By Gerhard Rempel
In his study of human behavior on the "Eastern Front", Omer Bartov has delineated the "barbarization of warfare", a characterization that can be applied with equal force to certain aspects of other fronts and especially to the inhuman exploitation of children in the final months of war. After the crucial defeat of Stalingrad, bewildered HJ leaders and determined SS officers conspired to generate a fantastic children's crusade which sought to shore up crumbling defenses and in the nature of things offered thousands of teenagers as a final sacrifice to the god of war. That the HJ-SS alliance should have concluded this way is no surprise. For years the SS had circumvented formal restrictions about the induction of underage youth and millions of HJ members already found themselves in ill-fitting SS uniforms doing men's jobs at home and in actual combat. Millions of emaciated boys were digging tank traps and manning anti-aircraft batteries, young girls were replacing nurses in hospitals, and armies of children were collecting scrap metal and old clothes, fighting fires caused by bombing raids, policing streets and railroad stations, serving as couriers and messengers. Normal activity for the young, such as attending school, seems to have become an afterthought.
Goebbel's "total war" meant that the younger generation was mobilized like everyone else. The creation of the Hitler Youth Division (HJD) within the W-SS was more than merely a sign of desperation and a sense of foreboding doom. It exposed the relationship between HJ and SS in a fatal way. The connection between these two Nazi generations, the process of socialization under the Nazis, and the ultimate implications of the HJ-SS alliance, expressed in numerous small ways at home and on the battlefield, was compressed within the confines of a single combat division, deliberately patterned to take full advantage of what was thought to have been achieved by these key affiliates of the Nazi movement. The HJ was also an essential element in the so-called "Peoples Militia", which was supposed to incorporate all able-bodied males. More sinister and brutal schemes were hatched in the end which envisioned the formation of a clandestine, fanatical, suicidal guerrilla army, made up largely of HJ boys and BDM girls. These children were expected to conduct sabotage and assassination behind enemy lines, wreaking havoc on occupation troops and German officials collaborating with the occupiers. That such desperate and criminal schemes should have been thought of is a natural concomitant of the ideology which informed the HJ-SS alliance. That these schemes should actually have begun to emerge in the twilight of Hitler's empire is proof of the effectiveness of that collaboration. The HJ-SS symbiosis, forged during a decade of inter-generational cooperation, was reaffirmed in blood and destruction during the chaotic death throes of the Third Reich and seemed to extend beyond total surrender to radical political activity in the early postwar years.
A thirst for action, increasingly proto-military as the uncertain prospects of the war revealed themselves, changed the HJ into a school for soldiers at the end. Exploiting this incubator of ideologically-drilled warriors, the SS not only extracted a sizeable proportion of its elite troops from this source but began to think about more specific ways of using the HJ. Creating adolescent combat units was not unique, since it had been foolishly tried in the early days of World War One, when talented and enthusiastic young volunteers were thrown into battle at Langemarck, without adequate training and due consideration for future officer candidate needs. Some party leaders and army veterans remembered this blunder, but the fanaticism in the SS and the RJF made those who made decisions in these matters oblivious to the ominous precedent played out in the bloody fields of Flanders. So it was not by chance that the HJ Division remained closely associated with the Führer's SS Body Guard, beginning in Berlin's Lichterfelde Barracks and ending in the Battle of Caen, the Stalingrad of the HJ, the Battle of the Bulge, another sign of desperation fraught with atrocity, and finally the last-ditch efforts to defend an indefensible Vienna, the scene of Hitler's painful struggle for manhood.
With peculiarly independent relationships to Himmler and the rest of the W-SS, the Body Guard was an elite within an elite. As a personal security unit dedicated exclusively to the person of the Führer, the LSSAH gave birth to a unique and exclusive combat division which was moved from front to front to rescue difficult military situations or to snatch glory from the jaws of death by benefitting from victories won by others. It was in the forefront of every major military campaign. Singularly reckless in its style of warfare, the Guard suffered a disproportionately large number of casualties, requiring as a result perpetual replenishment. It was mainly the HJ which had to furnish the special cannon fodder.
Recruiting privileges had been given to the Guard as early as 1934. We have already seen that the Guard also established direct contacts with the HJ in order to siphon off the best available young manpower. Many starry-eyed young men therefore joined Hitler's Guard before the war began and many more must have been recruited during the halcyon years of 1939 to 1941. To become a member of Hitler's famous Praetorian Guard fulfilled the ambition of many young idealists in the HJ, especially after the inflated exploits of the Guard became weekly features of Goebbels' newsreel editors. By the fall of 1941 the RJF agreed to mount special recruiting campaigns only for the Guard. After Hitler's SS Guard became a mechanized infantry division in 1942, the recruiting campaign was repeated and subsequent SS recruiting efforts were based on the experiences of 1941 and 1942, always accompanied by special appeals from Artur Axmann.
The idea of creating an SS armored division composed exclusively of Hitler youths has been generally credited to Artur Axmann, although the idea of mobilizing teenagers in separate units may have occurred to a number of people, including Berger and Axmann. The ambience of "total war" was fertile ground for such desperate expedients. During a highly secret discussion between Gottlob Berger and Helmut Möckel on February 9, 1943 it was agreed that the Division should be formed from 17 year old members of the HJ. These were to be prepared in the WEL for 6 weeks, spend 4 additional weeks in the RAD and conclude their training with another 16 weeks of intensive military drilling under SS auspices. As a concession to physical immaturity they were to receive special rations during training. On the 10th Himmler saw Hitler at the Wolf's Lair and discussed the project with him. Three days later he informed Axmann that the plan had made the Führer happy and that he had authorized immediate commencement of recruiting.
A secret planning conference was held on February 16 at HJ headquarters in Berlin, attended by Axmann, Möckel, Schlünder, Berger and two members of the SS Recruiting Office. They agreed to accept volunteers with a minimum height of 5'6" who demonstrated a "capacity to wage war", and possessed the HJ Achievement Medal. RJF representatives thought that 30,000 boys could be made available. Seemingly reluctant to accept HJ insistence on premilitary training, Berger thought the simplest method would be to assemble the boys in basic training centers close to the area where the division was to be formed. In lieu of this the existing 39 WELs still staffed by the SS, with a total capacity of 8,000, would have to be pre-empted temporarily for HJD candidates. During the following day the RJF announced these plans to regional leaders assembled for a regularly scheduled conference in Berlin. Axmann said that the HJD, alongside the SS Body Guard, was intended as a "Guard of the Führer." It would be fully motorized, equipped with the heaviest weapons and led mostly by HJ leaders. Boys who became seventeen on June 30 could volunteer. Eagerness for action and enthusiasm should be decisive factors, while parental permission was unnecessary. Recruiters were urged to accept only boys who were physically fit, spiritually alive and those who had exemplary records in the HJ. Recruiting should be done so as to create a vocational balance among peasants, workers, artisans and students. There was also to be a balance between leaders and rank and file boys. Since the division was not intended to be an elite combat formation made up of upper middle class boys as those who fought at Langemarck, it indicates that this uncomfortable precedent was circumvented in the spirit of the Volksgemeinschaft, at least on the surface. Axmann further announced that the special WEL courses, another attempt to avoid the Langemarck syndrome, would begin in April and ordered vigorous recruitment to begin immediately. A mere 26 days were thus allowed to recruit an entire division, a sign of hope and haste produced, no doubt, by extreme pressure from Berger's minions.
While planners threshed about in convoluted schemes and expedients, no one seems to have anticipated the problems of recruitment soon to be faced. What they did fear is negative publicity. Recruiting began secretly because the RJF thought public notice would call attention to the distasteful memory of Langemarck where very enthusiastic but badly trained volunteers suffered disastrous losses. As late as November secrecy was still maintained under threats of prosecution, coupled with the suggestion that appearance of HJD units should be called simply W-SS volunteers. When recruitment was set in motion by Axmann in the middle of February, the HJ ran into surprising apathy, especially among students of secondary schools, a development the RJF might have expected had the hostile attitude of students in the WELs been taken into account. The RJF plunged on nevertheless. Late in March an agreement was concluded with the National Business Chamber to allow vocational students, who would normally have graduated in the fall, to take premature examinations, thus opening the way for induction into the WEL. For non-vocational students the problem was more complicated. The RJF had accepted responsibility to negotiate a solution but seems to have encountered a series of roadblocks. Not until April was Axmann able to inform regional leaders that volunteers would be granted "preliminary leaving certificates" with the promise that they could finish secondary education in special courses after the war. This made recruiting among students difficult. Berger then stepped in and made a more satisfactory agreement with the Education Ministry by granting "final leaving certificates" to student-volunteers who demonstrated the "ability, resolution and will power of potential university students."
Regions and districts commenced recruiting during the third week of February. Recruiting problems soon forced the RJF to shorten premilitary training from six weeks to four and postpone the starting date to May. This became necessary despite the fact that Hitler had meanwhile exempted HJD volunteers from compulsory labor service, an expedient adopted so frequently after 1943 that it practically became a general rule. While premilitary training sessions got underway, the RJF ordered a "supplementary recruiting campaign" for May. In WEL camps as well as in individual HJ dens the siren calls of strident SS and HJ recruiters were heard once more. When recruits completed WEl training and transferred to the W-SS, they were ordered to recruit personally their friends for the division while on furlough, a device that was probably more effective than some other forms of persuasion. These belated volunteers went directly to the reserve units of the division. At the end of July, the RJF allowed the regions to recruit from the second half of the 1926 class. They were allowed to skip premilitary training as well. In all WELs recruiting meanwhile continued at least through the middle of August.
Despite formal safeguards against the use of force many boys must have been driven to volunteer under extremely coercive circumstances. Army reserve authorities in Stuttgart, for instance, complained to OKW that "illegal means" were being used to recruit for a "so-called HJD to be presented to the Führer on his birthday." It would be erroneous, however, the report went on, if the Führer were to be "under the impression that he was dealing with purely voluntary recruits." Incidents were cited where Hitler youths had been forcefully "moved" to volunteer. They had been imprisoned in rooms guarded by SS soldiers until volunteer papers were signed and even had their ears boxed for failure to respond to SS appeals. The SS Recruiting Station at Stuttgart denied these charges, when Berger was forced to investigate, and claimed it could not find allegedly responsible persons because the army had given "imprecise information." One of the incidents took place at Achern where 220 boys had been assembled for recruiting purposes. Since only 18 had signed volunteer certificates and a mere 13 of them were later found to be suitable, the SS "certainly could not be accused of using force." Berger dismissed the whole affair as just another example of the army "raising a stink against the SS." SS General Kurt Meyer, the second and most important commander of the Division, subsequently implied, however, that some youths had not come voluntarily and SS General Fritz Witt, the first commander, ordered an investigation in November 1943 to determine how many men had been inducted against their will. It is apparent that many forms of official influence and pressure were used to compel "volunteering", at a time when the critical military situation had top priority.
Securing the required number of NCOs for the division proved to be equally difficult. Originally Axmann had asked regional leaders to enlist at least ten percent of their eligible unit leaders as divisional NCO candidates. Swabia was thus expected to furnish 26 and send them to WEL Kuchberg near Geislingen in Württemberg for training. The initial response was not encouraging; only thirteen mustered men went to Kuchberg. Most eligible leaders it appears chose to go to the Labor Service, refused to surrender their officer-candidate status with the air force and the army, or wanted to finish formal education first. Recruiting results in Swabia must have reflected national efforts because at the end of March Axmann issued renewed calls for NCO candidates. While some regional leaders were afraid their staffs would be depleted, Axmann no longer cared whether local HJ organizations collapsed when the need for troops to face military crises was overwhelming. What clearly also was on Axmann's mind had something to do with his notion of an elite division which would glorify the martial tradition of the HJ with his peculiar stamp on it.
HJ districts already faced severe manpower shortages in 1943. At Kempten, for instance, seven leaders had become officer candidates for the air force, two had been transferred to a children's camp, one was employed part-time in the local civil administration, one wore corrective glasses, and a couple of others were too short to qualify for the W-SS. While two leaders were NCO candidates with the SS, they refused to switch to the HJD, one of them wanting to finish school in order to pursue university training in engineering after the war, while the other served as SRD leader and therefore could not be replaced. The district leader showed a considerable degree of exasperation: "If I am to surrender two additional leaders for 'service in the east' then I am faced with a practically leaderless organization. I don't think it makes any sense to force someone to volunteer." Other leaders faced similar problems. In this situation coercion seemed to be the only recourse if Axmann's demands were to be met and he in turn was bound by his commitment to Himmler. Yet draftees would not provide the kind of elan which the division was supposed to have. Axmann, clearly worried about this problem, ordered all WEL directors training NCO candidates to determine how many of them had been commandeered. The latter were then submitted to another barrage of propaganda and those who still refused to volunteer were finally dropped from the roster. So in the end the RJF was forced to pick potential NCO candidates from rank and file recruits born in 1926. This began during the second week of their training in the WELs. So the manpower squeeze led to an expedient, which gave the "Baby Division" a substantial number of noncommissioned officers of 17 and 18 year old youth, leading soldiers of the same age.
At the conclusion of premilitary training all 38 WELs staged uniform ceremonies, transferring these HJ boys to the W-SS. Short speeches by HJ and SS leaders, followed by rousing renditions of martial songs like "Ein junges Volk steht auf" and "Es zittern die morschen Knochen", accompanied by combined SS-HJ musical units, characterized these events. It was clearly a momentous occasion in a decade of HJ-SS collaboration. Axmann and Himmler, who spoke at one of these ceremonies in WEL Wildflecken, expressed the symbolic significance of this mutual dependency. The Youth Leader was somewhat disingenuous:
...My comrades and young volunteers...you are a wonderful demonstration of the attitude and spirit of youth during this fourth year of war. We all feel the burning desire to create a military unit out of volunteer comrades from the HJ. The Führer was delighted with this wish of his youth. He counted on you and thousands of you responded to our call. You are the elite of German youth and I am happy and lucky that not one of you is here except by his own free will....In your unit, my comrades, the soldierly tradition of the HJ will find its ultimate expression. That is the reason why all German youths direct their attention to this unit, to you; that is why you must embody the virtues inherent in the best of Germany's youth. So, we expect you to be idealistic, selfless, courageous and loyal!
Himmler was less hortatory and more candid:
Since the years of struggle, throughout the years of growth before the war and during the war years themselves, a tie of particular intimacy and inner fellowship bound the HJ and SS together...It can be said in all candor that half of the W-SS divisions which reconquered Kharkov were volunteers from the classes 1924 to 1925...In these weeks when the sacrifice of Stalingrad was on every one's mind...your Youth Leader made the decision to offer to the Führer the best young boys....The Führer agreed happily. After eight years of training in the HJ, you have now assembled in your W-SS uniform with your old HJ armband. For four weeks you have lived together, worked together, trained together and prepared for military service. Today the National Youth Leader has released you from the HJ and presented you to the W-SS. Now, in your new W-SS uniforms, you will go home on a 14-day furlough (stormy applause!). After a few months in SS barracks you will enter a great formation, an SS Panzergrenadier Division. You will then train some more, loose many drops of sweat in order to save drops of blood and finally will march alongside your sister division, the Body Guard SS Adolf Hitler. You will carry the name which the Führer gave you..."