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The Hitler Youth: Mass Appeal and Indoctrination

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UCSB:

by Kyle Leighton
March 23, 2010

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in European History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2010



About the Author
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Essay
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About Kyle Leighton

I am a senior history major and education minor. I have had a fascination with history for a long time, especially ancient Mediterranean and 20th century European history. Part of my interest in the Hitler Youth and their education and indoctrination comes from my own interest in pursuing a career in education. Through a better understanding of how easily the Hitler Youth were “brainwashed” under Nazi Germany, we can gain a broader understanding of how important the ideas we impress into our youth are.

Abstract (back to top)


Essay (back to top)

By the time the Hitler Youth organization became mandatory in 1939 for all Germans 10 to 18 years old, it was already “the largest youth organization in the world with over 7.3 million strong within its ranks” (Lisciotto). What was it that gave it such mass appeal? Well, foremost among the appeals of the Hitler Youth for those children participating was the importance and freedom it imbued upon the new youth of Germany. The status of children in Germany had traditionally been one of very little importance in which they were to be obedient to their elders. Alfons Heck wrote that when he joined the Hitler Youth as a 10-year-old “it seemed like an exciting life, free from parental supervision, filled with ‘duties’ that seemed sheer pleasure” (Heck, 9). The Hitler Youth appealed to a wide range of individuals because it could open pathways for later advancement in Nazi society or military service, incorporated basic games, camaraderie and peer pressure that many children and adolescents would naturally gravitate towards, and offered a great deal of independence from parents. In the face of that appealing program, most children were powerless to resist Nazi indoctrination unless they were fortunate enough to have uniquely aware elders to help guide their conscience. Three case studies, in the memoirs of former Hitler Youths Alfons Heck, Jurgen Herbst, and Ursula Mahlendorf, highlight their vulnerability and the impact of the elders on their levels of indoctrination.

Their stories represent only a small age range within Nazi Germany, as they were all born between 1928 and 1929. They were all about 5 or 6 years old when Hitler was appointed Chancellor, and about 16 or 17 when Germany was overrun by foreign troops. However, they also represent the best combination of individuals who both started school after the Nazi takeover and reached an old enough age by the end of the war to become very aware of their situation in the larger scheme of Germany. They were all born late enough to have received all, or nearly all, of their formal education under Nazi Germany. Yet they were also born early enough to be approaching adulthood at the end of Nazi Germany. They all took part in the Hitler Youth during the years that it played the most prominent role in Germany, and they all experienced the early years and later years of Hitler Youth membership. Therefore, these case studies, while only representing three examples of millions, embody the most ideal age range in which to study the impact of the Hitler Youth on an individual.

Both Heck and Mahlendorf suggest in their books that they became very enthusiastic about the Hitler Youth, and in Heck’s case “fanatical.” They each express a wish that their guardians had been more open with them over concerns about the direction Nazi Germany and the Hitler Youth were headed; that they may have been saved from the guilt of participating so passionately in an evil state. Herbst and Alfons Heck’s brother Ruddi provide examples of how children could grow up in Nazi Germany without becoming indoctrinated because they each had close relationships with adults that were anti-Nazi and not afraid to talk to them about it. Despite the masses who joined the Hitler Youth, exactly what Nazism meant to each Hitler Youth member and the Nazi ideologies that were emphasized in each town or group varied, but “the one constant ‘ideological element’ of the Hitler Youth and Hitler Youth training was the blind belief in Adolf Hitler,” (Koch, 129). The level of indoctrination of Hitler Youth members could then be measured, in large part, by their level of turmoil the day they learned of Hitler’s death. Heck and Mahlendorf were, therefore, strongly indoctrinated as they each described feeling like the world was going to end when they first learned of Hitler’s death. Herbst, meanwhile, was prevented from Nazi indoctrination as evident by the fact that although he found it difficult to accept that his country’s cause may not be honorable and his Fuhrer not benevolent, he did not have to reevaluate his whole world and self-worth with the death of Hitler.

Alfons Heck and his twin brother Ruddi were born in the year 1928, making them 6 years old when Hitler was appointed chancellor and 17 when the war ended. Their grandmother convinced their mother to let Alfons stay with them for a while because the burden of raising both infants together, weighing a combined 6 pounds at birth, would be too much. The temporary split became permanent, and Alfons was left to be raised by his grandmother in the rural town of Wittlich just 25 miles from the French border, while Ruddi stayed with their parents in Oberhausen, about 120 miles to the North. Heck joined the Hitler Youth in 1938, just in time to go with his troop to the last peacetime Nuremberg rally held in September, and he was instantly awed by the mass number of crazed youths, as well as by Hitler and his speech directly to them. The preeminence of the new German youth had been made clear on this day, and Heck was determined to play his part.

Heck enjoyed the camping, songs, and rifle training in the Hitler Youth, but it was in the Flying Hitler Youth that Heck would find his calling. He became enamored with the feeling of flying the gliders they had, and the rest of his Hitler Youth career would be in the context of ultimately trying to join the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force. Before he could be called up to join, however, the D-Day invasion of France lead to his promotion to a leader of the Hitler Youth when he was 16 and sent to the Westwall to overlook the construction of a trench. It was here, in the waning days of the war, that Heck would rising to the rank of Bannfuhrer, lead more than 2,800 Hitler Youth members, and personally shake hands with Adolf Hitler. There was no question that at the ages of 16 and 17 Heck had risen to a level of authority unheard of by someone of his age before the war. He did not particularly desire power, but once he had it he grew to enjoy it and felt that he and his “men” (mostly 11 to 15 years old) were doing important work for the Fuhrer. Only in the Hitler Youth was such ascension possible at such a young age.

Heck went on to fight in the army during the last two months of the war. He wanted to fight in the Luftwaffe, but there simply were not enough German planes remaining for him to train for combat. During a solo mission to recover a radio from an abandoned outpost before the advancing American troops could capture it he encountered a group of SS officers who offered to give him a ride. The SS officers were clearly not interested in getting so close to enemy lines, and one of them muttered under his breath, “Goddamn Hitler Youth fanatics” (Heck, 177). Just a week before his home town was captured, Heck and about 200 Hitler Youth boys were all that was left to defend a nearby town, and as Heck writes, “The Hitler Youth indoctrination had done its job. Not one broke for the protection of the bunkers, even when the artillery barrage reversed and dug up shallow craters within feet of us” (Heck, 167). The Americans responded by bombing the town. After Heck returned home and finally accepted defeat, his aunt said to him, “The handwriting was on the wall a year ago. You crazy fanatics didn’t have to ruin our beautiful country, don’t you know that [you idiot]?” (Heck, 183). In Heck’s personal account of the waning days of the war, he and the other Hitler Youth boys were the only ones still willing to fight to the death, even when it was clear to everyone else that the war was lost. Their indoctrination could not have run any deeper.

While Alfons Heck was becoming a “fanatic,” his brother Ruddi never became enthusiastic of the Hitler Youth, and Heck attributes this to the influence of their father and the fact that Ruddi lived with him. Heck only talked with his father a handful of times during the war, and they never talked politics but Heck already knew his father was deeply anti-Nazi. During one visit shortly after the events of Kristallnacht in 1938, his father said bitterly that “his party, the Social Democrats, had handed Hitler Germany on a silver platter… that goddamned Austrian housepainter is going to kill us all before he’s through conquering the world.” Almost prophetically he said, “Are you people all blind? This thing with the Jews is just the beginning” (Heck, 29-30). This meant little to Heck at the time (he was only 10 years old), but as he got older he came to realize his father’s political ideologies. Sometime after the war, Ruddi told Alfons that their father considered him an utter fanatic. Heck also learned that his father never joined the Nazi party, something most former Social Democrats and Communists did, if for no other reason than to seek protection from being targeted at political enemies of the state. The fact that Ruddi was privy to these kinds of ideas from his father, and his father’s fearlessness to speaking openly in front of relatives about them, makes it clear that his father would have never let Ruddi become indoctrinated.

Jurgen Herbst had the fortune of growing up in a family that actively guarded him from deep-seeded indoctrination. His father had been a Social Democrat and, like Ruddi’s father, never joined the Nazi party, even when it cost him advancement in his business. His family was a member of the Lutheran Church, and his parents instilled in him a strong sense of morality. Herbst’s father had fought in World War I, and Herbst idolized his father and the family’s Prussian military tradition. His father had to leave again to fight in World War II, but during a leave of stay when Herbst was 13 his father asked him which branch of the military he would want to join when the time came. Herbst and his friends believed the Armed SS represented an ideal, just as Nazi propaganda portrayed them, but his father knew better. When Herbst said he wanted to join the SS his father said, “Never, never will you ever join the Armed SS. You can do anything you like with your life, but you must not, never, under any circumstances, join the SS” (Herbst, 21). Herbst’s father did not give Herbst any details then, but he had been out to the Russian front and back and had seen the SS brutality first hand.

Despite this environment, Herbst joined the Hitler Youth when he was 10 and eventually became a leader of 100 boys. He was not so excited to join at first, but he developed a great amount of camaraderie with the other boys and really enjoyed it. His drive to excel in the Hitler Youth then grew both out of that camaraderie and because of his desire to become an army officer. He attributes the bonds he formed and the duties they had to perform during the war with sustaining his enthusiasm and making his life meaningful (Herbst, 81). Also, Herbst’s Hitler Youth group did not follow the Nazi ideology as closely as most. Herbst was told by his immediate superior and best friend Etzel, who he eventually replaced, that Etzel’s aunt was a Jew and that his mother was a Communist. He explained to Herbst how he was able to also be a Hitler Youth leader:

“I love our boys, and I have led them my way, not the Nazi way. Judge for yourself: Are our boys a bunch of convinced, fanatical Nazis? Did we participate that night in 1938 when the shop windows were broken? Did we spit on Jews with the yellow star on their coats? I am not unhappy as a Fahnleinfuhrer with a Jewish aunt.” (Herbst, 127)

Thus, Herbst was not in the Hitler Youth to blindly follow Hitler until his death, but because he enjoyed the activities with the other boys and because he wished to become a soldier. Once he became a soldier on the western front in January of 1945, he enjoyed the fact that “he was on the side of the army whose battle was for Germany, its people, and its honor” where “no one ever mentioned the party” (Herbst, 178). Following the war he realized his dream of following in the footsteps of his father, and becoming an army officer, was no longer possible. He also could no longer compromise his Lutheran beliefs with fighting in battle, and entered into academia.

Ursula Mahlendorf was born in East Germany to a middle class family. Her father died in 1935 and her mother was left to raise her alone, dropping them to the economic means of the working-class. Mahlendorf did not have a close relationship with her mother, partly stemming from the knowledge that her mother had tried to get an abortion when she was pregnant with Ursula. Her father had been a member of the SS before he died, therefore, when her mother “showed her disapproval of my real father and of Hitler’s party” she “championed Hitler’s cause all the more.” “After my father died, Hitler gradually became an idealized substitute father for me” (Mahlendorf, 2). This kind of relationship, in her mind, with the Fuhrer falls perfectly in line with the way she reacted to the news of his death. “I was utterly bewildered and confused. The Fuhrer had died and I was alive; we were alive” (Mahlendorf, 208). The level of indoctrination ran so deep that her own well-being was tied directly to that of Hitler. Life without him seemed impossible. It was unimaginable.

Mahlendorf had plenty of reasons to resist Nazi indoctrination, especially because of her independent and feminist nature. Nazism advocated a return to traditional female roles, with women playing the role of child-bearer and caretaker of the home. Hitler did not want women active in public, but Mahlendorf was bored by the call to women to become wives and mothers. She also found “monstrous” the idea that women should prefer that their “fathers, husbands, and sons die in battle rather than be seen as cowards” (Mahlendorf, 120). A framed Nazi slogan hung above the doorway in her classroom with the words, “You are nothing, Your people are everything” (Mahlendorf, 2). Many German youths were “individualistic enough to reject, on their own behalf, the stereotypical mold into which the Hitler Youth leadership wished to press all of its members, thereby allowing for no deviations from the norm, no idiosyncrasies whatsoever” (Kater, 27). This certainly applied to Mahlendorf, as she displayed an aptitude for independence, and in writing her account discovered that “by the time [she] was thirteen or fourteen [she] had begun a rebellion against the conformity that the Hitler Youth demanded” (Mahlendorf, 2). However, seeing her lack of enthusiasm, her leader said to her and a few others, “Leadership in the Jungmadel and BDM [(Hitler Youth for Women)] for some of you with natural leadership ability can lead to a career” (Mahlendorf, 120). It were these new opportunities that kept Mahlendorf going in the Hitler Youth as she quickly learned that “in their early years as Jungmadel, girls could enjoy a freer and less restricted modern life outside the boundaries of their families than had previous generations of German women” (Mahlendorf, 92).

Mahlendorf’s enthusiasm in the Hitler Youth was bolstered not only because it offered her the chance at advancing into a public life, an opportunity that was not usually available to women, and certainly not pre-Nazi youths, but also because of her economic status. As she explains, “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” (Mahlendorf, 93). Although this classless community was more in rhetoric and ideology than in actual practice, as Mahlendorf was not going to able to attend high school because her mother could not afford the cost. Still, the idea was enough to strengthen her enthusiasm. So the Hitler Youth, with its appeal for so many to join a greater cause, and therefore conform, also held appeal for those, like Mahlendorf, who resisted such conformity because of its ability to expand the boundaries and opportunities of one’s life.

The question may be asked, why were Heck and Mahlendorf so vulnerable to indoctrination when both Heck’s grandmother and Mahlendorf’s mother did not believe in Nazism? Does this not provide evidence contrary to the argument that they lacked elders to share with them alternative worldviews? In this case, the difference between a passive and a vocal dissenter must be made clear. While Heck’s father was quick to voice his opinion on the occasions Heck was around him, his grandmother was usually mum on matters of politics. Despite her opposition to the Nazis and Heck’s escalating participation in the Hitler Youth, she was not vocal about her views because it was not proper for German women to get involved in politics, and Heck’s grandmother respected this. It was only after the war that his grandmother spoke more openly about her thoughts during the Third Reich. Heck noticed a few times her indifference, and even opposition to his Hitler Youth activities, but there was never the direct educating that would have been necessary to counter the indoctrination that Heck received at school and from the Hitler Youth. In his mind, her opposition to his Hitler Youth activities was more much a result of her needing him to work around the house and farm than anything else.

Mahlendorf meanwhile, saw her mother’s “disapproval of… Hitler’s party,” but her shaky relationship with her mother ensured this did nothing but strengthen her convictions for Hitler. Without a father figure in her life, Hitler came to represent the father she had lost, a former SS himself. The disapproval that Mahlendorf’s mother showed during the Nazi era was also limited, possibly for the same traditional reasons as Heck’s grandmother, or perhaps because of her strained relationship with Mahlendorf. In any case, Mahlendorf doesn’t “remember talking much to [her] mother, let alone to [her] aunts, about what [she] was learning in school and in the Hitler Youth, or about what [she] thought and felt” (Mahlendorf, 108). It should also be kept in mind that both Heck and Mahlendorf were developing the belief in the Hitler Youth that they were the future of the Reich, and that the older generation was inferior. Ultimately, the limited exposure to anything other than the Nazi agenda that Heck and Mahlendorf experienced from their guardians was minute compared to their formal education and propaganda, and it was not until after the war that they each came to fully realize how opposed to Nazism these elders were and why such beliefs were well-founded.

The Hitler Youth had the unique ability to appeal to Germany’s youth in a variety of ways. For Herbst it was the close camaraderie with his friends and his desire to become a soldier of the Prussian ideal. Heck was immediately drawn in by the awe of a mass gathering, and later was sucked in by the power it gave him as he rose in the ranks. Even for Mahlendorf, who found that the group camaraderie of the BDM prevented close personal bonds from forming, it provided a path to advance in Nazi society when she did not have the financial means to go to high school. Some of the most universal appeals included the camping and hiking trips, songs, and the sudden elevated status of children within the new German society. “Much as with the boys, the girls were given the very positive experiences of going on hikes in the country, roasting sausages over campfires, communal singing, enacting fairy tales and theatrical plays, and performing puppet shows, folk dances, and recorder trios” (Koch, 80). The Hitler Youth provided an outlet for adolescents to play an active role in Germany and be out amongst their peers without being under the control of their parents.

The ideologies that were instilled in the children and their level of indoctrination were dependent upon their immediate role models. Alfons Heck makes it a primary purpose of his book to argue that the only way to prevent Nazi indoctrination was with the rational guidance of parents or other trusted adults. This was lacking in Heck’s life, just as it was in the life of Ursula Mahlendorf. Neither of them had a father around to impart upon them political and social beliefs and ideologies that challenged those of Nazism, and Heck’s grandmother and Mahlendorf’s mother were too passive to offer any resistance to their Nazi education. As a result, both became fully indoctrinated in the ideologies of Nazism and gave their “heart and souls,” as they both said, over to Hitler. Jurgen Herbst, on the other hand, had a mother and father who saw beyond the scope of Hitler and Nazism and were not shy to share with Herbst their personal beliefs when they came into conflict with the ideologies of Nazism. Herbst’s relationship with his father and the Lutheran church, as well as the uniqueness of his own Hitler Youth group, acted as barriers from him becoming fully indoctrinated into Nazism despite his active participation in the Hitler Youth and the German army. Alfons Heck’s brother Ruddi also had this form of barrier in their father, a Nazi dissenter and former Social Democrat. The lives of these former Hitler Youths illustrate brilliantly the ability of the Hitler Youth to appeal to a wide range of individuals, and therefore how powerless most children were to Nazi indoctrination unless they had elders to help guide them toward another worldview.

 


Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/23/10)

Book Reviews

  • Heck, Alfons,

    A Child of Hitler: Germany in the Days When God Wore a Swastika. Phoenix: Renaissance House Publishers, 1985.

    This was the first book I read on the topic, and it was Heck who first put forth the idea that sparked my own thesis. He claims, based on his own experiences, that children do not question their education unless they have singularly aware parents. Heck’s book offers a glimpse into the workings of the Hitler Youth for the war effort, even working near enemy lines near the end of the war. He shows how powerful a youth could become under the Nazi regime.

  • Herbst, Jurgen,

    Requiem for a German Past: A Boyhood Among the Nazis. London: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.

    Herbt discusses his personal experience growing up in Nazi Germany from 1928 to 1948. He explains how his Prussian military ideals that he inherited from his father drove his desire to become an army officer in Nazi Germany. His experience in the Hitler Youth and Nazi Germany is a very unique one because of how much he participated in the Hitler Youth, but how little Nazi ideology penetrated his life. It was very different from Heck’s experiences, but showed me how broad the appeal of the Hitler Youth was.

  • Kater, Michael H.,

    Hilter Youth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.

    Kater examines the history of the Hitler Youth on a whole scale from a collection of contemporary manuscripts, diaries, letters, and other such documents. He determines that one of the driving factors in the success of the Hitler Youth was its appeal in providing the youth more self-reliance and glory.

  • Koch, H.W.,

    The Hitler Youth: Origins and Development 1922-45. London: Macdonald and Company, 1975.

    Koch, a former member of the Hitler Youth himself, chose to write a history of the Hitler Youth instead of the others who wrote of their own experiences. Unlike Kater’s it has the influence of personal experiences behind the analysis, and was written when former Hitler Youth members were just beginning to share their experiences with the public.

  • Carmelo Lisciotto,

    Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team, “The Hitler Youth” (2008/2010).

    This page provides a good brief overview of the history of the Hitler Youth, beginning in 1920, and places it in context to larger German events during the 1920s to 1940s. The navigation bar on the left has links to a host of other pages with information from H.E.A.R.T. related to the Holocaust and Nazism. This gave me a quick reference to refer to as a timeline of the Hitler Youth.

Books and Articles

  • Mahlendorf, Ursula,

    The Shame of Survival: Working Through a Nazi Childhood. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009.

    This book provides readers an inside to the BDM (Women’s Hitler Youth) and how they helped contribute to the Nazi movement. Perhaps more than anything else, it provides a feminist perspective on indoctrination. Ursula discusses her experiences as a Hitler Youth, as well as coping with them many years later.

Relevant Websites



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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.


prepared for web by Kyle Leighton on 3/23/10; last updated: 11/21/10
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