Berlin, Germany December 1, 1936

On April 20, 1930 (Adolf Hitler’s 41st birthday), the League of German Girls (Bund Deutscher Maedel, abbre­vi­ated BDM) was founded in Germany. It was the female wing of Hitler’s Nazi Party youth orga­ni­za­tion, the Hitler Youth (Hitler­jugend, abbre­vi­ated HJ), whose origins dated to 1922 under several dif­fer­ent names. Recruit­ment in the BDM and HJ jumped begin­ning this date, Decem­ber 1, 1936, with the pas­sage of the Law Con­cern­ing the Hitler Youth (Gesetz ueber die Hitler­jugend). The law required all eli­gi­ble German citi­zens of either gender living with­in the borders of the Third Reich to enroll in one or the other youth branch or its junior affil­i­ate. Excep­tions were briefly made for Catho­lic youth. Girls had to be at least 10 years old to enroll in the junior ver­sion of the BDM and, like boys, had to be free of “hered­i­tary dis­eases.” Not until 1939 did member­ship in the parallel youth pro­grams become fully com­pul­sory. After that the two pro­grams became the only legal orga­ni­za­tions in which German youth could belong.

In both youth branches, the leader­ships’ inten­tion was to indoc­tri­nate their charges in the tenants of Nazi Party ideo­logy, espe­cially German nation­al­ism and theories about con­flict between supe­rior (“Aryan” or Nordic) and infe­rior (Unter­menschen) races. The Nazis lumped Jews and Slavs (i.e., east­ern Euro­peans like Poles and Rus­sians) in the sub­human cate­gory. The impor­tance of self-sacri­fice for the Father­land and loyalty to the Fuehrer (national leader) was front and center. But boys and girls also wanted fun so there was camping, camp­fire sing-alongs, swim­ming, hiking, horse­back riding, track and field sports, gym­nas­tics, lessons on flying, sailing, skating and skiing, and so on. Of par­tic­u­lar focus in the BDM was training females for their roles in German society: obe­di­ent wife, mother, and home­maker. “If a German girl must choose between marri­age or a career,” declared Magda Goeb­bels, wife of Minis­ter of Propa­ganda and Enlighten­ment Joseph Goeb­bels, “she will always be encouraged to marry, because that is what is best for a woman.” The League also strongly warned girls to avoid Rassenschande, or racial defilement.

The oversize role members and graduates of these two youth orga­ni­za­tions played in the Third Reich in the 1930s to the cata­clys­mic end of Hitler’s total­i­tar­ian dicta­tor­ship in May 1945 is truly remark­able. During the 12 years of a highly mili­ta­rized society, roughly 20 mil­lion German youth wore a uni­form of one kind or another. The para­mili­tary Reich Labor Service (Reichs­arbeits­dienst, RAD), divided into sepa­rate sec­tions for men and women ages 18 to 25, worked to miti­gate the effects of unem­ploy­ment on the German eco­nomy and in so doing helped mili­tarize the work­force and indoc­tri­nate workers in Nazi ideo­logy and core values (see photo essay). During the war years, com­pul­sory labor ser­vice brought more young women into the RAD, and the orga­ni­za­tion devel­oped an auxil­iary unit to support the Wehrmacht armed forces.

In the last year of war a half-million women auxili­aries were in the Wehr­macht (Wehr­machts­helferin­nen), serving in the army (Heer), air force (Luft­waffe), and navy (Kriegs­marine). About half were volun­teers; the other half per­formed obli­ga­tory ser­vice con­nected to the war effort (Kriegs­hilfs­dienst). They were assigned duties both inside the Third Reich and inside German-occupied Poland, France, Yugo­slavia, Greece, and Roma­nia. Females were tele­phone, tele­graph, and radio oper­a­tors, also admin­is­tra­tive clerks, typists, messen­gers, and stenog­ra­phers. In mili­tary health ser­vice they served as volun­teer Red Cross nurses. By late 1944, the Luft­waffe flak artil­lery corps listed 160,000 female person­nel. On the darker side, as civil­ian employees of the SS (Schutz­staffel, the Nazi Party’s “Pro­tec­tive Squad­ron”), these SS Gefolge served as camp guards and nurses in death and con­cen­tra­tion camps. Some women became mem­bers of the sinis­ter Waffen (Armed) SS (SS Helferinnen).

The League of German Girls (BDM) During the Hitler Years, 1922–1945

League of German Girls, Berlin chapter, hay harvest 1939League of German Girls in gymnastics demonstration, 1941

Left: As required by Landfrauenjahr (a year of rural service), 18‑year-old girls from the Berlin chapter of the League of German Girls gather in the hay har­vest in this photo­graph from Septem­ber 18, 1939. Girls billeted in a Land­jahr­lager or with farm fami­lies per­forming both farm and domes­tic chores. This same photo was repur­posed in May 1942. The cap­tion in the propa­ganda maga­zine Das Deutsche Maedel (May 1942 issue) read: “Bringing all the enthu­si­asm and life force of their youth, our young daugh­ters of the Reich Labor Ser­vice make their con­tri­bution in the German terri­tories ‘regained’ in the East.” “Regained in the East” was a refer­ence to the Polish terri­tories Nazi Germany annexed after Septem­ber 1, 1939, when Hitler declared war on his east­ern neigh­bor, Poland. Com­pul­sory Reich labor serv­ice in the RAD was a half-year for men and women. Many BDM girls were sent to occu­pied Poland to “Ger­manize” ethnic Germans who were resettled there from further east. The girls were placed under SS supervision.

Right: Young women of the League of German Girls practicing gymnastics in 1941. Dicta­tors like Hitler dis­covered that sports and gym­nas­tics could be con­verted from sources of recrea­tion and enter­tain­ment to a means to an end: phys­i­cally strong and tough, highly patri­otic and moti­vated sol­diers or, put less deli­cately, can­non fodder. That’s exactly what thou­sands upon thou­sands of German youth at ever younger ages who were im­pressed into the Wehr­macht and Volks­sturm (home guard) became in the late stages of World War II. It’s been esti­mated that 100,000 Hitler Youth perished in the last months of the war. During the Battle of Berlin from April 16 to May 2, 1945, Hitler Youth were a signif­i­cant part of the Nazis’ last-ditch, suicidal defenses.

Model German mother and childrenLeague

Left: Nazi propaganda photo: a radiant mother, her radiant daughters, and her radi­ant son attired in a Hitler Youth uni­form pose for the Febru­ary 1943 edi­tion of SS-Leitheft (SS Lead Book­let), a Nazi peri­odi­cal from 1934 to 1945. Trans­lated into Norwe­gian, Danish, Flemish, Dutch, and Esto­nian, the peri­odi­cal cir­cu­lated among profes­sional offi­cers in the SS, the uni­formed elite corps and self-described “polit­ical sol­diers” under the leadership of ReichsfuehrerSS Heinrich Himmler.

Right: Blonde girl in twin braids (Zoepfe) wearing the unif­orm of the League of German Girls and holding the flag of the Hitler Youth. The drawing was used as a poster for the Nazis’ 10th Party Con­gress, named the “Rally of Greater Germany” (Reichs­partei­tag Gross­deutsch­land), Septem­ber 5–12, 1938, which cele­brated Austria’s Anschluss (union) with Nazi Germany. The girl’s image against the back­drop of old town Nurem­berg, minus the text, was a popular postcard.

League of German Girls 1938 posterLeague of German Girls 1938 poster: Build hostels/homes

Left: League of German Girls 1938 poster: “All ten-year-olds [belong] to us.” By 1936, under the Jugend­dienst­pflicht (for­mally, Law Con­cern­ing the Hitler Youth) the Hitler Youth had enrolled 5.4 mil­lion young­sters aged 10–18. Rival youth groups—whether polit­ical, reli­gious, or simply asso­ci­a­tional—dis­banded, were banned, or were swept into the Nazi Party’s collec­tive orga­ni­za­tions, which were based on a mili­tary model of squads, pla­toons, and com­panies. By 1939 Hitler Youth member­ship com­prised 90 per­cent of the coun­try’s youth, up from 60 per­cent in 1935. The pro­phesy of the young girl in the poster had proven nearly correct.

Right: League of German Girls 1938 poster: “Build [HJ] youth hostels and homes” says this fresh-faced, smiling “can rattler.” BDM girls were encouraged to become involved in com­mu­nity ser­vice pro­jects, national wel­fare and chari­table fund-raisers, polit­i­cal activ­ities, and other activ­ities that their leader­ship con­sidered advanced National Socialism (Nazism) and helped build a great and pros­perous New Germany. Activ­ities included col­lecting dona­tions of money, gathering clothing for Winter Relief (Winter­hilfe) and knitting socks, stationing them­selves at train sta­tions where injured sol­diers or refugees needed assist­ance, visiting bed­ridden sol­diers in hos­pi­tals, laying out and tending small vege­table and fruit gar­dens (equivalent to “victory gardens”), etc.

League of German Girls: Caretakers with childrenLeague of German Girls: Baby strollers in park

Left: Females were seen as the “incubators” of Germany’s future sol­diers, as house­keepers and child rearers. Mother­hood was sacro­sanct in Hitler’s Germany, but a marital relation­ship between a man and a preg­nant woman was not required. German women were encouraged, even rewarded, for giving birth to large num­bers of chil­dren, even ille­git­i­mate ones. The govern­ment provided finan­cial incen­tives and nur­series and child­care at no cost. Prolific child bearers were awarded special medals: the Honor Cross of the German Mother (Mutter­kreuz) with Bronze for more than 4 chil­dren, Silver for more than 6, and Gold for 8 or more. In the 5 months between Decem­ber 1939 and May 1940, a total of 121,853 Honor Cross Gold medals were awarded during the annual Mothering Sun­day (else­where Mother’s Day), cele­brated on the second Sunday of May.

Right: During the war years members of the League of German Girls volun­teered to take chil­dren from large famil­ies to the park while the mothers of infants were at work. This domes­tic ser­vice was the flip­side of Land­frauen­jahr or the man­da­tory RAD youth labor service, both described above.

League of German Girls, a Documentary