As part of his plan to facilitate the evolution of Germany into a powerful National Socialist state and the German people into an idealized Aryan master race, Adolph Hitler instituted a youth movement that became known as the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth). First officially established in 1926, the Hitler Youth was aimed at the indoctrination of young Germans in the extreme political, racial, and militaristic ideologies on which the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) was founded. By the time enrollment in the Hitler Youth became mandatory in 1939, its ranks had already swelled to include millions of young Germans, male and female alike. Though it was ultimately disbanded at the conclusion of World War II, the effects of the Hitler Youth movement continued to be felt for years to come.
Birth of the Hitler Youth
In the early twentieth century, youth groups tied to various political, social, and religious beliefs flourished throughout Germany. Many of these organizations, however, did not survive the turmoil that the country endured as the result of its overwhelming defeat in World War I. Those that did survive the war itself generally did not fare much better. So disillusioned were young Germans with the failings of their country in the Great War that they turned away almost en masse from the remnants of the youth organizations they had previously embraced. Believing that Germany’s future was in their hands, disaffected young people instead began turning to new youth groups, most of which were directly tied to the political ideologies and parties that emerged in the post-war era.
One of the political parties that gained prominence in the years following World War I was the German Workers’ Party (DAP). While the early DAP leadership did not initially regard German youths as an integral part of the organization’s political strategy, one prominent party member felt differently: Adolph Hitler. To the charismatic and ambitious Hitler, the country’s young people were the key to transforming Germany into a strong, united nation capable of dominating on the world stage. As Hitler’s power and influence in the DAP—which became known as the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) or Nazi Party in 1920—steadily increased, so too did his desire to reach young Germans. When he became the party’s chairman in 1921, one of his earliest moves was to create the first NSDAP youth organization, called the Jugendbund. Founded on March 8, 1922, the Jugendbund was aimed at popularizing Nazi ideals among the German youth. Other similar NSDAP youth groups were also formed during this period. In 1924, the Jugendbund, having survived the near-collapse of the NSDAP following the previous year’s disastrous Beer Hall Putsch by going underground, was renamed the Greater German Youth Movement. Two years later, the organization, by then the most popular NSDAP youth group, was chosen to be the official youth movement of the Nazi Party and was subsequently redubbed the Hitlerjugend, or Hitler Youth.
Membership in the Hitler Youth grew at an astonishing rate. After starting with only several thousand members at its founding, the movement’s ranks swelled to include 25,000 by 1930 and approximately 7.3 million before the end of the decade. In 1939, with Hitler and the Nazi Party firmly in control of Germany, enrollment in the Hitler Youth became mandatory for all children starting at age ten. As Europe stood on the brink of World War II, Hitler’s plan to fuel his war machine with the power of German youths was in full effect.
Purpose of the Hitler Youth
From the outset, the Hitler Youth was the lifeblood of Hitler’s political strategy and the foundation on which he planned to build his ideal nation. First and foremost, the Hitler Youth was an essential part of the broader propaganda campaign Hitler utilized to spread and popularize Nazi ideology and strengthen his party’s hold over Germany. By placing his nation’s youths at the forefront of his political platform, Hitler hoped to instill in his countrymen the belief that Germany could reinvent itself as a strong, vibrant state and a potential superpower. With the Hitler Youth, Hitler could ensure that young Germans would submit to his authority and adhere to his directives.
The Hitler Youth also served as the means through which Hitler intended to realize his dream of creating an Aryan super race. Perhaps the most important part of Hitler’s overall strategy for Germany was producing a genetically superior race of Aryan Germans through selective breeding and ethnic cleansing. To realize this goal, Hitler conceived of using the Hitler Youth to provide the youngest Germans with the indoctrination and training they would need to grow into the Aryan supermen he envisioned and eventually perpetuate his master race through procreation. In the same vein, the Hitler Youth also served as one of the ways in which he could weed out any of those he deemed unfit to be part of the new Germany.
While it was central to Hitler”s grander long-term aspirations, the Hitler Youth also served a more practical purpose in the short term. To facilitate his extravagant military ambitions, Hitler needed to create a sizeable military capable of dominating Germany’s enemies on the battlefield. The Hitler Youth provided him with a way to recruit and train the young men who would eventually become his soldiers. Through the indoctrination and military instruction offered by the Hitler Youth, Hitler could ensure that he had a continuous source of manpower for his campaigns.
Functions of the Hitler Youth
The Hitler Youth was organized into three distinct sections. The main section catered to boys aged fourteen to eighteen, while the Deutsches Jungvolk (German Youth) was designed for younger boys aged ten to fourteen. The third group was the girls’ division of the Hitler Youth, called the League of German Girls. All three incarnations of the Hitler Youth were designed to complement the already heavily Nazi-influenced education to which German children were exposed.
In essence, the Hitler Youth was a type of scouting organization that emphasized the values and skills the Nazi Party deemed necessary for the advancement of the German people. Through regular meetings and other special group activities including sports and camping, the Hitler Youth encouraged physical fitness, national loyalty, adherence to Hitler’s philosophies on race, and commitment to fighting for the good of Germany. The Nazi Party also used massive public Hitler Youth rallies as a propaganda tool to suggest national unity.
For boys, enrollment in the Hitler Youth predominantly meant training for eventual military service from the outset. Upon entering the German Youth division, which was first established in 1928, German boys underwent a form of basic training that included lessons in weaponry, semaphore, and hiking. They were also taught to adopt Nazi ideals so that they would grow into loyal, obedient soldiers. When members of the German Youth reached age fourteen, they moved to the primary male division of the Hitler Youth, in which they received additional training and indoctrination. After reaching age eighteen, these members graduated from the Hitler Youth and were either immediately enlisted in the military or drafted into the Reich Labor Service, which offered job opportunities for those who were to remain on the home front.
Since women were not expected to serve in the armed forces, the League of German Girls (Bund Deutsches Mädel, or BDM) division of the Hitler Youth was not as heavily focused on military-style training as its male counterpart. Instead, the BDM focused on grooming girls for their role in supporting and sustaining the German people off the battlefield. Specifically, girls in the BDM, in addition to undergoing the requisite Nazi indoctrination, were made to participate in group athletics that emphasized a less vigorous form of physical training intended to maximize fitness and health in anticipation of their eventual role as mothers. In this way, the adult leaders of the Hitler Youth hoped to ensure a strong, healthy army of young women ready to bear and raise the first generation of the Aryan super race.
Fall of the Hitler Youth
As World War II wore on and the tide of battle increasingly turned against Germany, Nazi officials, desperate for manpower, began turning to the Hitler Youth for support. By late 1944, boys younger than sixteen years old were being conscripted to defend Germany’s borders from the quickly advancing Allied Forces. In the war’s final days, thousands of Hitler Youth members, some as young as eight, were lost in battle.
Although the Hitler Youth was officially disbanded after the Allied victory, the organization’s influence continued to be felt for years to come. After the war, various scouting groups emerged in both East and West Germany. In Russian-controlled East Germany, one such group, the Free German Youth, modeled itself after the Hitler Youth while replacing Hitler’s Nazi ideologies with communist beliefs. The Free German Youth continued to exist until the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, at which point the last remnant of the Hitler Youth finally disappeared.