UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133D Homepage > 133D Book Essays Index page > Student essay

Alfons Heck and Hitler Youth Indoctrination

Book Essay on: Alfons Heck, A Child of Hitler: Germany in the Days When God Wore a Swastika
( Phoenix: Renaissance House Publishers, 1985), 207pages.
UCSB: DD247.H354 A34 1985

by Kyle Leighton
March 23, 2010

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in European History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2010

About the Author
& Abstract
Book available at Amazon.com

About Kyle Leighton

I am a senior history major and education minor. I have had a fascination with history for a long time, especially ancient Mediterranean and 20th century European history. Part of my interest in the Hitler Youth and their education and indoctrination comes from my own interest in pursuing a career in education. Through a better understanding of how easily the Hitler Youth were “brainwashed” under Nazi Germany, we can gain a broader understanding of how important the ideas we impress into our youth are.

Abstract (back to top)

Alfons Heck grew up in Nazi Germany, joining the Hitler Youth in 1938 at the age of 10. He became fully indoctrinated in their ideology and claimed to have been a fanatical follower of Hitler. Before the war had ended, at the age of 16, he was leading more than 2,800 Hitler Youths in the construction of an anti-tank ditch near the French border. His book covers his life up until the first weeks following the war, including his thoughts when his world was turned upside down with the fall of Nazi Germany. He considers himself both a victim of Nazi Germany, and carries the burden of guilt for the Nazi atrocities. He writes a compelling argument that the Hitler Youth had become so deeply indoctrinated, to the point that they were Hitler’s most loyal followers, because they did not have elders to present them with any alternative worldviews. It is with this in mind that he warns us not to underestimate the power of indoctrination over children, even within a democracy.

Essay (back to top)

Alfons Heck was born in 1927, making him six years old when Hitler was appointed Chancellor and 17 when the war ended. Nazi Germany was the only Germany Heck had known, and like many other Hitler Youth, he claims he was a product of the Nazi system of indoctrination, and thus a victim of it. As suggested by the subtitle, Hitler was like a god to him as he grew to become a fanatical follower of Nazism and a leader in the Hitler Youth. Heck makes it clear that German youth were Hitler’s most loyal followers, and near the end of the war they were the biggest resisters when their elders had either resigned themselves to inevitable defeat or had already been killed. Key to this was the idea that they followed the orders of their superiors without question. Heck and his fellow Hitler Youth saw themselves as the leaders of a glorious German nation, one that was well worth dying for. Thus, Heck’s purpose in writing his book is to illustrate that the Hitler Youth were the “enthusiastic victims” of Hitler, powerless to resist their indoctrination and left to carry the burden of guilt of Nazism. He makes a solid argument that the only way to prevent such indoctrination was with the rational guidance of parents or other trusted adults, which was missing in Heck’s case.

Heck grew up in the rural town of Wittlich just 25 miles from the French border. His family was actually of French descent and had moved to Wittlich in the 1770s. His mother and father decided when he was an infant that they would leave him to be raised by his grandmother in Wittlich while they went to live in central Germany with Alfons’ twin brother Rudi. Shortly after the death of his grandfather, his grandmother managed the farm and business, a rare feat in male-dominated German society. It is clear in his grandmother’s responses to Heck’s unwavering devotion to Nazism that his grandmother was not impressed by Nazism and the war it brought on. Heck only talked to his father a handful of times during the war, but his father made it clear that he believed his Social Democrats had “handed Hitler Germany on a silver platter,” and that “that goddamned Austrian housepainter is going to kill us all before he’s through conquering the world.” Heck, however, had been fully awe-inspired by the Hitler Youth and by witnessing Hitler speak in person. He believed his father was uneducated and unpatriotic, but harmless; otherwise Heck may have turned in his own father for speaking so bluntly about the Fuhrer.

Heck became a Hitler Youth in 1938, just before he was 10 years old. He was chosen from his town to go to Nuremberg on September 10 to parade and watch Hitler speak to all of the Hitler Youth. He recalls Hitler’s speech as mesmerizing the enormous crowd of Hitler Youth with his every word. In March of 1942, Heck joined the Flying Hitler Youth and was instantly enamored with flying. By the time he was 16 Heck had passed through flight training and became the youngest member of the Luftwaffe. But before he could be called up for battle in the air force, the D-Day invasion of France demanded he lead the Hitler Youth in the construction of an anti-tank trench in the third line of the Westwall. While there, Heck eventually rose to the rank of Bannfuhrer, leading more than 2,800 Hitler Youth and meeting Hitler himself.

It was during his time at the Westwall that Heck was first told of the mass killing of Jews perpetrated by Hitler and the Nazis. His superior, Leiwitz, with whom he had become quite close, asked him, “Do you know that we are slaughtering tens of thousands of Jews and other subhumans every day back in Poland and Russia,” and “that you and I are serving a mass murderer” (119)? Heck could not accept that his ultimate leader, Hitler, and his glorious nation could be committing such atrocities. Heck was outraged at such outward hostility toward the Fuhrer and had planned to report it to higher authorities before Leiwitz talked to him later that night to tell him first-hand accounts of the slaughtering. Heck still did not believe genocide was happening, and “it took several years of painful re-education” for him “to accept, reluctantly, our slaughter of millions of innocent people whom we had decreed to be ‘subhuman’” (197). He does admit, however, that even if he had known of the genocide it would probably not have affected his loyalty and unquestioning obedience to the Nazis and his drive to fight for his homeland.

The importance of obedience in the Nazi system was stressed early on in the Hitler Youth, and Heck emphasizes this point on numerous occasions.

“From our very first day in the Jungvolk, we accepted it as a natural law that a leader’s orders must be obeyed unconditionally, even if they appeared harsh, punitive or unsound. It was the only way to avoid chaos. This chain of command started at the very bottom and ended with Hitler” (34)

This point was hammered home to Heck while he was in flight school. He was nearly denied a chance at getting his license after he did not circle around when his officer directed him to because he thought he did not have enough altitude to complete it. When asked by the officer if he would ever disobey another command, he responded, “No, not even to save me” (76). Heck carried this with him when he became a powerful authority figure in his own right at the Westwall. He found that “the greatest aid in keeping discipline was the ingrained habit of unquestioning obedience to any order” (101).

Although Heck had originally just wanted to be a combat pilot, he grew to enjoy his position of power. He was just 16 or 17, yet he was in charge a group of over 2,000 Hitler Youths. This is what it came down to in the waning months of the war. This late in the war and so close to enemy lines, the boys he presided over were more like men. “It was astonishing,” Heck observed, “how fast young boys matured under pressure and unrelenting duty” (104)

This sort of unquestioning obedience, however, seemed to be less strictly enforced among the older generation, just as the unwavering fanaticism was limited primarily to the Hitler Youth. After Heck finished his work at the Westwall he was sent to his home town to build up a militia there. The only people left were old farmers and Hitler Youth. It was clear to Heck that the older farmers did not want to fight, but deserters were shot and made public examples of. His last task for the Nazis came when he was called up by the Luftwaffe to retrieve a radar device from an outpost before the enemy overran it the next day. In his one day with the Luftwaffe, Heck “was astonished at the rather informal relationship between officers and men,” and he “never would have tolerated their lax salutes in the Hitler Youth” (173). It’s amazing to think that 12 to 17 year old boys were stricter on their subordinates than professional military men, but that is what stood out in the experiences of Heck.

The “goddamn Hitler Youth fanatics,” as one corporal muttered about Heck, also had a sort of contempt for the older Nazis (177). Heck and his fellow Hitler Youth enthusiasts saw the party officials as “obese functionaries who marched around in shiny boots and a fancy uniform exhorting everybody to do their duty. To us these men were… sort of a necessary apparition until we, the new, lean generation were ready to take over” (83). On the last day before the Americans occupied his home town Heck’s Aunt Tilly said to him, “The handwriting was on the wall a year ago. You crazy fanatics didn’t have to ruin our beautiful country, don’t you know that, Du verdammter Idiot” (183)? It was true in the last few days especially, according to Heck, that in some cases all the Hitler Youth resistance to occupation did was draw unnecessary bombing of a town.

This unending resistance of the Hitler Youth, however, did make sense within their worldview. Nazi Germany was the only world they knew, and without it their world would come crashing down. As Heck said to his grandmother, “This is the end of Germany and of me. We have lost the war.” Of course his grandmother had experienced much before and was not so devastated. “Nonsense, boy, we have lost wars before, and it’s not going to be the end of you” (196). Heck finishes with this small exchange, and it leaves us with a feeling that the Hitler Youth were fanatical precisely because it was all they knew. He explains that just a week before this, “Despite my fanaticism, I no longer believed so, but the notion of unconditional surrender was unacceptable” (170). It was not until the day before his town was captured, with not a soldier or other Hitler Youth left in it, that he “did the unthinkable” and “accepted the defeat of Germany” (181).

In the aftermath of defeat, Heck was sent to a POW camp in France and sentenced to a month of forced labor among other things. The French forced them to watch documentary films of the death camps, but Heck and the other Nazi POWs dismissed them as fakes. Eventually he grew to accept the truth, and he claims that he and other Nazis are “the enthusiastic victims of our Fuhrer,” burdened with the enormity of Auschwitz (207). Even though he claims to have known nothing about the genocide, Heck claims to carry a burden of guilt for the part he played in the Nazi system. However, he also goes back to the idea that he and the Hitler Youth were the product of their education and indoctrination, as he claims to have developed a “harsh resentment” toward his elders and educators.

Heck’s brother Rudi, and his relationship with his father, provides a perfect example to what Heck wished he had to counteract his indoctrination. Rudi was raised by his father, who was clearly anti-Nazi, and, according to Rudi himself, viewed Heck as fanatical. Their father’s unabashed anti-Nazi sentiments were apparent enough in the few encounters that Heck had with him that they would have played a prominent role in Rudi’s worldview. As it turned out, Rudi did not become the fanatical Hitler Youth that Heck did. Heck, thus, probably had his brother and father in mind when he wrote, “Unless they have singularly aware parents, the very young become defenseless receptacles for whatever is crammed into them” (3).

Although Heck was not raised with his father’s Social Democratic ideas, his grandmother was clearly not supportive of Nazi ideological either. Despite her opposition to the Nazis and Heck’s escalating participation in the Hitler Youth, she was not vocal about her views. It was not proper for German women to get involved in politics, and Heck’s grandmother respected this. It was only after the war that his grandmother spoke more openly about her thoughts during the Third Reich. Heck noticed a few times her indifference, but there was never the direct educating that would have been necessary to counter the indoctrination that Heck received at school and from the Hitler Youth.

With his own family as a microcosm for Nazi Germany as a whole, Heck demonstrates that the elders of the Hitler Youth did not just have to stand by and watch passively as their nation walked down a path of destruction. Heck’s father prevented Rudi from doing so, and if Heck’s grandmother and teachers were not so passive they too could have slowed the process before it snowballed. It took Heck decades to reeducate himself from all the propaganda he had been fed as a youth, and it took a few years for him to even accept that the Holocaust had occurred. Thus, he considers himself a victim, while also carrying the burden of guilt. It is this burden of guilt that he wishes to share with those elders who failed him and his peers when they were being blindly led. He also sends out a broader message to remind people of how easy it can be to indoctrinate children if they are not presented alternative views by their elders.


Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 11/21/10)

Book Reviews

  • Dennis Showalter, Library Journal “A Child of Hitler (Book).” 110, Issue 1 (1985): 80.

    This is a brief, but praiseful review of Heck’s book. Showalter calls Heck “an enthusiast rather than a fanatic” and claims “the author does much to explain” the Nazis success.

  • J. Cravens, Amazon Reviews August, 2003

    This is a review from a customer on Amazon.com who saw Heck give a lecture in the 1980s. He claims this is not a “very well-written book,” but that it is still a must read. According to Cravens, Heck’s message is to beware that this could happen again. I would have to disagree with his assertion that it is not very well written.

Books and Articles

  • Jurgen Herbst, Requiem for a German Past: A Boyhood Among the Nazis London: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1999

    Herbt discusses his personal experience growing up in Nazi Germany from 1928 to 1948. He explains how his Prussian military ideals that he inherited from his father drove his desire to become an army officer in Nazi Germany. His experience in the Hitler Youth and Nazi Germany is a very unique one because of how much he participated in the Hitler Youth, but how little Nazi ideology penetrated his life. It was very different from Heck’s experiences, but showed how broad the appeal of the Hitler Youth was.

  • Michael Kater, Hitler Youth Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004

    Kater examines the history of the Hitler Youth on a whole scale from a collection of contemporary manuscripts, diaries, letters, and other such documents. He determines that one of the driving factors in the success of the Hitler Youth was its appeal in providing the youth more self-reliance and glory.

  • Ursula Mahlendorf, The Shame of Survival: Working Through a Nazi Childhood University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009

    This book provides readers an inside to the BDM (Women’s Hitler Youth) and how they helped contribute to the Nazi movement. Perhaps more than anything else, it provides a feminist perspective on indoctrination. Ursula discusses her experiences as a Hitler Youth, as well as coping with them many years later.

Relevant Websites

  • Carmelo Lisciotto, The Hitler Youth Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team, 2008

    This page provides a good brief overview of the history of the Hitler Youth, beginning in 1920, and places it in context to larger German events during the 1920s to 1940s. The navigation bar on the left has links to a host of other pages with information from H.E.A.R.T. related to the Holocaust and Nazism. This gave me a quick reference to refer to as a timeline of the Hitler Youth.

  • Historical Boys Uniforms, Hitler Youth Nov. 1998

    This is a section of a site that includes a number of other boy scout-type youth groups in the history of the 20th century. This section on Hitler Youth provides a wealth of information on various topics, such as Hitler Youth publications, their banners and uniforms, international activities, and personal accounts, just to name a few. However, it is a little odd to navigate through.

  • The History Place, The Hitler Youth 1999

    This page covers the history of the Hitler Youth, tracing it back to a youth movement that began in the 1890s. It also includes a section on the aftermath of the Hitler Youth, its leader and the Nuremberg Trial, and the reformation of the education system. It provides a solid timeline and overview of what the Hitler Youth entailed and how they contributed to the Nazi cause.

  • , Youth Under Fascism: The German Case

    This site contains a few different pages on different facts about the Hitler Youth, including their effects, operations, and propaganda. Perhaps most interesting about this site is it contains a page about a youth movement called The Edelweiss Pirates who resisted the Hitler Youth, and at times aided Jews or sabotaged Nazis. It also has a bibliography for further reading.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Kyle Leighton on 3/23/10; last updated: 11/21/10
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