Heil Hitler: Confessions of a Hitler Youth

Alfons Heck recalls how he became a high-ranking member of the Hitler Youth. He talks about the importance of peer pressure and propaganda to Hitler's ability to recruit eight million German children to participate in the "war effort."

Transcript (Text)

I was captured on March the 7th, 1945 in my own home town. During my captivity, I was forced to look at documentary footage of concentration camps and death camps. And I didn't accept them.

And I said to my friend, are they nuts? This is staged. I mean, anybody can pile up bodies.

The French were so incensed by our insensitivity when they showed us this that they began to wade into us and beat us with rifle butts. They said, you goddamn Nazis. Don't you know this? This is what you people did.

In Germany, in the 1930s, an army of some eight million children pledged their lives personally to Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. They were called the "Hitler Jugend," the Hitler Youth. This is the story of one of these children. He would rise to high command, receive the Iron Cross from Hitler's own hands, and live to tell this cautionary tale.

I grew up in a small town in the Rhineland of Germany. Peaceful, small town. 8,000 population. Life was very quiet.

The first significant event in the life of the town occurred on March the 7th, 1936 when Hitler decided to move German troops into the Rhineland. I was sitting on my uncle Francis's shoulders. The people just went stark raving mad when they saw German troops. And they were screaming, heil, heil. And he lifted me up and he said, over there in the Mercedes—that's Hitler.

I was infected by the obvious feeling of a nation that the whole town felt. Two months after Hitler became the chancellor of Germany I started elementary school, and I believe this is an aspect that is totally overlooked in our history books. Almost immediately, the Nazis exercised their very first priority, which was to captivate the young.

[SPEAKING GERMAN]

Twice a week we were taught racial science, which was a specific instruction to be able to differentiate us from the so-called inferior races. That's when I heard for the first time the term master race." They taught us about racial purity by the shape of your skull. They matched eye color as an additional measure for the purity of the Aryan race. Very specifically, I remember clearly, our teacher indicating why, for instance, the Jews were different from us.

We were surrounded by newspapers that told us that the Jews had made war on us for the last 4,000 years. I remember seeing one movie that went much further. It was called Der Ewige Jude, which means The Eternal Jew.

Rats spread typhus, cholera, plague. Just as rats are the lowest form of animals, so are the Jews the lowest form of mankind.

One thing we knew for sure—that you had to be on constant watch for Jews. The movie that made the biggest impression on me was not about Jews but about a Hitler Youth boy. It was called Hitlerjunge Quex.

[SPEAKING GERMAN]

It was modeled on the life of a real Hitler Youth boy, Herbert Norkus. He was a member of a Berlin Hitler Youth unit and he was giving out leaflets. He was caught by a bunch of young communists. They stabbed him, and he died with the words of the Hitler Youth anthem on his lips.

[SPEAKING GERMAN]

[SINGING IN GERMAN]

To me, it looked like a heaven for the Hitler Youth, and I certainly wanted to go there.

[SINGING IN GERMAN]

Even before I reached 10, as soon as I could, I joined the Hitler Youth, on Hitler's birthday in 1938.

[SPEAKING GERMAN]

I promise at all times to do my duty for the Führer, so help me, God.

[SPEAKING GERMAN]

I had accepted the ideology. I had accepted what was being taught in school— in racial science. I had accepted fully the notion of the master race, but it really didn't come together until I went to Nuremberg.

[TRAIN WHISTLING]

Nuremberg was the Nazi showcase. It was the annual Nazi Party conference, a high honor, indeed, to attend. It was my first long trip away from home alone. But more important than being away from home for the first time was the feeling, almost immediately, that you belonged to a very vast and important movement.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

We 50,000 were a highly select group from all over Germany, representing eight million members of the Hitler Youth. Suddenly, on the tribunal, the Führer appeared with Baldur von Schirach, the vice leader of the Hitler Youth.

[SPEAKING GERMAN]

"Heil," he said. "Heil, youths." He called us his youths.

[APPLAUSE]

[SPEAKING GERMAN]

I stood in the first row because of my size, maybe 40, 50 feet from the podium. I said to my bunkmate, the Führer looked directly into my eyes. And he said, he looked into mine.

[SPEAKING GERMAN]

Hitler said we will be one people, one nation, and you, my youths, you are going to be that people and that nation. After he had uttered this sentence, I belonged to Hitler, body and soul.

[GERMAN]

[APPLAUSE]

He said, before us lies Germany.

[SINGING IN GERMAN]

In us, Germany marches, and after us comes Germany. It was mesmerizing to hear the Führer speak. That's the feeling that I had at the end of Hitler's speech. Suddenly, you had become invincible.

[SINGING IN GERMAN]

After my return from Nuremberg, life in the town seemed quite boring. But all of a sudden, on November the 9th, 1938, excitement broke loose. It was the Kristallnacht, the night of the broken glass. It seemed like a frenzy of hatred, all of a sudden.

[COMMOTION]

[GLASS BREAKING]

As we were crossing the marketplace, a van stopped, and there were perhaps 18, at the most 20 people on it.

[GERMAN CHANTING]

One of them was shouting, let's get to the synagogue and take it apart. Literally seconds later, the stained glass window came crashing into the road, and a few minutes later, one of the stormtroopers was up on the roof. And he released the rolls of the Torah, and he was shouting, wipe your asses with it.

Even to me, as a 10-year-old, the events of the Kristallnacht, my witnessing the brutality committed on townspeople that I had known all of my life, signified the end of German innocence. From now on, not one of us could ever maintain that we did not know what was in store for the Jews.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

By the fall of 1940, the first deportations of the Jews of Germany began. One of the first ones occurred in my hometown. I recognized all of them, naturally, but there were some I had known intimately as a boy. I had no personal animosity toward them, but I felt, what a misfortune that they are Jewish. And I thought it was completely justified that for the survival of Germany, they needed to be deported.

Despite the fact that the first friend of my life, Heinz Ermann, was Jewish, within the space of six years, the constant Nazi indoctrination had made me totally indifferent to their fate. And I accepted the deportation as a just measure.

[SINGING IN GERMAN]

I fully believed that we, as the master race, were entitled to eventually rule the world. All Nazi functions worked on the principle of music and song. You always had the music in your ears. The Nazis really, in that sense, were unsurpassed masters.

[CHANTING]

I don't know if the Germans are more sentimental than other people with singing, but as soon as you begin to sing, the words in a song seem to acquire a meaning. In our Hitler Youth anthem, the flag version, these weren't merely words. All of a sudden, they became a conviction. I think you can compare it to a religious revival meeting. It was soul stirring.

[SINGING IN GERMAN]

[SINGING IN GERMAN]

[EXPLOSIONS]

By 1943, we had been fighting Russia for two years.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

I was approaching 15 years of age when the German army surrendered at Stalingrad. I remember hearing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony followed by the announcement of Hans Fritzsche.

[SPEAKING GERMAN]

He very bluntly stated that our brave men in Stalingrad had surrendered. Stalingrad was the first time that I conceived that a German defeat might be possible. It was a terrible disaster.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

The newsreels carried the call for the German people to defend their nation.

[SPEAKING GERMAN]

Goebbels asked, do you want total war?

[APPLAUSE]

And we said yes. The only coherent units in every German town were the Hitler Youth. Anything that normally would be done in the function of a city was run by the Hitler Youth. All young boys 11—10, even, were asked to paint curbs in fluorescent colors, so they would be visible during the night during the air raids.

[DRUMS PLAYING]

On June the 6th, we were told at noon by our commander that the Allies had landed on the beaches of Normandy.

[EXPLOSIONS]

It was called D-Day, but for us Hitler Youth, it meant the enemy was on European soil. June the 6th was the most decisive day since Stalingrad for the Hitler Youth, because it became quickly apparent that from now on, the total war effort would take all of us.

[SPEAKING GERMAN]

Hitler decreed the creation of the Volkssturm, the last-ditch defense of your own home territory.

[SPEAKING GERMAN]

Two things we had in abundance—bazookas, Panzerfausts, which were very effective up to a range of 200 yards. Even women were taught how to use them.

[SPEAKING GERMAN]

People who could still barely walk were being inducted into the Volkssturm, and they were rounded up by members of the Hitler Youth. Within two weeks, the age limit was lowered to 14, and at the very end of the war, in my own unit, I had boys of 12. It was the last sacrificial effort of the Hitler Youth to turn the tide for Germany.

Our greatest moment occurred early in October of 1944, when my gun crew shot down a B-17 Flying Fortress. The youngest boy in my unit was 13 and a half, and I was the oldest at 16 and a half.

[EXPLOSIONS]

We were so elated that we pulled in to spontaneous shouts. The death-defying attitude of the Hitler Youth was such that even boys of 11, 12, 13 had no greater wish than to earn a medal, the Iron Cross, for the survival of the fatherland. The idea of facing death, at no time was that terrifying, because our fanaticism had prepared us for that possibility for years. The thing that you could do for Germany most was either to win or to die. It was better to die than to live in slavery.

Only 10 days before his suicide, it is fitting that Hitler chose to appear for the last time in public with members of the Hitler Youth. These were the only Germans he fully trusted. These were the only Germans eager still to die for him, even in the knowledge that Germany would go down. It was a fatal bond that bound us to the Führer to the very end.

The fatal bond between Hitler and his Hitler Youth was not even crippled by his suicide. Many thousands of members of the Hitler Youth kept on fighting to the very end, preferring to die rather than live in a country without their leader.

I was in the basement of my gymnasium in Wittlich, and I told Monika Mohn, who was Scharführer of the Hitlerjugend, as well as my schoolmate, that it was all over. And she said to me, we almost had it all. And I stood at attention, and I said, heil Hitler—the last time I did it.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

I watched through the slit of our basement window as Sherman tanks moved into the center of my hometown. And at that moment, I admitted to myself that Germany was finished. It was the only time in my life that I actively contemplated suicide. I pulled my pistol, and I stuck it in my mouth, and I didn't have the courage to pull the trigger. I threw it against the wall, and I decided then to try and make it back to the German lines.

I was captured on March the 7th, 1945, in my own hometown. During my captivity, I was forced to look at documentary footage of concentration camps and death camps.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

And it is the first time that I was shown the atrocities committed by our nation. And we looked at this. And I said to my friend, who do they take us for? This stuff is staged. And one of us began to snicker. And our captors became so incensed that they started yelling at us, you god damn Nazi bastards, do you think this is a comedy? This is what you have done.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

It was almost a year later before I was able to accept the veracity of the films that I had seen. And it occurred at the war crimes trials in Nuremberg in 1946. When I arrived in the city of Nuremberg, I was stunned by the total change of the Nuremberg I had seen at the Nazi Party rally of 1938.

While I listened on the loudspeakers outside, I heard the full evidence of the accusation directed at the 22 top Nazis who were on trial. One of them was my leader, the former leader of the Hitler Youth, Baldur von Schirach. He was a principal reason why I came to Nuremberg. I wanted to know what he had to say in particular in regard to the activities of the Hitler Youth.

Von Schirach told the court—

[GERMAN]

It is my guilt that I have trained youth for a man who became a murderer a million times over. Baldur von Schirach received 20 years for crimes against humanity, and that, in turn, implicated me, too, in the count of mass murder, because I had served Hitler just as fanatically as von Schirach.

[GERMAN]

I had an overwhelming sense of betrayal in Nuremberg, and I recognized that the man that I had adored was, in fact, the biggest monster in human history. It's a devastating feeling. If you follow it to the conclusion that you are part of the human race, 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 hate. And you can fill them with compassion.

So the story of the Hitler Youth can be repeated, because, despite Auschwitz, the world has not changed for the better all that much.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

[CHANTING]

Search Our Global Collection

Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.