system and become the main force educating German youth. And the quality
of that education only got worse. Students emerging from the elite Adolf
Hitler Schools were in superb physical condition and thoroughly drilled
in Nazi ideology, but lacked basic skills in math and science. Biology,
for example, had been completely corrupted to advance Nazi racial doctrine.
Under Hitler, a school system once among the finest in the world, became substandard almost overnight.
Nazi scientists, educated before Hitler, would later complain they were
partially hindered in developing new super weapons by the recruitment of
young graduates from the elite Nazi schools.
Air raid training for Jungvolks involves a rope tug with gas masks. Below: Glider instruction during the special Day of Military Training run by regular members of German armed forces.
Below: An instructor (right) critiques a student rider training for the Motor-HJ.
Below: The Führer himself inspects an assembly of senior Hitler Youths.
In 1936, all of the Catholic parochial and Protestant
denominational schools were abolished. Christian holy days which had usually
meant a day off from school were now ignored and classroom prayers were
banned. Celebrations of Christmas and Easter were discouraged, replaced
by pre-Christian Yule or Solstice celebrations. The Nazis later forced
all teachers to renounce any affiliation with professional church organizations.
Year of the Jungvolk
Schirach's goal in 1936 was to enroll the entire
population of ten-year-olds throughout Germany into the Hitler Youth as
a present for Hitler on his 47th birthday. Called "The Year of the
Jungvolk," enormous pressure was put on young children to join. In
school, they were pressured by Nazi-affiliated teachers. At home and at
play, they were aggressively pursued by individual Hitler Youths and also through
neighborhood propaganda marches, meetings for parents, and special children's
On April 20th, Hitler's birthday, a ceremony was
held inside the ancient Marienburg Castle of the Teutonic Order. Amid the
glow of torchlights, solemn beating of drums and fanfare of trumpets, ten-year-old
boys entered the Jungvolk by swearing the following oath: "In the
presence of this blood banner which represents our Führer, I swear
to devote all my energies and my strength to the savior of our country,
Adolf Hitler. I am willing and ready to give up my life for him, so help
me God." This was followed by the singing of the Hitler Youth anthem,
the Fahnenlied (Banner Song) written by Schirach.
After first joining the organization, the boys
spent a few months on probation while undergoing training by older HJ members.
A test was then given in which they had to recite all the verses of the
Horst Wessel Song and answer basic questions concerning Hitler's life and
the history of the Nazi Party. They also had to prove physical fitness by running
60 meters in twelve seconds, and take part in a cross country hike lasting
a day and a half.
A Mutprobe (courage test) was then given
such as jumping from a first or second story ledge into a large canvass
held by older HJ. After passing all of the tests, each boy was entitled
to wear the brown shirt bearing the Jungvolk insignia with a leather shoulder
strap and the coveted Hitler Youth dagger bearing the inscription Blut
und Ehre (Blood and Honor).
On December 1st, 1936, Hitler decreed "The
Law concerning the Hitler Youth" which mandated that all young Germans
(excluding Jews) would "be educated physically, intellectually and
morally in the spirit of National Socialism" through the Hitler Youth
from the age of ten onward. This law also effectively ended the Catholic
Youth Organization which had managed to hold out for three years amid constant
Parents who prevented their children from joining
the Hitler Youth were subject to heavy prison sentences. Membership thus
grew to nearly six million. As a result, the organization bloated into
a giant bureaucracy in Berlin. It began to acquire the dreariness of a
big governmental institution in marked contrast to the dynamic organization
it had been in the 1920s and early '30s when members risked their lives daily to bring
Hitler to power.
The compulsory nature of
weekly HJ meetings for everyone also led to a gradual decline in morale and
discipline. To add more excitement, a new phase began for
the Hitler Youth with increased emphasis on paramilitary training in direct
association with the Wehrmacht (Army), Luftwaffe (Air Force)
and Navy. In 1937, a Hitler Youth rifle school was then established. About
1.5 million boys were trained in rifle shooting and military field exercises
over the next few years with over 50,000 boys earning a marksmanship medal
that required near perfect shooting at a distance of 50 meters (164 feet).
Special Hitler Youth paramilitary formations
for boys eventually included: the Flieger-HJ in which aviation enthusiasts
built gliders, participated in annual glider flying competitions, visited
Luftwaffe facilities and went for rides in fighters and bombers; the Motor-HJ
for boys 16 and older in which they acquired their driver's license
and learned to ride motorcycles; and the Marine-HJ in which they
obtained sailing certificates, learned river navigation, and participated
in naval exercises aboard German training ships.
In 1938, Hitler expanded Germany's borders by
absorbing neighboring Austria and the Sudetenland (western portion of Czechoslovakia)
with their large populations of ethnic Germans. As a result, Hitler Youth
membership quickly swelled to 8.7 million.
In September, the last peacetime Nuremberg rally
took place. It had the theme Grossdeutschland (Greater Germany)
and was the largest one ever held, with nearly 700,000 members of various
Nazi Party organizations participating during the week-long festival.
On Saturday, September 10th, over 80,000 Hitler
Youths marched into the city stadium and performed military-style parade
maneuvers which they had been practicing for an entire year, ending with
a grand finale in which they spelled out the name 'Adolf Hitler' in the
grandstand. After a tumultuous welcome, Hitler gave a speech in which he
spoke candidly about his own youth and painful adolescence and then ended
by telling them: "You, my youth, are our nation's most precious guarantee
for a great future, and you are destined to be the leaders of a glorious
new order under the supremacy of National Socialism. Never forget that
one day you will rule the world!"
In November, Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) occurred in which
Nazi storm troopers, the SS and Hitler Youths attacked
Jews throughout the Reich. Police stood by and crowds watched as Jews were
beaten while their shops and synagogues had their windows smashed and contents
wrecked. Special pleasure was taken in the desecration of sacred religious
scrolls. Over 25,000 Jewish men between the ages of 18 and 65 were hauled
off to concentration camps.
Local Hitler Youths participated in the violence voluntarily but had
not been officially instructed to do so. Schirach, on hearing of the extent
of their participation, called a meeting of all high level group leaders
and expressly forbade further participation in such "criminal actions."
But the violence was just beginning. Germany was
on the path toward achieving Hitler's two main goals which he had outlined
years earlier in Mein Kampf – the forced acquisition of living
space to the east of Germany (resulting in World War II) and destruction
of 'international Jewry' (resulting in the Holocaust).
Many Hitler Youths now regarded Hitler as their
Führer-god and even recited pseudo-prayers to him such as: "Führer,
my Führer, give me by God. Protect and preserve my life for long.
You saved Germany in time of need. I thank you for my daily bread. Be with
me for a long time, do not leave me, Führer, my Führer, my faith,
my light, Hail to my Führer!"
Hitler, in a somewhat cynical mood in 1938, privately expressed
his attitude toward them. "This youth learns nothing but to think
German and to act German. When these boys enter our organization at the
age of ten, it is often the first time in their lives that they get to
breathe and feel fresh air; then four years later they come from the Jungvolk
into the Hitler Youth, and we keep them there for another four years, and
then we definitely don't put them back into the hands of the originators
of our old classes and status barriers; rather we take them straight into
the Party or into the Labor Front, the SA, or the SS, the NSKK [motorized
corps] and so on. And if they are there for another two years or a year
and a half and still haven't become complete National Socialists, then
they go into the Labor Service and are polished for another six or seven
months, all with a symbol, the German spade. And any class consciousness
or pride of status that may be left here and there is taken over by the
Wehrmacht for further treatment for two years, and when they come back
after two, three, or four years, we take them straight into the SA, SS,
and so on again, so that they shall in no case suffer a relapse, and they
will never be free again as long as they live."
By early 1939, about 82 percent (7.3 million) of eligible
youths within the Greater Reich belonged to the Hitler Youth, making it the largest
youth organization in the world. A new law was issued on March 25, 1939,
conscripting any remaining holdouts into the organization amid warnings
to parents that their children would be taken from them and placed in orphanages
unless they enrolled.
Soon, the entire organization would be shaken up from top to bottom, drawn into Hitler's new war, with consequences HJ members would never have imagined.