This is labelled a teen read but is fascinating reading for anyone who wants to know more about what it was like for children growing up in Nazi Germany, their experiences, and the aftermath. Susan Campbell Bartoletti recounts the events leading up to the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazi party, through the take-over of other countries, and into the war with the Allies, with documentation from two years of extensive research, interviews, and letters and diaries from twelve children who were part of the Hitler Youth movement. It is a balanced telling by those who were excluded because they were Jewish or Jehovah Witnesses, those who were fervently ready to give their lives, if necessary, for the Führer and the Fatherland, and those who, early on, lost their ardour for conformity, rules, and blind obedience, and later fought to spread the truth about the extermination of Jews and the “unfit”.
At the very beginning of the book, we are introduced to these children through whose eyes we see the Hitler Youth program — a picture (for all but one of them) and a brief paragraph about who they were and their situation. To all appearances, these are just ordinary children from various cities and backgrounds who have shared their stories. From an early age, they witnessed and/or participated in the Hitler Youth, or the Bund Deutscher Mädel (BDM) in the case of the girls. Each one brings a unique perspective to events. One reported her parents to the authorities and had them jailed. Several were executed as traitors by beheading. And one became a martyr to the cause, inspiring thousands more to join the movement.
To much of Germany, and indeed, to many people from other countries, there was admiration early on for the “discipline, physical fitness, and pursuit of excellence” demonstrated by the German youth, aged 10 to 18. They were offered,
excitement, adventure, and new heroes to worship. It gave them hope, power, and the chance to make their voices heard. And for some, it provided the opportunity to rebel against parents, teachers, clergy, and other authority figures,
and so they joined. Voluntarily at first by the hundreds, then by the thousands, and then, required by law. Hitler said,
We older ones are used up. . . But my magnificent youngsters! Are there finer ones anywhere in the world? Look at all these men and boys! What material! With them I can make a new world.
By 1939, nearly 8 million boys and girls were part of Hitler’s youth movement. The education system, the church, the newspapers and radios, were all controlled by the state, and boys as young as 14 were trained in driving all kinds of vehicles and using weapons of war. After age 18, boys and girls alike were required to give first six months, then one year of work to their country — the boys, creating roads, tank barriers, clearing forests, and draining swamps to create new farmland; the girls, working on farms, patching straw mattresses, or providing day care for children of factory workers, or working in the factories themselves to give workers their holidays. For the most part, they did these activities willingly for their country. They were building a new, stronger Germany, politically and economically. They were eradicating the devastating effects on their homeland of the humiliating Treaty of Versailles.
Bartoletti’s work is meticulously documented. Some of the pictures, such as the one in front of the Foreword of a boy who looks to be about six dressed in the Hitler Youth uniform making the Nazi salute. When pouring over research material, she was appalled at all the signs that Germany was preparing for war and nobody was taking it seriously. At the end, there is a timeline, a quote source and a bibliography as well as details of what became of the twelve children, all of whom were heroes whether they fought for or against the Third Reich. Some became historians, several authored books, some took decades to come to grips with the understanding that they participated in mass murder. Some were later honoured in person for their peace efforts and some had landmarks named after them posthumously.
This book is shocking and touching in ways unimaginable when you first begin to read. Especially when you realize that in parts of the world today, children are still being exploited to fight wars, still being deprived of their childhood. * * * * *
Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow is available from Amazon and other fine book sellers.
This book meets the criteria for Microhistory in The Eclectic Reader Challenge, 2015, hosted by Book’dOut.