|Life for German Youth in the 1930s: Education,
Propaganda, Conformity, and Obedience
One of the critical audiences for Nazi propaganda was German youth. Time and time again, Hitler spoke of the importance of indoctrinating German youth to Nazi ideals. In a 1935 speech to Nazi party officials, Hitler declared, “He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future,”1 and four years later he announced, “I am beginning with the young. . . . With them I can make a new world.” What kind of youth did the Nazis believe would best support their plans for Germany?
On that point, Hitler was very specific. In the following speech, he described the ideal
A violently active, dominating, intrepid, brutal youth—that is what I am after. Youth
must be all those things. It must be indifferent to pain. There must be no weakness or
tenderness in it. I want to see once more in its eyes the gleam of pride and independence
of the beast of prey. . . . I intend to have an athletic youth—that is the first and
the chief thing. . . . I will have no intellectual training. Knowledge is ruin to my
As soon as the Nazis came to power, they set in motion the process of permeating the life
of German youth with Nazi propaganda. One of the critical spaces where the Nazis hoped to indoctrinate German youth was in the schools. Recalling his experience as a student in Nazi Germany, Alfons Heck shares:
Unlike our elders, we children of the 1930s had never known a Germany without
Nazis. From our very first year in the Volksschule or elementary school, we received
daily doses of Nazism. These we swallowed as naturally as our morning milk. Never
did we question what our teachers said. We simply believed what was crammed into
us. And never for a moment did we doubt how fortunate we were to live in a country
with such a promising future.
Heck’s memory illustrates how the Nazis redesigned the school curriculum toward teaching
students not to think but to unquestioningly accept. They changed the curriculum in other ways, too. The teaching of race science in all subjects became mandatory and physical education was emphasized. Additionally, girls and boys were offered different coursework, usually in separate schools. While the boys took classes in military history and science, the girls took classes in cooking and child-rearing. When studying this history, it is important to focus not only on what the Nazis did, but on how Germans responded to their actions. In order for Hitler’s plans to work, teachers needed to execute the Nazi curriculum in the classroom. But did they? According to Holocaust scholars Richard Rubenstein and John Roth, teachers were among Hitler’s
staunchest supporters. They explain:
German school teachers and university professors were not Hitler’s adversaries. . . .Quite the opposite; the teaching profession proved one of the most reliable segments of the population as far as National Socialism was concerned. Throughout the Weimar era, Germany’s educational establishment, continuing its long authoritarian tradition, remained unreconciled to democracy and nationalism. Once in power, the Nazis expunged dissenting instructors, but there were not many. On the other hand, at least two leading Nazis, the rabid antisemites Heinrich Himmler and Julius Streicher, had formerly been teachers. Eventually more than 30% of the top Nazi
Party leadership came from that background. Teachers, especially from elementary schools, were by far the largest professional group represented in the party. Altogether almost 97% of them belonged to the Nazi Teachers’ Association, and more than 30% of that number were members of the Nazi Party itself. From such instructors, German boys and girls learned what the Nazis wanted them to know. Hatred of Jews was central in that curriculum.5
As Rubenstein and Roth point out, the Nazis had the power to remove any teachers who
did not support their agenda. This was demonstrated in 1933 with the passage of the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service” which fired all Jewish instructors in schools and universities, and records show that teachers suspicious of Jewish sympathies or not strictly teaching the curriculum were quickly fired, or even arrested. Thus, when understanding why teachers went along with changes in instructions, it is important to recognize that many factors, including opportunism, fear, conformity, national pride, and anti-Semitism may have been at play.
Schools were not the only space where German youth received Nazi propaganda.
Following through on their belief in the importance of capturing the hearts and minds of German youth, the Nazis passed a law in 1936 mandating that all German youth participate in the Hitler Youth Movement. Hitler Youth groups started at the age of six. At ten, boys were initiated into the Jungvolk and at fourteen promoted to the Hitler Youth or HJ (for Hitler Jugend). Girls belonged to the Jungmaedel and then the BDM (the Bund Deutscher Maedel or the League of German Girls). In such groups, said Hitler, “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.”6 Parents could be punished if their children did not regularly attend meetings. By 1939, about 90% of the Aryan children in Germany belonged to Nazi youth groups.
German youth spent a majority of their time in school or in youth groups, but even when they were not engaged in these activities, the Nazis found ways to ensure they were still surrounded by propaganda. Julius Streicher, as director of the Ministry of Propaganda, published books, films, posters, and comic books exclusively written for young audiences. This media was full of messages expressing the superiority of the “Aryan” race and the inferiority of Jews and other undesirables. It glorified Hitler and portrayed images of the ideal German girls and boys as fiercely loyal to the Nazi Party. The Nazis also created holidays where Germans, especially German youth, could celebrate Hitler and the party. January 30 marked the day Hitler became chancellor and April 20 his birthday. Days set aside for party rallies at Nuremberg were also holidays. So was November 9, the anniversary of the attempted coup in the Munich beer hall. It was known as the Day of the Martyrs of the Movement. Memoirs written by Germans who grew up during the 1930s recall the excitement of these holidays and rallies. Alfons Heck, a high-ranking Hitler Youth member, recalls one impressionable moment at a rally on
Hitler Youth Day:
Shortly before noon, 80,000 Hitler Youth were lined up in rows as long as the entire stadium. . . . When Hitler finally appeared, we greeted him with a thundering, triple “Sieg Heil,” (Hail to Victory). . . . Then his voice rose. . . . “You, my youth,” he shouted, with his eyes seeming to stare right at me, “are our nation’s most precious guarantee for a great future. . . . You, my youth. . . . Never forget that one day you will rule the world.” For minutes on end, we shouted at the top of our lungs, with tears streaming down our faces: “Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil!” From that moment
on, I belonged to Adolf Hitler body and soul.
Accordingly, the Nazis used schools, youth groups, and the media to surround German youth with messages about the proper way to think and act in this new German totalitarian state. Erika Mann, a German who opposed the Nazis, wrote a book called School for
Barbarians in which she described how the Nazi propaganda permeated the lives of young
Germans. She referred to “the Blockwart (neighborhood wardens), the swastika, the signs reading ‘No Jews allowed’” as just part of “an atmosphere that is torture, a fuming poison for a free born human being.”8 She continues, “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.”9 In the story “The Birthday Party” (pp. 237–39 in the resource book), Mann illustrates how children even turned against their parents in the name of supporting the Nazis and Hitler. After his son contradicts him in front of a Hitler Youth leader, the father realizes that in this context he cannot trust his own son. To be sure, this is exactly what Hitler wanted; he hoped that the German state would be more important to children than their parents, their church, or their friends.
Like Erika Mann, not all German adults or young people accepted the Nazis’ ideas. By the late 1930s, a number of teenagers were questioning the system Hitler created. Among them were members of the Edelweiss Pirates, a loose collection of independent gangs in western Germany, and the “Swing Kids,” who used dance and music as a form of resistance.*
And some Germany parents left Germany to avoid putting their children in the position of following Hitler’s orders.† Yet, while some Germans resisted Nazi propaganda, it is important to ask why many Germans, especially German youth, believed Nazi propaganda and/or went along with their ideas. Surely, many German youth were motivated out of fear—fear of losing a job, fear of being sent to jail, fear of being isolated by one’s peers. As Erika Mann referenced in the statement above, the Nazis put spies throughout neighborhoods (i.e., Blockwarts, the Gestapo, etc.), and children were even known to report on their own parents. It was clear in Nazi Germany that anyone who did not act and think in particular ways would be ostracized.
Finally, Nazi propaganda emphasized feelings of national pride; the holidays and parades were designed to make Germans feel special and powerful. Eleanor Ayer, the author of numerous books on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, including Parallel Journeys, describes how, according to Nazi propaganda, “It was a terrific time to be young in Germany. If you were a healthy teenager, if you were a patriotic German, if you came from an Aryan (non-Jewish) family, a glorious future was yours.
The Nazis promised it.”
This message of superiority, belonging, success, and progress understandably appealed to many German teenagers, including Alfons Heck. Yet, after World War II was over and= evidence of Nazi war crimes were made public through the Nuremberg trials, Heck described his experience growing up in Nazi Germany as “a massive case of child abuse.”
In his memoir, A Child of Hitler, he writes about the vulnerability of youth and issues a warning to future generations:
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 compassion.
Like their German counterparts, youth today are susceptible to being influenced by messages— messages from movies, music, advertisements, school curricula, religious institutions, family members, friends—about how they are supposed to think and act. One point that bears repeating is that Germany in the 1930s was a totalitarian state. If German teenagers decided not to support the messages articulated by Nazi propaganda, they would not only be ostracized from their peer group, but they could be expelled from school or denied jobs. Even the families of rebellious teenagers could be punished for their child’s lack of commitment to Nazi ideology. Teenagers living in a twenty-first century democracy often enjoy a wider range of choices about how to respond to messages about how they are supposed to think and act, and the consequences of their decisions are typically not as severe as those felt by German adolescents in the 1930s. [To be sure, for some youth, especially those that do not conform to mainstream gender roles about how boys and girls are supposed to look and act, the consequences can be extremely harsh.]
Studying propaganda during the Nazi years provides an opportunity to examine the messages that our communities and society are sending to youth. To what extent are they being filled up with good? With prejudice and hate? With tolerance and compassion?
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