Did The Nazis Succeed in Controlling the Hearts and Minds of German Youth

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“It is my great educative work I am beginning with the young. We older ones are used up…We are bearing the burden of a humiliating past…But my magnificent youngsters! Are there finer ones in the World? Look at these young men and boys! What material! With them I can make a new World”.

This speech by Hitler in 1939 was the basis of his plan to create a Thousand Year Reich. At the heart of his plan was the creation of a Volksgemeinschaft – a united people’s community based on race and blood, each with the same views and opinions. They would be fit and healthy, of Aryan race, loyal to Hitler and committed to the Nazis ideas. Hitler realised that this kind of future lay not with the older generation but with successive generations of the youth of Germany and, in order to achieve this goal he would have to win their hearts and mind and to do this he would need to control the greatest influences in their lives… Home…School… Youth Movements… and utilising propaganda and indoctrination methods.

In the following paragraphs I will describe how Hitler and the Nazis set about this task and whether or not their methods were successful.

It was the Nazis’ intention to control and influence an individual at all stages throughout the whole of his or her life…from the cradle to the grave. This policy was underlined by Robert Ley the leader of the German Labour Force (DAF) when he said, “we begin with the child when he is three years old. As soon as he begins to think, he is made to carry a little flag. Then school, Hitler Youth, Storm Troopers and military training. We don’t let go…then the Labour Front takes possession of him and does let go until he dies…even if he doesn’t like it”.

The key to the success of this policy lay in the Nazis taking control and exercising their influence at an early stage, when children were still impressionable and more easily moulded and won over. At school the minds and bodies of young people were shaped by indoctrination to the Nazi cause. This was done by changing and reorganising the curriculum with the emphasis on physical fitness and nationalistic teachings. Every subject focused on Germany. History concentrated on the rise of the Nazis and the injustice of the Treaty of Versailles together with the evils of communism and the Jews.

German language taught pupils to be conscious of their national identities glorifying German heroes of the Hitler Youth and World War 1. Geography taught about the lands, which were once part of Germany and the need for more living space for Germans. Biology was all about how superior, in strength and intelligence, the Aryan race was and why there should not be any crossbreeding. Mathematics and science subjects related to the military by developing knowledge of chemical warfare, explosives, artillery and ballistics and logistical calculations…a typical school maths question would involve calculating how many bombs could be carried in an plane and how much fuel would be needed to fly to Poland and what area these bombs would destroy.

The teaching was very shallow and narrow; it was as though the world outside of Germany did not exist. It did not encourage original thought. All other books that did not support and promote these teachings were burned and religious studies became optional and gradually disappeared. The Nazis produced their own books, which glorified and promoted their ideologies.

Girls had different lessons from the boys and these concentrated on domestic science and motherhood. It was the Nazis belief that men and women had different roles in life. A man was destined to be a worker or soldier but a woman’s place was in the home having children and caring for her family. Therefore their curriculum and timetables were different. Also the lessons that they did were taught differently, for example in Maths they learnt about measurements and weights so if a war were to happen they could judge the measurements of ingredients. The girls also studied domestic science and also eugenics were they learnt not to cross breed and to produce healthy Aryan babies.

Children of different races especially the Jews were victimised and discriminated against. They would often be singled out by teachers and ridiculed in the front of the whole class one example of this can be seen in the book ‘A Boy in Your Situation’ it says “‘I must now make up the register. Hartland, the banker? Are you Jewish? ‘Yes’ ‘what a pity. I had hoped for an entirely Aryan class'” as well as in textbook questions. A typical question would be “The Jews are aliens in Germany. In 1933 there were 66,060,000 inhabitants of the German Reich of whom 499,862 were Jews. What is the percentage of aliens in Germany?” They were even forbidden to attend certain types of lessons and activities.

In order to ensure that their education policies were being implemented successfully the Nazis used their control over the teachers to influence what children learned at school. In any event many teachers were already very nationalistic and agreed with the Nazis’ curriculum. Over 30% of them had voluntarily joined the Nazi Party by 1936. Other teachers were pressurised into joining the Nazi teachers organisation (NSLB) and by 1937, 97% had done so. Those who were not party members were sacked and replaced by others who were, regardless of their academic qualifications. Often, reserve army officers replaced teachers…anyone who would enforce the party message.

The control of teachers was further strengthened by enforced attendance at ‘teacher camps’, which concentrated on further indoctrination, involving retraining and teaching Nazi ideas. Bernard Rust the then Education Minister wrote in a teachers’ handbook that “the chief purpose of the school is to train human beings to realise that the State is more important than the individual, that individuals must be willing and ready to sacrifice themselves for Nation and Fuhrer”.

Compliance with the changes was also backed up by Nazi school inspectors who often walked into classrooms unannounced and, in front of pupils, arrested teachers for failing to teach the Nazi curriculum.

On the face of it the policy appeared to be successful. However there is evidence that some teachers did not agree with them. A Dr. Schuster, a geography teacher at that time, was quoted in E. Amy Bullers’ ‘Darkness over Germany’ as saying that education was being degraded by political interference, which discouraged intellectual freedom and development. He went on to criticise the fact that party members were replacing teachers.

It was a fact that 10% of university teachers were sacked for not obeying Nazi rules for teaching students. The combination of these factors led to some of the greatest teachers and thinkers, such as Einstein, defecting to the West.

It’s perhaps not surprising that education standards fell and that fewer children went onto universities. In 1933 there were 113,000 university students but by 1939 this had dropped to 57,000. The Nazis would probably have judged this as a success because they only wanted strong, healthy and compliant children, not free thinkers who might challenge the Fuhrer and the State.

The better students were sent to special boys’ schools called NAPOLAS (National Political Institutes of Education), where they trained as future military leaders. By 1943 there were 39 of these schools. Future political leaders were sent to ‘Adolf Hitler Schools’.

Although the Nazis had the schools well and truly under their control and with it children’s education and time, this was not enough; they wanted to control their leisure time too.

In Germany at that time, during the 1920’s and 1930’s, there was a culture within the youth of Germany to join youth groups. The usual activities included such things as hiking, singing folk songs, camping and sports. In 1926, in common with other political parties and religious and social groups, the Nazi Party set up the Hitler Youth, principally to get young boys to join them. However, growth in membership was slow until Hitler came to power in 1933 when all other groups were taken over by the Hitler Youth. In 1936 membership became compulsory.

There were separate organisations within the Hitler Youth for boys and girls all under the command of Baldur von Schirach. The girls were encouraged to join the League of German Maidens (BDM). This was not viewed as being as important as the boys because girls were not prepared for military service. However, the girls had to do similar activities and tests to the boys such as saying the oath, run 60 metres, throw balls over a distance, marches and somersaults (although the girls had a longer time to run the 60 metres in and also had to throw a ball over a shorter distance than the boys).

The membership of the Hitler Youth organisation grew steadily throughout the 1930’s from 1 million in 1932 to 7 million, or 82% of the youth population, in 1939.

The emphasis was on fun and exciting activities but with a military bearing. There was marching in parades with bands. Summer camps that prepared boys for camping out doors. They would also have been taught how to map-read and clean and look after a rifle. Fitness and cross-country running would have been high on the agenda. In between these activities their leisure time was devoted to reading and learning about Hitler and the Nazis. They would read propaganda newspapers such as Die Sturmer and Hitler’s autobiography ‘Mein Kampf’, followed by tests.

However, before they were allowed to take part in these activities they had to take the oath “I promise always to do my duty in the Hitler Youth, in love and loyalty to the Fuhrer, to do my duty, so help me God, at all times”.

In the League of German Maidens the girls did similar things but there was also an emphasis on preparing themselves for motherhood. During the early 1900’s the population of Germany, and other European countries had reduced because of contraception and women wanting to work and it was imperative that the German population was increased to provide the workers and soldiers that were needed for the Nazis plans. The girls were told that in common with the Fuhrer’s own mother they were Germany’s hope and future.

Before membership of the Hitler Youth became compulsory it is difficult to generalise on why German youth joined the various factions of the Hitler Youth. Different ones joined for different reasons and got different things out of it. Just because they raised their right hands and took the oath does not mean to say that they were thinking of the Fuhrer and of serving the German people. To some it was simply something they had to do in order to join in the ‘fun activities’. Again, enforced attendance at lectures on National Socialist ideology did not confirm agreement, it may have simply have been a means to an end.

Marianne Gartner, writing in her memoirs ‘The Naked Years – Growing up in Germany’ recalls that her motives on taking the oath, when she was called-up to join the Hitler Youth in 1938, was the prospect of games, camping, hiking and other activities that would take her away from school “when I raised my right hand but of the attractive prospect of participating in games, sports, hiking, singing, camping and other exciting activities away from home”. And how later when the emphasis in the Hitler Youth changed to indoctrination she became disillusioned with it “it was not long, however, before plain-faced leaders taught us marching drill and marching songs…”

For Anton Klone, who joined the Hitler Youth for the ‘comradeship, loyalty, honour…the trips off into the countryside…and that sports had its place’ but who, upon becoming a leader in the movement, disowned the negative aspects and found the requirement for total and absolute obedience, as well as the intrusion of the Hitler Youth in people’s private lives to be unpleasant. However it seems that peer pressure and ambition to impress his superiors drove him on.

Melita Maschmann, a former leader in the BDM recalled her reason for joining as being an opportunity ‘to escape a childish narrow life’ and to ‘join something that was great and fundamental’ and then found the comradeship and sense of community to be stimulating and believed that this model could be extended to the whole nation.

There were many German boys who became entranced by Hitler speaking at rallies. Seduced by his powerful rhetoric and public speaking that convinced them he was speaking directly to them personally. They became bound to him until long after defeat.

However, after 1936 when membership became compulsory the emphasis was on military training. As leaders of the Hitler Youth were called to the front line, despotic, committed teenagers who were merciless and hard with the younger members took their places. Many of whom were turned off.

Although many young people were, for whatever reason, attracted to the various Nazi youth movements, be it commitment to Hitler or the State or for leisure opportunities or simply because everybody else did it, there were those that didn’t join. And whilst these people were probably always in a minority, as the War got nearer and progressed, they too grew in numbers and range of activities.

Whilst membership of the Hitler Youth was still optional young people would join it out of choice and would go along with whatever was offered. But when in 1939 membership was made compulsory and then as the War progressed and many of the experienced leaders of the movement were drafted into the army and were replaced by older teenagers who rigidly enforced the Nazi rules – even forbidding teenagers from meeting with their friends, together with a greater emphasis on military drill, the popularity of the organisations decreased and anti-Hitler youth groups appeared.

Some of the groups were simply ordinary teenagers who, as teenagers do, rebel against parents and authority, by dressing and behaving outrageously as opposed to acting unlawfully. One such group was known as the ‘Swing Movement’ and consisted of middle-class teenagers between the ages of 14 and 17 who played western music, socialised with Jews and dressed scruffily.

Other groups however were more of a problem for the Nazis. They were collectively called the Edelweiss Pirates but they were different, unconnected groups in different cities and called names such as the ‘Roving Dudes’ from Essen, the ‘Navajos’ from Cologne and the ‘Kittelbach Pirates’ from Dusseldorf. They were from working class and probably under privileged families, unlike the members of the ‘Swing’. As their ages ranged from 14 to 17 years they had probably left school at 14 and so avoided being called up into the Hitler Youth and were not ready for the army until they were 17. Therefore there was a gap in their discipline and indoctrination.

They would copy the Hitler Youth and go on camps and sing songs that mocked Germany. They sometimes attacked groups of Hitler Youth and their sexual morals left a lot to be desired.

At this stage they were more of a nuisance than a threat to the Nazis. A report by the Nazis Youth leadership referred to these groups as being ‘cliques…that one must speak of a serious risk of political, moral and criminal subversion of our youth’; and whilst the Gestapo started to break up these groups the members were treated more leniently than other groups such as the Jews; although Himmler, Hitler’s Head of the SS, suggested putting the members in concentration camps too, this was avoided so as not to alienate the youth of Germany.

But then in 1944 in Cologne the Pirates who by then had stepped up their activities by helping army deserters and escaped prisoners, and who were probably encouraged and exploited by these people, stole armaments and attacked the Gestapo headquarters in Cologne killing the Head. The Nazis quickly rounded up the members and twelve of them were publicly executed in November 1944.

Members of another group called the White Roses were also executed for distributing leaflets that condemned the Nazis treatment of Jews.

Activities which were once considered as being teenager’ actions were now no longer tolerated. The generation-gap rebellions quickly escalated into something more serious as the situation inside and outside Germany got worse and frustrations and tensions mounted.

So, was Adolf Hitler successful in winning the hearts and minds of the German youth?

Certainly our grandparents and parents who were alive and/or were taught their history at that time will tell you that the German youth were seen as fanatical supporters devoted to Adolf Hitler. Young people who would shoot their own parents forgoing against Hitler and the Nazis. They were captured on film marching in all their glory and carrying weapons. There are accounts of them fighting against the allied soldiers on the front-line and, towards the end of the War, of defending German cities to the death. We have all seen the extermination camps where hundreds of thousands of Jews and other minorities were sent to from all over Germany. Surely none of this could have happened without the knowledge and, at least, the tacit support of the German people. Yet there was little known opposition to any of this, within Germany, except for the Edelweiss Pirates whose membership was few and whose activities came rather late in the day.

In fact Hitler remained in power until 1945 and he appears to have been overwhelmingly popular and secured huge support for going to War in 1939.

But German citizens looking back on their youth during the Hitler years tend to minimise the fanaticism and total support to and of Hitler by claiming that ” no one in our class ever read Mein Kampf…we didn’t know much about Nazi ideology…even anti-Semitism was rather marginal at our school…” perhaps it is true. Perhaps, looking back they are shocked by the part they played even though it was unintentional and indirect. Maybe they were afraid of speaking out against the Nazis, afraid of the consequences of what the Gestapo might do, as the Social Democratic Party reported at the time, possibly for other political motives, as the SDP was a banned party under Hitler.

What do we believe? Who do we believe?

For myself I agree with M. Housden, who many years after that period when more facts and information had become available and when people could look back and think about what happened and why in a rational and calm manner, when he summarised the reasons for the support of the Nazis as follows: –

” There were all manner of reasons for youngsters to support the Third Reich.

National Socialism provided a vehicle for conflict between generations.

It could be dynamic, exciting and purposeful.

Youngsters were socialised into National Socialist ways at school and in the Hitler Youth.

When all else failed they could be intimated. What is more, the longer the Nazi system was in place, the more hazy became the memories of younger Germans of the days before Hitler. Eventually youngsters knew no alternative. And yet, despite all this, support for Hitler was less than total.”

So all in all I would agree that Hitler did in fact win over many of the German youths Hearts and Minds. Throughout the Hitler Youths games and sports slowly and surely military training was pushed in with propaganda, he slowly indoctrinated them to be obedient and not question their commands and he made them patriotic towards Germany, and through this he won over their souls, their hearts and their minds and some even fought for him until the bitter end through love to the Fuhrer.

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