UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133D Homepage > 133D Book Essays Index page > Student essay
Growing Up Under the Third Reich
by Brenden Feingerts
for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
About Brenden Feingerts
Abstract (back to top)
Essay (back to top)
As Alfons Heck writes in the preface to his book ‘The Burden of Hitler’s Legacy’, “The most naively fanatic members of the Hitler Youth were those still in their teens when the war ended. I was one of them.” One question that comes to mind after reading this statement is ‘What exactly were they so fanatical about?’ An analysis of some of the primary aims of the Hitler Youth is necessary to answer this question. The Hitler Youth was designed foremost to indoctrinate its members into the military lifestyle in preparation for military service. It was also meant to instill in young Aryan Germans a strong sense of nationalism and what I will call ‘Hitler Worship’, as well as, third, a sense of racial hierarchy in which Aryans were at the top and Jews and other ‘undesirables’ were at the bottom. Not all of these aims, however, were weighted the same. While antisemitism was prominent within the Hitler Youth, it often took a back seat to the other two primary aims of the youth organization. Many members of the Hitler Youth became fanatically militaristic and nationalistic, but not fanatically antisemitic, thanks to their early indoctrination into Nazi ideology.
One of the most glaring truths about the Hitler Youth was that it was openly and unashamedly a paramilitary organization designed to prepare its members for a future in one of the branches of the German military. At least two years of military service was required after graduation from the Hitler Youth (Mahlendorf, 96). During the war years, however, Hitler Youth members were often called into service well before their expected graduation at age eighteen. When the threat of allied invasion seemed imminent, German boys as young as fourteen were called to the front while others remained close to home and manned anti-aircraft guns or carried out other military duties in order to free up men for battle (Mahlendorf,103).
In order to prepare for this compulsory military service, different branches of the Hitler Youth were designed to correspond to different branches of the German military. While the majority of the graduates from the junior branch of the organization joined the Allgemeine, or General Hitler Youth, those that desired to build a career around the military opted for the more specific branches. There was the Marine Hitlerjugend, which taught boating and navigation and was mostly composed of boys that wanted to go into the Navy. There was also the Motor Hitlerjugend, which trained its members in driving and motor mechanics; and the Flieger Hitlerjugend, which trained its members in how to build and fly gliders (Heck, 55). It was this branch that Alfons Heck joined in preparation for a career in the Luftwaffe.
Within the Flying Hitler Youth Heck was expected to maintain military discipline and was taught that to disobey a direct order once he began his career in the military would lead directly to the firing squad, no matter how “harsh, punitive, or unsound” the order seemed (Heck, 34). In his memoir A Child of Hitler: Germany in the Days When God Wore a Swastika, Heck recalls a test flight in which he disobeyed a command, transmitted to him by a flag signal on the ground, to continue his flight in dangerous flying conditions. Not realizing that it was his Sturmbannführer who was giving him the signal, Heck took his own initiative in landing the plane safely. He was later reprimanded by his commanding officer, who asked him “would you do it again to save the plane?” Heck’s immediate response was “No, Herr Sturmbannführer, not even to save me.” “On the front, I would have you shot,” he threatened. He went on to warn young Heck not to disobey his orders again, or he would “be lucky to end up in a penal battalion on the Russian Front,” suggesting that the punitive measures taken on the front could be applied to members of the Hitler Youth in a much similar fashion, since an assignment on the eastern front at this point in the war was as good as a death sentence (Heck, 73-76).
Other memoirs of Hitler Youth members in the same age group as Heck suggest that his indoctrination into militarism was not unique. They were taught to love war, and were trained in order to be able to physically carry it out. Ursula Mahlendorf, in her memoir The Shame of Survival: Working through a Nazi Childhood, stated that Hitler Youth indoctrination taught her that war was “the master of all things. It hardens you and makes you courageous.” (Mahlendorf, 202) Jurgen Herbst, in his memoir Requiem for a German Past, recalls:
“We learned to throw wooden clubs that bore a resemblance to hand grenades and we were marched into the countryside where we were taught to camouflage ourselves with bunches of grass and twigs, to estimate distances, to read maps, use the compass, follow animal and human tracks, build fires… and in everyway possible to prepare ourselves for military service.” (Herbst, 44)
Herbst remembers that it was this aspect of the Hitler Youth that thrilled him most of all. He expressed apathy towards the boring political nature of the organization, but writes that it was “the duties the war imposed upon us that sustained my enthusiasm and made life meaningful.” He wanted nothing more than to become a career officer in the army, and so he regarded the Hitler Youth as his “real school.” (Herbst, 81) “We were soldiers. Soldiering was the life we desired.” (Herbst, 98) The militaristic aspect of the Hitler Youth, however, was merely supplementary to what can be argued was the main purpose of the organization.
Nationalism and ‘Hitler Worship’
Another one of the primary aims of the Hitler Youth, and arguably the most important one, was to instill in young Germans a strong sense of nationalism. As one historian writes, the Hitler Youth made themselves “synonymous with the nationalist cause through an unremittingly proclaimed devotion to the German Volk and Fatherland.” (Stachura, 3) It is important to distinguish that this was not love for Germany in its own right that was being instilled, but love for Germany under National Socialism (Stachura, 1). Nazism gained support nation wide by cultivating the image of a political movement that was led by the “young, virile, and uncompromising.” (Fritzcshe, 192) Members of the Hitler Youth were being trained to be the future leaders of this youthful party. Hitler, in a speech made to them at the Nuremburg Rally in 1936, ensured the Hitler Youth that they were Germany’s “most precious guarantee for a great future,” and that they were “destined to be the leaders of a glorious new order under the supremacy of National Socialism! You, my youth, never forget that one day you will rule the world!” (Heck, 22) The young audience members bought into this assurance whole heartedly. As Heck recalls, “Hitler knew we were essential for the future of his movement.” (Heck, 21)
As a part of this nationalist indoctrination, members of the Hitler Youth were also taught that they were superior to the adults around them, and even many of the party bosses. While many of the adults around them did not buy into Nazi ideology completely, and many of the party bosses took advantage of their positions, the youth imagined itself as being completely loyal (Mahlendorf, 143-144). Heck remembers that his parents did not like the idea that he was involved in an organization where his social inferiors could be in charge of him. Heck, who believed completely in the social equality that National Socialism was said to represent, only felt further alienated from his elders because of this (Heck, 10). Their Hitler Youth education convinced them that the older generations were sullied by social prejudices and corruption and that Nazi Germany wouldn’t reach its full potential until they were ready to take control. This idea was further instilled in them thanks to Hitler’s direct encouragement. The Hitler Youth was the only branch of the Nazi party that was allowed to address the Führer with the familiar Du. The fact that Hitler convinced them that he considered them to be his equals only intensified their feelings of disdain towards the average party member, who they believed only joined in order to “further their miserable careers.” (Heck, 21) This illusion of being on equal footing with the Führer takes on an even greater significance in light of the deification of Hitler that was instilled in these young Germans as well.
Being so fervently dedicated to National Socialism, members of the Hitler Youth were naturally in awe of the man whose name their organization bore, and thankful for his gift to them. Heck states in his memoir that Hitler was seen as their deity, and worship of anyone else was highly discouraged (Heck, 78). While religion wasn’t explicitly banned by the party unless one joined the SS, some Hitler Youth leaders encouraged their members to abandon it in order to pursue a life completely devoted to the Führer. Heck recalls being asked by his Sturmbannführer how he expected to serve both the Pope and the Führer at the same time (Heck, 78). Though many youth maintained their connection with their religion, they were nevertheless being taught to regard Hitler as a deity. School children in Cologne were expected to recite invocations before and after meals, thanking Hitler for their “daily bread,” for rescuing Germany from “deepest distress,” and for being the “Protector of youth.” The invocation even praises the Führer for being given to Germany by God when it reads “Führer, my Führer, bequeathed to me by the Lord.” (Welch, 104) This subtle act of thanking the gift for having been given, rather than the giver, suggests that the purpose of the recitation was to instill in the children the idea that their Führer was superior to the Lord. While these recitations were being made by school children who were not necessarily members of the Hitler Youth, both Mahlendorf and Heck stress in their memoirs that their Nazi education did not begin with admission to the HJ, but rather with Hitler’s ascension to power in 1933, when he completely revamped the educational system (Heck 2 and Mahlendorf, 97). Hitler encouraged and even cultivated this god-like worship of himself in order to maintain the loyalty of the next generation.
This deification of Hitler and the party that he led combined with the militaristic indoctrination of Hitler Youth to create a generation of fanatical young Nazis. While the Hitler Youth did not become mandatory until 1939, an astonishing six million boys and girls were involved in the organization before then (Heck, 10). As Mahlendorf stresses, for those Aryan Germans born between 1925 and 1930, “being German and being National Socialist became indistinguishable.” (Mahlendorf, 91) It was this group of children who became the most naïvely fanatical, for they had no political past. (Heck, 21) They remembered little, if anything, about life before Hitler and Nazism. This fanaticism is explicit in the recollections of many Hitler Youth members that fell into this age group. They became willing to sacrifice their lives for their Führer. Heck recalls considering suicide after the incident when he mistakenly disobeyed a direct order from his commanding officer. He was ashamed for having let down himself and his comrades and for the fact that his career in the Luftwaffe, his chance to fight for the nation and the party that he loved, was most likely over (Heck, 75). Above the door to Mahlendorf’s classroom was a framed Nazi slogan “You are nothing, your people are everything.” She recalls buying completely into this. “All that mattered was the fatherland,” she wrote. (Mahlendorf, 83) “I could not imagine a Germany without Hitler and the Nazi party” she later wrote. “If the unthinkable happened and Hitler died…we would all die…I would be loyal-loyal unto death.” (Mahlendorf, 192) As one historian put it, for the Hitler Youth “life was but a preparation for a noble warrior’s death.” (Baird, 2)
Perhaps no two pieces of evidence better back Heck’s claim that the Hitler Youth was the most fanatical branch of the Nazi party than the film “Hitler Youth Quex,” and the Hitler Youth anthem “Fahnenlied.” These two pieces of propaganda directed at the Hitler Youth highlight the level of fanaticism that the party leaders expected from their German youth. The film “Hitler Youth Quex” was based on the mythical life of Herbert Norkus, who was murdered by communists while distributing Nazi flyers during the Kampfzeit. This film, as one historian argues, played a vital role in influencing young Germans to join the Hitler Youth and be willing to sacrifice their lives for Hitler and the cause (Baird, 1). The film paints his selfless death as something admirable and heroic. In no time Herbert Norkus became a symbol for the Hitler Youth. In the words of one member: “Nothing binds us Hitler Youths together more closely than the knowledge of our brotherly link to this dead boy.” (Baird, 2) The story of this child-martyr encouraged countless young Germans to take the oath to make a similar sacrifice should it become necessary; many would. The Hitler Youth anthem also highlights this fanaticism. The last line reads “Our banner means more to us than death.” (Heck, 9) The young members of the Hitler Youth knew precisely what was expected from them, and they eagerly marched forward prepared to sacrifice everything for their Führer.
Another one of the prime aims of the Hitler Youth was to instill in the young the same violent antisemitism that drove Adolf Hitler. Herbst learned that undesirable races were “dark, small, thick,” and had “bent bodies.” (Herbst, 44) Heck recalls being taught that Jews were “devious and cunning overachievers.” (Heck, 3) Mahlendorf writes that she was led to believe that Jews were “subhuman, fat, smelled bad, and were cowards.” Constant propaganda instilled in her that they were also dishonest and deceitful (Mahlendorf, 69). Hitler dreamt that his youth movement would become a formidable force against the international conspiracy of Jewish Bolshevism (Mahlendorf, 91). The above mentioned film “Hitler Youth Quex” addresses this Jewish-Bolshevik stereotype in its portrayal of the leader of Herbst Norkus’ communist murders as “unshaven, squint eyed and repulsive.” (Baird, 507) This abundance of evidence leaves little doubt that members of the Hitler Youth were constantly bombarded with this antisemitism and taught to adhere to it.
The gap, however, between what the Hitler Youth were taught and what they adhered to was wide. Analysis of many of the memoirs of Hitler Youth members in this age group suggests that antisemitic indoctrination did not take hold within the psyche of young Germans as effectively as other aspects of Nazi ideology did. While Heck had no doubt in his mind that a Jewish international conspiracy against Germany existed, he expressed confusion about what exactly that meant and had trouble connecting what he was taught about Jews in the Hitler Youth to the local Jews that he knew. “I couldn’t quite see the connection between…the nice butcher Herr Marks (who never failed to hand me a slice of sausage when we were in his store), and international Jewry.” He was convinced, however, that a connection must have existed. “Why else would our government declare them to be non-Germans?” he wondered (Heck, 27-29).
Herbst, as well, recalls experiencing inner conflict when it came to associating what he was taught about Jews to the Jews that he knew. After Crystal Night, when he was confronted with the fact that his piano instructor was Jewish he debated whether or not he should continue taking lessons from her. “I liked her as a person and as a teacher as well.” He remembers, “I had been taught…that Jews looked dark and hook-nosed, always talked fast, and waved their hands when they did.” She “looked like all the other middle-aged women I knew.” In the end, what compelled him to make his decision was not his Hitler Youth training, but the fact that his friend in the organization, whom he admired, also took piano lessons from her and had no problem with her being Jewish (Herbst, 74-75). While it is no doubt true that some members of the Hitler Youth adhered completely to the lessons of racial hierarchy that were being taught to them, these case studies suggest that it was not universal and that factors outside the Hitler Youth contributed to their feelings towards ‘undesirables.’
When Hitler dreamt up the youth movement which would come to bear his name, he imagined that it would be an organization of the youth led by the youth in which each member was indoctrinated into Nazi ideology and raised to be completely devoted to the party. The Hitler Youth was his assurance that the future of nation would remain loyal to the Germany that he created and that the Third Reich would indeed last one thousand years. While antisemitic indoctrination certainly was one of the primary objectives of this group, a study of the memoirs of many members of the Hitler Youth suggests that it was not the most important. Instead, a strong sense of nationalism, the deification of Hitler and preparation for military service were seen as more important for the future of Nazi Germany. It was these that many members of the Hitler Youth grew to be fanatical about.
Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 11/21/10)
Books and Articles
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: