Munich, Germany March 8, 1922

Adolf Hitler was just over a decade away from being appointed chan­cel­lor of Germany when he announced his inten­tion on this date in 1922 of forming a youth wing for his National­sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiter­partei (NSDAP), or Nazi Party, of which he was party leader. At first the Nazi youth organi­za­tion was called Jugend­bund der NSDAP (German Youngsters of the NSDAP) and later Gross­deutsche Jugend­bewegung (Greater German Youth Move­ment) following Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch in Novem­ber 1923, his trial and conviction for trea­son, and his incar­cer­ation. Less than two years after Hitler’s early release for good behavior from Bavaria’s Lands­berg Prison the name of the Nazis’ youth organi­za­tion was changed to Hitler-Jugend Bund der deutschen Arbeiter­jugend (Hitler Youth League of German Worker Youth, or Hitler Youth for short), often abbreviated as “HJ” in German.

At the time of its inaugural meeting on May 13, 1922, the Nazis’ new youth organi­za­tion was just one of many youth organi­za­tions—secular (scouting, for instance), polit­ical, and religious—that sprang up in Kaiser Wil­helm II’s Germany and in the post-World War I Weimar Republic. Four years later, in mid-1926, the Hitler Youth became an inte­gral part of the Nazi Party’s Sturm­ab­teilung (Storm Detach­ment, or SA for short), the party’s para­military wing of brown­shirted storm­troopers who provided security at Nazi rallies and assem­blies and played a signi­fi­cant and violent role in Hitler’s ascend to power in the 1920s and 1930s. By 1930 the Hitler­jugend had some 18,000 teen­age boys aged 14 to 18 in its ranks. A junior branch, Deutsches Jung­volk (Young People, known by the initials DJ or DJV), was estab­lished in 1928 for boys between the ages of 10 and 14. Two paral­lel organi­za­tions, Jung­maedel (Young Girls) and Bund Deutscher Maedel (League of German Girls [BDM or BDM-Maedel]), came into exis­tence several years later for girls aged 10 to 14 and 14 to 18, respectively.

The multilevel Nazi youth movement took off spectac­u­larly under 26-year-old Jugend­fuehrer des Deutschen Reiches (Youth Leader of Germany) Baldur von Schirach following Hitler’s assump­tion of power as German chan­cel­lor on Janu­ary 30, 1933. The chan­cel­lor­ship made Hitler the second-most power­ful man in the coun­try after aging Presi­dent Paul von Hinden­burg. Schirach saw it his mission to elimi­nate all 400 rival youth organi­za­tions, whose members numbered close to 6 million. Early that April Schirach sprang into action, quickly disbanding Commu­nist, Socialist, and Jewish youth organi­za­tions after illegally acquiring their member­ship rosters. Protes­tant groups (but not ini­tially Catholic ones by agree­ment with the Vati­can) were pres­sured to jump on Schirach’s wagon. Organi­za­tions that resisted Schirach’s pres­sure were pre­vented by the police and Nazi Party storm­troopers from holding gatherings under the pre­text of being a “public nui­sance.” Some groups went underground.

By the end of 1933 Schirach had absorbed over a dozen and a half German youth leagues, totaling 2.3 million members, into his brown­shirt fold. (One figure put the figure at over 3.5 million members.) On the eve of World War II in Europe (Septem­ber 1939), between 7 million and nearly 8 million boys and girls—roughly 80 per­cent of eligible youths—were enrolled in one of Schirach’s four youth organi­za­tions. This made the Nazi youth move­ment the largest in the world. Soon these same chil­dren and teen­agers would be called to mili­tary ser­vice—engulfed in a swelling tsu­nami of vio­lence, oppres­sion, bestial cruelty, system­atic murder, and human wreck­age that swept over all Europe between 1939 and the end of Hitler’s Third Reich in 1945. For nearly six years Hitler Youth labored in the ranks of a mass mur­derer and, in so doing, contributed to the deaths and injuries of millions of people.

Hitler Youth: Planting Toxic Seeds in the Soil of Impressionable Minds

Platoon of Deutsches Jungvolk, 1933Deutsches Jungvolk recruiters (no date)

Left: Deutsches Jungvolk fanfare trumpeters at a Nazi rally in the Rhine­land-Palatinate city of Worms in 1933. Their banners illus­trate the Deutsches Jung­volk rune (Old Norse) insig­nia beloved by the Nazis. Following the enact­ment of the “Law on the Hitler Youth” on Decem­ber 1, 1936, all healthy boys (excluding Jews) had to be regis­tered with the Reich Youth Office in March of the year in which they would reach the age of ten; those who were found to be racially accept­able were expected to join the DJ. Although not com­pul­sory, the failure of eli­gible boys to join the DJ was seen as a failure of civic respon­si­bility on the part of their parents. On March 25, 1939, member­ship in the DJ and Hitler Youth was made man­da­tory for all German males between 10 and 18. Parents could be fined, impri­soned, or have their chil­dren taken away for failing to regis­ter their off­spring. Boys (and girls) were excluded if they had pre­viously been found guilty of “dis­honor­able acts,” if they had a hered­i­tary disease or were mentally handi­capped (“unfit for ser­vice”), if they could not prove their “Aryan” (Nordic or Cau­ca­sian) descent, or if they were Jewish (even partly Jewish), were Jewish con­verts to Chris­tianity, or were Jehovah’s Wit­nesses. (Jehovah’s Wit­nesses refused to swear oaths to Hitler or perform mili­tary service.) Others could be dismissed (or worse) from the Nazi youth organi­za­tions for insub­or­di­nation, missing man­da­tory meetings and parade drills, non­con­for­mance, and more; their misconduct was noted in an individual’s record book.

Right: Two members of the Deutshes Jungvolk (for boys between 10 and 14, where they were called Pimpfe, sing. Pimpf, “squirt”) hang recruiting signs on their bicycles reading “Are you a German boy?” and “Join our Jung­volk” (no date). Efforts by recruiters such as these young­sters helped the Hitler Youth gain in num­bers and strength, for many of their cohorts found mem­ber­ship and com­rade­ship in the Nazi youth program an irresis­tible attrac­tion and a safe­guard against being treated by their peers as out­casts. By 1939 the cohort of boys aged 10 to 14 con­sti­tuted the largest of the four Hitler Youth branches, in large part because all athletic and sport leagues were closed to them. Boys younger than 10 could hang around boys in the Deutsches Jungvolk but not participate formally in their activities.

Hitler Youth navigate obstacle courseExuberant female Hitler Youth

Left: Hitler Youth teenagers navigate an obstacle course under the guidance of their platoon leaders. Activities for boys included vigorous games of hide and seek called “Trapper and Indian.” They also played war games in which the boys formed teams, tied red or blue strings around their wrists, and hunted down the “enemy” to swipe their wrist­bands (proof of kill). Fierce team com­pet­i­tive­ness often degen­er­ated into fist­fights and out­right may­hem. Younger, weaker boys were bloodied while platoon leaders stood by or even encour­aged the fighting in field exer­cises that were intended to toughen the boys and make them indifferent to pain and suffering.

Right: This photo shows a group of exuberant girls. Just as he did the boys, Hitler har­nessed female enthu­siasm, patriotism, and lust for adven­ture and excite­ment to the future of his Nazi Party and a Greater (expanded) Germany. Both sexes wore brown uni­forms (the color of the SA’s), earned merits (e.g., the pres­ti­gious Hitler Youth Achieve­ment Medal), practiced hours­long parade drills, ran races, swam, performed calis­thenics, did long and high jump, threw javelins, and learned to read maps and compasses. They com­peted in cross-coun­try hikes (girls two hours, boys 1‑1/2 or 3 days depending on age), camped out, and sat around camp­fires singing about battle, victory, and death (Kampf, Sieg, und Tod), or dying heroically for their flag (Unter der Fahne Sterben Wir), or boasting “Today Germany belongs to us and tomor­row the whole world” (“Heute gehoert uns Deutsch­land und morgen die ganze Welt”). They listened to and watched hate-filled lectures and films full of racist and other ide­o­log­ical cant, recited Nazi-inspired slogans, read propa­ganda publi­ca­tions (pre­dict­ably, Hitler Youth had their own news­papers, maga­zines, and hand­books), and attended local, regional, and national youth rallies.

Hitler Youth experiences glider trainingHitler Youth at Nuremberg Party rally, 1934

Left: As the Nazi Party’s national youth leader and head of the Hitler Youth from 1931 to 1940, Baldur von Schirach (1907–1974) set the mili­taristic tone of the youth organ­i­za­tion, which parti­ci­pated in mili­tary-style exer­cises such as digging fox­holes and storming trenches, as well as prac­ticing use of mili­tary equip­ment, like shooting rifles, tossing stick gre­nades, and operating Panzer­faeuste (bazookas), anti­air­craft weapons, even tanks. The Hitler Youth had special­ized sec­tions run by the army (numer­ous), air force (Flieger-HJ), and navy (Marine-HJ). In this photo a Hitler Youth is given glider instru­ction during the special “Day of Military Training” run by regular members of German armed forces.

Right: At the Nuremberg Nazi Party rally of 1934 Schirach accom­panied Hitler as the two men inspected some of the 30,000 mem­bers of the Hitler Youth standing in full dress uni­form, row upon long row, on the parade field. A Nazi Party mem­ber since 1925 (he was 18) and an anti-Semite to the core, Schirach worshiped at the altar of Adolf Hitler. Later he served his master as Gau­leiter (party leader) and Reichs­statt­halter (Reich Governor) of Greater Vienna (1941–1945), whence he zealously dispatched 65,000 Jews from Austria to German death camps. After the war he was con­victed of crimes against humanity by the Inter­na­tional Mili­tary Tribu­nal (IMT) (Nuremberg Trial) and sen­tenced to 20 years’ imprison­ment. He died nearly 8 years later following his release and the publication of his memoirs, Ich glaubte an Hitler (I Believed in Hitler).

Youth in Hitler’s Germany, a BBC Production