Contributor: C. Peter Chen
The origin of the Hitlerjugend, or "Hitler Youth", dated back to 19 Mar 1922 when the Jungsturm Adolf Hitler program was established in Munich, Bavaria, Germany one year after the start of the Sturmabteilung (SA) para-military organization as a training program for the SA. Between the failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, the Jungsturm Adolf Hitler went underground and operated in small cells; the combined membership of these smaller organizations were estimated at 5,000 by 1925. In early 1926, Kurt Gruber merged several of the remnant cells to form the Großdeutsche Jugendbewegung, or "Greater German Youth Movement", while around the same time Gerhard Roßbach operated the Schilljugend based out of Southern Germany and Salzburg, Austria; there were also many other politically-motivated youth organizations in Germany at the time. On 4 Jul 1926, National Party Day, only six months after the establishment of the Greater German Youth Movement, it became the official youth organization of the Nazi Party. In the following month, it took on its new name that identified itself as an official instrument of the Nazi Party: Hitlerjugend.
By 1930, the Hitler Youth had a membership of 25,000 boys older than 14 years of age. It also expanded its operations by establishing the Deutsches Jungvolk for boys aged 10 to 14. In 1928, the Hitler Youth organized Schwesternschaft der Hitlerjugend for girls; in 1930, it was renamed the Bund Deutscher Mädel, or League of German Girls. In Apr 1932, the Hitler Youth movement was banned by Chancellor Heinrich Brüning because it was so politically motivated, but the ban was lifted two months later by Brüning's successor, Franz von Papen, in an attempt to appease Adolf Hitler, who was undeniably becoming more and more influential in German politics. By the end of 1932, a few weeks before the Nazi Party came into power in Germany, the membership was at 107,956. In 1933, Baldur von Schirach became the first Reichsjugendführer, or the Reich Youth Leader, of the Hitler Youth. By the end of 1933, growing popularity and forced merger of various youth organizations grew the membership to over 2,000,000. In early Dec 1936, membership grew to over 5,000,000 as it comprised of over 60% of German youth. Later in the same month, membership became compulsory for all German boys between 14 and 18.
As expected, the boys of the Hitler Youth spent much of the time performing physical training via sports and hiking, preparing them for military service. Hiking often became training for military marches, while activities around the camp fire included basic weapons training. Stories told in the evenings were full of Nazi ideals, including anti-Semitic indoctrination. Bullies among the group who preyed on younger boys were tolerated, or even in many instances, encouraged, since it was believed that it would harden the younger boys, allowing them to become stronger and be able to stand up for themselves. Those most promising and loyal boys in the organization became candidates to join the Schutzstaffel (SS), while others identified with leadership abilities were sent to special academies run by the Hitler Youth to train future military officers.
The League of German Girls became more so in the mainstream in 1933 when the Nazi Party came into power. In 1934, Trude Mohr was placed in charge of the league, hence allowing the group more autonomy from Schirach's top management. In 1937, Mohr became married thus became ineligible for the position. Mohr succeeded by Dr. Jutta Rüdiger, a doctor of Psychology, who remained its head until 1945. The league focused on the grooming of girls and young women to become proper women of the Nazi society, though education and training aspects of the program was also significant. The girls actually received a greater variety of education than the boys, since the boys were trained largely only in the fields useful for military service. In 1938, a voluntary branch called Glaube und Schönheit, or Belief and Beauty, was established to specifically prepare women between the age of 17 and 21 for raising families. By 1939, all ethnic German girls were required to join. Before the establishment of the League of German Girls, few girls traveled without their families, and activities such as hiking and camping were frowned upon by the conservative society. The league gave girls and young women exposure to more things than ever before, thus it was very popular, and the Nazi Party in turn used it successfully as a tool of indoctrination.
In 1940, Arthur Axmann took over the responsibility of running the Hitler Youth, which by this time had 90% of German youth in its membership. As the European War had already begun, Axmann focused on reforming the 8,000,000-strong organization so that the children could directly aid war efforts. Early in the war, boys served in postal and firefighting roles, but as the war went on many of them took on more demanding roles such as being members of anti-aircraft gun crews. In 1941, Axmann authorized the policy requiring all German boys over the age of 10 to join the Hitler Youth. As Allied bombing of German cities became more frequent, many boys and girls also became critical elements in the efforts to deliver food and supplies to the displaced. By 1943, the Hitler Youth took on a direct role as a military reserve force with the establishment of the 12 SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend under the command of SS-Brigadeführer Fritz Witt and later SS-Standartenführer Kurt Meyer. The unit was a fully equipped Waffen-SS armored division with adult officers and enlisted men between 16 and 18 years of age. This division was stationed in Normandy, France in mid-1944 and encountered Allied troops; American, British, and Canadian soldiers recalled their ferocity and unquestioning loyalty to Nazi Germany, making these boys some of the toughest opponents the Allied soldiers had faced. As the war went on, boys as young as 10 were placed into the Hitler Youth, and by 1945, it was common to see 12-year-old boys serving in Volkssturm units. When Berlin was surrounded by Russian forces, a significant part of the defense of Berlin was conducted by Volkssturm units with sizeable Hitler Youth members.
The girls of the Hitler Youth, or specifically of the League of German Girls, did not serve as directly as the boys at first. They collected donations, gathered old clothing, collected scrap metal, prepared care packages to the soldiers in the front lines, and alongside of boys helped to distribute food and water to those displaced by Allied bombing. As war demands increased, however, their contributions to the war effort also took on a more direct role. Many of the older girls were transferred into Red Cross nurse training programs, learning hands on at aid stations treating civilians wounded by Allied bombing. By late-1943, many of them received military training and were transferred to the Luftwaffe, the German air force, and served as Flak Helpers or searchlight operators. An unknown number of girls served in Volkssturm units in the final days of the war, although this was not officially ordered by Rüdiger or the senior leaders at the Hitler Youth.
After the war, the Allied occupation forces disbanded the Hitler Youth. Most young leaders of the group were not charged with war crimes, even if there were evidence, as they were children. Despite membership being compulsory, thus nearly all children of the period were Hitler Youth members, many prominent post-war leaders were still scrutinized over their membership. For example, the media placed Pope Benedict XVI in the center of attention for his membership in the Hitler Youth between 1941 and 1943.
Last Major Update: Apr 2008
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