5 Things You Witness Growing Up In The Hitler Youth
If we had been there during the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, what would we have done? It's easy to think we'd be the lone voice of reason speaking out, the sexy resistance fighter, or at least the terrified bystander trying to stay out of it all. We don't like to think we'd be the ones joining up, no matter how compelled we felt. But that's what Horst did. Today, he loudly and repeatedly denounces the Nazi party, but he was 14 when the Third Reich fell, and spent most of his childhood forced into the Hitler Youth. He saw Adolph Hitler with his own eyes, and shook hands with the likes of Hermann Goring and Joseph Goebbels. Now he lives in the United States, where we sat down to bust some myths about life under the Nazi regime ...
Nazi Propaganda Didn't Look The Way You Think
Horst remembers very little of the propaganda that the Nazis are so famous for today. In fact, the average American school student today sees more Nazi propaganda than Horst did. Remember Triumph Of The Will? Horst didn't.
You may know it better as the source footage for 80 percent of the History Channel's programming.
"No, I never saw that one."
In fact, while Triumph Of The Will was quite popular during its release, the Nazi film industry mostly released light-hearted comedies as the war went on. It turns out being relentlessly bombed by enemy aircraft diminishes your desire to watch war flicks. Go figure.
We asked Horst what Nazi propaganda efforts had the biggest impact on him as a kid, and the answer was surprising:
"There were a lot of poor people, and in the wintertime they held state collections for the poor people, and the way they did that is they had little objects -- pins you put on your lapel -- and you had a series of pins for the Hitler Youth, or the BBM, which was the female equivalent." Horst felt that these charity drives were the regime's most effective method of winning young hearts and minds. "There was a special Sunday they turned out and it was announced in the newspaper where they would be. And they came out with their family and people could talk to them. We were, they said bodyguards, but you just had your hand in the belt of the next one and you made a live chain."
That's right: Sweet flair, cool pin collections, plain old charity, and the Nazi Germany version of Hands Across America were the most effective propaganda to Horst. That's how you get children to commit to evil: Be nice to them. Make them feel important. Even decades later, he still considers meeting Erwin Rommel during a charity drive to be one of the highlights of his life.
"I asked him a question about that time was in Africa -- how he misled the British, who had a whole tank division, and all he had were some motorized carriers, and he put bedsheets on them, so there was a big cloud, and they thought there were tanks." Horst doesn't think any film could have had as much of an impact on a young boy's imagination as meeting a war hero like Erwin Rommel in the flesh, and getting to talk to him about his exploits.
It's worth noting though, that he didn't find all the Nazi leaders equally impressive:
"Goring was different. You couldn't talk to Goring. You could talk to his wife ... but I couldn't talk to him. He was different. I don't know if he was sick, or whatever."
Well, yes -- in more than one sense: He was actually fucked up on opiates at the time, but Horst didn't know that.
While Horst didn't find Nazi media propaganda very compelling, he did love the hell out of those massive rallies. Stuff like this was a huge part of his childhood:
Apparently letting kids march in a parade while everyone cheers sort of rose-tints their experience of fascism.
"It was, you wanted to watch them forever. You didn't get hungry. You were proud to be part of them. Even as a young person, you had a purpose somehow. You were proud of that. It's probably equal to nowadays, what I don't understand with sports ... you were proud of that, of the whole group and of course you were constantly also told that you did the right thing."
"Like the tank commanders, they had the berets, and it was the same as like our Hitler Youth berets. They were two fingers over the left ear, three fingers over the right ear, and four fingers over the eyebrows ... you were proud of that discipline! It wasn't just a tank commander. You were part of that tank commander. You wore your cap the same way ... that kind of order, I miss the most."
"It could happen here"' is the constant worry, but Horst doesn't believe that's possible. We'll have to grow our own atrocities, because the Third Reich was a uniquely 1930s Germany thing. Children owed their parents total obedience, wives owed their husbands total obedience, and everyone owed the state total obedience. Horst maintains that Nazi propaganda "was only effective because of the total obedience ... that kind of upbringing, the mindset of our parents made the atrocities which happened in Germany possible. As soon as you understand that mindset -- as soon as you understand it was not just obedience, but total, total obedience..." only then can we understand how Hitler's regime was able to do what it did.
Children In Nazi Germany May Not Have Even Known About The Holocaust Until After The War
Horst didn't recall a lot of direct Nazi indoctrination in elementary school. Then, once the war started, and Berlin was being bombed every day, regular classroom lessons fell by the wayside. But Horst did recall that his school "always had on the windows, 'Jews are not welcome here.' And that was long before they got rounded up. Years before."
Older students, and especially Jewish students, recalled much more outright Nazism in their educational experience. But by the time Horst was old enough to take notice, there were no more Jewish kids in German schools. There was less emphasis on the "Jewish question" by that point -- because it was being answered by horrific genocide -- and a lot more emphasis on how evil insurance agents were:
"Hitler made no bones about it. Every year he came to our school and talked ." Horst's impression at the time was that Hitler just hated the hell out of insurance agents, and unproductive people in general, but "was not against the Jewish people."
Though it's not exactly like he hid those beliefs, either.
Again, mostly because he'd gotten rid of them all, and sent the rest into hiding. But even so, Hitler's tirades against things like "extending credit" were very much based in anti-Semitism:
"After World War I, at least in Berlin, there were big furniture stores owned by Jewish people; they give credit. And Hitler said, you never take credit! It's a Jewish habit of extending credit, because now they make money on your money."
The Nazis cut back on public anti-Semitism in the mid-1930s, as part of their bid for global acceptance during the run-up to the 1936 Olympics. All that anti-Semitism came back with a vengeance after the Olympics -- it was never gone, just carefully hidden -- but a kid like Horst, growing up right then in that era may not have seen the worst of Hitler's atrocities. In fact, Horst claims he had no idea the Holocaust had occurred until after the war.
"The people who talked about it got put in the concentration camps and killed ... so the only time when I heard about it was after the war, in the Nuremberg trial."
He assumed this was all just Allied propaganda ... at first.
"We didn't believe it. We didn't believe it. I didn't believe it until I really talked to people who went there, which I believed."
Germany Did Not Thrive Under Nazi Rule
In Horst's mind at least, you can't understand the allure of the Nazi party and the German desire for conquest if you don't understand what eggs meant to a little kid in 1930s Germany. It wasn't until Horst moved to the United States in the 1950s that he saw someone buy eggs by the dozen:
"I was 24 years old, and I'd never seen eggs by the dozen. In our home, even as a banker, my father on Sunday got one egg. And my brother and my sister and I, three children, we shared one egg."
During World War I, nearly a million German civilians were starved to death by a British naval blockade. That's a huge part of why Hitler was so obsessed with lebensraum, or "living space," and it's also a big part of why so many Germans supported his expansionist policies.
"See, in order to get eggs you had to go from Holland or in Belgium. They speak a different language, either Dutch or French. So between the countries you had two deep in order to get eggs, and rye or wheat..."
One of the most enticing promises Hitler made to the German people was that, with him in charge, they'd never starve again. They could just take Holland, take Belgium, and voila -- problem solved. That turned out to be a lie, of course.
"Milk, eggs, it was almost impossible to get during the war, because people were robbed on the way in by civilians who were hungry ... Milk and eggs didn't go to warehouses, they came from the farmland and they were intercepted."
It doesn't get as much press, but food shortages may have been a bigger killer than combat during the war.
Then, of course, there was the war itself:
"When we in the Hitler Youth putting out a fire during the war, we were under constant fire ... in other words, the tanks were shooting at us, or artillery were shooting at us, or planes were strafing us, and we still had to get the wounded out and still had to put out the fire."
Keep in mind, Horst was 14 here -- an age where our biggest concern was finding rare Pokemon. Life as a German child during World War II was a nightmare. People on both sides wanted Horst dead:
"One of the things that happened was, in the defense of Berlin, if you retreated as a soldier or Hitler Youth, and had any ammo in your pocket, the SS would shoot you. Or not just shoot you, they would hang you. After Berlin surrendered the first night, the Russians were celebrating ... they get drunk, and they raped the women like crazy. So there were streets filled with drunken soldiers raping the women, and there were children hung by the SS hanging from lamps with notes around them ... What they considered a celebration was a slaughter."
Hitler Was Not Universally Loved
The common perception of Nazi Germany is that of a nation bewitched by a madman. But many Germans, even those who followed the Nazi regime like Horst, still thought he was a nut. Horst saw Hitler speak "many times" during his childhood, and he walked away thinking the guy was kind of loopy.
"He was totally convinced he was right. I think privately, I thought he was a nutcase. Or he was a little bit short of a full load. Because some of the things didn't make any sense. Like for instance, why get rid of the Jewish people? He said they were the best salesmen in the world. Well, at the same time there were companies like Bayer ... Germany produced an array of fantastic technology. He didn't like the Jewish people? He could have used them as salesmen. They would have been happy. The guy doesn't play with a full deck ... but a lot of people in history who are capable of leading a country ... mentally unbalanced, is maybe the right word."
The idea that Hitler should have drafted an army of Jews because they're natural salesmen is obviously problematic, but it illustrates an important point: Nearly a century later, and Horst is still influenced by his indoctrination as a child. Oftentimes, even without realizing it.
While Horst didn't share in it, he certainly understood the appeal of Hitler:
"He was captivating because he was a totally different speaker than you have now. When you take a look at now heads of state, especially in England, they're half asleep when they talk. Hitler was different. You would call him mesmerizing. He was extremely motivational. And he didn't talk to some old point in history. What he was talking about was right now."
So if Horst (and many other Germans) thought Hitler was a psychopath, why didn't they speak up? Because they had eyes. They saw what happened to people who spoke up. Horst's grandfather was openly anti-Hitler. He was arrested, and very likely wound up dying in a concentration camp.
"I think ... he had a loose mouth; with everything that he did right, he should have kept his mouth shut. Because I kept my mouth shut, and I know what happened to me, and what happened to the people who didn't keep their mouths shut."
The Hitler Youth didn't teach Horst that Nazis were just the best; it taught him to stay quiet, and never trust anybody else.
"It takes a while when you are a kid to arrive at your own conclusion. There's a lot of introspection, self-inspection ... it takes some time and it takes some bloody losses before your eyes are really open to the fact that you're powerless ... I couldn't find my grandfather, you know. I knew if I'm careful enough, I would make it alive, but I know if I'd gone after the people who'd taken my grandfather, even careful wouldn't save me. It's kind of a rude awakening to become an adult under these circumstances."
The Hitler Youth Really Were Just Kids; They Could Still Be Completely Terrifying
The Nazi party relied heavily on the brainwashing of children to help fuel their growing Reich. The Hitler Youth were basically the Nazi Boy Scouts -- a bunch of fanatically loyal little mini-Hitlers with tight shorts and sharp knives. Right?
The shorts thing certainly checks out, at least.
Not entirely: Horst reached a fairly high level in the Hitler Youth. You know what his main duty was? Not sussing out hidden Jews, ensuring loyalty to the Reich, or even growing Aryan supermen in vats -- it was helping kids involved in Berlin's Kinderlandverschickung (KLV) program. The basic idea was sound: Berlin keeps getting bombed. Let's send all the kids away for six months at a time. The British did the same thing during the Battle of Britain, and that gave us Narnia. It was arguably a positive practice. The KLVs were basically a combination school/summer camp, and Horst did things like set up a window rotation during boat and train rides, so the weak kids wouldn't get bullied out of good seats, or reorganize the mail delivery schedule so everybody could get their letters from home at the same time.
That's not to say it was an idyllic summer camp: It was still run by Nazis, after all. Horst had to give adults the Sieg Heil, and was encouraged to snitch on anyone who didn't fully represent the Nazi party. He says he never actually turned in anyone for that. But he did turn people in for another crime against fascism:
"The way we were taught about Jesus was a wise man going through the desert in sandals. In the Hitler youth we rounded up people who were wearing sandals, they were Jesus imitators. Most of them got shot."
Horst had a hand in those deaths, there's no denying it. He wasn't proud when he told us:
"Most of them got shot."
But the old indoctrination kicked in again when he thought of those sandal-wearers he informed on, as a child:
"I mean, what the hell, 200 miles from the seashore walking in sandals, when you can have shoes? We didn't need Jesus imitators."
If you needed reminding that Horst is not a hero in this piece, and that even children just trying to survive day to day in Nazi Germany were complicit in some serious evil, well, getting people killed for their choice in footwear should do it.
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