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Hitler's Child Soldiers

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Apollon is a research scientist. He has a BA in History, with a specialization in Roman and 20th century history.

"Hitler Youth- Germany's future!"

Hitler Youth propaganda postcard, 1930s

Hitler Youth propaganda postcard, 1930s

The war is lost

During the last phases of the 2nd World war Germany began to lose both more ground and manpower. The German war effort, especially against the USSR, had been costly and at the end fruitless. It was clear as day that Germany was fighting a losing war, even if there were small victories. After 1943- after the losses at Stalingrad and Kursk- losing become more and more of a default.
At around this time the Nazi war machine was recruiting foreigners, especially for the SS. Yet again, as a lot of Hitler's military endeavours ended in failure, even the foreign manpower was not enough.
Pressure mounted from the East and West where the enemy progressed further into the Reich. This meant that drastic measures had to be taken. The drastic measure was Total War- mobilizing the whole of Germany(and its conquered teritories) for the war effort.
Younger boys being prepared for war had it's best example in the 12th SS panzer division Hitler Jugend.
This division of the SS was full of extremely fanatic young boys, often aged 16 or less. They were expected to be just as effective as their more adult counterparts in the SS. Here was a good example of what was the true purpose of German boys.

Becoming an officer was every boy's dream

"Officers of tomorrow." Hitlerjugend recruitment poster with a clear message, 1940.

"Officers of tomorrow." Hitlerjugend recruitment poster with a clear message, 1940.

Preparing the children for war

The Hitlerjugend(Hitler Youth) was established way before the Nazis took power in 1933. Children were recruited as early as possible- first in the Jungvolk(meant for boys ages 10-13), then in the Hitlerjugend. From early on it was preparing the members for combat. German children were also heavily brainwashed with Nazi propaganda, which meant they'd fight with fanatic vigor.

Of course, there were other organizations with similar training and education practices such as the Adolf Hitler Schools and the National Political Institutes of Education. Political indoctrination and military style training, aswell as a highly competitive environment were all an important part of the curriculum of these institutions.
Nazis cared about arming Germany and preparing it for war, so this would only make sense for a totalitarian state. Since for the Nazis all people were expendable, children were no exception. Even with all of the rosy language, the propaganda made it perfectly clear- Hitler and the state came before the people.

Firefighting and other duties kept the HJ boys occupied

HJ-Schnellkommandos (Emergency Squads) help put out fires after an Allied air raid on Düsseldorf.

HJ-Schnellkommandos (Emergency Squads) help put out fires after an Allied air raid on Düsseldorf.

At around 1940 Artur Axmann became the Reichsjugendführer of the Hitler Youth. Axmann began to reform the Hitler Youth into an auxiliary force. Now the HJ boys assisted various government offices, which included the military. These boys had to also take part in firefighting, the postal service, scrap metal collecting etc. The girls of the BDM(Bund Deutcher Mädel- League of German girls) were hard at work in weapon's factories.

In September 1940, the Nazi regime established the “Kinderlandver-schickung” (KLV—“sending of children to the land”), the evacuation to the country- side of children from the cities at greatest risk of bombing. These camps began replacing many urban grammar schools, most of which had been closed due to the aforementioned bombing. Just like HJ, the KLV camps emphasized military training, specifically in the rubble of German cities. Soon enough children were sent away to these camps almost by force, making their indoctrination so much easier.

The children were almost like secret reserves, prepared and stored away for when all else fails. Children of Germany, especially those in the Nazi youth organizations, were raised to be devout followers of the National Socialist ideals and of Hitler. The Nazi war machine took full advantage of these fanatical children.

The young boys are part of the Volkssturm

The young boys are part of the Volkssturm

The Volkssturm

The Volkssturm or the People's Storm was established in the fall of 1944, as Germany was lacking manpower. This military organization would recruit all able bodied men ages 16-60. Very soon after the establishment of the Volkssturm recruits became younger and younger. Boys were recruited right from the HJ, often 12 years old or younger.

These children were pulled out of school and sent off to the frontline. The training was short and very basic, the weapons provided were basically leftovers, the morale(for the younger recruits) was often very high- no doubt a result of years worth of propaganda.

In contrast with these younger recruits, the adults in the Volkssturm were often less motivated to fight and the results showed for it. It was in many ways easier to get heavily indoctrinated children to fight as opposed to disillusioned adults who saw Germany fall apart day by day.
All of this also showed great desperation, as Hitler threw everything he had at his enemies. These scraps of manpower, at the end of the day, were no match for the advancing Allied forces on both fronts.

Joining the SS was seen as highly desirable

"Come to us!" 12. SS-Panzerdivision Hitlerjugend recruiting poster, 1943.

"Come to us!" 12. SS-Panzerdivision Hitlerjugend recruiting poster, 1943.

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Boys and girls at war

Use of younger soldiers began at around 1944. It is important to note that children of the Hitler Youth were used to operate anti-aircraft guns beginning early 1943. A lot of what was considered auxiliary duties involved great danger, fairly on par with active military duties. The year 1944, especially as it neared the end, was bad for the German war effort, even if there were some moments of success. As mentioned above, viable manpower in Germany was depleting. And so children went from flak cannon auxiliaries(Flakhelfers) to full blown soldiers.
Towards the end of 1944, especially after failing to stop Allied forces on the Western front, it was pretty clear to most that the war was lost. A good example here could be the failed Ardennes Offensive(aka Battle of the Bulge), where the above mentioned 12 SS division was used. As fanatical and devoted as these young men were, their efforts were in vain and their losses were significant.
By early 1945 Germany was using both younger teenagers and children less than 10 years old.

The youth became soldiers

Two young German soldiers armed with Panzerfausts and Mauser rifles, march along Bankowa street in Lubań (Lauban), Lower Silesia, 1945. This was the site of one of the last successful German operations of WW2

Two young German soldiers armed with Panzerfausts and Mauser rifles, march along Bankowa street in Lubań (Lauban), Lower Silesia, 1945. This was the site of one of the last successful German operations of WW2

These young boys and girls were also actively used to destroy tank units, which was made easy by the Panzerfaust(the German bazooka equivalent). There were many children that received awards like the Iron Cross for successfully destroying tanks via the Panzerfaust.
It was evident that the closer Germany came to defeat, the younger became its defenders.
Whole units of teenage or child soldiers were often left to defend towns as the German forces were retreating. This, of course, didn't stop the children from fighting. The fanatical child soldiers were prepared to fight and die for Hitler, even if the adult soldiers began to actively defect and surrender.
Even worse than that, Hitler Youth was expected to fight a guerrilla ear behind enemy lines. The young boys and girls were aggressively wreaking havoc as the Allies penetrated further into German soil.

Children were used for war as soon as it started

Flakhelfers pictured manning a searchlight in Berlin in 1943. Recruited among adolescents too young for military service, the Flakhelfers are sometimes considered emblematic of the generation who grew up under the Nazi regime.

Flakhelfers pictured manning a searchlight in Berlin in 1943. Recruited among adolescents too young for military service, the Flakhelfers are sometimes considered emblematic of the generation who grew up under the Nazi regime.

The Aftermath

The teenage boy soldiers were often the same height as adult men, especially if compared to the average Soviet man. Their appearance, even if they weren't used for military purposes, was often that of an adult soldier.
Greater than average height or a generally adult appearance wasn't a prerequisite for being treated like everyone else. Neither of the Allied armies much cared for the age of the soldiers and they were shot all the same.
After WW2 organizations like the Hitler Youth were banned, as a part of denazification. Children of the HJ weren't found guilty of war crimes and there were no serious attempts made at punishing them.
Those that were a part of the 12th SS Panzer division were the best example of Nazi brutality, since they took part in both fierce fighting and war crimes. As for those younger boys and girls left defending cities and enforcing Nazi policies, countless were responsible for punishing defectors.

Surrendering to Americans was preferred

German child soldiers captured by the 6th Armored Division US Army, 1945

German child soldiers captured by the 6th Armored Division US Army, 1945

The years of brainwashing, military training of various degrees and active warfare left a major scar on generations of children in Germany. Even if the children of that time had a real choice in being a part of the war, many would still have agreed to take part. Fanaticism was major fuel for Germany's war effort, especially when it came to youths.

Not only did many of these children die in direct warfare, countless committed suicide in the face of defeat. Life after the 3rd Reich wasn't so easy either. Adjusting to the idea of not being the elite of society was tough. Many of the youths that lived in the Nazi era and especially those who took part in warfare, could not fully recover for years.

It took a long time for these people to look back and grasp the reality of Hitler's regime and what it had done to them. Most importantly, it was difficult to grasp the reality of their own deeds. Of course, when these young people finally got over the totalitarian brainwashing, worship and denial turned into resentment and bitterness. Self reflection, although painful for Germany's tainted generation, was absolutely necessary.

Children weren't punished as severely, if at all

Child soldiers caught during the Battle of Berlin, April-May 1945. Most of them were ordered to ditch the uniform and go home. Behind them appears to be a column of their elders headed toward a processing center.

Child soldiers caught during the Battle of Berlin, April-May 1945. Most of them were ordered to ditch the uniform and go home. Behind them appears to be a column of their elders headed toward a processing center.

Main sources used

Lepage, Jean-Denis G.G. Hitler Youth, 1922–1945: an illustrated history. London: McFarland & Company, 2009.

Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Thrid Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon and Shuster, 2011.

Beevor, Anthony. The fall of Berlin 1945. New York: Viking, 2002.

Kater, Michael H. Hitler youth. Cambridge: ‎Harvard University Press, 2004.

During his last birthday Hitler left the bunker

Hitler meets with battle hardened Hitler Youth boys at the Chancellory, April 1945

Hitler meets with battle hardened Hitler Youth boys at the Chancellory, April 1945

© 2022 Apollon

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