Hitler hoped that by conditioning young people in groups like the Hitler Youth, they would “never be free again, not in their whole lives.”1 Many young people were deeply influenced by these groups, but support for the Hitler Youth was never as widespread and strong as Nazi leaders would have liked. Young people skipped some meetings and activities, even though attendance was compulsory, and their loyalty could be inconsistent. Their reasons for losing enthusiasm for Hitler Youth activities were not always political or moral; sometimes young people grew tired of the many requirements or just got bored. In 1939, the Social Democratic Party, which had been outlawed by the Nazis and was operating in secrecy, published a report on German youth that described some of this discontent. It said that “young people are starting to feel particularly burdened by the lack of freedom and the mindless drills practiced by National Socialist organizations. So it is no wonder that signs of fatigue would be particularly prominent in their ranks.”2
Contrary to Hitler’s hopes, membership in the Hitler Youth did not make all boys and girls ardent Nazis for life. Hans Scholl, who later founded the White Rose resistance movement with his sister Sophie and was executed by the Nazis, was at one point a member of the Hitler Youth (see reading, Protests in Germany in Chapter 9). His sister Inge Scholl describes how Hans slowly became disillusioned with the group:
Hans had assembled a collection of folk songs, and his young charges loved to listen to him singing, accompanying himself on his guitar. He knew not only the songs of Hitler Youth but also the folk songs of many peoples and many lands. How magically a Russian or Norwegian song sounded with its dark and dragging melancholy. What did it not tell us of the soul of those people and their homeland!
But some time later a peculiar change took place in Hans; he was no longer the same. Something disturbing had entered his life. . . . His songs were forbidden, the leader had told him. And when he had laughed at this, they threatened him with disciplinary action. Why should he not be permitted to sing these beautiful songs? Only because they had been created by other peoples? He could not understand it, and this depressed him, and his usual carefree spirit began to wane.
At this particular time he was given a very special assignment.
He was to carry the flag of his troop to the party’s national rally at Nuremberg. He was overjoyed. But when he returned we hardly dared trust our eyes. He looked tired, and on his face lay a great disappointment. We did not expect an explanation, but gradually we learned that the youth movement which had been held up to him as an ideal image was in reality something totally different from what he had imagined the Hitler Youth to be. Their drill and uniformity had been extended into every sphere of personal life. But he had always believed that every boy should develop his own special talents. Thus through his imagination, his ingenuity, his unique personality, each member could have enriched the group. But in Nuremberg everything had been done according to the same mold. There had been talk, day and night, about loyalty. But what was the keystone of all loyalty if not to be true to oneself? My God! There was a mighty upheaval taking place in Hans.
One day he came home with another prohibition. One of the leaders had taken away a book by his most beloved writer, Stellar Hours of Mankind by Stefan Zweig. It was forbidden, he was told. Why? There had been no answer. He heard something similar about another German writer whom he liked very much. This one had been forced to escape from Germany because he had been engaged in spreading pacifist ideas.
Ultimately it came to an open break.
Some time before, Hans had been promoted to standard-bearer. He and his boys had sewn themselves a magnificent flag with a mythical beast in the center. The flag was something very special. It had been dedicated to the Führer himself. The boys had taken an oath on the flag because it was the symbol of their fellowship. But one evening, as they stood with their flag in formation for inspection by a higher leader, something unheard-of happened. The visiting leader suddenly ordered the tiny standard-bearer, a frolicsome twelve-year-old lad, to give up the flag. “You don’t need a special flag. Just keep the one that has been prescribed for all.” Hans was deeply disturbed. Since when? Didn’t the troop leader know what this special flag meant to its standard-bearer? Wasn’t it more than just a piece of cloth that could be changed at one’s pleasure?
Once more the leader ordered the boy to give up the flag. He stood quiet and motionless. Hans knew what was going on in the little fellow’s mind and that he would not obey. When the high leader in a threatening voice ordered the little fellow for the third time, Hans saw the flag waver slightly. He could no longer control himself. He stepped out of line and slapped the visiting leader’s face. From then on he was no longer the standard-bearer.3
- 1 : Max von der Grün, Howl Like the Wolves: Growing Up in Nazi Germany (New York: W. Morrow, 1980), 118–19.
- 2 : “Sopade: Reports on German Youth” (1938), in The Third Reich Sourcebook, ed. Anson Rabinbach and Sander L. Gilman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 252.
- 3 : Inge Scholl, Students Against Tyranny: The Resistance of the White Rose, Munich, 1942–1943, trans. Arthur R. Schultz (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1970), 7–10. Reproduced by permission from Wesleyan University Press.