As with women and gender, Nazi ideas and attitudes about children were derived chiefly from Adolf Hitler.
Even in the early years of the Nazi Party, when leading the nation was a distant dream, Hitler placed great emphasis on the importance of children. Unlike other political leaders, Hitler did not disregard young people or underestimate their political value. His vision of an enduring Third Reich was based not just on the loyalty and obedience of adults but also their offspring.
Hitler wanted the National Socialist movement to appeal to all levels of society, including the young. He wanted to provide children in Nazi Germany with a sense of purpose, achievement and community, something conspicuously absent during his own listless childhood.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Hitler’s youth policies aimed at filling the minds of young Germans with ideas about racial purity, Aryan supremacy, German expansion and future military conquests. In 1933, Hitler wrote of Nazi policy:
“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.”
As a consequence, education and training became important tools for the Nazis. 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 gradually implemented a party-controlled education system. It began by forming its own teachers’ union, the Nationalsozialistischer Lehrerbund (Nazi Teachers’ League). Teachers of Jewish origin, liberal or socialist political beliefs were bullied and frog-marched out of the profession; non-Nazi teachers were pressured to join the Nationalsozialistischer Lehrerbund or face losing their jobs.
As the Nazis infiltrated schools, they shaped the 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).
The most important subject in this process was history, which was used to convey and reinforce Nazi values and assumptions. Pro-Nazi histories reinforced the myth of Aryan supremacy in Europe. They were filled with tales of Germanic heroes and warriors, political leaders and military conquests.
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. Other academic subjects, such as mathematics and the sciences, were neglected in contrast.
Nazi youth groups
The Nazis did not rely solely on schools for the indoctrination of children. Much better known to history are groups like the Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth), a Nazi-run organisation partly inspired by the British scouting movement.
Like many NSDAP departments, the Hitler Youth was not systematically organised but evolved and changed over time. The Nazi movement had contained a handful of youth groups since 1922, organised at local levels by individuals from the Sturmabteilung (SA). There was even a degree of competition between these groups, with each claiming to be the NSDAP’s ‘official’ youth movement.
In July 1926, a young party member named Kurt Gruber established the Hitler Youth. He then worked to integrate it into the Sturmabteilung or SA. By 1930, the Hitler Youth contained more than 25,000 boys between the ages of 14 and 18. It served as a valuable feeder group for the SA. Some older members of the Hitler Youth also participated in SA-orchestrated protests, pogroms and street violence.
The Hitler Youth under Baldur von Schirach
Hitler’s rise to the chancellorship in 1933 prompted a significant spike in Hitler Youth membership. The Nazi leader appointed Baldur von Schirach as Reichsjugendfuhrer (German youth leader) and tasked him with expanding and organising the group on a national level.
Under von Schirach’s leadership, the Hitler Youth adopted and embraced the same symbols, culture, psychology and appeals to nationalism employed in the SA and Schutzstaffel (SS). Schirach also worked to expand the Hitler Youth and streamline the movement of its older members into Nazi paramilitary groups.
As German schools were infiltrated by Nazi propaganda in the mid-1930s, they were also used to promote and expand the Hitler Youth. Many schools became feeder groups for the Hitler Youth, with children pressured into joining. The Nazis also funnelled children into the Hitler Youth by banning alternative or rival groups, such as the Boy Scouts and various Catholic youth leagues. The membership of these banned groups was often acquired and swallowed up by the Hitler Youth.
By the end of 1937, the leadership of the Hitler Jugend claimed it had as many as five million members or 64 per cent of all German adolescent boys.
Life in the Hitler Youth
The Hitler Youth was dominated by physical training and ideological indoctrination. In time, it became a de facto paramilitary group for boys aged 14-18, a means of preparing them for entry into the armed forces.
The Hitler Youth had uniforms, ranks and insignia similar to those of the SA. Its organisational structure was also similar: local units, regional divisions and 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, hiking, orienteering and map-reading, knot-tying and bushcraft. Weekends and school holidays were an opportunity for units to camp or bivouac, or 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 many members 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!”
Groups for younger children
Beneath the Hitler Youth were several organisations for younger boys and girls. Pimpf was the most junior branch, its membership open to boys between the ages of six and ten. Pimpf boys completed community service, physical activities and outdoor skills such as camping.
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 group 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 various girls’ groups prepared their members for lives as wives, mothers and homemakers. There was a significant 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 callisthenics, 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. Adolf Hitler placed great value in German children. He viewed them as essential for ensuring loyalty for the NSDAP and securing the future of his imagined Third Reich.
2. After taking power the Nazis began infiltrating schools and education, removing Jews, socialists and others from the teaching profession and revising the curriculum to include Nazi ideology and values.
3. Nazi youth policy also revolved around several party-run youth groups, such as the Hitler Youth for boys aged 14-18. These groups began haphazardly but were eventually organised on a national level by NSDAP leaders.
4. Nazi youth groups combined paramilitary style training and skills with National Socialist teachings and indoctrination, such as worship of Hitler and the significance of racial purity.
5. There were also several NSDAP-run girls’ groups, such as the Bund Deutscher Madel or BDM. These groups also circulated Nazi ideology and reinforced traditional conceptions about the roles of women.