The Hitler Youth emerged from the scouting and German youth movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Nazi Party’s second oldest paramilitary organization after the Sturmabteilung, or SA, it was founded in 1922 as the Youth League of the Nazi Party in 1922, and formally named the Hitler Youth, League of German Worker Youth in 1926. Its female branch, the League of German Girls (Bund deutscher Mädel, or BDM) was founded four years later in 1930.
Early Nazi leaders hoped that the organizations would serve as conduits of political mobilization and ideological indoctrination for the young. By 1930, Baldur von Schirach in his capacity as Reich Youth Leader (Reichsjugendführer) became responsible for directing the Hitler Youth. Schirach organized a general membership of boys from fourteen to eighteen, and a corresponding junior branch, the German Young Volk, ranging from ten to fourteen years of age. The League of German Girls was similarly divided, with a Young Girls’ League for younger members.
By the time Adolf Hitler came to power as German chancellor in January 1933, the Hitler Youth had over a million members. In the following year, all other youth organizations were forbidden. The Hitler Youth and its auxiliaries became the only legal youth movement in Nazi Germany. In 1936, the Law concerning the Hitler Youth made membership compulsory for all children over ten years old. Compliance was not universal, however, and two ancillary decrees were issued in 1939 to make youth service compulsory and non-membership a punishable offense.
The Hitler Youth and League of German Girls were part of the Nazi Party’s plan to entrench Nazi ideology in the German people. The Nazi Party viewed children as the foundation of a new world, future party members and soldiers essential to the survival and health of the Volksgemeinschaft (“People’s Community”). Children had to be both racially conscious and physically fit in order to build a new future for Germany and the Aryan people. As a symbol of the future, the Hitler Youth were often present at Party rallies and marches, including the annual Nuremberg rallies. Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens) shows Hitler speaking to and then greeting members of the Hitler Youth at the 1934 Nuremberg Rally in scenes that made an indelible international impression.
The Nazi youth movement was not only about preparing for the future. The Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls were also used to weaken traditional social and religious authorities. Nazi youth activities intentionally replaced activities previously sponsored by religious institutions in an effort to challenge the churches’ claims to moral authority. The Hitler Youth monopolized members’ daily lives so children did not have time for activities outside Nazi control.
The Hitler Youth and League of German Girls also encouraged members to report to their leaders about what was happening in their schools, churches, and families.
The Hitler Youth was a paramilitary organization designed to train boys as future fighters and soldiers for the Nazi cause. As an official organization of the Nazi state, the Hitler Youth had a military structure at the local, regional, and national levels. Boys practiced military drills, went hiking and camping, learned to handle weapons, and participated in sports, especially boxing. While some boys enjoyed the physical challenge, competition, and camaraderie, others found the activities grueling and the constant focus on preparing for war and sacrificing themselves for the fatherland overwhelming and alienating. During the summers, Hitler Youth groups were often sent to work on farms. In addition to agricultural labor, the Hitler Youth also participated in the ideological work of the Party by providing language instruction to ethnic German settlers and guarding camps holding Polish teens.
The League of German Girls was intended to prepare girls for futures as wives and mothers. Girls also participated in physical activities, such as gymnastics. Girls’ sports tended to be collective and synchronized, demonstrating the value of working together, rather than competitive and individual like boys’ sports. The League trained girls in how to care for the home and family, and taught skills like sewing, nursing, cooking, and household chores. Young women also ran charity drives, served as nurses’ aides, and organized care packets for troops at the front.
As the war accelerated, the Hitler Youth were deployed in military activities, such as operating anti-aircraft rifles during air raids. In 1943, the SS formed a special division of the Hitler Youth. Officially, boys were to be seventeen, but many were younger. In the final months of the war, boys in their early teens were inducted into the Volkssturm. Poorly equipped and inadequately trained, thousands of these youths joined German forces, fighting and dying on the streets and battlefronts of Germany.
After the War
After the war, the Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls were outlawed. Baldur von Schirach stood trial for war crimes at Nuremberg. He was acquitted of the charges related to the Hitler Youth. However, he was convicted of crimes against humanity for other crimes and sentenced to twenty years in prison.
Most members of the Hitler Youth and League of German Girls resumed ordinary lives in postwar Germany, exempt from many of the denazification and reeducation programs after the war. Yet the former members had spent their entire childhoods and young adulthoods under Nazi control and ideological indoctrination, leaving uncertain traces on the next generation of Germans.