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Youth and Hitler Youth in National Socialism

Dictatorship Research / Research field
Rule and Society / Research focus  (Project completed)
Dr. André Postert / Coordination


One image has become permanently ingrained in the collective memory of the end of the Second World War: the Hitler Youth in uniform, equipped with bazookas or assault rifles, who in the final days of the war fanatically defended their faith in the Hitler regime against the advancing Allies. Films and television documentaries have made such scenes familiar to a wide audience. In fact, in early 1945 the Nazi regime even deployed adolescents aged 15 and above as ‘extermination squads [...] in defence of stationary shelters and barricades’ in many places as part of the ‘Third Home Guard’. Reich Youth Leader ArturAxmann recruited youths for the ‘Battle of Berlin’, while Himmler hoped for so-called ‘werewolves’ as the ‘last blood reserve’ behind enemy lines. An entire generation of young people was incorporated in the Hitler Youth, indoctrinated and – expressions to be used with caution – seduced, deceived and betrayed. It can hardly be denied, says Michael Kater, ‘that the Hitler Youth, first under [Reich Youth Leader] Schirach and then under Axmann, succeeded in taking by far the larger part of the German youth [...] under their wing’. Karl Heinz Jahnke, who has made a valuable contribution to research on the Hitler Youth with two documentary source volumes, judges that the influence of length Nazi education had such a lasting effect that German youth ‘fell more and more into the role of continuing the war’, indeed, that these young people in effect made the ‘final struggle’ with all its consequences possible in the first place.

At the same time, the idea of a ‘Hitler Youth generation’ pliable and obedient to the regime has been increasingly questioned in recent years. ‘If we carefully listen to individuals, we come to doubt the regime’s total control, and the closed National Socialist ‘cage’ supposedly imprisoning this youth reveals ‘openings’, states Margaret Dörr in reference to interviews with witnesses. A series of recent studies has also dealt intensively with the phenomenon of youth opposition and with the deviant and wayward behaviour of young people in the era of National Socialism: besides well-known examples such as the White Rose, the Edelweiss Pirates of the Rhine and Ruhr areas, the Swing Kids in Northern Germany and the ‘Schlurfs’ in Vienna, attention has recently turned to youthful cliques from the working class and subcultural movements such as ‘mobs’ and ‘packs’ in central and eastern Germany. AlfonsKenkmann, whose 1998 book is devoted to the ‘wild youth’ of the Ruhr area between the Great Depression and the currency reform, came to the conclusion concerning the war period that the Hitler Youth was for the most part an ideological and structural failure, at least as measured by the organisation’s own claims. Under no circumstances was the Nazi regime ever fully able to monitor, penetrate and control young people’s daily lives. The structures of the Nazi youth organisations were unstable and limited in their possibilities. The different assessments in the historiography of the influence and organisational reach of the Hitler Youth thus often stand diametrically opposed to and contradict one another; in each case a different picture presents itself, depending on whether an (older) study on the Hitler Youth or (more recent) studies on youthful sub- and counter-cultures in the Third Reich are employed and questioned.

The research project on ‘Youth and Hitler Youth in National Socialism’ sets the task of resolving these historiographical contradictions in a new history of and monograph on the Hitler Youth. In particular, personal testimonies, interviews and private sources are used along with materials from city and district archives that allow access to local and regional structures. Of particular interest are proclamations of orders and decrees (Anordnungsblätter) from the Hitler Youth: source materials intended for internal use to highlight and identify any local problems or organisational challenges and close the ‘openings in the cage’ of the Nazi youth organisation. Young decision-makers in the party youth organisation and the everyday service of children and young people in the Hitler Youth between 1933 and 1945 are the focus of the study in progress. In the past, the history of the Hitler Youth has been mostly told by the leadership of the organisation. The Reichsjugendführung (Reich Youth Leadership) in Berlin, founded in March 1933, was tasked during the dictatorship to educate German youth for the purposes of the regime. The Hitler Youth was its organisational tool. Michael Buddrus analyses the policies of the RJF in his monumental study, rightly regarded as a new standard work on the subject. Comparatively rare are studies on the Hitler Youth that explore how far RJF policies governed the reality of Hitler Youth and actually reached young people in their everyday lives. A distinct perspective ‘from below’ contrasts with previous research literature on the Hitler Youth. The aim is to compare the RJF’s claims against local realities and the (contradictory) everyday reality of adolescents under National Socialism.