Hitler Youth History: The War Years

Figure 1.--The German World War II recruiting posters pictured a very different experience than the Hitler Youth boys experienced on the battlefield. Note the characteristic HJ arm band. "Auch Du" means "You to". The poster addresses the boy by du, the familiar, rather than sie, the formal. The soldier pictured in the background is in a Waffen SS uniforms. The HJ was closer to the SS than the SA.

The Hitler Youth during the War were much more directly involved in the War than Scouts in allied countries. They did many of the things Scouts did like collecting scrap metal. They did much more. The Hitler Youth conducted many training programs focused on military skills. The Hitler Youth was also a vehicle for indoctrinating boys and preparing them for the military. As Hitler told German parents who did not agree with the NAZIs, "Your children are already ours." The HJ was alao a fruitful recruiting service for the SS and military units. The organization was also an effective training program for future NAZI leaders. Eventually the HJ became much more directly involved in the War effort, seving as air raid wardens and eventually as crews on anti-aircraft gun crews. At the end of the war, the boys were the backbone of many Volksstrum units.

Homefront Service

The war returned a sense of urgency to the daily activities of the Hitler Youth. The organization had experienced a bit of a slump after 1936 when participation had become mandatory. For many young Germans, HJ meetings and activities had simply become part of the weekly routine. The original mission of the HJ had been to bring Hitler to power. Victory in the war became the new mission and HJ boys enthusiastically sprang into action. The Hitler Youth performed a variety of duties on the Home Front. Thet served first as special postmen delivering draft notices in their neighborhoods along with monthly ration cards. They also went door to door collecting scrap metals and other needed war materials. They served as air raid wardens, assisted the police, assisted fire fighters, collected scrap material and warm clothing for the troops, and many other non-military activities. They also engaged in military activities while still at home, primarily serving on anti-aircraft batteries.


Girls also enthusiastically participated, although they were assigned duties in keeping with the Nazi viewpoint on the role of females. An old German slogan, popular even during the Nazi era, summed it up -- Kinder, Kirche, Küche (Children, Church, Kitchen). The primary role of young females in Nazi Germany was to give birth to healthy, racially pure (according to Nazi standards) boys. All women's organizations were thus regarded as auxiliaries ranking below their male counterparts.

BDM girls were assigned to help care for wounded soldiers in hospitals, to help in kindergartens, and to assist households with large families. They also stood on railway platforms, offering encouragement and refreshments to army troops departing for the front.

Following the rapid German victory over Poland, girls from the Land Service were assigned to the acquired territory in northern Poland (Warthegau) to assist in the massive Nazi repopulation program in which native Poles were forced off their homes and farms by Himmler's SS troops to make way for ethnic Germans. Hitler Youth assisted in this operation by watching over Polish families as they were evicted from their homes making sure they took only a few basic possessions. Everything else of value was to be left behind for the Germans.

Poland and Russia

Hitler considered the war in the East to be a "war of annihilation" in which those considered racially inferior, the Slavs and Jews, would be forcibly resettled or destroyed. Masses of unwanted humanity were thus forced into the southeastern portion of Poland where ghettos sprang up along with slave labor camps and eventually the extermination camps.

Following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, ethnic Germans began arriving into the Warthegau from areas of Russia and central Europe. Hitler Youth were utilized to help resettle and Nazify the new arrivals, many of whom did not even speak German. Children of the arrivals were also subject to mandatory participation in the HJ.

Figure 2.--These Hitler Youth members were wounded while defending Munich against an Allied air attack. The older boys in the anti-aircraft units operated the guns, while the younger ones served as messengers.

Flak Crews

One of the most under reported aspect of World War II was the size and impact of the air campaign waged over Germany. The Hitler Youth played a major role in that campaign. In August 1940, British air raids began against Berlin in retaliation for the German bombing of London. Hitler Youth boys had been functioning as air raid wardens and anti-aircraft (flak) gun assistants in Berlin and other cities since the outbreak of war, and now saw their first action.

America's entry into the war in December of 1941 resulted in a massive influx of air power into England. The first thousand bomber raid occurred in May 1942 against Cologne. In that same month, newly created Wehrertüchtigungslager or WELS (Defense Strengthening Camps) went into operation in Germany providing 3 weeks of mandatory war training for all boys aged 16 to 18 under the supervision of the Wehrmacht. They learned how to handle German infantry weapons including various pistols, machine-guns, hand grenades and Panzerfausts (German bazookas).

By the beginning of 1943, Hitler's armies were stretched to the limit, battling the combined forces of the Soviet Union, United States, England and other Allies. By this time, most able-bodied German men were in the armed services. As a result, starting on January 26, 1943, anti-aircraft batteries were officially manned solely by Hitler Youth boys. At first they were stationed at flak guns near their homes, but as the overall situation deteriorated, they were transferred all over Germany. The younger boys were assigned to operate search lights and assist with communications, often riding their bicycles as dispatch riders. In October 1943, a search light battery received a direct bomb hit, killing the entire crew of boys, all aged 14 and under.

Following each bombing raid, Hitler Youths assisted in neighborhood cleanup and helped relocate bombed out civilians. They knocked on doors looking for unused rooms in undamaged houses or apartments. Occupants refusing to let in the new 'tenants' were reported to the local police and could likely expect a visit from Gestapo.

Evacuation Camps

As the Allies stepped up their bombing campaign, the Nazis began evacuating children, just as the British had done in 1940 when the Blitz began. The German evacuation program was very different. While British children were taken in by families in more secure areas outside the cities targeted, the German children were instead sent to camps. As in Britain, the children were evacuated from threatened cities. They were sent to Hitler Youth Kinderlandverschickung (KLV) camps located mainly in the rural regions of East Prussia, the Warthegau section of Poland, Upper Silesia, and Slovakia. From 1940 to 1945, over 2.8 million German children were sent to these camps. There were separate KLV camps for boys and girls. About 5,000 camps were eventually in operation, varying greatly in sizes from the smallest which had 18 children to the largest which held 1,200. Each camp was run by a Nazi approved teacher and a Hitler Youth squad leader. The camps replaced big city grammar schools, most of which were closed due to the bombing. Reluctant parents were forced to send their children away to the camps.

Figure 3.--The Germans formed actual military formations out of Hitler Youth boys, including whole divisions. They proved to be highly effective units.

The 12th SS-Panzer Division Hitlerjugend

Hitler Youth boys were fed into the Wehrmacht. One panzer division was actually organized from HJ recruits. The decission was made to form the unit in 1943. Youth Leader Axman organized it as a birthdate present for the Führer. It was the famed 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend of the Waffen SS. The Division was commanded by Germany's youngest general, Kurt Meyer. There were 50 Wehrmacht officers selected that had been Hitler Youth leaders were assigned to the new Division and were used to form the core of it. HJ boys that demonstrated leadership skills were selected for NCO school. The SS ordered 10,000 boys in the Summer of 1943 to report for basic training. Many of these boys were still 16. Most of the rest were 17 years old. The training was just like any Waffen SS unit, with one exception. The HJ boys received a candy ration rather than the cigarette ration normally given to soldiers. The division was deployed to France in preparation for the anticipated Allied invasion. The Division went into action in June 1944 against the Canadians trying to take Caen during the Normandy campaign. The reckless courage the boys showed fighting the British before Caen was legendary. The Division itself was desimated. They managed to destroy 28 tanks while losing only 6 of their own. The ferocity of this division was said to be "seldom equalled and never excelled during the whole campaign." The Division suffered high casualties, in part because of the reckless courage og the HJ boys. After only the first month of figthing, the Division lost 20 percent of its strength killed, 40 percent were wounded and 50 percent of its armored vehicles were lost. This HJ Division proved one of the most fanatical in the Wehrmacht. Although heavily outnumbered by British and Canadian units and totally lacking air support, yhe Division stalled the Mongomery's advance for weeks. Montgomery was not able to break through Caen until the U.S. Third Army under Patton had broken out at St Lo. With the American breakout the Sivision was in retreat (July 1944). Only about 600 men left managed to get back to the Reich. All of their tanks were lost. Field Marshal von Rundstedt said, "It is a pity that this faithful youth is sacrificed in a hopeless situation."

Volksstrum (Home Guard) Service

Hitler and the NAZI hierarchy was determined to fight-on to the very last, utilizing every available human and material resource. They knew given the crimes committed in the East what awaited them once Germany surendered. In September, Hitler Youth leader Artur Axmann proclaimed, "As the sixth year of war begins, Adolf Hitler's youth stands prepared to fight resolutely and with dedication for the freedom of their lives and their future. We say to them: You must decide whether you want to be the last of an unworthy race despised by future generations, or whether you want to be part of a new time, marvelous beyond all imagination." With the Waffen-SS and regular army now depleted of officers, Hitler ordered Hitler Youth boys as young as 15 to be trained as replacements and sent to the Russian Front. Everyone, both young and old, would be thrown into the final fight to stop the onslaught of 'Bolshevik hordes' from the East and 'Anglo-American gangsters' from the West.

The NAZIs, desperate with the staggering losses on both the Eastern and now the new Western Front, braced themselves for invasion of the Reich. The NAZIs September 25, 1944, required all males aged 16 to 60 to join the Volkssturm (People's Storm), or Home Guard. The Volkssturm (People's Storm) was formed under the overall command of Heinrich Himmler. They were trained to use the Panzerfaust anti-tank weapon. Objections to using even younger boys were bypassed.

The recruits were usually either very young or old enough to be veterans of the First World War. These units were often trained and commanded by high ranking Hitler Youth members. One such leader who was 17 at the time remarked about his troops,

I stood in front of a platoon of the Volkssturm. Of the 45 men,only 10 were Hitler Youth members; the others were in their 40's and 50's. Herr Wolff, whose son had fallen as a sergeant in the Waffen-SS, was 65. I eyed them with some apprehension: undisciplined, over-aged, unfit civilians wearing black-red armbands with the inscription Deutsche Wehrmacht. I felt very self-conscious as their leader. Some were the fathers of my schoolfriends.

The Hitler Jugend's participated in a plan put into effect in the fall of 1944 under which 50,000 young people between the ages of 10 and 20 were evacuated into Germany from areas recaptured by the Soviet forces and used as apprentices in German industry and as auxiliaries in units of the German armed forces.

The Hitler Youth were the backbone of the Volkssturm since they had been receiving military training for 10 years. The most effective weapon issued to them was the Panzerfaust, a simple but effective anti-tank bazooka that even an 11-year old could fire. Their training was such that Reichsjugendfuhrer Axmann stated in a memorandum that, "from the Hitler Youth has emerged a movement of young tank busters. There is only victory or annihilation."

Figure 4.--These Hitler Youth boys had been given military duties and were taken prisioner by allied troops.

Hitler Youth units would regularly ambush American infantry units. If they were cornered, they would fight to the last child. An American Lieutenant-Colonel said of an artillery unit whose oldest member was 12, "rather than surrender, the boys fought until killed." In the Ruhr area of Germany, HJ boys practiced guerilla warfare against invading U.S. troops. In the forests, the boys stayed hidden until the tanks passed, waiting for the foot soldiers. They would then spring up, shoot at them and throw grenades, inflicting heavy causalities, then dash away and disappear back into the forest. The Americans retaliated with air-attacks and leveled several villages in the surrounding area. In February 1945, project Werewolf began, training German children as spies and saboteurs, intending to send them behind Allied lines with explosives and arsenic. But most of these would-be saboteurs were quickly captured or killed by the Allies as they advanced into the Reich.

A unit of 5,000 Hitler Youths in April 1945, long after the NAZI regime's fate was sealed, were detailed for the defense of the NAZI capital. The boys were to defend the Havel River in Berlin against the revengeful Red Army. The boys' mission was to hold the bridgehead until Wenck's army could relieve them. Wenck's army, however, did not exist, except in Hitler's drug-raged mind. After 5 days of furious combat, only 500 boys were left who were physically capable of fighting. Children were being thrown into the cauldron of battle all over Germany to fight in a war that was hopelessly lost. On April 23, battalions made up entirely of Hitler Youths were formed to hold the Pichelsdorf bridges by the Havel River. These bridges in Berlin were supposed to be used by General Wenck's relief army coming from the south. That army, unknown to the boys, had already been destroyed and now existed on paper only. It was one of several phantom armies being commanded by Hitler to save encircled Berlin. At the Pichelsdorf bridges, 5,000 boys, wearing man-sized uniforms several sizes too big and helmets that flopped around on their heads, stood by with rifles and Panzerfausts, ready to oppose the Soviet Army. Within five days of battle, 4,500 had been killed or wounded. In other parts of Berlin, HJ boys met similar fates. Many committed suicide rather than be taken alive by the Red Army. All over the city, every able bodied male was pressed into the desperate final struggle. Anyone fleeing or refusing to go to the front lines was shot or hanged on the spot by SS executioners roaming the streets hunting for deserters. In his last public appearance, just days before his death, Adolf Hitler ventured out of his Berlin bunker on his 56th birthday into the chancellery garden to decorate twelve-year-old Hitler Youths with Iron Crosses for their heroism in the defence of Berlin. The extraordinary event was captured on film and remains one of the most enduring images chronicling the collapse of Hitler's thousand year Reich, as the tottering, senile-looking Führer is seen congratulating little boys staring at him with worshipful admiration. They were then sent back out into the streets to continue the hopeless fight. On April 30, 1945, as the Russians advanced to within a few hundred yards of his bunker, Hitler committed suicide. The next day, Hitler Youth leader Artur Axmann, who had been commanding an HJ battalion in Berlin, abandoned his boys and fled to the Alps. In Vienna, Baldur von Schirach abandoned HJ fighting to defend that city.

War's End

One group of Hitler Youth that was captured in Munich was given a detailed tour of a place previously only spoke of in whispers: the Dachau concentration camp. After seeing the railway cars filled with corpses, the survivors, and the crematoriums, the boys' world collapsed. One boy said of the experience, "that night was a sleepless one. The impact of what we had seen was too great to be immediately digested. I could not help but cry."

Figure 5.--Many Germans did not believ the stories about the concentration camps. Here boys who belonged to the Hitler Youth movement were forced by the Allies to view bodies of victims of Dachau concentration camp. Hitler Youth members were trained to be the Reich's future generation.

The Hitler Youth members after the NAZI surrender in May 1945 that had survived went back to being regular civilians, but for most their childhood had long since past. It was a hard adjustment for many to go from being high ranking officers in the Hitler Youth to mere schoolboys. When Alfons Heck heard that his school might reopen soon thought that "the idea of going back to school seemed preposterous. What could we learn after this?" The adult leaders of the Hitler Youth were tried at Nuremberg. The French who had experienced NAZI occupation tried some Hitler Youth members as well. Heck was in the French sector and was tried for prolonging the war. He was sentenced to 2 years restriction in his hometown, 6 months expulsion from the college (it was not open anyway) and a month of hard labor. One job that he was required to do was to exhume the mass grave of French prisoners. He and other Nazis were required to be de-Nazified. The French showed them films from the death camps. Heck and many others could not believe that the films were real which enraged the French. It took Heck 30 years to accept a sense of guilt for the Holocaust. Neither the Americans or British tried Hitler Youth members. They simply could not comprehend the fact that the Hitler Youth members were much more fanatic NAZIs than many adults. They simply treated the youths as merely misguided children.


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Created: November 15, 1998
Last updated: 10:47 AM 8/11/2012