Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow is not a study of Adolf Hitler but rather the children and teenagers that followed him and the National Socialist (Nazi) Party during the Third Reich (1933–1945). She explains how the children of Germany were taught to idolize Hitler and how they were used for labor and as soldiers in this historical book aimed at young readers.
Although World War I ended in 1918, the effects of Germany’s loss were still felt. The Treaty of Versailles imposed a “victor’s peace” on the Germans. The Germans were forbidden from rebuilding their military, and they were also required to make reparation payments to the victorious powers. By 1930, a global economic depression added to the hardships of common Germans. The people were looking for a solution.
For children like Melita Maschmann, Hitler seemed like a bold leader who offered simple but drastic solutions to Germany’s problems. He claimed that he would not be bound by the restrictions and obligations of the Treaty of Versailles and that he would rebuild Germany into a great and powerful country. It should be noted that Hitler had already revealed his anti-Semitism, though Bartoletti cautions that no one could have foreseen the extreme consequences of his hate at this time. Seeing the potential and energy of the youth, Hitler called on them directly to help. In 1926, the Hitler Youth were created.
Among a time of “weak, unstable government, high unemployment and widespread poverty,” Bartoletti explains that the Hitler Youth offered its members “excitement, adventure, and new heroes to worship. It gave them hope.” However, it was also a time of political turmoil. Bartoletti tells the story of Herbert Norkus, the fourteen-year-old son of an impoverished factory stoker who joined the Hitler Youth. On January 24, 1932, Norkus was passing out Nazi pamphlets urging the public to elect Hitler and his party when he found himself under attack by a Communist gang. Norkus was killed, but he was remembered as a Nazi martyr that had sacrificed everything for his ideals. Bartoletti points out that nearly as many Communist youth had been killed in these street skirmishes.
The Hitler Youth quickly gained in popularity. It offered boys and girls a great deal of excitement through hikes and other challenges that rewarded children for their fitness and loyalty. Children were inducted into a military order that offered them uniforms and knives. It was even run by the youths. However, before children could enter, they had to provide proof of their ethnic background. No one with any ties to Jewish ancestry could enter the Hitler Youth. Although some parents disapproved of the militarism of the Hitler Youth, many children were deaf to their parents’ warnings about the horrors of war, and they welcomed the chance to rebel against their parents.
As the Hitler Youth became more popular, Adolf Hitler became more powerful. In 1933, a Communist arsonist set fire to the Reichstag, Germany’s parliamentary building. Hitler used the incident to declare a state of national emergency, and he suspended civil rights like freedom of speech. In the next election, the Nazis were voted more power and they passed an Enabling Act, which gave Hitler sole power to pass laws. In 1934, he became not only chancellor but also president of Germany. Hitler was now Führer of Germany.
At this point, the Hitler Youth were mandated to achieve Gleichschaltung, or conformity. All other youth groups were eliminated so all children would, in Hitler’s words, “fall under the spell of National Socialism in order that they may never be spiritually seduced by any of the old generation.” Baldur von Schirach, at twenty-six years old, was made the leader of the Hitler Youth.
Some groups resisted these policies, and they were persecuted as a result. Bartoletti tells of how the Gestapo, or state police, pressured Catholic priests to deliver sermons sympathetic to Nazi interests. Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to salute the Nazi flag were sent to concentration camps. By this time, it was dangerous for Germans to have Jewish friends. The pressure to conform not only became more socially powerful but also was soon backed by legislation. In...
(The entire section is 1742 words.)