In the 1920s, one of the most popular youth groups in Germany was the Wandervogel. Founded in the 1890s, the Wandervogel was a male-only youth organization dedicated to nature, German nationalism, romanticism, and self-sacrifice. Participants hiked, camped, lit fires, sang camp songs, much like their counterparts in the German Boy Scouts.
The Hitler Youth was founded in 1922 in Munich as Der Jungbund Der NSDAP. (Because Hitler was trying to promote the party with General Ludendorff at its head in those days, his name wasn’t yet synonymous with the Nazi party.) It wasn’t an instant success. At the first meeting of the Hitler Youth in Munich, only seventeen kids showed up. The newspaper of the organization was a money loser, and eventually had to be folded into the the party newspaper, theVolkisher Beobachter, as a supplement.
Still, the youth trailed after the SA units. They marched in demonstrations. They got in skirmishes with the other politically oriented youth groups of the era–the Young Conservatives, the Young Socialists, Young Democrats, the Communist Youth League. But they also spent a lot of time camping, in many cases near Wandervogel camps, where many of the boys discovered that they shared, at least superficially, some values–particularly when it came to their devotion to a mythical Teutonic legacy and to building a new Germany on its values. Eventually, to widen their appeal, the Jungbund borrowed the Wandervogel’s props to seduce its mostly middle class, non-Jewish members into the organization.
But the Jungbund was not to last. In 1923, the NSDAP’s putsch in Munich led to the incarceration or exile of most of the Nazi leadership. During Hitler’s time in prison, the party and its various organizations were proscribed by law, including the Jungbund.
By the time Hitler emerged from prison in 1925, he’d had a permanent falling out with his hero, Lundendorff, and had lost all of his political organization. The former leader of the Jungbund, Gustav Lenk, had gone on to form an independent right-wing youth organization and wasn’t keen to re-enter Hitler’s orbit now that he’d declared himself undisputed leader of the NSDAP. Hitler and his friends retaliated by spreading rumors of the ex-Jungbund leader’s criminal past, ruining him for the German Youth movement and wrecking his competing organization. The new organization, named the Hitler Youth at the urging of Hitler’s number two, Rudolf Hess, got a new leader, Kurt Gruber.
The new aim of the Hitler Youth was to operate as a feeder organization, training young boys to become stormtroopers in Ernst Roehm’s SA, or at least, that’s the way Roehm felt about it. Conflict eventually arose between Roehm and Gruber on the management of the Hitler Youth, mainly because Gruber thought Roehm was poaching the best Hitler Youth graduates for the SA instead of letting them return to the Youth to train younger kids. This eventually led to Gruber’s ouster in favor of an ambitious student and poet from a wealthy family, Baldur Von Schirach.
Before Gruber left, he did add two new components to the Nazi youth organizations, the Jungvolk, for younger boys, and the Bund Deutche Madel, the League of German Girls.
The lessons taught to BDM girls and Hitler Youth boys were highly gendered, along the lines of National Socialist views. Boys were taught martial virtues: aggression, discipline, toughness, stoicism. Girls were taught to do their duties as future Nazi wives and mothers, to bring forth large numbers of children to help Germany win the racial struggle. Boys were expected to participate in warlike games and boxing matches, while girls were expected to tend to physical attractiveness and grace through gymnastics.
(Read a speech from the leader of the BDM, Jutta Rudiger, defining the missions of the BDM and Nazi youth movements generally.)
Of course, it wasn’t all sports and indoctrination. Once the Nazis took power, the sugar they offered to get kids interested included long summer trips to, by the standards of the day, faraway destinations. Hitler Youth organizations offered trips to the mountains or the seaside to its members, and for kids growing up during the depression–and for parents likely anxious to get them out of the house–this was a powerful recruiting and retention tool. Some children judged to have sufficient foreign language aptitude were even taken on trips abroad.
Still, the Hitler Youth had trouble competing with other youth organizations, which was why most of them were banned when the Nazis took power. (Exceptions included church affiliated organizations, which the Nazis were cautious about offending. Over time most, like the Lutheran organization Evangelische Jungend, were absorbed into the Hitler Youth in mid-1930s). The Nazis made it hard for kids to function outside the Hitler Youth. Without a membership, a kid couldn’t join any sports or hobby clubs, making social life difficult. Still, parents objected to the Youth’s tendency to violence, its loose standards of sexual morality (the emphasis on girls having lots of kids whether inside or out of marriage proved controversial), and its incessant political indoctrination (which many kids also found boring beyond words). By 1936, with recruitment slowing, membership in the Hitler Youth was made mandatory for all Aryans.
I’ll cut off here, since this is more or less where Summer of Long Knives begins. If you’d like to know more, there’s a good documentary series, Hitler’s Children, that’ll get you started. The first episode is below.
Next time: Nazi police organizations.