The Edelweiss Pirates and the Swing Kids: Rejecting Nazism

Rejecting Nazism

Learn about the Edelweiss Pirates and the Swing Kids, two German youth groups that questioned Nazism.


  • History


English — US


Not all young people willingly participated in Nazi youth groups. Some, like Hans Scholl (see reading, Disillusionment in the Hitler Youth), became disillusioned and dropped out. In the late 1930s, as Hitler Youth activities began to focus less on leisure activities and more on military drills and preparation for war, other young people formed their own groups in which they could more freely express their own interests and ideas. One of these groups was the Edelweiss Pirates.

The Edelweiss Pirates

Members of the group, both boys and girls, would gather from time to time for weekend camping trips. They would pitch tents in the forest, sing, talk, and fight Hitler Youth patrols. The group’s slogan was “Eternal War on the Hitler Youth.” One Edelweiss Pirate explained his choice to join the group by saying, “It’s the Hitler Youth’s own fault . . . every order I was given contained a threat.” The group’s resistance to the Nazis continued throughout World War II. 1

  • 1Richard Bessel, Life in the Third Reich (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 30–31.

Edelweiss Pirates

Edelweiss Pirates

A 1938 photo of a group of Edelweiss Pirates, an unofficial youth group that emerged in response to the strict regimentation of the Hitler Youth.

Universal History Archive / Contributor / Getty Images

The Swing Kids

Other young people who refused to join Nazi youth organizations defined themselves through their favorite music. They called themselves the Swing-Jugend (“swing kids”). The swing kids didn’t make open political statements, but their love of foreign music, their wild style of dancing, and their acceptance of Jews and other outsiders were a strong contrast to the disciplined, formal culture encouraged by the Nazi Party. Historian Richard Bessel describes the “swing kids”:

The swing youth were not anti-fascist in a political sense—their behavior was indeed emphatically anti-political—both Nazi slogans and traditional nationalism were of profound indifference to them. They sought their counter-identity in what they saw as the “slovenly” culture of . . . England and America. They accepted Jews and “half-Jews” into their groups . . . and gave ovations to visiting bands from Belgium and Holland.

The very disgust shown by the authors of the Nazi reports . . . indicate that Nazi officialdom felt attacked at the heart of its concept of itself and the state. This is the only way, too, to explain the reaction of Heinrich Himmler, who wanted to put the “ringleaders” of the swing movement into concentration camps for at least two or three years of beatings, punitive drill and forced labor. 1

The kind of behavior that so upset Himmler is described in a Hitler Youth report on a 1940 swing festival attended by 500 to 600 teenagers in Hamburg.

The dancers made an appalling sight. None of the couples danced normally; there was only swing of the worst sort. Sometimes two boys danced with one girl; sometimes several formed a circle, linking arms and jumping, slapping hands, even rubbing the backs of their heads together; and then, bent double, with the top half of the body hanging loosely down, long hair flopping into the face, they dragged themselves round practically to their knees. When the band played a rumba, the dancers went into wild ecstasy. They all leaped around and mumbled the chorus in English. The band played wilder and wilder numbers; none of the players was sitting any longer, they all “jitterbugged” on the stage like wild animals. Frequently boys could be observed dancing together, without exception with two cigarettes in the mouth, one in each corner . . . 2

Connection Questions

  1. Why do you think the young people who questioned Nazism formed their own groups? Why did Nazi officials believe these groups were dangerous? 
  2. To what extent were the activities of these alternative youth groups motivated by political opposition to the Nazis? To what extent were they motivated by teenage rebellion? 
  3. What do the two groups suggest about the successes and failures of Nazi ambitions to control the youth of Germany? 
  4. What do the descriptions of these groups suggest about the power of art and music? How can listening to or performing music be a form of rebellion? How can dancing be a form of rebellion?
  • 1Richard Bessel, Life in the Third Reich (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 39.
  • 2Richard Bessel, Life in the Third Reich (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 37.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, “Rejecting Nazism”, last updated August 2, 2016.

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