“Heil Hitler!”: Lessons of Daily Life

Get a glimpse into the daily lives of children in Nazi Germany, and consider how the Nazis “educated” Germany’s youth.
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At a Glance



English — US


  • History
  • The Holocaust

A previous version of this newly revised reading was titled “School for Barbarians.”

In 1938, writer Erika Mann published a book called School for Barbarians: Education Under the Nazis (See reading, The Birthday Party, for another excerpt from Mann’s book). Mann had emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1937. Her book criticized the Nazis’ efforts to shape young people’s ideas and feelings. In it, she describes how daily life in Germany was a kind of “school” that educated children in accordance with Nazi ideals: 

Every child says “Heil Hitler!” from 50 to 150 times a day, immeasurably more often than the old neutral greetings. The formula is required by law; if you meet a friend on the way to school, you say it; study periods are opened and closed with “Heil Hitler!”; “Heil Hitler!” says the postman, the street-car conductor, the girl who sells you notebooks at the stationery store; and if your parents’ first words when you come home for lunch are not “Heil Hitler!” they have been guilty of a punishable offense and can be denounced. “Heil Hitler!” they shout in the Jungvolk and Hitler Youth. “Heil Hitler!” cry the girls in the League of German Girls. Your evening prayers must close with “Heil Hitler!” if you take your devotions seriously.

Officially—when you say hello to your superiors in school or in a group—the words are accompanied by the act of throwing the right arm high; but an unofficial greeting among equals requires only a comparatively lax lifting of the forearm, with the fingers closed and pointing forward. This Hitler greeting, this “German” greeting, repeated countless times from morning to bedtime, stamps the whole day.

Heil really means salvation, and used to be applied to relations between man and his God; one would speak of ewiges Heil (eternal salvation), and the adjective “holy” derives from the noun. But now there is the new usage. . . .

You leave the house in the morning, “Heil Hitler” on your lips; and on the stairs of your apartment house you meet the Blockwart [block warden]. A person of great importance and some danger, the Blockwart has been installed by the government as a Nazi guardian. He controls the block, reporting on it regularly, checking up on the behavior of its residents. It’s worth it to face right about, military style, and to give him the “big” Hitler salute, with the right arm as high as it will go. All the way down the street, the flags are waving, every window colored with red banners, and the black swastika in the middle of each. You don’t stop to ask why; it’s bound to be some national event. Not a week passes without an occasion on which families are given one reason or another to hang out the swastika. Only the Jews are exempted under the strict regulation. Jews are not Germans; they do not belong to the “Nation,” they can have no “national events.”

You meet the uniforms on the way to school, the black [uniformed] S.S. men, the men of the Volunteer Labor Service, and the Reichswehr soldiers [German army]. And if some of the streets are closed, you know that an official is driving through town. Nobody has ever told you the high officials of other countries pass without the precautions of closed streets.

And here, where a building is going up, the workmen are gone—probably because of the “national event.” But the sign is on the scaffolding. “We have our Führer to thank that we are working here today. Heil Hitler!” The familiar sign, seen everywhere with men at work, on roads, barracks, sports fields. What does it mean to you? Do you think of a world outside with workers who need not thank a Führer for their jobs? Certainly not—what you have imprinted on your mind is the sentence, deep and accepted as an old melody.

There are more placards as you continue past hotels, restaurants, indoor swimming pools, to school. They read “No Jews allowed”—“Jews not desired here”—“Not for Jews.” And what do you feel? Agreement? Pleasure? Disgust? Opposition? You don’t feel any of these. You don’t feel anything, you’ve seen these placards for almost five years. This is a habit, it is all perfectly natural, of course Jews aren’t allowed here. Five years in the life of a child of nine—that’s his life, after four years of infancy, his whole personal, conscious existence.

Through the Nazi street walks the Nazi child. There is nothing to disturb him, nothing to attract his attention or criticism. The stands sell Nazi newspapers almost exclusively; all German papers are Nazi; foreign newspapers are forbidden, if they do not please the men at the top. The child won’t be surprised at their huge headlines: “UNHEARD-OF ACTS OF VIOLENCE AGAINST GERMANY IN CZECHOSLOVAKIA!” “JEWISH GANGSTERS RULE AMERICA!” “THE COMMUNIST TERROR IN SPAIN SUPPORTED BY THE POPE!” “150 MORE PRIESTS UNMASKED AS SEXUAL CRIMINALS!”

“That’s how it is in the world,” the child thinks. “What luck we’re in, to have a Führer. He’ll tell the whole bunch—Czechs, Jews, Americans, Communists, and priests—where to get off!”

There are no doubts, no suspicion at the coarse and hysterical tone of the dispatches, no hint that they may be inexact or false. No, these things are part of the everyday world of the Nazis, like the Blockwart, the swastika, the signs reading “No Jews allowed.” They add up to an atmosphere that is torture, a fuming poison for a free-born human being.

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. 1

Connection Questions

  1. What does this reading reveal about children’s daily life in Nazi Germany? What might children have learned even before they arrived at school? How were the streets themselves a kind of “school” for Nazi ideas?
  2. Why would the Nazis focus on controlling the lives of young people?
  3. Are there messages about ourselves and others that we hear so often today in our daily lives that we don’t even think about them?
  4. Erika Mann concludes: “The German child breathes this air.” What is in the “air” we breathe? How do we figure out what messages in our society are coming from a place of authority? How do we figure out what they mean?
  • 1Erika Mann, School for Barbarians: Education Under the Nazis (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1938), 21–24. Reproduced by permission from Dover Publications.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History and Ourselves, "“Heil Hitler!”: Lessons of Daily Life," last updated April 28, 2022.

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