In his book Mein Kampf, written in the 1920s, Hitler said, “Whoever has the youth has the future.” As the Nazi Party grew during the Weimar era, they devoted substantial time, effort, and resources to winning over Germany’s youth. Hitler hoped, once he was in power, that “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.”
Schools had a key role to play in the Nazi efforts to inculcate in German youth a philosophy centered on the idea of a racially pure “national community.” Throughout the 1920s, German schools adhered to a conservative educational philosophy—emphasizing social hierarchy and obedience to authority—that was already consistent with the Nazi worldview. After they came to power in 1933, the Nazis quickly passed new laws to make public education further reflect and teach their nationalist and racial ideologies. Jewish teachers were fired from their posts, and other teachers were encouraged to join the National Socialist Teachers League; by 1936, over 97% of teachers were members. Nazi leaders also created new curricula and textbooks to be used throughout the country. All students took classes in “race science,” while Nazi racism infused materials in every class, including literature selections in reading and word problems in math.
The Nazis also sought to win over Germany’s children and teenagers through party-sponsored youth groups. In the 1920s, the Nazis had already begun to organize groups that would train young people according to their principles. By 1936, all “Aryan” children in Germany over the age of six were required to join a Nazi youth group. At ten, boys were initiated into the Jungvolk (Young People), and at 14 they were promoted to the Hitler Youth. Their sisters joined the Jungmädel (Young Girls) and were later promoted to the League of German Girls. Although membership in the Hitler Youth organizations was compulsory, many young people did not have to be forced to join. In fact, they were eager to do so, because membership in Nazi youth groups offered a feeling of excitement, belonging, and even power.
Yet 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.”
The resources in this lesson explore more deeply both the allure of the Hitler Youth to some young Germans and the reluctance felt by others. Examining these resources closely reveals not only the range of reactions but also a range of choices available to German youth in response to the Nazis’ efforts to win them over in the 1930s—and a range of consequences for those choices, as well.
Meanwhile, those young Germans who were excluded from the “national community” by the Nazis had markedly fewer choices and faced difficult and often dangerous dilemmas. Jewish children were prohibited from joining Nazi youth groups and excluded from that social world so central to many of their classmates in the process. Their supposed inferiority was pronounced repeatedly before them and their peers in school every day. And the seemingly infinite number of laws and rules that singled them out in Nazi Germany emphasized their “otherness” in the eyes of true “Aryans” in painful ways. The resources in this lesson include reflections by both a Jehovah’s Witness woman and a Jewish man who attended school in Nazi Germany, both of whom faced excruciating dilemmas related to their use of the ubiquitous “Heil Hitler” greeting.