The Hitler Youth was the male youth organisation of the German Nazi Party during the years of the Third Reich. Active from 1922 to the fall of Nazism in 1945, the Hitler Youth grew to include almost the entire German youth along with its sister organisation, the League of German Girls. Over its lifetime, the organisation changed from an initial scout-like character into a training place for soldiers and finally into the 12th Panzer SS-division which fought in several battles of the Second World War. Aside from the Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls, there were organisations for little children called the Jungmädel and the Jungvolk. These organisations were open to girls and boys aged 10-14, respectively.
The Hitler Youth was founded in 1922 as the youth wing of the Nazi party. It was originally called the German Youth League. The organisation had originally been proposed in 1921 by Gustav Adolf Lenk, a Nazi sympathetic who was denied membership in the party because he was too young. The movement had the general aim of propagating Nazi interests among youth and their parents, but also the deeper aim of preparing the German youth for life in the new Germany envisioned by Hitler.
After the trials following the Munich Beer Putsch, both Hitler and Lenk were imprisoned simultaneously. Following their release, Lenk began opposing Hitler as the sole leader of the Nazi Party, which led to his dismissal. Lenk was replaced by Kurt Gruber as leader of the Hitler Youth, Gruber being only 21 years of age at the time. In 1926, the name of the organisation changed to 'Hitler Jugend' or Hitler Youth. The HJ was subordinated under the Sturmabteilung, SA, and was officially sanctioned by Hitler. In the face of competition with Baldur von Schirach, Gruber’s position was gradually weakened and in October 1931, he was dismissed from his post as well; replaced by von Schirach as head of the HJ.
Due to competition on the youth movement scene, the growth of the Hitler Youth between 1922 and 1933 was slow. The Artamanen youth movement merged into it after 1934.
By incorporating the Hitler Youth into the Ministry of the Interior in 1933, Hitler managed to make it grow from 55,000 members into swallowing almost all other youth movements in 1934. By 1936, 60 per cent of the German youth were members, and in 1936 membership was made compulsory.. This change was not all beneficial for Hitler, since law-enforced participation forced many less-than-enthusiastic youth into the Hitler Youth. These disgruntled youth did little to improve morale within the organisation.
The outbreak of war in 1939
With the outbreak of war, the role of the Hitler Youth changed dramatically. Now encompassing 8.8 million, victory in the war became the chief objective for the organisation. Initially, members only performed relatively safe activities such as assisting with anti-aircraft defence. But with the failure of the German invasion of Russia in 1943, Hitler was forced to turn to his youth for military manpower. A new military unit was created, the 12th SS-Panzer Division, nicknamed 'Hitlerjugend'. Since most of the older members had been recruited to the Wehrmacht (army) already during the course of the war, the youngsters that constituted the 12th Division were very young compared to their Allied adversaries. Eventually, the division evolved into an elite unit that was deployed in the toughest situations of the war in Normandy.
In the closing days of the Second World War in Europe, many from the Hitler Youth and the Jungvolk served in the Volksturm, defending Germany from the Allied invasion. Other members were organised into Werewolf units that waged a desperate guerrilla war on the invaders. With the German surrender in 1945, the organisation and incentive for the Hitler Youth ended. The 12th SS-division surrendered to the 65th US infantry division, but sabotage by the Werewolf units continued for a short time. Indeed, Hitler's last public act, on his 56th birthday, was to award a group of 12-year old boys from the Hitler Youth with the Iron Cross. The former members had a hard time re-adjusting to civilian life after a near lifetime of military training and indoctrination. The former leader of the Hitler Youth, Baldur von Schirach, said when faced with the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg:
It is my guilt which I will have to carry before God and the German nation, that [...] I educated German youth for a man who committed murder by the millions [...] I believed in that man. That is all I have to say in my defence.
- Lewis, Brenda Ralph, 2000, Hitler Youth, Amber Books
- Williamson, David G., 2002, The Third Reich, Pearson Education Limited
- Lee, Stephen J., 2000, European Dictatorships, 1918-1945 (2nd edition), Routledge
- quoted in Lewis, pp. 187