Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408
At first, Adolf Hitler was indifferent toward the youth of Germany, from a political perspective at least, since they could neither vote nor join the Nazi Party. But at the urging of his supporters, he came to understand the huge potential of Germany’s young people as future standard bearers of the Reich, and the boys as future soldiers in the Wehrmacht.
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Youth leagues and clubs were prevalent in Germany from the period prior to World War I. Through a sequence of proclamations, laws, and effective public relations, Hitler eventually consolidated these numerous groups into the Hitler Youth for boys and the BDM for girls, between the ages of ten and eighteen. Soon service became compulsory, and by the end of World War II nine out of ten juveniles had been in the Hitler Youth.
Beyond the predictable appeal of outdoor activities such as hiking, swimming, calisthenics, ball games, fencing, and shooting air rifles, young people were drawn to the Hitler Youth because it represented a new and exciting alternative to the traditional family and the conventional education system, not to mention the sharp uniforms that everyone got to wear. Of course, the insidious undercurrent of the movement is that the skills and values taught were specifically designed to turn out superior soldiers for malevolent goals, and in the case of the girls, obedient wives and mothers to produce children for the Reich. The use of young people to defend the Reich in the final days of the war, when many endured horrible deaths and deportation to Gulags, is seen as the ultimate example of ruthless Nazi cruelty.
The moral responsibility of these young people is well examined by author and professor Michael H. Kater, who has published several scholarly works on Nazi Germany. Drawing a distinction between complicity and responsibility, he notes how some became sadistic adults, such as Irma Grese, a former BDM member who committed atrocities while an official at concentration camps for which she was executed after the war. On the other hand, the youth can be viewed as abused children who were seduced and exploited by the Nazi regime.
Heavily documented, with seventy-five pages of endnotes, Hitler Youth is a sophisticated study for which some knowledge of German history and politics would be helpful. The academic tone is supported by the absence of illustrations or period photos, resulting in a restrained and engrossing analysis on what is often treated as a lurid topic.