The Hitler Youth and the Indoctrination of German Children

Hitler Youth at a rally in 1933
Hitler Youth at a rally in 1933. Bundesarchiv Bild via Wikimedia Commons

Once in power, Hitler wished to co-ordinate every aspect of German life, to transform Germany into the idealized Volk, and more practically to assure his control. One aspect of life which came under heavy Nazi control was education, because Hitler believed that the youth of Germany could be bought up in a such a way, could be totally indoctrinated in their education, so as to wholeheartedly support the Volk and the Reich, and the system would never face an internal challenge again.

This mass brain washing was to be achieved in two ways: the transformation of the school curriculum, and the creation of bodies like the Hitler Youth.

The Nazi Curriculum

The Reich Ministry of Education, Culture and Science took control of the education system in 1934, and while it didn’t change the structure it inherited, it did major surgery on the staff. Jews were sacked en mass (and by 1938 Jewish children were barred from schools), teachers with rival political views were side lined, and women were encouraged to start producing children rather than teach them. Of those who remained, anyone who didn’t seem dedicated enough to the Nazi cause was retrained in Nazi ideas, a process helped by the creation of the National Socialist Teachers League, a body you increasingly had to be a member of to retain your job, as evidenced by a 97% membership rate in 1937. Grades suffered.

Once the teaching staff were organised, so was what they taught.

There were two main thrusts of the new teaching: to prepare the population to better fight and breed, physical education was given much more time in schools, while to better prepare the children to support the state Nazi ideology was given to them in the form of an exaggerated German history and literature, outright lies in science, and German language and culture to form the Volk.

Mein Kampf was heavily studied, and children gave Nazi salutes to their teachers as a show of allegiance. Boys of notional ability, but more importantly the right racial makeup, could be earmarked for future leadership roles by being sent to specially created elite schools; some schools which selected based solely on racial criteria ended up with students too intellectually limited for the program or rule.

The Hitler Youth

The most infamous aspect of the Nazis and their childen was the Hitler Youth. This, the ‘Hitler Jugend’, had been created long before the Nazis had taken power, but then had only had a tiny membership. Once the Nazis began to co-ordinate children’s passage through it membership rose dramatically, to include many millions of children; by 1939 membership was compulsory for all children of the right age. 

There were in fact several organisations under this umbrella: The German Young People, who covered boys from ten to fourteen, and the Hitler Youth itself from fourteen to eighteen. Girls were taken into the League of Young Girls from ten to fourteen, and the League of German Girls from fourteen to eighteen. There was also the ‘Little Fellows’ for children aged 6 – 10; even these wore uniforms and swastika armbands.

The treatment of boys and girls was very different: while both sexes were drilled in Nazi ideology and physical fitness, the boys would perform military tasks like rifle training, while the women would be groomed for a domestic life or nursing soldiers and surviving air raids. Some people loved the organisation, and found opportunities they would not have had elsewhere because of their wealth and class, enjoying camping, outdoor activities and socialising, but many others were alienated by the increasingly military side of a body solely designed to prepare children for unbending obedience.

Hitler’s anti-intellectualism was partly balanced by the number of leading Nazis with a university education, but nonetheless those going on to undergraduate work more than halved and the quality of graduates fell.

However, the Nazis were forced into backtracking when the economy had taken off and workers were in demand, when it became apparent women with technical skills would be very valuable, and the numbers of women in higher education, having fallen, rose sharply.

The Hitler Youth are one of the most evocative Nazi organisations, visibly and effectively representing a regime that wanted to remake the whole of German society into a brutal, cold, quasi-medieval new world and were willing to start by brainwashing children. Given how the young are viewed in society, and the general desire to protect, seeing ranks of uniformed children saluting is chilling, and remains so till this day. That the children actually had to fight, in the failing stages of the war, is tragic, like so much of the Nazi regime.