Prof. Mahlendorf's memoir, Chapter 4 (14 pages)
note: Prof. Mahlendorf was born in October 1929, so she was 10 years old at this time
When I and my ten-year-old peers were inducted into the Hitler Youth, the HJ, in 1940, we joined a well-established, tightly structured national organization. During the Weimar Republic, the Hitler Youth, then a division of Hitler’s SA (Storm Troopers), had been but one of many youth organizations and clubs that originated in the late 19th century rebellion of male, middle- and lower-middle-class youth against their bourgeois parents and an industrial, mechanized, highly regimented society. Those early, largely apolitical organizations, the best known of which was Wandervogel (“migratory bird”), glorified youth as a vital, idealistic force of social renewal, inspired by the ideals of German Romanticism. Like their Romantic predecessors, Wandervogel groups tramped through the open countryside and explored the simple customs of the German peasantry, their tales, songs, and folk dances. They adopted a simple lifestyle—dressing in shorts, open-necked shirt, and solid hiking boots; living communally in their camps and on their hikes; and aspiring to individual self-realization and personal responsibility. Much of the Wandervogel spirit, its Romanticism, its ethos of youth being led by youth, its Romantic communalism, its stress on simplicity and naturalness of lifestyle, its songs, campfires, and hiking and camping practices survived into the Hitler Youth, as my generation came to know it. Even though none of us knew of its origins, this Wandervogel spirit was for many of us one of the attractive features of the Hitler Youth.
The German Youth Movement changed profoundly after World War I. Many groups became radicalized, moving to the political left and right. Those young people whose families believed in the betrayal of the troops by the home front joined the youth groups on the right, of which the Hitler Youth was the most extreme. Those whose fathers believed in the exploitation of working people by the industrial/military establishment joined the left. Both sides adopted soldierly values and attitudes—a reverence for heroism, discipline, group spirit—and hierarchical leadership principles. Uniforms and military ranks and organizational structure reflected this new postwar martial spirit. The apparent difference between political left and right was often little more than a difference in shirt color.
From his early political beginnings, Hitler formulated the structure and aims of a mass youth organization within his party. Subordinated to his Storm Troopers, the SA, it was to have the same hierarchical military structure. Hence its shirts were brown and its insignia—swastika armband, leather belt—similar to those of the SA. Shorts rather than SA jodhpurs and boots, and a black kerchief held in place around the neck by a leather knot recalled the dress of the Wandervogel. Hitler conceived of a German youth united against the injustices of the Versailles Peace Treaty, which he, like many conservative Germans, deplored. Instead of being divided by class or religion, this youth was to be one community of race and blood. It was to fight against the international conspiracy of Jewry, Bolshevism, and materialism and foster everything Germanic—of German blood and German Volksgemeinschaft, the community of the people. The Hitler Youth would be inculcated with these aims through weekly meetings, lectures, hiking, camping, singing, physical and military activities, and competitions. For us, the cohort born between about 1925 and 1930 and socialized from age ten on by the Hitler Youth, being German and being National Socialist became indistinguishable.
At the 1926 Party rally at Weimar, Hitler formally established the Hitler Youth for boys aged fourteen to eighteen. In 1931, he extended the organization by two sub-groups, the Jungvolk for boys 10-14, and the Bund deutscher Mädchen, the BDM, or League of German Girls, for girls age 14-18. In 1933, the organization for girls age 10-14, the Jungmädel completed the ranks of Hitler Youth for ages 10-18. Therefore, almost from the beginning of this misogynist Party’s assuming a key role in the Germany of the 1930s, females in large numbers were to be socialized in Nazi ideology and included in public life. If the few Nazi women’s auxiliaries of the 1920s that supported the SA had had their way, the Nazi organizations for girls would have stressed the learning of domestic roles for girls rather than Wandervogel ideals of the H-J. But Baldur von Schirach, appointed the Party leader of Hitler Youth in 1926, wrested control over the BDM from the women’s auxiliaries and firmly incorporated BDM and Jungmädel into the Hitler Youth’s administration and the Party’s paramilitary, pyramidal structure. In sync with the Nazis’ belief in separate spheres for men and women, the girls’ organization, at least up to the HJ top leader, Baldur von Schirach, was led by girls and young women.
The consequences for girls and young women growing up under the Nazis were momentous. In their early years as Jungmädel, girls could enjoy a freer and less restricted, modern life outside the boundaries of their families than had previous generations of German women. Jungmädel could travel with their groups to rallies, in their “separate sphere” compete in sports, in fact, enjoy most of the activities boys enjoyed. They could feel fully included when Hitler, any Party or HJ leader addressed the HJ as the fatherland’s glorious future. And the ambitious girl, particularly the girl rebelling against parents or social background, could rise within the female hierarchy and even build a professional career within it. These opportunities for fun, social advancement and self-development made the girls’ organizations of the HJ, especially the Jungmädel, attractive for lower middle and middle class girls. For me, who from earliest awareness had chafed at my brother’s preferred status, Jungmädel would provide an illusory feeling of equality, of being just as valuable as he was.
From its 1926 origins, the HJ had a complex administration, consisting of various departments dealing with education, welfare, the press, physical activities, even a department responsible for German youth abroad. In this administration, young women could reach the highest positions in their separate sphere at all ranks. The HJ was divided into five geographic sections, each subdivided into Gaue (often corresponding to provinces) and again into Oberbanne and Banne (regions and sub-regions) corresponding to counties, cities, and towns. Higher offices increasingly were headed by male and female professional leaders who had risen through HJ ranks. The hierarchy, as in the military, ranged from the lowest, a squad leader responsible for fifteen boys or girls; to troop leaders, who led three to four squads of up to fifty young people; to the Gefolgschaftsführer, the cadre leader, with responsibility for 500 youngsters; to the highest of all, the Party leader of the Hitler Youth, Baldur von Schirach, a young party stalwart who had earlier abandoned his studies in art history and German literature at the University of Munich to further the Nazi cause. With Schirach’s ascension, the nationalist, middle-class wing of the Hitler Youth won out over competing working class HJ factions. The idea of the HJ’s working-class origins, however, —like those of the Party, whose name, after all, was the National Socialist Workers’ Party—clung and informed its overall program, which was directed toward the disadvantaged and the common good—of Germans only, of course. During my first year in the organization, as a ten-year-old Jungmädel in late 1940, I would collect money from passers-by on City Hall Square for the Winterhilfe, the assistance program for families in need. My enthusiasm for the HJ would have been dampened considerably, had I not understood that the HJ’s ideals of Volksgemeinschaft of a classless community of all the folk, included me and my working class friends.
In its early years, the Hitler Youth was hobbled by a lack of finances, a shortage of meeting places for group activities, sports, and indoctrination, and the absence of a trained leadership cadre at all levels. Membership dues had to be kept low, because of unemployment and the Depression. Basements, attics, and even public spaces served as the Heim, the home base that each HJ unit needed. Except for Schirach and a few of his colleagues in the HJ national administration, all leadership was unpaid and voluntary. Despite these handicaps, the HJ grew rapidly after 1929, as did the Nazi Party as a whole. Attracted by its spirit and success, youth organizations of the political right merged with the HJ, whose enthusiasm and aggressiveness played an important role in the elections, rallies, and street fighting of the Party in the early 1930s.
A number of boys ranging in age from twelve to eighteen were killed in the street fighting and joined the ranks of Party martyrs. One of these was Herbert Norkus, the fifteen-year-old boy who was celebrated in Hitlerjunge Quex, a sentimental novel and movie of 1933 for young people. Both novel and movie bear the hallmarks of Nazi martyr tales for the young: a generational conflict; a hero of impeccable character despite having grown up in a bad environment; his attraction to the clean-cut and upright Hitler Youth; HJ re-enactment of Germanic fire-worship festivals at the summer and winter solstice; the comradeship of the HJ boys regardless of social class; the venality and cowardice of Nazi enemies; service to and sacrifice of one’s life for the Nazi cause. The plot is simple. Son of a working-class family, Heini Völker(“Quex” is his later, Hitler Youth nickname), under pressure from his father, has joined a Communist youth group, whose laziness and lax morals dismay him. He meets a group of Nazi boys and is attracted by their disciplined and comradely demeanor. He becomes friendly with them and reveals that his Communist fellows intend to attack them in their meeting place. In revenge, his former friends drive his mother to commit suicide, and they finally stab Heini to death as he distributes Nazi election leaflets.
Shortly after assuming the chancellorship in 1933, Hitler made Schirach directly responsible to him and no longer under SA tutelage. Henceforth the administrative apparatus of the Hitler Youth would be shared between the Ministry of the Interior (the police) and the Ministry of Justice—that is to say, Hitler placed the entire Hitler Youth into the very heart of the police state. Youth organizations of the political left, both Communist and socialist, were proscribed, along with the parties of the left. By 1935, most other youth organizations had been dissolved, prohibited, or integrated into the HJ. As a result of Gleichschaltung and the growing domination of the Nazi Party, HJ membership (which was still strictly voluntary) had increased from its original few hundred to some 6 million children. Financial difficulties had been resolved by confiscation or assumption of the funds and properties of all prohibited, disbanded, and integrated youth organizations. For example, the independent German Youth Hostel Association, which had served all the various youth organizations, was now solely controlled by the HJ. However, the inflow of other youth organizations did not resolve the leadership shortage, since Schirach did not trust their leaders. Therefore, in 1933 he established training centers all over the country to produce, in three-week workshops, a leadership cadre for the lower ranks to accommodate the increase in membership—7,000 new members in 1933 alone. Even so, the lack of trained leaders at all ranks, and the consequent differences between the discipline and practice of local, regional, and national HJ units remained a problem throughout the Nazi years. The problem became particularly grave when attendance increased again in 1939, when membership became compulsory for all “Aryan” Germans, male and female, from ten to eighteen. In some localities and regions, attendance and discipline were strictly enforced and negligence and absenteeism reported and punished; in others, minimal standards were upheld; and in a few, particularly in the countryside, it was possible to ignore the Hitler Youth altogether.
The ideology of the Hitler Youth was a hodgepodge of old and new ideas. Foremost was the quasi-religious cult of the supreme leader, Adolf Hitler himself. The myth created by Nazi hagiography served as model to the young. Risen from obscure beginnings and near poverty, Hitler had served his country as a common soldier in World War I. Through long and arduous struggle, he had attained national leadership and glory for his nation. The strength, courage, wisdom, and love of young people that the myth attributed to him made him a supreme, loving father. At age ten, when I heard him and my HJ leaders call us “his Hitler Youth,” I understood that phrase literally. I was his, as I was my mother’s child.
Hitler, and the Nazi Party as a whole, held youth to be the vital force of the German Volk. Its enthusiasm was to bring about the nation’s renewal. Never before or since has German youth enjoyed—in word if not in deed—such attention and glorification. This vital force of youth, so the ideology held, had to be channeled: boys and girls to age 14 were to be guided and strengthened by physical activity, education, and sports. Their actual programs became quite different for the mass of adolescents beyond age 14: military exercises and discipline in preparation for the military for boys and training in health, child care, domestic skills, and self-improvement in preparation for motherhood, domesticity, and comradeship in marriage, hence a limited chance for self-development, for girls in the BDM. Boys had a greater variety of HJ groups to choose from, provided that their families had the means to buy the necessary equipment: the motorized HJ; the navy HJ, with its own sailing yachts; the HJ air force, with its own sailplanes; the equestrian HJ. For girls, particularly in poorer towns or districts, nothing comparable existed. I remember well my envy as I stood, ten years old, near the runway of the sailplane port on Windmill Hill, watching as an older friend of Jochen’s, in HJ uniform and flying helmet, climbed into his glider. But I also believed, having read of glider pilot’s Hanna Reitsch’s world records, that exceptional girls and women had a chance for anything boys and men did.
Physical struggle and exertion for both genders were thought to bring about moral strengthening. As Hitler put it time and again, “I want my Hitler Youth to be tough as leather, hard as Krupp steel, and fast as Windhunde”, that is greyhounds. The Hitler Youth instituted competitions in athletics, in useful activities like recycling and in the mastery of weapon use between individuals, groups, and regions; achievement was rewarded by public recognition and medals. According to its ideology, neither rank, class, wealth, nor birth earned you leadership status but rather the achievement of aims larger than yourself—service performed for the Hitler Youth, the Führer, the Volk, and the Reich. Dedication to service, unquestioning subordination to a leader, loyalty to Hitler, to the comrades of one’s group, to the Hitler Youth itself were the values that the HJ fostered. It also preached veneration of the German community, forged through a common history and a mystical union through race and blood. It glorified the German landscape, German soil, forests, and mountains, German rural and regional styles of folk art and architecture. It rejected rationalism, intellectualism, and the European Enlightenment.
At least in theory, one’s private life, one’s own personal, intimate sphere, did not exist for a member of the Hitler Youth. Each member was required to serve a cause larger than himself or herself, in ceaseless effort; thus activity triumphed over thought and reflection. From eligible males and females, the Nazi Party demanded total involvement and lifelong service—for males, from age ten to eighteen in the Hitler Youth; for the next six months, in the Arbeitsdienst; for the next two years, in the military; and beyond that, lifelong Party membership and service to Party causes. For females from 10-18 total involvement and service in the Jungmädel and the Bund deutscher Mädchen, BDM; for the next six months in the Arbeitsdienst and beyond that lifelong membership in the Party and its women’s groups, the Frauenschaft and the Frauenwerk, the former the strictly political auxiliary , the latter the result of integrating middle class women’s groups of the right through Gleichschaltung.
At the beginning of the Nazi regime, family and school still competed for the attention of the nation’s young people, but in the course of Hitler’s ascendancy and, later, the war, the hours spent in HJ activity increased, from one afternoon or evening a week to additional weekend days and finally to weeks and months at a time. Once enemy bombings of the cities started, entire school classes of children and their teachers were removed from their families and placed into HJ camps in the country. As the war went on, during school vacations long and short, entire HJ units and school classes and ever younger children were pressed into helping with the harvest and relieving other labor shortages on the home front. Some of their duties were military, including manning anti-aircraft guns and digging trenches. Schirach expressed this absolutism of his organization’s claims on the lives of its members with the words “You are either for us or against us.” Neutrality, once the Hitler Youth got a hold of you, did not exist.
On the whole, early in the regime, the educational system and the teaching profession were not in conflict, as German schools claimed the morning hours of instruction and the Hitler Youth the afternoons. Moreover, our teachers—like the middle class as a whole—shared the nationalism of the Nazis. In 1933, when the HJ became an organization of the German State, local HJ units could freely use public school and sport facilities as meeting places and arenas. As time went on, the Party’s influence over the schools and their instructional materials became dominant, so that the schools and the Hitler Youth followed the same goals. By 1936, most textbooks parroted Nazi ideology. Even the problems in our arithmetic exercise book had ideological content: “The inmate of a mental hospital costs the state 5.20 marks a day. How much does that come to in a month? A year?” The comment my teacher offered, of course, was, “All hereditary illnesses are a heavy burden for the community.” I never heard her justify euthanasia or sterilization as a solution, but that was certainly the implication. Academic subjects became contaminated by ideology and diluted by indoctrination. Academic standards fell drastically, while HJ activity and service replaced instruction.
As instructional material and entertainment for the Hitler Youth, Nazi publishers (and soon most publishing houses) favored fairy tales and sagas, Germanic myth and heroic epics—particularly popular adaptations of its national epic, the Nibelungenlied, glorifying Siegfried’s radiant strength and Hagen’s loyalty to his king. (Later, in graduate school, I came to understand how grossly these popular nationalist versions trivialized and distorted the medieval epic.) Medieval heroes, like the Hohenstauffen and Saxon emperors, populated novels for young people, as did the kings, nobles, and officers of Prussian history. And of course, the heroic feats of “our soldiers” in the two world wars and the treachery of “our enemies” formed the plots of much juvenile literature. Avid reader that I was, I consumed these HJ volumes whenever I could get a hold of them. By age fifteen, I had read almost all of them. Like many intellectuals of my generation, after the Nazi defeat I would never again want to read a fairytale or Germanic saga, nor could I tolerate a folk proverb or folksong except in a satirical context. It took me years to recover for myself, as a student and teacher of German literature, the literary Romantic tradition of folk literature and to decontaminate it from Nazi perversion and abuse. To this day, German folksongs make me uncomfortable.
Jochen preceded me (as usual) into the Hitler Youth, and (as usual) he did not like attending the meetings, just as he did not like going to school. I was still smarting from not having been allowed to go to middle school and did not look forward to anything. As far as I was concerned, HJ was just another chore. Fräulein Schäfer, our fourth grade teacher had told us to assemble after school on Wednesday in Red School play yard. At that time, she gave us a pep talk about how lucky we were to become Jungmädel. “ When I was growing up before the Great War, girls did not have your opportunities. We had to stay home and help our mothers. Like your brothers, you will be able to go on camping trips, have fun with your girls’ group in singing, playing games, get to know your Heimat ( home region) by exploring its forests and mountains, learning its myths and its fairy tales. You will have your own groups, led by older girls, you’ll know a comradeship we never did.” Her tone became wistful and I stopped listening. I could not imagine her ever having been young.
When I try to recall the details of my actual induction into the Hitler Youth after Easter vacation in 1940, my mind resists remembering, refuses to focus. I cannot see the individual faces of the girls in my squad, as I can, for example, see Hanne’s screwed-up nose when she giggled. I try to remember the names of the girls in my squad—nothing. Then suddenly I hear Marga, our fourteen year old squad leader, call out the list of their names, which was how she would start every Wednesday afternoon meeting. My name, in the middle of the list, comes into focus: Mahlendorf, Ursula. And then the names that precede and follow it: Kupka, Ursula; Lemke, Hannelore; Nitzsche, Helga. I cannot see their faces, but other details emerge. I see myself standing in the schoolyard of Red School among a large group of girls my age, few of whom I know. It is two o’clock Wednesday afternoon, after school has let out. I am alone in the crowd and miss Hanne, who is late. My former friends, who left for middle school and high school just a few days ago, stand together in a circle some distance away, and I know they will snub me if I approach. I feel angry and isolated, turn my back on them. Later, several older girls arrive with one of the middle-school teachers, Lotte Treptow, all in HJ uniforms—navy-blue skirt, white blouse, black kerchief held in place by a leather knot. Braided silk cords defining their leadership status, some red and white, some green and white, dangle atop the kerchief to the left blouse pocket. The older girls hold lists and begin calling out our names, asking us to form a circle around them. After a while, a pale, freckled girl in dark-blond pigtails summons me to her group. By the time she has read aloud the last name, we are fifteen in her group.
“I am Marga,” she introduces herself, “and I’ll be your Schaftführerin (squad leader). We are four squads to a troop. Helga”—she points to a girl who stands next to Lotte T.—“will be our Scharführerin (troop leader). Lotte leads all Jungmädel in town; she is our Ringführerin, (cadre leader).We’ll always meet right here, in Red School yard, and begin our activities from here.” Her tone now changes to command mode: ”Line up by size!” The fifteen of us are practiced in lining up by size, as we have done it since first grade. I am the third tallest.
“Count!” is the next command.
The tallest girl begins: “One!” and snaps her head to the right for the next girl. My heart begins to pound. “Two!” yells the girl next to her, and swivels her head toward me. I hesitate, my mind has gone blank.
“Three!” Marga barks for me. “Pay attention!”
I freeze, while my mind races, words, silent words, echoing within me. “Stupid, can’t you even count?” I scream silently at myself. Because I have missed my turn, the entire squad has to repeat the count.
Next we practice marching in formation. We form five rows of three girls each, again graduated by size. That puts me in front row, right. “Forward, march!” comes Marga’s command. “Right, two, three, four; right, two three, four,” and at each loud “right,” our right foot, knee slightly bent, is to move forward. We first practice marching in formation straight ahead. One of us falls out of step and Marga bellows,” Formation, stop!” After a brief pause and an admonition to pay attention, we start again. “Formation, march! Right, two, three, four; one, two, three, four.”
Next come more complicated maneuvers: “Formation, right!” meant that I had to perform my “one, two, three, four” by lifting my feet in place while turning forty-five degrees to the right. “Formation, left!” meant that I had to take giant steps to the left at the “one, two, three, four” while making a quarter turn without adding an extra step, which would have put me out of step with the formation. Marga’s first “Formation, right!” prompted me to start my turn to the left, and when I saw that my neighbor was turning toward me I reversed. “Formation, stop!” Marga howled. “Don’t you know right from left?”
At that moment, I learned that I (like most people) had some difficulty distinguishing right from left under pressure. Armed with this insight and paying close attention, I managed most of the ensuing “Formation, right!”s and “left!”s just fine.
After an hour and a half, Marga stopped the drill and led us into one of the larger classrooms in the middle school, next door, where we found the other squads of newly fledged Jungmädel waiting for us. I was so exhausted from trying to pay attention to the marching maneuvers that I slumped down onto one of the benches. Marga shot me a glance, and I knew it meant that I ought to sit up straight. Lotte T. entered after a while and went up front to the teacher’s platform. She looked down at us, her face stern. “Welcome to the HJ girls, ”she addressed us. “You are beginning an important phase of your life today. From now on, you will serve our Führer and fatherland through Jungmädel. For the next few months, you will be on probation and learn the first steps in becoming the kind of Jungmädel the Führer wants you to be. Once you have been tested, you will take your oath to the Führer after you return from your summer break.”
Like all my future HJ leaders once they got started, she went on and on, and I stopped listening. (The “probation” was a fiction: No one did or could fail, as we were required to attend.) I woke up from my daydream when she started to sing Deutschland, Deutschland, über Alles, and I joined in, raising my right arm and feeling guilty, as always, about not having listened—and, as the song went on, proud that I was ten years old and a Jungmädel now.
Marga led our squad to another, smaller classroom. “Let’s learn a few songs for marching. It’s easier to keep step when you sing.” She began, in a clear soprano voice, “O beautiful western forest…” We had all heard this song when the HJ troops marched through town, so we knew the melody, and soon we learned all the words. After that, Marga warbled the martial Hitler Youth theme song in her incongruously bright soprano, and when she had run through it she taught us the words line by line:
Forward! Forward! Let the fanfares ring.
Vorwärts! Vorwärts! Schmettern die hellen Fanfaren,
None of us understood that we had just absorbed the key concepts that were to guide our lives as HJ members—that we were a special, valuable class, representing a new age for Germany; that we would serve Germany and Hitler, whatever the danger or hardship; that we were ready to sacrifice our lives so that Germany could live free of her enemies.
For the next four Wednesday afternoons, we practiced marching and learned a repertoire of marching songs. I never lost my nervousness about marching (“Right, two, three, four!”) and, since I stayed in the front row all year thanks to my height, I was highly visible. Why was I so awkward at marching? It was all the more striking to me because I was a whiz as a biker and a swimmer and good at games of physical skill. My best guess now is that I distrusted and resisted conforming to group activity and orders of even a minor authority.
After marching, we would repair to the classroom to learn more songs: marching songs at first, and later folk songs, most of which I already knew from having sung them with my mother and brothers. Sometimes, as a reward when we had completed our marching practice without too many of us falling out of step, we played parlor games, like charades. Gradually I came to enjoy this routine, particularly the singing. Just before summer vacation, our Jungmädel troop was allowed to accompany the older girls’ troops to a rally in Münsterberg, a few miles away. “You have really made progress in keeping in formation,” Marga told us. “I hope you won’t embarrass us at the rally when we march into the stadium.”
I worried about making mistakes even as I looked forward to the train ride—a rare event for me—to the neighboring town. We sang on the train, hundreds of boys and girls going to the rally. We marched into the stadium, and it was easy to keep in formation, because we followed the more experienced Hitler Youth troops. We were part of what seemed an endless stream of boys and girls marching to the tunes of the large band on a platform at the far end of the stadium. Arriving at our designated spot on the stadium floor, we stood at attention while the flags and standards were carried in and the HJ leadership entered the stadium. Finally, after a long pause, the province leader of Silesia, a stocky, middle-aged man in brown SA uniform who was the rally speaker, marched in all alone, with measured step, to our repeated cheers of “Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!” I was impressed by the dignity of this slow, deliberate advance, and thrilled to be a part of such ceremony. I understood only years later that—with his late arrival and solemn procession to the speaker’s platform—he was imitating one of Hitler’s techniques of mass manipulation.
Standing in the hot June sun soon became uncomfortable, as the province leader’s speech droned on: “We are at war,” he told us, rather unnecessarily. “Our brave soldiers have conquered France. England is next. We must all help the Führer in his difficult task of leading Germany….We must all do our part in helping to win the victory. You, the future of Germany, can help: help with bringing in the harvest this summer, help with collecting herbs and recyclables—scrap iron, rags, bones, paper—with which to make guns, uniforms, medical supplies for our troops.” I was greatly relieved when the time came for us to sing “Deutschland, Deutschland, über Alles” and the Horst Wessel song, our right arms raised in the Hitler salute. Since my group was standing in the middle of the stadium, with rows and rows of girls in front and rows upon rows behind, I could rest my arm on the shoulder of the girl in front of me, as the verses dragged on. Early in my HJ career, I felt a certain amount of guilt over this undisciplined laxness in sustaining the salute. But during the many rallies that followed this one, even the keenest enthusiasm would dissipate by the time the final strophes had sounded. We sang again on the train back home, tired, sunburnt, but happy to be part of a great cause. I was aflame with zeal to do my part in the war effort. This summer at Zülzendorf, I swore to myself, I would work full days without protesting in the fields, every weekend with no complaining, for the full six weeks of my vacation.
By the late fall of 1940, the war and the Hitler Youth had begun to take over my life. Because of war shortages, it was difficult to keep the tires on our bikes in repair—even I got good at patching inner tubes—and this limited our riding around the countryside. When my inner tubes consisted almost entirely of patches and the tires were almost in shreds, I thought twice about going very far from home; walking home with a flat was no fun. And the daily news broadcasts and “special reports” preceded by march music and trumpets and “Achtung! Achtung! Here is radio Germany” kept us busy. Newspaper photographs of submarine heroes and reports on the beginning of the submarine war had to be cut out and labeled.
The Party’s new national Youth Leader, Arthur Axmann—in August of 1940, Hitler had replaced Baldur von Schirach, whom he no longer trusted—called on all HJ troops to serve the fatherland as replacements for the men who had been called to the front. The older Hitler Youth began to serve as streetcar-ticket collectors and as factory workers in munitions works. Toward the end of the war, the boys would man anti-aircraft guns and dig trenches at the German borders and in the streets of German cities; finally, even fourteen-year-old boys would be called up and sent to the Front. The girls of the BDM acted as nurse’s aides, took over as street-car conductors when the men and boys were called up, worked in munitions factories, helped ethnic German farmers settle in annexed Polish territories, some even assisted in the forcible eviction of Polish farmers, and finally they, too, dug the trenches.
It fell to the ten- to fourteen-year-olds of the Jungvolk and Jungmädel to go from house to house to collect recyclables and to help during the harvests. I participated in the recycling efforts once a week for the next four years. We collected papers, scrap iron, rags, and bones (to be used for soap making—we were told) from our families and neighbors. The barrels in the schoolyard into which we dumped the bones left over from family dinners crawled with maggots by the time a week had passed. Each time we lifted the barrels into our cart and then emptied them into a vat at the rag collector’s on Adolf Hitler Street six or seven interminable blocks away, I gagged. The place reeked of dead meat; rats scampered among mountains of old papers, old clothes, and rags; rusted bikes lay heaped atop mountains of scrap metal. Our task was much easier on Saturday afternoons, when we helped bring in the potato harvest at nearby farms in Segen, Striege, or Lauden. Horse-drawn wagons transported us back and forth from school to the farmers’ fields. Going out to the fields we sang; coming home at dusk, in the flickering light of bonfires of dried potato stalks, we were tired and silent. Our wagons rumbled over Breslauer Street, turned into Promenade Street with its canopy of yellowing linden leaves, and disgorged us in the schoolyard. I dragged myself across the street to the Baronie, past Werner and his friends playing in the front yard, and fell asleep even as I ate my supper at the kitchen table.
Gradually the town emptied of younger men, and older men and women took their jobs. The fathers of my classmates and the husbands of the Baronie’s families went to war. Herr Gurn’s truck driver, who delivered the beer and lemonade bottled in the Baronie’s shed, disappeared to the Front; his drunkenness had disturbed our peace every Saturday night for years, and while Jochen regretted the loss of rides with him, I was happy to see him go. Uncle Kurt, who was deemed indispensable as a farm administrator, and the one-legged Herr Gurn remained the only male presences for the rest of my childhood.
At our Wednesday afternoon HJ meetings all through 1940 and 1941, we practiced running, broad jumping, and throwing baseballs as far as we could in the middle-school playground. Since I had tossed pebbles with my brother Jochen and his friends for years, I had developed good wrist action and threw the ball proficiently, but I ranked as one of the poorest runners and broad jumpers of the entire troop. “Didn’t you say that you were good at sports?” Marga teased me. Hanne, who was in the same troop but another squad, took turns with me as the lowest scorer, and I talked her into additional practice on our own on the athletic field on Adolf Hitler Street (formerly Linden Street), which we occasionally used with our squads. But the older kids, who dominated the track, soon chased us off.
Then I had an idea: In the back of the Gurns’ property there was a sandpit. I spent a week spreading and leveling the sand, and finally I had about ten meters of race track, with a broad-jump pit at the end. Hanne had long since lost interest in the project, but I ran and jumped for hours on end all through the rest of the year, until the first snow in early December, and began again after snowmelt in March. Gradually my broad-jump score improved, and in running I now scored close to the troop’s average. I took pleasure in my athletic achievement and I began to enjoy the Wednesday afternoons; even the marching practice seemed less onerous.
During the winter months and the heavy Silesian snows, sports stopped altogether and our Wednesday afternoons were spent in singing and political instruction. Marga taught us about the beginnings of the National Socialist Party after the First World War, about Hitler’s struggles during the Weimar Republic: “The Communists fought his movement in Munich,” she said. “The Führer was betrayed by the army. He was imprisoned in Landsberg Fortress after he tried to win power. He wrote Mein Kampf there, and you’ll read that when you’re older.” She told us about the Munich putsch of 1923, and how one of Hitler’s comrades threw himself in front of Hitler and received a bullet in his stead. Her stories were all of martyrdom and sacrifice, of betrayal and heroism. I remember the mood they conveyed more clearly than the facts of the putsch itself, which we learned to call “the march on the Feldherrn Halle,” after the Munich war memorial where it occurred. I already knew (and thus resonated with) this glorification of comradeship, of sacrifice for the fatherland, of loyalty and heroism, from the First World War novels Jochen and I had been reading—books such as Richard Euringer’s 1929 Flight School: Book of the Crew (the Nazi antidote to Erich Maria Remarque’s anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front, published the same year) and Fritz Steuben’s Breakthrough 1918. A Frontline Experience (1933). We also were encouraged to memorize short biographies of the Nazi leadership, starting with Hitler and going all the way down to such minor functionaries as Robert Ley, leader of the Nazi Labor Front. These hagiographies were not unlike the stories about the ever so pious and frightfully good children that Aunt Magda had told us about in Kindergarten. Except that as children, these men were frightfully brave, loyal, and patriotic, rather than frightfully pious and good.
Marga followed up her tales by teaching us new songs about “the movement”—songs that raised our spirits and that made me wish I had lived through the struggle with “Him.” We learned the song of the “Good Comrade”—the man who, more loyal than anyone, dies for his comrade als wär’s ein Stück von mir ( “as if he were part of me.”) My eyes filled with tears every time we sang it and I found it difficult to sing along. And we learned a song that seemed to upset some of the adults—like Manfred Riedel’s father, who a little while later was briefly imprisoned by the Gestapo for (as I heard Mother whisper to a customer) “defeatism”:
The ancient brittle bones of the world tremble
Es zittern die morschen Knochen
We introduced a significant change into the song. The original read, “today
Germany listens to
us (“hört”); we sang “Today Germany belongs to us (gehört).
Marga was certainly an effective propaganda tool, the perfect realization of Hitler’s HJ ideal that youth should lead youth. I admired her because she was cheerful and forceful, and because she went to high school but was not arrogant. Not particularly good- looking, Marga was long-limbed, athletic, slender, and freckled, with dark-blond hair and gray eyes. I could imagine that I might be like her in another few years, and I wanted to be like her. During summers in Zülzendorf I kept in touch with her by postcards. I don’t think she was especially schooled, but she was a skillful leader, appealing to our adolescent desire to embrace a “great cause”—to aggrandize ourselves by it, to be loyal to it, to sacrifice ourselves for it.
At one Wednesday meeting in late 1941, she exhorted us to help clothe the embattled troops of the beginning Russian campaign: “Our soldiers in Russia need warm clothes, particularly coats made of fur. Even small pieces can be sewn into coats. Get from your family whatever you can, and bring it here to the next meeting. Let’s see that our squad collects more fur than the others.” I knew that Mother kept an old coat with a fur collar in a trunk in the attic. And my own coat also had a collar of fur! I cut the fur off both coats and was about to run off to the meeting with my contributions when Mother surprised me. “What did you do with your coat? And where is that fur from?” pointing to the fur from the coat in the attic.
“I got it from your old coat” I replied, as coolly as possible. “I don’t need a fur collar. They’re for our soldiers.”
“You didn’t ask me if you could give them away!” she exclaimed, horrified at this act of independent butchery, and I ran off, knowing there would be hell to pay when I got back, but I felt heroic. Mother refused to speak to me for a week, and though her silences terrified me I was content, knowing that I had done the right thing for the Führer.
Was Marga aware that this propaganda about the rebellion of the young against their elders, of devotion to a Cause, of comradeship and sacrifice, fed right into our omnipotence fantasies? That they provided roles for young teenagers who were struggling to acquire a sense of personal power? This I know: she shared our enthusiasm and was as inspired as we were by the HJ’s energizing, upbeat songs. The leadership principles that the Hitler Youth had borrowed from the turn-of-the-century German Youth Movement made for an excellent fit: Twelve- to fourteen-year-olds led ten-year-olds, so that there was only a two-to-four-year age gap between the leaders and the led in the lower echelons. Lotte Treptow, then a young teacher, served as our town leader, just as in other towns other young teachers served in the higher echelons. The slogan “Youth led by youth” proved a powerful tool, welding us into what we thought of as comradeship and which was in fact mass manipulation, down to the smallest unit. We thought of ourselves as different from our mothers. The HJ gave us different, new ideals and new tasks on behalf of our nation.
Recently, Jochen and I talked about our Hitler Youth experience. We agreed that it would have been enormously helpful to us if even one of the adults around us had attempted to counteract this indoctrination, had told us that other values existed aside from bravery, toughness, obedience, and loyalty unto death—that other nations, races, and peoples valued their way of life and were worthy of respect,. We both felt envious of friends we made later in life whose parents tried or succeeded to keep them out of Hitler Youth. I don’t remember talking much to my mother, let alone to my aunts, about what we were learning in school and in the Hitler Youth, or about what I thought and felt.
Not that we were silent when we had our noon meal, which was the only time we spent together as a family: “Fräulein Balzer threw her key chain at Hanne today, and Hanne was almost knocked out,” or some such other report, generally exhausted my contribution to the family conversation, and Jochen was no different in this respect. We bragged, or complained, or talked about the mundane misadventures of the schoolyard. Or we would ask Mother to tell us about her childhood, about Oma, about the farm she grew up on, about the dances she went to and the trips she took as a teenager. Home life during my teens provided neither intellectual stimuli nor ethical values and moral guidance. Explicit ideals and values—such as they were—existed only within the framework of the Hitler Youth.
I must have learned very early not to express my feelings, to keep my thoughts to myself. I remember one incident, at age nine or ten, which made me realize that my emotional or reflective life was apart from that of my family, and indeed the everyday community. Mother, Jochen, Werner, and I were on a day’s excursion with Mother’s dressmaker union. Trudi and Ida, Mother’s apprentices, were sitting near me on the bus as we rode through the Eulengebirge in the Silesian Mountains. I had a window seat, and all that day I had enjoyed looking at the passing landscape and daydreaming as the gentle swaying of the bus rocked me into a trance. (I still enjoy the comfort of a vehicle in motion passing through the early dusk, just as I did then.) The road went along the crest of a hill; a meadow slowly turning blue-gray in the fading daylight lay below us. Chains of hills, in ever paler shades of gray, stretched beyond the meadow. Mists arose from the depth of the valley—and I felt a sob rising in my chest. An ache engulfed me, ebbing through me in a gentle, euphoric swell. I quelled the sob but could not stop the tears. Ida noticed.
“What’s wrong, Ulla?” she trumpeted. I felt as though the entire bus could hear her. “I have a stomach ache,” I muttered—aware, for the first time that I could not speak about what I felt. Was I afraid of ridicule? I don’t know. What I did know, with a pervasive sense of sadness, was that I was alone with my emotions.
“Did you eat all the plums for dessert?” Ida worried. “Maybe that’s why your stomach hurts!”
A little later we stopped for supper at a country inn and restaurant, and while everyone danced to the music of the village brass band I pretended that the stomach ache was still with me. The feeling of being different, of being moved to tears by a landscape, from then on would keep me a pace away from everyone I knew.
By the late spring of 1941, I had scored the highest of my troop in the broad jump, and Marga had stopped her teasing. “Some of you will be going to the Middle Silesian athletic competitions at Breslau stadium before the summer break,” she announced one Wednesday. Pausing for effect, she called out three names: Mine was the last. I was dumbfounded, as my running score was still mediocre. “Your parents will have to pay for your rail ticket,” said Marga. “The HJ will house you with private families and provide meals at the stadium.”
I had long since run out of last summer’s money and had to ask Mother for the fare. She turned me down, saying that several customers had not yet paid her and she did not know when they would. I would just have to tell Marga that I could not go. I begged and cajoled and promised that I would pay back a loan if she made me one, all to no avail. At her urging, I visited several of the delinquent customers, also with no success. They offered the usual excuses: They would pay at the end of the month; they had had a shortfall, because the children needed shoes; a family member had died and they had to come up with money for the funeral; their husbands had not paid that month’s child support. Uncle Kurt heard my griping for several weekends and finally gave in and handed me a twenty-mark bill for the fare and pocket money.
The Breslau meet was to take place at the end of June. We were to meet at the Strehlen railroad station at seven in the morning. I arrived at the station much too early and all alone. A few adults were waiting for the local train to Wansen. I felt shy and out of place in my uniform—my dark-blue skirt cleaned and brushed with cold chicory coffee the night before, my white blouse, the obligatory black scarf cinched by a braided leather knot. I clutched my gym bag to my chest. Finally several girls my age arrived and called to me. My shyness evaporated as I greeted them enthusiastically, even though I knew them only by sight. We pushed one another around, joking and teasing as the adults looked on disapprovingly. Their disapproval didn’t bother me at all. Like Heini Völker, I was part of a group now and I was happy about it. This sense of instant comradeship in Jungmädel contrasted sharply with my usual melancholy isolation and distance from others. I lost myself in the group, and that is probably why I remember none of my “comrades” as individuals, aside from Marga—neither their first names nor what they might have meant to me at the time, nor even individual interactions with them. No faces, no voices emerge from these recollections.
I don’t recall how I performed in the hundred-meter race or the ball throwing. But I was disappointed with my broad-jump scores. The graveled course slowed my run, as I could feel the stones through the thin soles of my gym shoes. The unfamiliarly shallow pit cut short my jump. Still, my comrades labored under the same handicap, so that I did not do too badly in comparison. To my surprise, at the award ceremony, I won a small brass medal. The regional troops whose members had won medals, ours among them, stood at the front of the stadium in the glaring afternoon sun—for ages, it seemed to me. Finally my Ring, Strehlen, was called. “Four medals: One silver, three brass,” a voice rang out from the podium. All four of us marched up. At the top of the stairs, a hand stretched out to meet us. We shook it, one after the other. Back among the ranks of white and dark-blue I felt enormous relief: I had not missed a step! I had not stumbled! I was half asleep from the sun when Marga’s voice summoned me. Looking up, I saw that our flag bearer on the platform had fainted. “Take her place, Ursel,” she hissed. As the Red Cross helpers carried the girl to the Red Cross tent, I remounted the steps, took the flag that the girl’s neighbor had picked up, and stepped into the line of the other flag bearers. I felt honored that Marga had called on me. I had wanted to be the troop’s flag bearer all along, but she had passed me over. I looked down into the sea of faces staring up at me, and after a short while they began to sway and grew hazy in the terrible heat. I was suddenly frightened, as the mass of faces faded and then grew sharp again. “I don’t want to faint,” I admonished myself. “I cannot let her down too!” As I struggled to stand upright, holding myself up by the flagpole, the ceremony stretched into eternity. At last, the final medal winners descended the stairs and the boys’ trumpets blared out a signal. We sang I-don’t-remember-what. Finally a speaker in black uniform moved to the microphone. As he intoned his speech, I gripped the flag more firmly and held on.
“The Führer has ordered our troops to cross the border into Russia to revenge Stalin’s treachery,” he rasped. “We will win the huge spaces of Russia and earn Lebensraum for our people.”
I stopped listening, as my mind went blank and then started racing: No. No. The grown-ups have said that Hitler would see to it that our soldiers did not have to fight on two fronts, as we did in the last war. He made a pact with Stalin, not to attack us. The leader on the platform continued speaking of the glory our brave soldiers would win, and of the sacrifices we would have to make to be worthy of them. But amid the waves of “Sieg Heil!” that interrupted every sentence, I saw our globe of the world on Father’s desk at home—the tiny pink spot that was Germany and the large pale green blob stretching almost over half the globe that was Russia. I froze in fright and stared down at the mouths opening rhythmically with “Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!” Mouths opening and closing, opening and closing. I don’t know how I managed to stay upright for the rest of the ceremony, but I did. The spot that was Germany on the globe and the blob that was Russia hovered before my mind’s eye; spot and blob; blob and spot.
On my return home, I heard Mother and some of her customers repeating my worry—the huge expanse of Russia, the tremendous length of the Russian front, and tiny Germany. But my fear dissipated during the next few days, as our troops moved forward into Russia and one special radio report followed the other. Smolensk, Kiev. At school, I started a new copybook with pictures of the Russian campaign, and learned the spelling of Russian towns and cities. We moved the little flags from the Polish Ukraine, into the Russian Ukraine, toward Leningrad and Moscow, farther north. Over the radio, we heard the jubilant shouts of the White Russians, rejoicing at being freed from Red domination, and we felt reassured and resumed our daily activities, as Special Report after Special Report announced the victories of our side.
Just as the war had accelerated during 1940-1941, my life speeded up during my first year of HJ. I no longer sat on the steps of Frau Gurn’s kitchen listening to her stories and getting comfort from her steady and loving presence. It seems to me now that I spent most of my days cleaning my uniform—I still had only one dark skirt and one blazer both of which needed constant attention. We spent hours marching, listening to Marga’s propaganda tales, learning songs and preparing for meets and rallies. I had little time to daydream, to spend summer evenings in the street playing with the neighborhood children, or to meander through town aimlessly. I read a few years ago that the Nazis set the end of childhood at age ten. That was certainly true for me.
back to top; to UCSB Hist 133c homepage; Hist 133q homepage