Reviewed by Amanda Brian (Department of History, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)
Published on H-German (June, 2005)
Youth Attuned to Pain
Some of the most harrowing scenes from Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will focus on the cherubic faces of Hitler Youths and the exuberant games of young National Socialist men and women. The chilling homage to early life stages reflects adult desires, in particular the desire to indoctrinate the youngest generation of the Nazi movement in a racist-imperialist world view. Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that he sought to create "a violently active, dominating, brutal youth," a youth "indifferent to pain." While Michael H. Kater contends in his latest monograph that young people were not a central concern for Hitler--an "ambivalence" that led to the structural and organizational weaknesses of the Hitler Youth (p. 11)--, children and youth were sufficiently attractive members of the Nazi state to warrant relentless intervention in their upbringing. Kater's book provides a thorough treatment of the Hitler Youth, the League of German Girls, and their dissenters; that the publication is not imaginative is more a disappointment than a defect. The compilation of data about the Nazi youth groups into a single 265-page volume is impressive, and on the descriptive level, the book is engaging. Kater harnesses information from secondary sources, mainly published in German, to insights from autobiographical sources in order to portray the collective experience of Hitler Youths, the youth cohort born between the years 1916 and 1934 whose members were widely incorporated into the Hitler Jugend (HJ) from age ten to eighteen (p. 12). He argues that there was an almost universal consensus among youth in Nazi Germany to follow orders and to brand outsiders because the Hitler Youth, including--and perhaps because of--the HJ female section, Bund Deutscher Mdel (BDM), was successful in socializing children (p. 15).
The issue of the Nazi youth cohort's culpability in violent, dominating, and brutal activities is immediately confronted in the volume, and Kater reiterates the question of complicity in the final chapter. There the issue of guilt is weighed against the responsibility of age and HJ successes in mobilizing youth. He views members of the Hitler Youth as neither innocent nor as victims and offers instead a series of qualifiers in determining their degree of guilt, including life stage, leadership position, and criminal activity. HJ and BDM girls often appear sadistic and abusive in the narrative, yet the author just as frequently points out their suffering and pain at the hands of poorly trained HJ leaders, Nazi officials, and military officers. On the whole, Hitler Youth is an indictment of the adults who indoctrinated children by suppressing their moral compasses and encouraging their cruelty.
The Hitler Youth's success lay in various enticements as well as compulsions that, while never securing absolute compliance, did ensure overwhelming participation. Kater notes, in the first of six chapters, the seductiveness of the youthful and apparently cohesive Nazi movement for the disillusioned youth of the Weimar Republic. A particularly interesting discussion concerns how the Nazi youth organization fared well not only in its compulsory membership policy but also in its struggle with the school and the family for authority over children. The HJ leadership, namely the first and second Youth Leaders of the German Reich, Baldur von Schirach and Artur Axmann, wrested pedagogy away from public schools and teachers unsympathetic to fascism. They also undermined parental authority through such programs as the Kinderlandverschickung (KLV), in which children from the ages of four to fourteen were removed from their homes in Allied-targeted urban areas and placed in Nazi families or in HJ camps in rural Germany and recently conquered Eastern territories. Outplacing children from endangered war zones was common practice for countries participating in World War II, as studies of childhood in war attest, but Kater convincingly reads the KLV as evidence of the Hitler Youth's racist-imperialist activities.
Kater argues in his third chapter, "German Girls for Matrimony and Motherhood," that BDM girls willingly accepted their eugenic tasks of breeding and child rearing. No new theoretical ground is charted in his discussion of the particularly female experience of the Nazi youth movement and of youthful female participation in territorial expansion, war, and other fascist goals. He portrays the Fhrer's young female charges as mainly "passive participants" (p. 72), who were attracted to the BDM because of fashion (p. 81). It is at times unclear whether the author is representing Nazi ideologies of gender or reproducing prevailing gender stereotypes. Kater does note, however, some astonishing facts: for example, nine hundred BDM girls became pregnant during the 1936 Reich Party rally in Nuremberg, while only half of the girls knew the father (p. 108). He explains that the Nazi system granted BDM members emancipation from traditional sexual mores at the same time that HJ boys and soldiers exploited BDM girls. This chapter also highlights the disparity between Kater's treatment of girls and boys in the Third Reich; he does not consider boys and young men as gendered subjects. Since the publication of Klaus Theweleit's Male Fantasies, possible connections between the sadism and dysfunction of the Hitler Youth and the gendered socialization of boys in the fascist regime cannot be ignored. How were misogyny and homoeroticism, to which Kater barely alludes, cultivated and directed under the auspices of Nazi youth leaders? What did the sexual practices of both HJ youth and anti-HJ youth portend for the Third Reich? These questions and more, heralding from the interstices of gender history and the history of childhood and youth, are raised for the reader.
Kater devotes the fourth chapter of the book to HJ dissenters and rebels, providing an extensive and nuanced treatment of resistance to the Hitler Youth. Dissidence, he argues, was always exceptional, and resistance was rarely heroic; resistance was most often conducted on a small scale and in the cracks of Hitler's regime (pp. 113-114). The only heroes of this story, then, were the members of the White Rose, who were politically motivated and prepared to sacrifice their lives. Other dissenting groups, like the Blasen and the Swing Youths, were self-indulgent and lacked ideals, while the Meuten and Edelweisspiraten embraced Marxist and romantic ideas, respectively. Facing the diversity of the rebels, who hailed from every socio-economic group and only similar to each other in their mutual distaste for the HJ monopoly of youth, the Hitler Youth disciplined the entire spectrum of young non-conformists. With assistance from the judiciary and increasingly Himmler's police and SS, new crimes were defined to snare youth, and new punishments were brought to bear on them. As an example of extreme measures, Kater narrates the development of the Jugendschutzlager, in which boys and girls became experimental subjects for Nazi eugenics. Whether or not a young person opposed the HJ or joined the group, the youth was practically guaranteed either to fight at one of the fronts or suffer at home during the Second World War.
The next chapter, "Hitler's Youth at War," recounts the everyday experience of members of the Hitler Youth during and after their service in the organization. After the Battle of Stalingrad, ever-younger recruits became more and more demoralized, desperate, and fanatical in fighting the enemies of Hitler's regime. Meanwhile, BDM girls compromised Nazi ideology to increasingly assume heavier work loads and paramilitary duties. In 1943, both female and male early teens--treated once again separately in this section--became Flakhelfer, fighting members of anti-aircraft defenses, and were subsequently psychologically scarred, if they survived at all. Under Allied occupation, young German soldiers endured in captivity and young German women were raped and tortured. A burgeoning literature documents the story of Soviet as well as American, British, and French troops' rapes of German girls and women, to which Kater could have turned as he notes that an entire generation of girls was raped after the Russian invasion of Greater Berlin (p. 243). In post-1945 Germany, former Hitler Youth members were the target of efforts by the Allies to resocialize young people, with depressing results. As a comprehensive volume of treating children and youth growing up between the Weimar Republic and a divided Germany, Kater's book is an excellent starting point for students, as well as members of the general public, who are interested in the Hitler Youth.
. Quoted in John T. Lauridsen, "Hitler Youth," in Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood: In History and Society, ed. Paula S. Fass (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004).
. Emmy Werner, Through the Eyes of Innocents: Children Witness World War II (Boulder: Westview Press, 2000); James Marten, ed., Children and War: A Historical Anthology (New York: New York University Press, 2002).
. Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, translated by Stephen Conway (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987-88).
. See Atina Grossmann, "A Question of Silence: The Rape of German Women by Occupation Soldiers," October 72 (Spring, 1995): pp. 43-63; and Norman Neimark, The Russians in Germany: A History of the Soviet Zone of Occupation, 1945-1949 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995).
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Amanda Brian. Review of Kater, Michael H., Hitler Youth.
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