Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Join or Suffer

The hero of the film Hitler Youth Quex, watched over by his girlfriend, lies on his bed following a street brawl with communists. The film was very popular in Germany and aided Hitler Youth recruitment.

The means of promoting the National Socialist message was through the many youth organizations that the Nazis created to ensure that the process of indoctrination continued during children's leisure time. Most famous of these bodies was the Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth or HJ). Almost immediately after seizing power, the Nazis created an institutional structure capable of encompassing all German children and adolescents. Headed by the "eternal juvenile" Baldur von Schirach, who was appointed Youth Leader of the German Reich on 17 June 1933, the system comprised four main elements. Two associations were established for girls: the Jungmädelbund (League of Young Girls), which covered ages 10 to 14; and the Bund Deutscher Mädel (League of German Girls), incorporating girls from 14 to 18. There were two organizations for boys: the Deutsches Jungfolk (German Young People), for ages 10 to 14; and the Hitler Youth itself, for boys aged 14to18.

Initially, recruitment to these groups was on a voluntary basis, with Schirach proclaiming that "no boy is to be forced into the Hitler Youth". However, great efforts were made to persuade children to join of their own volition. To this end, rival youth organizations were progressively eliminated. The left-wing labour youth movement was made the subject of an outright ban, while other associations were forced to merge with the Hitler Youth as part of the process of Gleichschaltung. Only the Catholic youth leagues, which were protected by an agreement between Hitler and the Vatican, were able to evade this process. Even then considerable pressure was placed upon those children who joined Catholic youth clubs to enroll in the Hitler Youth instead. It was not unknown for teachers to set extra homework for those pupils who stayed out of the Hitler Youth. If that failed to persuade them, they might be threatened with beatings as well. By such means, the Nazis effectively created a monopoly for themselves in respect of German youth associations. Those children who wanted to take part in such activities had to come to them.

A more positive form of inducement existed in the form of a concerted propaganda campaign designed to emphasize the "new comradeship" provided for the young by the Nazi youth organizations. A prominent example of this phenomenon was the 1933 blockbuster movie Hitler Youth Quex. The film was a loose dramatization of the life of 15-year-old Hitler Youth member Herbert Norkus, who had been killed by a gang of communist assailants while distributing Nazi election literature in Berlin during January 1932. The film follows the fortunes of fictional character Heini Völker. The story, which contains cliché after cliché, is nevertheless very powerful. Heini, the film's hero, comes from a working-class district of Berlin. His father, a life-long communist, is depicted as an alcoholic, a brute and a loafer, who makes the lives of Heini and his mother a misery. She commits suicide in despair, but Heini finds solace as well as comradeship and purpose through joining the Hitler Youth. Such is his commitment to his "new family" that, in protecting his fellow recruits from a communist plot, he dies a martyr's death, proclaiming as he passes away that "the flag means more than death". For the many thousands who saw the film, the message that the Hitler Youth provided comradeship, purpose and a cause worth dying for would have been both apparent and appealing.

The effect of these measures was to make the Nazi youth organizations highly attractive to German children. The historian Stephen Roberts, who visited Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s and observed the system in operation, noted that "children wanted to join the H). To be outside Hitler's organization was the worst form of punishment." As a result, membership grew at an exponential rate. Whereas there had been a mere 108,000 in the Nazi youth movement in December 1932, this had reached 2.2 million by the end of 1933, climbed to 3.6 million by the close of 1934, was just under 4 million in 1935, and hit 5.4 million in 1936. At this point, with rival organizations effectively eliminated and the majority of German youths already integrated within it, a law was passed making participation to all intents and purposes compulsory. This brought the total membership to just over seven million. The incorporation of seven million German young people into one institutional structure gave the Nazis enormous scope to reinforce the programme of indoctrination and regimentation that took place inside Germany's schools. This was a task that the National Socialist youth movements took up with relish.

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