Hitler Youth: how the Third Reich used children’s organisations to wage war

They started out as youth groups designed to educate German boys and girls in Nazi principles and secure the longevity of the Reich for future generations. But, over the course of the Second World War, clubs such as the Hitler Youth became Germany’s back-up armies, with children as young as 12 being armed with weapons and teenagers sent to fight Soviet forces on the front line

Youths salute Adolf Hitler

As the irreverent 2020 film Jojo Rabbit explores the roles of children in the Third Reich, historian Emma Butcher reveals more about these youth groups and explains how their young recruits became the final frontline for Germany…

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On 14 September 1935, Adolf Hitler stepped up to a podium facing a 50,000-strong crowd in the rally grounds of Nuremberg. His fists clenched, he spoke in a sharp, angry tone that captivated his audiences. This time, the entire crowd was made up of Hitler Youth members, an organisation created by Hitler in 1933 that was used to educate and train boys aged 10 to 18 in Nazi principles. In his speech Hitler cited his 1925 manifesto, Mein Kampf, describing his ideal Hitler Youth subject: “Swift as a greyhound, as tough as leather, and as hard as Krupp’s steel.”

A group of boys in Hitler Youth, c1939. (Photo by Heinrich Hoffmann/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
A group of boys in Hitler Youth, c1939. (Photo by Heinrich Hoffmann/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

How many children joined the Hitler Youth?

The youth were the future of the Nazi regime’s survival, and their unified militancy was vital to Hitler’s utopian vision of a thriving fatherland. At the time of his 1935 address, almost 60 per cent of German boys had joined the Hitler Youth, and in 1936 it became a state agency that all young Aryans were expected to join to be educated physically, intellectually and morally. In fact, the youth group became inescapable – all other youth groups either disbanded or were absorbed into the movement, and opportunities such as summer camps and sports facilities were now only open to members.

By early 1939, around 82 per cent of eligible boys in the Greater Reich belonged to the Hitler Youth, making it the largest youth organisation in the world. On 25 March 1939 the law on membership tightened, and it became mandatory for all Germans aged 10 to 18 to join; those who failed to comply were threatened with criminal prosecution, including parents who refused to relinquish control of their youngsters.

Gender division was paramount to Nazi strategy. Boys were considered future soldiers for the Nazi cause, and as such every activity from local to national level was designed around physical strength and experience of military drills and weaponry.

Hitler Youth hike
Members of the Hitler Youth set off on a route march near Nuremberg, 9 September 1937. (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The League of German Girls

Girls, meanwhile, were part of a different organisation, branded the League of German Girls. Although physical fitness was valued, sports tended to be more focused on unity and working together, such as synchronised gymnastics.

Members of the League of German Girls playing on the Reichssportfeld in Berlin, 5 May 1938. (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Members of the League of German Girls playing on the Reichssportfeld in Berlin, 5 May 1938. (Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The League was primarily concerned with teaching girls aged 10 to 18 domestic skills such as cooking, sewing and first aid; essentially the normative gender roles that ensured good matrimony and motherhood. As Ilse McKee wrote in her 1960 autobiography, Tomorrow the World: “We were Germany’s hope in the future, and it was our duty to breed and rear the new generation of sons and daughters who would carry on the tradition of the thousand-year-old Reich.” The youth were preparing for the next youth; the Nazi regime was to dominate the world, and sustain it.

 

The Hitler Youth and Jojo Rabbit

In the recently-released film Jojo Rabbit, directed by Taika Waititi, the plot focuses on a young boy named Jojo living in Nazi Germany towards the end of war. His imaginary friend is a childish yet supportive version of Hitler, who encourages him to be the Nazi he dreams of being.

The film is interesting because it highlights the role of German children during these later war years, as they transitioned from the fatherland’s strength and hope for the future, to weapons of the ‘now’. The militant talk that implored young subjects to devote themselves to the strength and defence of the fatherland was binding. In the film, at a Hitler Youth camp Jojo is instructed to kill a rabbit, told “we want hardened warriors – those who are prepared to kill at will”. This is similar to the Hitler Youth vow: “Be ready as a brave soldier, to stake my life at any time for this oath.”

Jojo Rabbit
Taika Waititi (left) and Roman Griffin Davis star as Adolf Hitler and Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler, in the 2019 film Jojo Rabbit. (Photo by PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy Stock Photo)

Young recruits

The rhetoric of war became an important part of German children’s identities: by 1943 militant oaths were no longer the chant of campfires but real-life pledges, while the Hitler Youth and League of German Girls were used as reserve units due to depleted German manpower. By 1945, sectors of the German army, such as the ‘Volkssturm’ (People’s Storm), were using children as young as 12; there were even all-female ‘Werwolf’ (Werewolf) guerrilla units. These young recruits became the final frontline for Germany and were brandished at the forefront of its propaganda machine.

Hitler Youth rifle training
A Hitler Youth recruit being trained in rifle use by a soldier during the Second World War. (Photo by European/FPG/Getty Images)

On 20 April 1945, as the war was drawing to a close, 19 boys aged between 10 and 14 were paraded in front of Hitler’s bunker, where he would later kill himself. The footage was broadcast as a newsreel in the few cinemas left standing in Berlin – the boys have their Iron Crosses pinned to their chest and Hitler’s jarring words remain hopeful, almost paternal: “Despite the gravity of these times, I remain firmly convinced that we will achieve victory in this battle, and above all for Germany’s youth and you, my boys.”

One of these boys was Alfred Czech, known as Hitler’s youngest hero, who earned his medal saving German soldiers as his home village was attacked. In 2005 he was interviewed about his encounter and quick transition into soldierhood in the Volkssturm: “As a small boy, I didn’t reflect much, I just wanted to do something for my people,” he said. “I didn’t think it was insane to send children into battle. It was war.” The interviewer, Tony Paterson, notes that Czech still has a photograph of his encounter framed on the wall, hanging behind his budgerigar. For many of Germany’s youth, the idea of the ‘fatherland’ sustained, and Hitler’s words continued to be trusted by his children.

Hitler Youth
Members of the Hitler Youth who were conscripted to the Volkssturm with a machine gun in the defence of Berlin in April 1945. (Photo by Arthur Grimm/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Children on the frontline

The blind determination of a defeated Germany saw the regime push children to participate in dangerous situations and risk almost certain death. One of the most shocking situations children found themselves in was being armed with anti-tank ‘panzerfausts’ and anti-aircraft guns. In Jojo Rabbit, this episode is parodied when Jojo’s friend Yorki struggles to hold one of the weapons, which is twice the size of him, before dropping it and accidently blowing out a building. In reality, the scenes were not much different. At the battle of Berlin in April­­ and May 1945, boys and girls were on the frontline using their quasi-military training in a last effort to stop the Soviet Army invading Berlin. There was even a radio station, Radio Werewolf, that rallied children with the cry of “Besser tot als rot” – better dead than red.

During the battle a young girl named Theresa Moelle spotted, along with her friend Anneliese, a Soviet tank coming towards them. Anneliese gave Theresa her panzerfaust and she fired: “There was a flash, followed by a puff of smoke. Suddenly, the lid of the tank blew off, followed by a rush of bright red and yellow flame and sparks.” Later, Theresa remembers being captured, bound and gagged by Soviet soldiers, surrounded by a sea of severed German heads while their captors urinated on a poster of Hitler.

This was not an exceptional encounter. During Germany’s final desperate weeks, more children were rounded up, taken out of school and sent out to the frontlines against the Soviets. Heinz Shuetze later recalled that at just 15 years old he was put in an SS uniform and sent to fight Soviet forces on the front line after being given half a day’s training with a panzerfaust. A survivor from Soviet confrontations, Guenter Dullni, remembered how “[the Soviets] had no mercy for child soldiers, particularly when you were slapped into an SS uniform”. Against all the laws and principles of war, the brutality exhibited in these final battles demonstrated that children were not eligible for protection, but merely an easy target.

Throughout the duration of the war, Germany’s youth groups transitioned from gender-divided clubs that secured Germany’s future strength to back-up armies composed of miniature recruits and, ultimately, gun fodder. Whereas once German youth represented the longevity and strength of the Reich, each child quickly became disposable when all future hopes were dashed by impending defeat. Through testimony, and now film, these children’s experiences are being highlighted, showing how dependant ideologies are on mobilised youth, and how entire generations can be manipulated and mutated into weapons and soldiers.

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Dr Emma Butcher is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow and researcher at the University of Leicester. She is author of The Brontës and War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019) and the upcoming Children in the Age of Modern War (Oxford University Press, 2022).