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Former Members Recall Life in Hitler Youth
Article first published in Vol. 12, 1994.
By Allen Edington
The Boy Scouts of America was established in the earlier part of the 20th century to give young boys an opportunity to go camping and use their skills in the outdoors. It also taught the boys discipline, respect and the importance of morals.
Following World War I, Germany was faced with trying to deal with heavy economic sanctions that the Allies forced upon them to pay restitution for damages to France. People were struggling to survive in a country that was facing a political movement the likes of which the world had never seen.
El Pasoan Siegfried Widmar, a former Hitler Youth, explains, "There was little sense in working. The monetary system had gone to hell. A week's worth of wages wouldn't buy a loaf of bread. We had millions of dollars, but they were like play money, worthless."
Adolph Hitler came to power because he offered a dream of recognition and vindication that many Germans felt they deserved after the crippling peace time sanctions leveled against Germany after World War I. There was a place for everyone to belong -- for the children of Germany this place was the Hitler Youth.
The Nazi party implemented a gripping system of control through fear. They became judge, jury and executioner to all. Neighbor could no longer trust neighbor. There was constant dread of being reported and punished for behavior not sanctioned by the Nazis.
Ruth Widmar recalls, "Our mother used to listen to French radio programs at night and she was always deathly afraid that a neighbor would hear and denounce us to the authorities. They killed a boy of 15 who was caught listening to a foreign radio program. "
Hitler felt that the children were the backbone to the success of the Nazi party. He knew the children would follow him without question, and by 1933 the Hitler Youth had gone from being a branch of the Nazi political party to being the Third Reich's official youth organization.
In his book Child of Hitler: Germany in the Days When God Wore a Swastika, former Hitler Youth member Alfons Heck explains: "In Hitler's Germany, my Germany, childhood ended at the age of ten, with admission to the JungVolk, the junior branch of the Hitler Youth. Thereafter we children became political soldiers of the Third Reich,"
Seigfried Widmar also recalls that "the Hitler Youth had the goals of paramilitary training, political harassment and theory by the hour, Hitler ideology. To bring about the acceptance of new ideas and concepts you have to get into the minds of the second generation. Only he [Hitler] didn't last that long."
At first, participation in the Hitler Youth was voluntary, giving parents the chance to offer their children to the service of the Fatherland, to be part of the elite. But because many felt that Nazism was no place for children and refused to participate, Hitler made belonging to the Hitler youth mandatory.
Recalling her childhood, Ruth Widmar says, "In my day the Hitler Youth was voluntary, but there was still that push to belong so that you didn't stick out from the crowd. Automatically my friends knew I was different. On Saturday there was no school, but those that didn't belong to Hitler Youth had to attend. We had to get up in front of the class and tell why we didn't join the Hitler Youth. You could say because your father said 'no,' but then you cast a bad light on him. And then we had to march through the town.
"I don't know how long that went on, but then they made it law, so I became a member. Father said, "You can join. I can't help that, but you won't wear the uniform!" His attitude almost killed me again. I wasn't one of them."
Hitler captivated millions and soon had control of every facet of life in Germany.
Seigfried Widmar recalls: "When he took over in 1932, Hitler himself didn't know how strong he was. But he found out in a year or two. Then all hell broke loose. It was incredible. The whole country was under surveillance, policed constantly and spied on. You can imagine what that does to a society. Everyone wonders who will do them in. It was total social, political and economic privileges for those that joined the Nazi party. They would have joined Ivan the Terrible if they could get a loaf of bread out of it. Then together they really put the clamps on the other guys [the ones who hadn't joined]."
There was more to being a member of the Hitler Youth than just marching and singing, as Seigfried Widmar tells us: "I was drafted from the Hitler Youth to the regular army when I was 15, to go to Czechoslovakia. We were to build a railroad out in the snow. We never finished it. I was there in Czechoslovakia until April of 1945. They sent me on this trip and I was just a kid.
"On one of the trips I saw a Jew shot, a prisoner marching on the road who collapsed and couldn't get up anymore. They gave him thirty feet and shot him through the head. The next day I had to go back the same route. I walked through the masses of prisoners. That was worse than the shooting. Their eyes were so totally blank. A sergeant told me they had been standing there five days out in the cold, subfreezing Russian winter, no shoes, only rags of burlap wrapped around them."
His sister Ruth also carries the scars of being a Hitler Youth. She recalls the memory of losing her older brother, to whom she was very close. The next day at work, after receiving the news, in a momentary lapse of absolute grief, she shouted out, "Those criminals [the Nazis] -- they killed my brother!" and was told by a fellow employee, "If you are not quiet, l will report you."
Even in death the Reich had control. When she went to place an obituary in the newspaper, the editor told her, "We put 'He died for Fuhrer and Fatherland' " to which she promptly replied, "No !" It was agreed that the newspaper would write that her brother had died for the family, but the editor added "for the Fatherland" anyway.
Life in Germany for many during the 1930s and 1940s was reduced to trying to survive and being made to grow up quickly. Many Germans who grew up in that time try to avoid thinking about the past. Only a few are willing to come forth and speak about their experiences. This small minority must be sought out and encouraged to tell their stories. There are lessons to be learned here, lessons that only a generation of survivors can teach.