Attitudes toward children in Nazi Germany were derived mainly from Adolf Hitler. Even during his early years as NSDAP leader, when leading the nation was but a distant dream, Hitler emphasised the great importance of children. Unlike other political leaders, Hitler did not disregard young people or under-estimate their political value. His vision of an enduring Third Reich hinged not only on the loyalty and obedience of adults, but also of their offspring. Hitler wanted Nazi ideology to appeal to all levels of society, including the young. He also wanted to provide children in Nazi Germany with a sense of purpose and community, something which had been missing from his own listless childhood. But the over-riding purpose of Hitler’s youth policies was to fill the minds of the young with ideas about racial supremacy, German expansion and future military conquests. He wrote of Nazi policy in 1933:
My program for educating youth is hard … weakness must be hammered away. In my castles of the Teutonic Order, a new youth will grow up, before which the world will tremble. I want a brutal, domineering, fearless and cruel youth. Youth must be all that. It must bear pain. There must be nothing weak and gentle about it. The free, splendid beast of prey must once again flash from its eyes…That is how I will eradicate thousands of years of human domestication…That is how I will create the New Order.
Education therefore became an important tool of control. The NSDAP government used the state education system to disseminate Nazi ideology, enhance loyalty to Hitler and prepare millions of German boys for military service. During the mid-1930s the Nazis established a party-controlled education system. It began by forming its own teachers’ union, the Nationalsozialistischer Lehrerbund (Nazi Teachers’ League). Teachers of Jewish origin or socialist political beliefs were frog-marched out of the profession. Non-Nazi teachers were either pressured to join the Nationalsozialistischer Lehrerbund or levered out of their jobs. As the Nazis infiltrated schools, they shaped curriculum to convey their own values and political beliefs. At the forefront of the Nazi syllabus was racial education: ‘enlightening’ children about Aryan supremacy and the despicable traits of untermensch (sub-human people and races). Probably the most important subject in this process was history. Pro-Nazi histories were filled with tales of Germanic heroes and warriors, political leaders and military conquests, to reinforce the myth of Aryan supremacy. In geography, German children learned about the unfair Treaty of Versailles, the inequitable re-drawing of European borders and the need for lebensraum (‘living space’) for the German people. Physical education and sport were also priorities in Nazi schools. Other academic subjects, such as mathematics and the sciences, were neglected in contrast.
The Hitler Youth
Gerhard Rempel, historian
The Nazis did not rely solely on schools for the indoctrination of German children. Much better known was the Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth), a party-run organisation inspired to some degree by the British scouting movement. Like most NSDAP departments, the Hitler Youth was not systematically organised but developed and changed over time. The Nazi movement had contained a handful of youth groups since 1922, organised at local levels by individuals from the SA. There was even a degree of competition between these groups, with each claiming to be the party’s ‘official’ youth movement. In July 1926 a young party member, Kurt Gruber, established the Hitler Youth and worked to integrate it into the SA. By 1930 the Hitler Youth contained more than 25,000 boys between the ages of 14 and 18. It served as an important feeder group for the SA, while older members of the Hitler Youth sometimes joined in SA-led street violence.
Hitler’s rise to the chancellorship in 1933 produced a spike in Hitler Youth membership. The Nazi leader appointed Baldur von Schirach as Reichsjugendfuhrer (‘German youth leader’) and tasked him with the expansion and re-organisation of the group on a national level. Under von Schirach’s leadership, the Hitler Youth adopted and embraced the same symbols, psychology and appeals to nationalism that were employed in the SA and SS. As German schools were infiltrated by Nazi propaganda in the mid-1930s, they were also used to promote the Hitler Youth and to pressure children into joining. The Nazi government encouraged enlistment in the Hitler Youth by banning rival groups, like the Boy Scouts and Catholic youth leagues. The membership of these banned groups was often swallowed up by the Hitler Youth. By the end of 1937 the organisation’s leadership claimed it had as many as five million members, or 64 per cent of all German adolescents.
Militarising German youth
The Hitler Youth served two main functions: physical training and ideological indoctrination. It was essentially a paramilitary group for boys aged 14-18, to prepare them for entry into the armed forces. The Hitler Youth had similar uniforms, ranks and insignia to the SA. Its organisational structure was also similar: there were local units, regional divisions and a national leadership. Most units of the Hitler Youth met once through the week and again on weekends, under the guidance of adult party members. They engaged in a range of physical activities and skills training, including sports and games, bushwalking, orienteering and map-reading, knot-tying and so forth. Weekends and school holidays were an opportunity for units to camp or bivuoac, or to attend larger regional rallies. From the mid-1930s the group’s training regimen became more militaristic, with more emphasis on marching and drills, weapons training, obstacle and assault courses, camouflage and combat tactics.
These physical activities were accompanied and underpinned by racial and ideological teachings. Hitler Youth chapters attended lectures and instructional sessions about Hitler’s life, Nazi ideas and racial theory. New recruits were required to take an oath of loyalty to Hitler, while members often recited a bastardised form of the Lord’s Prayer:
Adolf Hitler, you are our great Fuhrer.
Thy name makes the enemy tremble.
Thy will alone is law upon the earth.
Let us hear daily thy voice; order us by thy leadership.
For we will obey to the end and even with our lives.
We praise thee! Hail Hitler!”
Fuhrer, my Fuhrer, give me by God.
Protect and preserve my life for long.
You saved Germany in time of need.
I thank you for my daily bread.
Be with me for a long time, do not leave me, Fuhrer.
My Fuhrer, my faith, my light, Hail to my Fuhrer!
Boys and girls
As well as the Hitler Youth, there were organisations for girls and younger boys. Pimpf was the most junior branch, for boys between the ages of six and ten. Pimpf boys completed community service, physical activities and outdoor skills, such as camping – but like their comrades in the Hitler Youth, members of Pimpf were also subjected to lessons about Nazi values and political views. They had to memorise the group’s handbook, Pimpf im Dienst (‘Young Ones in Service’) and pass exams before ‘graduating’. At age ten Pimpf members could join the Jungvolk, the precursor to the Hitler Youth.
There were also separate groups for girls, including the Jungmadelbund (the ‘German Girls’ League’, for girls aged 10-14) and the Bund Deutscher Madel (BDM, or the ‘League of German Maidens’ for girls aged 14-18). While the Hitler Youth prepared boys for military service, the girls’ groups prepared members for productive lives as wives and home-makers. There was much emphasis on the importance of German mothers, both as racial progenitors and the nurturers of Aryan children. Girls in the BDM completed activities like sports and calisthenics, intended to enhance fitness, strength and beauty. There were also classes on grooming, hair and make-up, needlework, German traditions and – of course – Nazi ideology and values.
1. Hitler placed great value in German children, as an avenue for securing the future and ensuring continued loyalty.
2. On taking power the Nazis began infiltrating schools and education, replacing non-Nazi teachers and curriculum.
3. Most Nazi youth policy revolved around several party-run youth groups, such as the Hitler Youth and the Jungvolk.
4. These groups combined paramilitary training and skills with racial and political teachings and indoctrination.
5. The activities and teachings of girls’ groups reflected traditional Nazi conceptions of women and gender roles.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Children in Nazi Germany”, Alpha History, accessed [today's date], http://alphahistory.com/nazigermany/children-in-nazi-germany/.