The Untold Truth Of The Hitler Youth

If there's one thing most rational people agree on, it's that Nazis are horrible people who should be opposed at every possible opportunity. It's sometimes difficult to believe that Adolph Hitler and the National Socialists hit peak power in Germany just 80 years ago, but the ripples of their violently racist ascent are still being felt today. And it could have been so much worse, because the Nazis were multi-taskers — they weren't just trying to conquer the world and commit genocide, they were also laying the groundwork for their expected "thousand-year Reich."

A crucial aspect of that groundwork was the Hitler Youth. The phrase still conjures up images of cherubic, brainwashed kids cheerfully absorbing Nazi ideology. The organization serves as a reminder that our children are what society makes of them, and if society chooses to fill them with hate, lies, and a burning love for fascist uniform fashion, everyone pays a steep price.

But although "Hitler Youth" remains a generic term for any young person with fascist tendencies, most of us know very little about what the group was all about or how it was used by the Nazis to further their terrifying agenda. Like everything else the Nazis did, it was a frighteningly well-organized plan until it collapsed into violent chaos. Here's the untold truth of the Hitler Youth.

The Nazis knew the children are the future

Looking back from the perspective of the modern day, the Nazis were crazy. Their hodge-podge of racism, occultism, nationalism, and several other nutty "isms" wasn't so much a coherent ideology as a Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory that attracted some seriously weird people. Seriously— look at the Nazi high command, and you'll see a collection of deviants, nutcases, and weirdos that are usually firmly excluded from any position of influence.

But that doesn't mean they didn't have a plan. Adolf Hitler and his cronies were savvy about certain things — that's how they seized power in the first place, after all. And as Time reports, the Hitler Youth were part of their long-range plans from very early on. From the very beginnings of the Nazi Party in the 1920s, in fact.

That's because Hitler and the rest of the Nazis understood that if they were to keep power they needed to reshape the public's thought. As noted by BBC Bitesize, the Nazis only won 36.8% of the national vote in the 1932 election, but Hitler was appointed chancellor a year later. They saw the Hitler Youth as essential to ensuring they held more and more of the people's hearts and minds as the older generation passed on, and younger Germans took their place.

The Hitler Youth seized control

One thing you gotta hand the Nazis, they were very consistent in their insistence that every problem can be handled through excessive force and violence — even the problem of competing youth organizations in Germany in the 1930s. Membership in the Hitler Youth was initially voluntary, reports Time, and Germany had a lot of other youth groups — about 400. These groups were represented by the Reichs Committee of German Youth Associations (RCGYA), collectively serving the 6 million German kids involved in various organizations. And it was a goal of Hitler Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach to eliminate those competing youth groups and consolidate every child in Germany into the Hitler Youth.

The answer was, as usual for the Nazis, brute force. As reported by The History Place, on April 13, 1933, 50 Hitler Youth literally stormed the offices of the RCGYA. The startled workers were told that they should just keep doing their jobs, but that they were now under the authority of the Hitler Youth. In an instant, every single youth organization in the country found itself controlled by von Schirach, through the simple expedient of having a bunch of children in uniform invading a Berlin office building.

Other youth groups were shut down — but not the Catholics

Once the Hitler Youth had taken control of the Reichs Committee of German Youth Associations and the hundreds of youth groups they oversaw, they began to eliminate the competition.

As noted by The History Place, this was easier than it might seem because a lot of those youth organizations were actually happy to be absorbed into the Hitler Youth. For the ones that resisted the change, various tactics were used. Communist and Jewish groups were threatened and typically gave in and shut down rather than face the consequences of resistance. Some groups saw their offices raided, and the Nazis also issued various police orders forbidding groups from meeting, classifying them as public nuisances. It only took a few months for most of the youth groups in the country to vanish.

The only exceptions, for a while, were groups run by the Catholic Church. As reported by America Magazine, Adolf Hitler had negotiated an agreement with the Catholic Church, because many high-ranking Nazis were Catholic. The agreement allowed the church to continue to operate their youth groups even as others were forced to shut down. In fact, many Hitler Youth served as altar boys, wearing their uniforms under their robes.

The Hitler Youth were based on The Boy Scouts

If you've ever observed a troop of Boy Scouts standing at attention in their snazzy uniforms and thought they had a whiff of fascism about them, you're not the only one. The Nazis certainly agreed with you — when organizing the Hitler Youth, they even turned to the Boy Scouts for inspiration.

As noted by History, the Nazis officially banned the Boy Scouts in 1936 as part of their effort to force every kid in Germany into the Hitler Youth or an associated group. Initially, however, the Hitler Youth based itself on the Boy Scouts, taking many of the traditions and activities directly from the Scouts. The Hitler Youth wore uniforms and recited pledges just as the Scouts did, went on camping and hiking trips, and focused on crafts and outdoor skills.

As reported by The Independent, before the Scouts were banned, the Hitler Youth even reached out to Lord Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts — and received a warm response. The Nazis proposed an "alliance" with the Scouts, tying the idea to a permanent peace between England and Germany that would be built on a unified youth movement. Baden-Powell, who later praised Adolf Hitler and seemed sympathetic with Nazi ideology, was receptive to the idea — but the Nazis had included him on a list of citizens to be arrested if Germany ever invaded Great Britain.

Membership was voluntary — for a while

One of the techniques the Nazis used to gain total control over a country where they never received a majority of voter's support was patience. They often introduced restrictions and changes gradually, allowing each stage to become the new normal before moving on to the next.

As Time explains, that's exactly the approach the Nazis took with the Hitler Youth. When the group was first formed in the 1920s, it was just one more in the hundreds of youth groups that existed in the country at that time. Even after the Nazis seized power and began shutting down competing youth groups, membership in the Hitler Youth remained voluntary. Until 1936, when a law was passed making the group a state agency and requiring every child in Germany to belong to a Hitler Youth group.

As noted by History Extra, this made the Hitler Youth the largest youth group in the world, with 82% of German children enrolled by 1939. To handle the influx of kids, the Hitler Youth was reorganized and created the Jungvolk for boys under 14 and the Jungmädel for girls. Boys then moved into the Hitler Youth proper while girls went into the Bund Deutscher Mädel (the "League of German Girls"). If you didn't join, you could find yourself in a "re-education" camp — and your parents could be fined or even sent to prison.

There weren't enough leaders

After becoming mandatory for all children in 1936, the Hitler Youth experienced enormous growth — by 1939 82% of Germany's children were enrolled. But this membership explosion led to a big problem — a lack of qualified adult leaders to look after all those kids and ensure they were being properly brainwashed with Nazi ideology.

As noted by The History Place, there just weren't enough trained adult leaders to handle the population, and many of those leaders lacked the skills required by the militaristic and physically demanding program administered by the Hitler Youth — a problem compounded by the fact that some of the leaders imported from the closed youth groups quite simply weren't reliably Nazi enough. The Nazis never had majority support in Germany, so there were plenty of people who weren't members of the party and who didn't buy into their deranged view of the world. The Hitler Youth couldn't take the chance that some anti-Nazi thought might mix into their propaganda, so this was a huge concern.

As historian Alessio Ponzio notes, the solution was to establish Reichsführer (leadership) Schools to train Hitler Youth adult leaders. These schools offered three-week courses that included Nazi racial propaganda, slightly fictionalized German history, and physical and military-style training, including rifle training.

The kids enjoyed being brainwashed

At the time, your opinion of the Hitler Youth might have depended on your connection to it. As reported by History, the organization was totally designed to more or less brainwash millions of German children into being literally good little Nazis. As Time notes, this was accomplished by feeding the members a very propaganda-friendly version of German history designed to stress the awful racial theories of the Nazis and the superiority of the German race.

Other subjects were put through a militaristic filter — nothing was considered important to learn unless it had some application for warfare and fighting. More importantly, the Hitler Youth was designed to remove kids from the influence of their parents. The older generations might not be suitably Nazi enough, so Nazi leaders used the Hitler Youth to ensure their children were isolated from them.

While parents might not have been fans of the Hitler Youth, their kids often were. That's because the kids weren't aware of the darker propaganda and manipulation purposes of the group — they just enjoyed the fun activities. For a lot of former Hitler Youth members, the organization meant camping and playing with their friends, not a grim indoctrination into a fascist ideology.

The Hitler Youth was directly involved in the Holocaust

While the image of millions of German boys being taught how to be good fascists is totally terrifying, it's easy to assume that the Hitler Youth were largely harmless. They were, after all, just a bunch of kids in ersatz Boy Scout uniforms, marching around play-acting at being Nazis, right?

As reported by The History Place, not so much. In fact, the jolly kids in the Hitler Youth participated in violence against Jews and other minorities in Germany. On Nov. 9, 1938, when Nazis carried out the infamous anti-Jewish pogrom known as Kristallnacht, the Hitler Youth were voluntary participants in the violence and vandalism. No one had actually ordered the kids to take part — they did so totally on their own.

As Time notes, that wasn't an isolated incident. Hitler Youth members are known to have aided in many of the horrifying acts carried out against Jews. In one incident in Vienna, Hitler Youth forced Jewish people to clean the streets with their toothbrushes, and they participated in raids on synagogues in which holy relics were destroyed. The kids were definitely not all right.

The Hitler Youth were forced to fight as a child army

The Hitler Youth was always a youth organization with a seriously militaristic tone. Boys in the program wore uniforms and trained in military style, learning to shoot and to march in formation. As History Extra reports, when the war dissolved into disaster for Germany in 1945, a desperate Nazi regime began deploying the Hitler youth as emergency troops — they even went to the schools and removed children from class in order to form new military units as the Russians closed in on Berlin. In fact, as History notes, some of the hardest fighting the Allies encountered during the final push for the German capital came from the teenage boys of the Hitler Youth.

Forcing these children to fight was even worse than it sounds, because the enemies they encountered were not necessarily easier on them for being kids. As Express reports, Soviet troops were particularly unconcerned about killing children after the brutal invasion the Germans had launched against the Soviet Union in 1943. Russian troops killed thousands of the boys as they pushed for Berlin — but there was often no retreat for the Hitler Youth forced to fight as soldiers, because German military police also executed children if they were caught deserting.

The Hitler Youth were a last gasp bit of propaganda

As Germany's defenses crumbled, and the Allied forced closed in to end World War II, the Nazis deployed the Hitler Youth as a desperation measure. Children as young as 10 years old were given weapons and ordered to defend Berlin. The Nazi leadership, never ones to miss out on a chance to create some really insane propaganda, saw an opportunity.

As History Extra reports, on April 20, 1945 — ten days before he would commit suicide and 12 days before Germany would surrender — a visibly trembling and frail Adolf Hitler emerged from his bunker to review troops and award Iron Crosses, a prestigious military decoration. But the troops he was reviewing were all Hitler Youth aged between 10 and 14. As History notes, they received the decoration for their bravery in fighting the Soviets.

But there was an ulterior motive. The ceremony was filmed and hastily released to the few theaters still in operation in Germany in hopes of stiffening German resolve to resist the invaders. Hitler even made a short speech in which he said he remained "firmly convinced that we will achieve victory in this battle." Back inside his bunker, however, the mood was grim, and many of the Nazi leaders knew the war was already lost.

The Hitler Youth had a junior Gestapo

The Hitler Youth was explicitly designed to indoctrinate German children into not just fascist philosophy but a culture of suspicion and repression as well. Members of the group were encouraged to report on their parents and teachers if they deviated from the Nazi line on any subject. And to ensure that the kids themselves never rebelled, a kind of junior secret police was created within the Hitler Youth.

As historian Brenda Ralph Lewis explains, the HJ-Streifendienst (Patrol Force) were units within the Hitler Youth made up of up to 70 boys who wore special uniforms. They were in charge of keeping order at meetings and ensuring that the other kids behaved. They were also charged with keeping tabs on their peers and reporting any deviant thoughts or secret plots — just like the adult organization they were modeled on, the Gestapo.

Worse, as The History Place reports, the Patrol Force was expected to bring their work home and report on their parents. Several Patrol Force parents were in fact arrested and hauled off to prison based on the reports of their own children — and Patrol Force members were frequently promoted in rank as a direct result of this betrayal.

There was resistance

While the vast majority of Hitler Youth members were perfectly happy to join up and receive training in how to be a good budding Nazi, there were also good reasons to join even if you weren't much of a fascist. As reported by BBC Bitesize, members of the Hitler Youth got preferential treatment when it came to securing university spots and employment, which acted as an incentive to join. Despite these advantages and the immense peer pressure to join, however, there was a surprising level of resistance to the group.

As noted by History Daily, one of the most important of these anti-Hitler Youth groups were the Edelweiss Pirates, who eventually grew to have thousands of members. The Pirates were formed in direct reaction to the Hitler Youth. The organization was explicitly anti-Nazi and offered a youth group without the militarism or propaganda, one that was focused on fun and camaraderie. Over time, the Pirates began engaging in anti-Nazi activities, vandalizing government offices and officials' cars, and even assisting resistance groups. They also attacked Hitler Youth members when they encountered them.

This resistance had consequences. As reported by History, several members of the Edelweiss Pirates were arrested and hanged as a result of their activities.