Lesson 12
Duration:
2 class periods

Life for German Youth in the 1930s: Education, Propaganda, Conformity, and Obedience

Overview

To deepen your understanding of the ideas in this lesson, read Chapter 6 of Holocaust and Human Behavior.

In this lesson, students read narratives describing life for German youth in the 1930s. Many of these narratives focus on experiences in school and in youth groups where teenagers received powerful messages from teachers, peers, Nazi officials, and parents about the proper way to act and think. The activities suggested in this lesson encourage students to recognize how factors such as pride, fear, obedience, and peer pressure influenced how German youth responded to messages disseminated by the Nazis. Analyzing how German youth responded to messages about the proper way to think and act can help students reflect on their own responses to such messages in their lives. In particular, the material in this lesson provides opportunities for students to consider the messages they receive in school about their responsibilities as citizens, and to evaluate the role of civic education in a democracy.

Learning Objectives

The purpose of this lesson is to help students:

Reflect on these guiding questions:

  • What was life like for teenagers living in Germany between 1933 and 1939?
  • What messages did they receive about the proper way to think and act? Where did these messages come from? How did German youth interpret and respond to these messages? What influenced their choices?
  • What messages do you receive about the proper way to think and act? Where do these messages come from? How do you interpret and respond to these messages? What influences your choices?
  • What is the role of school in preparing young people for their role as citizens? What might be the difference between preparing students to live in a dictatorship versus a democracy?

Practice these interdisciplinary skills:

  • Interpreting narrative historical documents
  • Synthesizing information to answer questions about a historical time period
  • Defending ideas with evidence
  • Drawing connections between history and their lives

Deepen understanding of these key terms:

  • Propaganda
  • Conformity
  • Obedience
  • Education
  • Message
  • Dictatorship
  • Democracy
  • Citizen
  • Civic education

Context

In Lesson 11, students explored the impact of Nazi propaganda on the attitudes and actions of the German public. One of the critical audiences for this propaganda was German youth. Time and time again, Hitler spoke of the importance of indoctrinating German youth to Nazi ideals. In a 1935 speech to Nazi party officials, Hitler declared, “He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future,”1 and four years later he announced, “I am beginning with the young....With them I can make a new world.”2 What kind of youth did the Nazis believe would best support their plans for Germany? On that point, Hitler was very specific. In the following speech, he described the ideal German youth:

A violently active, dominating, intrepid, brutal youth—that is what I am after. Youth must be all those things. It must be indifferent to pain. There must be no weakness or tenderness in it. I want to see once more in its eyes the gleam of pride and independence of the beast of prey....I intend to have an athletic youth—that is the first and the chief thing....I will have no intellectual training. Knowledge is ruin to my young men.3

As soon as the Nazis came to power, they set in motion the process of permeating the life of German youth with Nazi propaganda. One of the critical spaces where the Nazis hoped to indoctrinate German youth was in the schools. Recalling his experience as a student in Nazi Germany, Alfons Heck shares:

Unlike our elders, we children of the 1930s had never known a Germany without Nazis. From our very first year in the Volksschule or elementary school, we received daily doses of Nazism. These we swallowed as naturally  as our morning milk. Never did we question what our teachers said. We simply believed what was crammed into us. And never for a moment did we doubt how fortunate we were to live in a country with such a promising future.4

Heck’s memory illustrates how the Nazis redesigned the school curriculum toward teaching students not to think but to unquestioningly accept. They changed the curriculum in other ways, too. The teaching of race science in all subjects became mandatory and physical education was emphasized. Additionally, girls and boys were offered different coursework, usually in separate schools. While the boys took classes in military history and science, the girls took classes in cooking and child-rearing.

When studying this history, it is important to focus not only on what the Nazis did, but on how Germans responded to their actions. In order for Hitler’s plans to work, teachers needed to execute the Nazi curriculum in the classroom. But did they? According to Holocaust scholars Richard Rubenstein and John Roth, teachers were among Hitler’s staunchest supporters. They explain:

German school teachers and university professors were not Hitler’s adversaries....Quite the opposite; the teaching profession proved one of the most reliable segments of the population as far as National Socialism was concerned. Throughout the Weimar era, Germany’s educational establishment, continuing its long authoritarian tradition, remained unreconciled to democracy and nationalism. Once in power, the Nazis expunged dissenting instructors, but there were not many. On the other hand, at least two leading Nazis, the rabid antisemites Heinrich Himmler and Julius Streicher, had formerly been teachers. Eventually more than 30% of the top Nazi Party leadership came from that background. Teachers, especially from elementary schools, were by far the largest professional group represented in the party. Altogether almost 97% of them belonged to the Nazi Teachers’ Association, and more than 30% of that number were members of the Nazi Party itself. From such instructors, German boys and girls learned what the Nazis wanted them to know. Hatred of Jews was cen-tral in that curriculum.5

As Rubenstein and Roth point out, the Nazis had the power to remove any teachers who did not support their agenda. This was demonstrated in 1933 with the passage of the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” which fired all Jewish instructors in schools and universities, and records show that teachers suspicious of Jewish sympathies or not strictly teaching the curriculum were quickly fired, or even arrested. Thus, when understanding why teachers went along with changes in instructions, it is important to recognize that many factors, including opportunism, fear, conformity, national pride, and antisemitism, may have been at play.

Schools were not the only space where German youth received Nazi propaganda. Following through on their belief in the importance of capturing the hearts and minds of German youth, the Nazis passed a law in 1936 mandating that all German youth participate in the Hitler Youth Movement. Hitler Youth groups started at the age of six. At ten, boys were initiated into the Jungvolk and at fourteen promoted to the Hitler Youth or HJ (for Hitler Jugend). Girls belonged to the Jungmaedel and then the BDM (the Bund Deutscher Maedel or the League of German Girls). In such groups, said Hitler, “These young people will learn nothing else but how to think German and act German. . . . And they will never be free again, not in their whole lives.”6 Parents could be punished if their children did not regularly attend meetings. By 1939, about 90% of the Aryan children in Germany belonged to Nazi youth groups.

German youth spent a majority of their time in school or in youth groups, but even when they were not engaged in these activities, the Nazis found ways to ensure they were still surrounded by propaganda. Julius Streicher, as director of the Ministry of Propaganda, published books, films, posters, and comic books exclusively written for young audiences. This media was full of messages expressing the superiority of the “Aryan” race and the inferiority of Jews and other undesirables. It glorified Hitler and portrayed images of the ideal German girls and boys as fiercely loyal to the Nazi Party. The Nazis also created holidays where Germans, especially German youth, could celebrate Hitler and the party. January 30 marked the day Hitler became chancellor and April 20 his birthday. Days set aside for party rallies at Nuremberg were also holidays. So was November 9, the anniversary of the attempted coup in the Munich beer hall. It was known as the Day of the Martyrs of the Movement. Memoirs written by Germans who grew up during the 1930s recall the excitement of these holidays and rallies. Alfons Heck, a high-ranking Hitler Youth member, recalls one impressionable moment at a rally on Hitler Youth Day:

Shortly before noon, 80,000 Hitler Youth were lined up in rows as long as the entire stadium. . . . When Hitler finally appeared, we greeted him with a thundering, triple “Sieg Heil,” (Hail to Victory). . . . Then his voice rose. . . . “You, my youth,” he shouted, with his eyes seeming to stare right at me, “are our nation’s most precious guarantee for a great future. . . . You, my youth. . . . Never forget that one day you will rule the world.” For minutes on end, we shouted at the top of our lungs, with tears streaming down our faces: “Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil!” From that moment on, I belonged to Adolf Hitler body and soul.7

Accordingly, the Nazis used schools, youth groups, and the media to surround German youth with messages about the proper way to think and act in this new German totalitarian state. Erika Mann, a German who opposed the Nazis, wrote a book called School for Barbarians in which she described how the Nazi propaganda permeated the lives of young Germans. She referred to “the Blockwart (neighborhood wardens), the swastika, the signs reading ‘No Jews allowed’” as just part of “an atmosphere that is torture, a fuming poison for a free born human being.”8 She continues, “The German child breathes this air. There is no other condition wherever Nazis are in power; and here in Germany they do rule everywhere, and their supremacy over the German child, as he learns and eats, marches, grows up, breathes, is complete.”9 In the story “The Birthday Party," Mann illustrates how children even turned against their parents in the name of supporting the Nazis and Hitler. After his son contradicts him in front of a Hitler Youth leader, the father realizes that in this context he cannot trust his own son. To be sure, this is exactly what Hitler wanted; he hoped that the German state would be more important to children than their parents, their church, or their friends.

Like Erika Mann, not all German adults or young people accepted the Nazis’ ideas. By the late 1930s, a number of teenagers were questioning the system Hitler created. Among them were members of the Edelweiss Pirates, a loose collection of independent gangs in western Germany, and the “Swing Kids,” who used dance and music as a form of resistance.10 And some Germany parents left Germany to avoid putting their children in the position of following Hitler’s orders.11 Yet, while some Germans resisted Nazi propaganda, it is important to ask why many Germans, especially German youth, believed Nazi propaganda and/or went along with their ideas. Surely, many German youth were motivated out of fear—fear of losing a job, fear of being sent to jail, fear of being isolated by one’s peers. As Erika Mann referenced in the statement above, the Nazis put spies throughout neighborhoods (i.e., Blockwarts, the Gestapo, etc.), and children were even known to report on their own parents. It was clear in Nazi Germany that anyone who did not act and think in particular ways would be ostracized. In Lesson 2, students considered how peer pressure (or conformity) influenced middle school students to alienate one of their classmates. The material in this lesson also demonstrates how the human need to belong and “fit in” shapes behavior. Finally, Nazi propaganda emphasized feelings of national pride; the holidays and parades were designed to make Germans feel special and powerful. Eleanor Ayer, the author of numerous books on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, including Parallel Journeys, describes how, according to Nazi propaganda, “It was a terrific time to be young in Germany. If you were a healthy teenager, if you were a patriotic German, if you came from an Aryan (non-Jewish) family, a glorious future was yours. The Nazis promised it.”12

This message of superiority, belonging, success, and progress understandably appealed to many German teenagers, including Alfons Heck. Yet, after World War II was over and evidence of Nazi war crimes were made public through the Nuremberg trials, Heck described his experience growing up in Nazi Germany as “a massive case of child abuse.” In his memoir, A Child of Hitler, he writes about the vulnerability of youth and issues a warning to future generations:

The experience of the Hitler Youth in Nazi Germany constitutes a massive case of child abuse. Out of millions of basically innocent children, Hitler and his regime succeeded in creating potential monsters. Could it happen again today? Of course it can. Children are like empty vessels: you can fill them with good, you can fill them with evil; you can fill them with compassion.13

Like their German counterparts, youth today are susceptible to being influenced by messages—messages from movies, music, advertisements, school curricula, religious institutions, family members, friends—about how they are supposed to think and act. One point that bears repeating is that Germany in the 1930s was a totalitarian state. If German teenagers decided not to support the messages articulated by Nazi propaganda, they would not only be ostracized from their peer group, but they could be expelled from school or denied jobs. Even the families of rebellious teenagers could be punished for
their child’s lack of commitment to Nazi ideology. Teenagers living in a twenty-first century democracy often enjoy a wider range of choices about how to respond to messages about how they are supposed to think and act, and the consequences of their decisions are typically not as severe as those felt by German adolescents in the 1930s. [To be sure, for some youth, especially those that do not conform to mainstream gender roles about how boys and girls are supposed to look and act, the consequences can be extremely harsh.] Studying propaganda during the Nazi years provides an opportunity to examine the messages that our communities and society are sending to youth. To what extent are they being filled up with good? With prejudice and hate? With tolerance and compassion? These are important questions for educators to consider as they prepare youth for their role as democratic citizens and members of a global community.

Related readings in Holocaust and Human Behavior.

Citations

  • 1 : United States Chief of Counsel for the Prosecution of Axis Criminality, United States Dept. of State, International Military Tribunal, United States War Dept., Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression v. 1 (Washington, DC: United States Government, 1946), 320.
  • 2 : Hermann Rauschning, Hitler Speaks: A Series of Political Conversations with Adolf Hitler on His Real Aims (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1939), 246–47.
  • 3 : Ibid., 247.
  • 4 : Eleanor Ayer and Alfons Heck, Parallel Journeys (New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, 1995), 1.
  • 5 : Richard L. Rubenstein and John K. Roth, Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and Its Legacy (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 359–60.
  • 6 : Max von der Grün, Howl Like the Wolves: Growing up in Nazi Germany (New York: William Morrow, 1980), 118.
  • 7 : Ayer and Heck, Parallel Journeys, 23.
  • 8 : Erika Mann, School for Barbarians (New York: Modern Age Books, 1938), 21.
  • 9 : Ibid.
  • 10 : For more information about how German youth resisted Nazi policies, read “Rebels Without a Cause,” pp. 249–50 in Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior.
  • 11 : For an account of one German family’s decision to emigrate, read “Taking a Stand”.
  • 12 : Ayer, Parallel Journeys, 1.
  • 13 : Alfons Heck as quoted in Heil Hitler: Confessions of a Hitler Youth, VHS (New York: Ambrose Video Publishing, 1991).

Materials

Activities

Suggestion for how to implement this lesson over two class periods: Depending on how you structure this lesson, an appropriate place to end the first part of the lesson is after students are assigned a reading to analyze. This way, students can do their assigned reading for homework and the second part of the lesson can begin with students meeting in groups to discuss the text.

Opener

The purpose of this lesson is to help students begin to understand what life was like for young people growing up in Nazi Germany. Young people were surrounded by messages about how they were supposed to act and the ideas they were supposed to believe in. Can the same be said about youth today? To open this lesson, give students the opportunity to answer the question, “What is it like for a teenager growing up today?” by responding to these two questions: 1) What messages are being sent to you about how you are supposed to behave and act? and 2) Who is sending these messages? Where do they come from? [Note: You may want to rephrase this question to make it more specific to your students. For example, you could ask “What is it like for a teenager growing up in your community or town today?” or “What is it like for a teenager attending this school today?”]

Students can first answer this question by silently writing in their journals. Some of students’ reflections may be private; they may not want to share pressures they feel to behave a certain way. So, rather than ask all students to publicly share what they have written, you might just ask students to share their response to the second set of questions (“Who is sending these messages? Where do they come from?”). Students will likely identify how they receive messages from school, peers, their parents, and the media.

Main Activities

Explain to students that in this lesson they will be studying how the same sources that send them messages about how to think and act (i.e., school, peers, media, parents, etc.) also sent messages to German youth. The activity they are about to begin will help them answer the question, “What was life like for a teenager living in Germany between 1930 and 1939?” You may want to write this on the board to remind students of this guiding question.

In this lesson, students will read text about German youth in the 1930s. Many of these are first-person accounts. Any of the readings listed in the “Related readings from Facing History and Oursevles: Holocaust and Human Behavior” section would be appropriate for this lesson. The difficulty of text varies, so we suggest you preview any readings before assigning them to your students. You can have students read the entire text, or suggest particular paragraphs. Handout 4 includes suggested readings that have been excerpted to make them more accessible for middle-school-level readers.

Individually or in small groups, students will answer the following questions about their reading:

  1. Based on this reading, what messages were being sent to young Germans about the proper way to think and act in Germany in the 1930s?
  2. How might this message have appealed to German teenagers? What might they have liked about this mes- sage? What might have been confusing or disturbing about this message?
  3. Given what they know about the historical context of Germany in the 1930s, what range of options did German teenagers have about how they could respond to this message? What do they think most teenagers will do? Why?

(See handout 1 for a graphic organizer you can use with students to help them organize their ideas. Handout 2 includes a sample analysis of the reading, “Changes at School.”)

Because Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior includes many engaging readings focused on life in Germany from an adolescent perspective, we suggest giving students the opportunity to engage with several of these readings. One way to expose students to several readings is to use the Jigsaw Teaching Strategy. You can assign small groups of students the task of becoming “experts” on one reading. After students have had the opportunity to answer the questions on Handout 1, they can form mixed groups with students who are experts on different readings. Students can share the information on their handouts, and then these groups can synthesize what they know as they discuss the question, “What was life like for a teenager living in Germany in the 1930s?” Alternatively, this lesson can be structured to allow students to work independently. You can provide students with a list of the readings from the resource book that focus on experiences of German youth in the 1930s. Ask them to answer the questions on handout 1 for three readings that they select.

Before students analyze a text on their own or in small groups, we suggest that you model how to answer these questions by interpreting a vignette from the documentary Childhood Memories as a whole-class activity. In the first excerpt on this film, Frank S. recalls his experience in a biology class called “raciology.” He remembers feeling humiliated when the teacher had him stand in front of the class as a “living example of what a Jew looks like.” Later in the interview excerpt, Frank talks about how he was bullied in school by students and teachers because he was Jewish. This testimony provides clear evidence of how Nazi propaganda shaped the experience of young Jewish Germans. At the same time, from listening to Frank’s experience, students can imagine the impact the teacher’s lesson might have had on non-Jewish German teenagers as well. Handout 3 is a sample analysis of this excerpt that can guide your class’s interpretation of this vignette.

A final discussion framed around the question, “What was life like for a teenager living in Germany between 1933 and 1939?” should strive to help students recognize how factors such as peer pressure (conformity),  fear (bullying), and pride (influenced by Nazi propaganda) might have shaped how youth responded to the messages that permeated German society in the 1930s. The conversation might begin by having students identify how they think teenagers were influenced by a particular message. Encourage students to consider how the same message might impact a teenager in conflicting ways. For example, while many of the ideas taught at schools might have engendered a feeling of purpose and nationalistic pride, these same messages might have created moral dilemmas for teenagers. Many non-Jewish youth lived in neighborhoods with Jewish youth. They had attended the same schools and in many instances were friends. How might young people have responded when learning that someone they liked, or even loved, was “unpure”? What might have happened if information students learned in schools, such as the idea that all Jews looked a certain way, contradicted what they knew from their own lives? What if their parents expressed views at home that were different than those communicated at school?

Follow Through (in class or at home)

[Note: If students started a K-W-L chart, you can return to it at the end of this lesson. Ask students to add information to the third column, “What did you learn?”]

One of the main ideas students will confront in this lesson is the relationship between education, propaganda, and citizenship. Many of the readings (i.e., “Racial Instruction” and “Current Events”) emphasize how the Nazis explicitly used classrooms as a training ground for citizens that could make positive contributions to their dictatorship. Hitler’s power, and the power of the Nazi Party, could be maintained if young people did not question their authority, if they willingly volunteered to follow their laws, and if they saw it as their responsibility to serve their Führer. After completing  several readings suggested in the materials section, students will be able to identify how the material taught in schools supported the mission of the Nazi Party. For example, by teaching students race science, they would come to believe that the Aryan race was superior to other races. Hitler is quoted as saying, “He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.” You might share this statement with students. Then, ask them to reflect in their journals on why Hitler may have believed that the youth were important and the degree to which they agree with this idea. This could lead to an interesting discussion about the significance of youth today to politicians, corporations, and other audiences.

The relationship between education and citizenship is certainly relevant to students’ lives today. Indeed, many Americans agree that one of the purposes of public school is to prepare students for their role as democratic citizens. Thus, you might end this lesson by having students define the phrase “civic education” and then reflect on their own experi- ences and ideas related to civic education. Clearly, preparing citizens for a dictatorship is different than preparing students for a democracy. You might ask students to think about how this training or preparation is different. Also, in Nazi Germany, it is clear that the government mandated unethical propaganda techniques, such as the teaching of lies as truth, in school curricula. You might have students suggest what would be appropriate ways for schools to prepare students for their role as citizens.

The Barometer Teaching Strategy might be a useful way to help students think about where they stand when it comes to civic education. Use the following prompts for a baromter activity:

Do you think the following are appropriate or inappropriate forms of civic education?

  • Teaching students about how government works
  • Encouraging students to register to vote
  • Talking about the views of different political parties
  • Teaching students about American history from different points of view, even if some of those perspectives reveal that the United States might have made mistakes in its past
  • Using materials that highlight the positive aspects of living in a democracy and the negative aspects of living in a dictatorship
  • Teaching students that it is always important to obey authority, especially government officials and the laws of our country
  • Community service requirements  for high school graduation

Extensions

Students have just engaged in five lessons focusing on the history of Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. At this halfway point in the historical case study, many teachers have found that the K-W-L Teaching Strategy helps students review what they have learned and anticipate what they might learn in future lessons. Students’ responses to these prompts can be used to direct your teaching by revealing areas of student interest and highlighting any misconceptions that may need to be cleared up.

The main activity of this lesson suggests that students have the opportunity to apply information from readings in Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior to discuss the question, “What was life like for a teenager in Germany in the 1930s?” If you want to organize a structured discussion with students that provides opportunities for both active listening and speaking, you might wish to use the Fishbowl Discussion Strategy. Another way to help students synthesize material from various readings is to have them construct a found poem.

Students can write a story using the titles of the suggested readings from Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior but drawing from material in their own lives. For example, a story titled “Belonging” might be focused on pressure to fit in with a certain peer group. Or, a story called, “A Lesson in Current Events,” might explore how students learn about the world around them. When writing their stories, students should be encouraged to provide information that answers the following questions:

  • What messages are being sent about how you are supposed to think and act? 
  • Who is sending these messages?
  • How can you respond to these messages? What are your options? 
  • How do you choose to respond? Why?

In addition to showing Frank S., you might want to show one of the other vignettes on the Childhood Memories video. Here are some highlights from this video:

  • Karl H: Karl recalls a moment in 3rd grade in 1944 when he was taught about how the Aryan race had become diluted and that the purpose of the Nazi movement was to bring back the purity of the Aryan race.
  • Elizabeth D: Elizabeth shares dilemmas she faced living as a Jehovah’s Witness in Germany. On the one hand, she remembers wanting to be an “ordinary German,” yet she also respected the choices made by her family to be true to their faith. Elizabeth describes how she grew up wishing she was invisible rather than be forced to say “Heil Hitler,” which was against her religion.
  • Walter K: Walter shares his experience as the only Jewish boy in a class of 55 in a German public school. As a child, he recalls that he did not understand why he was not allowed to say “Heil Hitler.” He could not go swimming or to the movies. He also tells the story of when he was 11 and a teacher hit him with a stick, without reason. Yet, he says his parents could not go to the police because they would not help Jews. The principal, “a good man,” also said that he could not do anything about it because he did not belong to the Nazi Party.

Assessment

To evaluate students’ comprehension and interpretation of the readings, you can collect handout 1. Moreover, students’ responses in the class discussion will reveal the depth of their understanding about life for German youth in the 1930s. If there are important ideas students do not bring up themselves, such as the idea that German youth may have experienced Nazi propaganda in different ways, you can introduce these ideas during the discussion.

Students could write a journal entry or brief essay comparing their experience with civic education to the experiences of German youth, and then suggesting ways their own civic education might be improved.

To evaluate how students are able to synthesize information from many readings to answer the question, “What was life like for teenagers in Germany in the 1930s?” you can ask them to write a diary entry from the perspective of a German youth. First, students would need to select the identity of their narrator (i.e., boy or girl, Jew or non-Jew, etc.). Then, they write the diary entry of how this young person might have responded to particular aspects of German life, from specific laws passed or particular messages expressed in Nazi propaganda.

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