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

Life in the Shadows of the Nazis: A Personal Look At How Hitler Capitalized on Youth To Gain Power

Book Essay on: Irmgard Hunt, On Hitler's Mountain: Overcoming the Legacy of a Nazi Childhood:
( New York: Morrow/Harper Perennial, 2005), 278pages.
UCSB: DD247.H86; A3 2005

by Alexis Buchwald
April 6, 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 Alexis Buchwald

I am senior pursuing a B.A. in geography with an emphasis in Geographic Information Sciences as well as a minor in history. I am the descendant of several Holocaust survivors, so studying the Holocaust is of particular interest to me. I chose to write about Hunt's memoir because it provided a different look at WWII and the Holocaust, one I had not really considered before – the perspective of an ordinary German citizen.

Abstract (back to top)

Hunt's memoir provides a unique look into the life of an ordinary German citizen during WWII, through the eyes of young child. Hunt was born in 1934 after the Nazis had already gained power in Germany, and grew up in the Berchtesgaden, the neighboring mountain town to Hitler's Eagle's Nest retreat. Growing up under the direct influence of the Nazi elites, Hunt takes a slightly defensive role in saying that the Nazis indoctrinated and brainwashed their beliefs into the young children. Through the personal story of her childhood, Hunt makes the argument that Hitler and the Nazi regime capitalized on the innocence and naiveté of the youth to help secure their power and support of future generations through the alteration of all aspects of childhood. Using the specific examples of music, books, holiday traditions, role models, and clubs from the memoir, it is clear that Hitler took advantage of the innocence of children to help bring him to power.

Essay (back to top)

In the preface to the book, Hunt explains that her motivation for writing the memoir is to share the story of an “average, law-abiding, middle class German citizen who helped sweep Hitler to power” (Hunt, 1). While there are many first-hand accounts of Holocaust victims, famous criminals, and scientists, there have not been many accounts of what life was like for the average citizen who supported Hitler. Many adults who at the time felt honorable and moral, have lived with shame since the war ended and the true nature of what the Nazis had done came to be, and for that reason, few first-hand accounts have been told. Hunt made it a point to tell the whole and true story of her childhood, how she and most of her family and friends supported the Nazis, and the shame and guilt they faced after the war. While her story is that of an average citizen, she takes a slightly defensive stance, arguing that Hitler indoctrinated his beliefs into the people by using great methods of persuasion, brainwashing them to support his rise to power. Through the personal story of her childhood, Irmgard Hunt makes the argument that Hitler and the Nazi regime capitalized on the innocence and naivete of the youth to help secure their power and the support of future generations through the alteration of all aspects of childhood including music, books, holiday traditions, role models, and clubs.

Hunt's memoir discusses life in Berchtesgaden before, during, and after WWII. Although she begins by discussing her grandparents and then parents lives, the main focus of her book is about how her life changed as Hitler moved into the neighboring mountain village, just above the valley where she lived. Hunt was born in 1934, a time when Hitler had already spread his influence throughout Germany. When the war started, she was still a little girl, but her accounts of her daily life and experiences are vivid. Her father was drafted early in the war to fight on the French front, where he died shortly after arriving. This left her mother a widow, taking on the role of not only caregiver, but also financial supporter, working to support her family. Hunt's childhood was influenced by avid pro-Nazi teachers as well as her skeptical grandfather. In addition, she saw her town changed by the Nazi elites moving in, living her daily life in their constant presence. She was even chosen out of a crowd by Hitler himself to have a picture taken sitting on his knee because of her exemplary Aryan looks, making her a local celebrity. She saw how difficult life became for most Germans, struggling to put enough food on the table, but how the Nazi elites drove fancy black cars and had many luxuries. All of this influenced her decisions and opinions growing up. After her mother helped out with the youngest group of the Nazi Youth, Hunt herself joined, enjoying being part of group. Eventually the war ended and Hunt learned of all the horrors that the Nazis committed over the radio during the Nuremberg Trials. Hunt had to learn to live with the guilt that those whom she had supported and believed in were murderous, manipulating criminals. It is clear that Nazi propaganda targeted youth, and Hunt fell victim to Hitler's influence, as evident in her story.

One way in which the Nazis targeted the youth to grow up in support of their ideology was through music. Although Germany had many traditional songs which had been passed down for generations, Hitler's new songs replaced the old ones, so that young children would grow up singing about Nazi principles without even realizing it. In her memoir, Hunt recalls “most of the new songs composed for the various occasions in need of a Nazi imprint were rotten compositions with bad lyrics, but they were eminently singable and persuasive in a basic primitive way” (51-52). The songs were meant to be catchy so that children would want to sing them and start singing them without really thinking about the lyrics, subliminally sinking in the Nazi message. In her personal experience with the changing music, she writes that she “was easy prey for manipulation by music, since like all Germans, [she] loved music as a medium that could tell a compelling story, express deep feelings and arouse great passion” (Hunt, 52). The reason why music worked so well to influence children was because music was such a big part of the German culture, and every child likes to sing.

In addition to music the Nazis created new children's literature to help ingrain antisemitic beliefs into them. Similar to music, all children love to read and look at pictures in books. Learning to read is a natural part of development and Hitler made sure to capitalize on this. Books and pictures were used especially for promoting antisemitism in children. Hunt recalls a childhood friend bringing her a new book to read; “It was a children's book with page after page showing drawings of 'Jewish' noses, lips, and eyes. The book encouraged every child to note these differences and to bring anyone who bore Jewish features to the attention of our parents or teachers” (162). So instead of children reading about fairy tales and trying to create their own similar adventures, the German children read about how to distinguish between an Aryan and a Jew, giving them a sort of game or challenge to try to find these people. This also, from a young age, indoctrinated Hitler's racial or biological theory, that Jews were a different and inferior type of being. Hunt even recalls what an impact these books had on her, writing “...the description of the Jewish people would convince any child that these were monsters, not people with sorrows and joys like ours” (162). Children are naive and the same way many young kids grow up believing in fairies or monsters under the bed, these children were growing up to believe that the Jewish people were monsters.

Holidays, especially Christmas, are the most memorable days for children, and Hitler, too, used this to his advantage, changing Christmas traditions to promote his views. Every kid looks forward to the holiday season and the usual festivities associated with them. One way that Hitler was able to manipulate children into Nazi supporters was through his use of changing holiday traditions. First of all, the Nazis sought to remove the religious aspect of Christmas, first by “promot[ing] a different name for the holiday...to emphasize a neopagan, Nordic/Germanic concept that focuses on the winter solstice” (Hunt, 44). Eliminating the religious aspect of the holiday would ensure that children associated the holidays with German traditions rather than Christian ones, therefore helping to promote nationalism. Hunt recalls that the Nazis changed the words to the holiday songs, created a new character/icon with a more Nordic look, and started new Nordic customs such as putting a tree in your home (Hunt, 55). These new traditions changed the whole look and spirit of the holiday season, but to a child, this was what they began to look forward to every year. Hitler capitalized on the idea of children looking forward to the holidays by changing the meaning of the holidays to something which would promote the Nazi regime and the nationalist German ideology.

Role models play a significant role in shaping the ideology of children so the Nazis made sure that the children would look up to pro-Nazi adults for advice. Teachers were especially used as role models for the children, teaching them not only essential education, but also instilling Nazi ideas in the children who came to them for advice. Although Hunt expressed strong disliking for her teacher, she does however write that “the curriculum did not include anything like 'political education,' but Fräulein Stöhr knew how to use occasions like my father's death, Hitler's birthday, good or bad news from the front, or the visit of a prominent local Nazi to indoctrinate us” (118). She uses the word “indoctrinate” a strong choice of a word, indicating that even for her, a girl who greatly disliked this avid pro-Nazi teacher, teachers influenced her life and thoughts.

One could easily bring up the point that surely not all role models in the children's lives could have been supporting the Nazi cause. Of course this correct, there could have easily been a neutral or even anti-Hitler role model in any given child's life or even in their family who could have also influenced their thoughts greatly. Although Hitler tried to remove anyone who spoke any word against his power, greatly limiting the chances a child would be brought up hearing criticism, Hunt actually did have an anti-Nazi role model. Shortly after an argument with her grandfather in which he would not give her paper to bring to school to support the Nazis, or as her grandfather said, “that scoundrel Hitler,” Hunt sticks up for her grandfather when being questioned about his support of Hitler, adding that she liked her grandfather more than her teacher (Hunt, 156-157). So, clearly her grandfather, who admittedly disliked Hitler, did influence Hunt's childhood, since she chose to defend him and lie about what he said. However the pro-Hitler influence certainly outweighed the anti-Hitler influence in most German children's lives, including Hunt's. One such prominent figure in her life was her father, who greatly influenced her beliefs, starting at the tender age of three. She writes that at this age, “my father taught me to stand up straight and raise my right arm in the 'Heil Hitler' greeting....this would be the greeting I would use in town with strangers” (Hunt, 57). This was not only crucial for survival in a town where Nazi elites resided, but made an impression on her at such a young age. If her father taught her to do it, in any three year old's mind it would be the right thing to do.

Another way in which Hitler was able to indoctrinate youth to ensure his future success was by capitalizing on the idea of a child's need to have a sense of belonging, or fitting in. Hitler created after school groups and even Nazi schools for children. When begging her mother to join the Hitler Youth, Hunt writes “...but how could I tolerate if all my friends were strutting around in their uniforms every Friday afternoon and I was left out? Mutti should know what it meant to belong to a youth group” (171). It is clear that Hunt wanted to join in fear of feeling left out, not necessarily because she wanted to support Hitler. Hitler, knowing children like to join groups, banned all other forms of after school groups, so if a child wanted to join to a youth group, it would be one of the groups that formed the Hitler Youth.

It is clear, through the telling of Hunt's personal story, that Hitler took advantage of the innocence of children to help consolidate his power. Through the manipulation of the experiences in kids' lives, such as holidays, music, and school, Hitler was able to shape the opinions of the young children who did not know better. Although Hunt tells the story through the eyes of child, as she experienced it, it is clear that Hitler used the same or similar manipulative tactics to influence German citizens of all ages. Hitler was a master at the art of persuasion, learning to appeal to anyone. In the end, what this unique memoir offers is the often unheard story of what life was like for the average German during WWII, how they were persuaded to help bring Hitler to power, and the shame they felt once they realized the horrors that the Nazis had done with their support.


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

Book Reviews

  • Farris Dale, Library Journal Vol. 130, Issue 2, 2005

    The story of a young girl growing up surrounded by Nazi elites, this review suggests that the book provides a unique child's perspective of the effects that Nazism had on average German citizens. It provides insight on the destruction that can be caused when people replace rational thinking with following a cult-like personality. The review highly recommends it for German History and WWII readings.

  • anonymous, Kirkus Reviews Vol. 72, Issue 23, 2004

    Kirkus reviews writes that the book is an affective and revealing memoir of life growing up a young girl in Nazi Germany. While mostly just giving a summary of the story itself, the review mentions that it is a valuable story because it provides a firsthand look of an average middle-class German watch Hitler come to power.

  • anonymous, Publishers Weekly Vol. 251, Issue 51, 2004

    This reviewer explains that it is part of a growing trend to look at how ordinary lives were affected by WWII. It shows how ordinary people might have been uncomfortable with the regime, but still felt they needed to join. The reviewer expresses that it might be a let down if the reader is expecting an explanation of the Hitler phenomenon, but it is a good choice for those looking for a good WWII memoir.

  • Barbara Scott, Curled Up With A Good Book 2005

    This review explains that the author made it a focus to point out the feelings of ordinary Germans when confronted with horrors of the Nazi occupation of Germany. This book is satisfying because the author is able to find peace with her family and herself with decisions made during the time living in the shadows of evil.

Books and Articles

  • Alfons Heck, A Child of Hitler: Germany in the Days When God Wore A Swastika (Frederick, CO: Renaissance House, 1985), 207 pages, UCSB: DD247.H354 A34 1985

    This book tells the story of a young boy growing up in Nazi Germany. It is his personal account of his indoctrination in the Hitler Youth, again sharing a rare side of the story of WWII from the viewpoint of a young German boy. This book reveals just how much support Hitler had from the youth, and how he was able to control them to make them believe what he wanted them to believe, to secure their support.

  • Ursula Mahlendorf, The Shame of Survival: Working through a Nazi Childhood (University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009), 376 pages, UCSB: D811.5 .M25165 2009

    Mahlendorf's memoir gives a dual-perspective of Nazi Germany; one, her experience as a young girl living in Germany, and the other of an adult, looking back at the experience. As a teenager she was a member of the Hitler Youth, which she admits she was particularly enthusiastic about. She recounts the emotions of growing up in Nazi Germany, and her struggle to get education. She also gives perspective on the guilt and shame she has had to face as an adult and former supporter of Hitler.

Relevant Websites

  • Mary Mills, Propaganda and Children during the Hitler Years 1991-2010

    This web page discusses how children were an easy target for Hitler propaganda. It mentions how though employing National Socialist teachers and through literature the children were indoctrinated with Hitler's beliefs. The main focus is on how the literature taught antisemitism with its many awful portrayals of Jews and Jews doing bad things to Germans.

  • United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Indoctrinating Youth 2009

    This page in the Holocaust Encyclopedia from the USHMM focuses on two ways in which the youth were indoctrinated; education and organization. It mentions who the classroom was used to produce race-conscious and obedient children who were devoted to Adolf Hitler. The Hitler Youth was also used to train both boys and girls to be future leaders of the Nazi Party.

  • Wikipedia, Hitler Youth Accessed March 7, 2010

    This Wikipedia article discusses all aspects of the Hitler Youth. It mentions the origins, the organization of, membership, and role in WWII of the Hitler Youth. Most interestingly, it also discusses the role it played in indoctrinating the German Youth to believe in antisemitism and other Nazi beliefs.

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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 Alexis Buchwald on 4/6/10; last updated: 11/21/10
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