When looking at Hitler’s use of children in the WW2 a pattern eventually emerges. As Hitler became more desperate, the Hitler Youth became more involved. By the end of the war boys as young as 8 were shooting at American troops with rifles they could barely carry. Hitler Youth units were created within the Waffen-SS with their soldiers being some of the most loyal and fearless that the allies would have to face with little regard for the Law of War, committing two massacres. The Fuhrer would award Iron Crosses to some of the boys for their courage in battle whilst thousands of others would be given early graves instead. This post will discuss the role young Nazi boys played in the war in two sections; ‘The 1930s’ and ‘The 1940s’ to better demonstrate the escalation of their activities.
Attending youth camps belonging to political or religious organisations was common for children growing up in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s (although enrollment into the Hitler Youth was made compulsory for many in the 1930s) . In fact, the origins of the Hitler Youth can be traced back to 1922 – well before the Nazis rose to power in 1933. There are a host of reasons parents opted to send their children to these organisations. It provided them with experiences that would otherwise be unaffordable and having your children brought up in line with your own personal political outlook was often desirable.
In 1930 the membership of the Hitler Youth stood at 25,000 and their role was simple – assist in the Nazi party ceasing power by any means necessary, viewing religious church groups as their main opposition. This included having the Hitler Youth break up opposing youth groups with severe anti-church rhetoric instilled in their minds. They would also spy and sabotage religious classes and bible studies and hinder Church attendance. There was also another motive behind the exploits of the Hitler Youth and that was to mould this enthusiastic group of Aryans into future soldiers who would fight for the Nazi cause unconditionally. This was achieved through placing emphasis on physical training over academic learning and weeding out the weak and with a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality. Bullying and violence towards each other was actively encouraged. It was the perfect breeding ground for violence and hate and in April 1932, Chancellor Heinrich Bruning banned the group citing it’s violence. However, this ban was quickly overturned by his successor Franz von Papen in attempt to appease Hitler who was becoming a rising political star and evidently a real force to be reckoned with.
After the Nazis achieved power in 1933, Hitler Youth membership sky rocketed to 2.3 million. This was largely due to the forcible merging and take over of other youth organisations. One year later, Hitler would place an outright ban on any other youth organisation and by 1938, Hitler Youth membership was 7.7 million – a sizable army in waiting.
Former Hitler Youth member Alfons Heck who served as a 16-year-old on the Western Front describes the youth group as Hitler’s “purest creation, unencumbered by the ballast of a non-Nazi past, only beholden to him.” This notion of superiority being forced upon them through various channels of propaganda is largely responsible for the youths fearlessness in battle in the coming years. With the outbreak of war, enthusiasm amongst the leaders and members of the Hitler Youth increased as they wanted to prove themselves as worthy Nazis. They now had a real purpose and contributed to the war effort in various ways. Duties during the late 1930s included delivering new monthly ration cards and draft notices and they effectively became the new postal service. They would also go door-to-door collecting scrap metal that could be recycled and repurposed for war materials. As the war waged on, however, the Hitler Youth would have to put their military style training into action as resources and man-power began to dwindle.
A turning point in the Hitler Youth’s involvement in the war was when Artur Axmann took over it’s leadership in 1940. It was Axmann who suggested reforming the organisation into an auxiliary force capable of performing war duties – something which Hitler quickly agreed to. This would result in a clear escalation in the severity, risk and importance of the group’s role in the war. In August 1940 the British started an aerial campaign in retaliation to the German bombing of London. The Hitler Youth were heavily involved in the clean-up effort and would locate households with spare bedrooms that were capable of housing displaced German citizens. Those who didn’t comply to the Hitler Youths could expect a visit from the Gestapo. It was also during this period that the Hitler Youth assisted in manning anti-aircraft (flak) guns. This gave many their first taste of action and whetted their appetite for more. Two and a half years later, anti-aircraft stations were manned solely by members of the Hitler Youth, furthermore, those manning anti-aircraft guns originally remained close to home but once the war situation deteriorated further, youths were deployed all over the country wherever they were needed.
1943 was a decisive year and nothing short of a disaster for the Axis forces. In January the German Sixth Army had just suffered a heavy loss in Stalingrad to the Soviets. With manpower now dwindling, there was a large group of young men who could no longer go underutilized – the Hitler Youth. Axmann went to SS Leader Heinrich Himmler wanting to further escalate the organisations duties and proposed a Waffen-SS division. The 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend was formed as a result of this conversation and 10,000 recruits aged 16-18 commenced a very specific and tough training regimen in Belgium. The fresh-faced recruits were teamed with the highly experienced 1st SS Panzer Division, as well as various high ranking members of the army and the Luftwaffe, all of whom who had fought on the Eastern front. The training was tailor-made to serve a certain purpose: to get the youths capable to fight and fast. As a result, formality and drill practices were replaced by combative exercises with live rounds and fighting scenarios applicable to real war. Strict formal codes of conduct between differing ranks were replaced for more informal relationships with concessions such as explanations behind orders also being introduced.
The young recruits of the 12th SS Panzer Division were hugely enthusiastic and morale was high. Many had waited a long time for the opportunity to prove themselves – they were Hitler’s first wave of Aryan supermen after all. The Division’s first significant call to action was 6th June 1944, the D-Day landings where 65% of the first battalion were under the age of 18. The young men were held in reserve on Hitler’s command whilst Ally troops stormed the beaches in the early hours of the morning. They were not deployed until 14:30 that afternoon when they received orders to go to Caen near the Juno and Sword beaches where Canadian and British troops were landing. The youths had a very difficult time thanks to the allied forces superiority in air and artillery support. The 12th SS Panzer Division were both fearless and fanatical but this, along with their rushed training, would ultimately lead to heavy losses within the Division. Just one month after being deployed, 60 percent of the Hitler Youth Division were rendered out of action with 20 percent killed and the remainder missing or wounded. Following the loss in Normandy, the 12th SS Panzer Division were deployed to Avranches where they found themselves – along with another 24 German divisions – amounting to 70,000 soldiers in total – trapped inside the ‘Falaise Pocket’ where a narrow gap of just 20 miles was the German’s only means of escape. Heavy allied air strikes destroyed over 5000 armoured vehicles and 50,000 soldiers ended up being captured. The 12th SS Panzer Division were amongst the 20,000 that managed to escape. By September 1944 only 600 soldeirs remained in the Division. Over 9000 were killed in Normandy and Falaise but the Division continued on with conscripts becoming even younger after Hitler reduced the age of new recruits to 15 years old. These were then sent to the Russian Front. Evidence of the Division’s savageness can be seen in two war atrocities the group committed around this time. The first was the Ascq massacre which they carried out en route to Normandy via train on April 1st when an explosion blew the railway apart at a critical intersection. The troops were ordered to search and arrest every male that was present and in the surrounding area. In total, 70 men were shot beside the railway line and another 16 killed in the village itself. At a later date, 6 other men were arrested and charged with the bomb attack after an investigation by the Gestapo – they too were executed by firing squad. The second incident was the Ardenne Abbey massacre. Here 20 Canadian soldiers were illegally executed in makeshift SS headquarters located in the garden of Ardenne Abbey on June 7th. The prisoners were shot in the back of the head, an action that was a violation of the Geneva Conventions, thus making it a war crime.
In September 1944, with the loss of the war now looming and starting to look inevitable, Axmann delivered a rallying speech: “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”. In the same month The People’s Army (Volkssturm) was formed, desperately forcing anyone able to fight to do so, not just the young but elderly too. The conscripts got younger and younger until they were infants. An American sergeant in Aachen, West Germany, reported capturing an 8 year old boy firing at him and his troop with a rifle. The sergeant ran up to him and snatched the rifle out of his hands. Other allied forces recall knocking out artillery units comprised solely of youths under the age of 12.
In the final days of the war in Berlin, with much of Hitler’s resources being deployed at the Oder, elderly members of the People’s Army and 3500-5000 Hitler Youths played a substantial but fatal role in defending the Nazi capital. Arguably most significant was the defending of Pichelsdorf Bridge by a group of youths which they managed to do successfully until May 1st. They would, however, eventually become surrounded by the Russians and the need to hold the bridge was rendered insignificant when it was blown up by an ally shell. The amount of youths killed whilst defending Berlin differ. Some, like Günther Kaufmann, a member of the RJF staff who wrote about the final days after the war, estimated the death toll as being “in the hundreds”. Others put the estimate at 4500 in 5 days. Many committed suicide when it was evident they would be caught by the Soviets.
These last days of the war in Berlin were truly dreadful. Anyone caught fleeing or refusing to take part in the losing battle were shot by SS personnel. Margarete Koehn, a ticket seller at one of Berlin’s train stations recalls the scenes she witnessed during this period when she was walking home from work. On arriving home, she told her parents of the horror: “trucks burning, barricades, people not allowed into cellars, [and] a boy shot by the SS… [the boy] couldn’t have been more than fourteen.” He had been shot for abandoning his military post.
Although mentioned above are cases of suicide and abadonment, the large majority of these boys went into these final days of the war with the same excitement and fanaticism as those that were originally drafted into the 12th SS Panzer Division in 1940. They remained loyal to there beloved Fuhrer until the very end and still believed in their Aryan superiority. In what would be Hitler’s final public appearance on April 20th (coincidentally his 56th birthday) he ascended the stairs of his Fuhrerbunker, up into the Reich Chancellery gardens and awarded 12 member of the Hitler Youth with the Iron Cross for their courageous role in defending the capital. Ten days later Hitler would kill himself. Axmann managed to escape, fleeing to the Alps where he would be caught under a new alias ‘Erich Siewert’ a few months later. He was sentenced to 3 years and 3 months and fined 35,000 marks for his “major role” in the war.