In modern times, the recruitment of children into a political organization and ideology reached its boldest embodiment in the Hitler Youth, founded in 1933 soon after the Nazi Party assumed power in Germany. Determining that by age ten children's minds could be turned from play to politics, the regime inducted nearly all German juveniles between the ages of ten and eighteen into its state-run organization. The result was a potent tool for bending young minds and hearts to the will of Adolf Hitler.
Baldur von Schirach headed a strict chain of command whose goal was to shift the adolescents' sense of obedience from home and school to the racially defined Volk and the Third Reich. Luring boys and girls into Hitler Youth ranks by offering them status, uniforms, and weekend hikes, the Nazis turned campgrounds into premilitary training sites, air guns into machine guns, sing-alongs into marching drills, instruction into indoctrination, and children into Nazis. A few resisted for personal or political reasons, but the overwhelming majority enlisted.
Drawing on original reports, letters, diaries, and memoirs, Kater traces the history of the Hitler Youth, examining the means, degree, and impact of conversion, and the subsequent fate of young recruits. Millions of Hitler Youth joined the armed forces; thousands gleefully participated in the subjugation of foreign peoples and the obliteration of "racial aliens." Although young, they committed crimes against humanity for which they cannot escape judgment. Their story stands as a harsh reminder of the moral bankruptcy of regimes that make children complicit in crimes of the state.
The indoctrination that the Nazis gave German youth during the 1930s and 1940s led some of these children to commit atrocities during WWII. The effects were felt by many even after the war ended. Using letters, diaries and the recollections of former members of Hitler Youth--a paramilitary and ideological group in which membership, for both boys and girls, was eventually mandatory--Kater, a noted historian of the Nazis, concludes in this readable volume that "the authoritarian nature of the Nazi regime" and its "merciless" racial ideology, as well as its sense of community, underlay its appeal to "adolescents who were searching for certitudes in a swiftly changing and newly structured world." The author is particularly effective at providing context: the Nazis took the youth movement concept, popular throughout Europe in the early 20th century, and adapted it to fit a racist ideology. He also shows that the values of militarism and self-reliance clashed with German family values of nurturing--and that, for the most part, the Hitler Youth won out. Nor does Kater ignore the few who resisted these imposed values. This is a scholarly book that deserves a wider audience, especially those interested in the Nazi period and adolescent psychology.
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Harvard University Press
April 29, 2006
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