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"Youth under Nazism: The Enthusiastic Victims of our Fuhrer"

Book Essay on:
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.

by Jared Keller
March 14, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in German History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
$12 & searchable
at amazon

About Jared Keller

I am a fourth year History major and Music minor at the University of California Santa Barbara. I have always had an interest in studying the ways in which history is repeated in the present, especially with regards to the Holocaust and modern genocide. I took the course to learn how the forces at play during World War II that allowed for the systematic murder of 6 million Jews resemble forces today that are allowing genocide in Africa. I chose to write about Heck’s book because his experience with indoctrination in the Hitler Youth seemed to resemble the experiences of young boys in Uganda today.

Abstract (back to top)

In A Child of Hitler Alfons Heck writes about his childhood in 1930s and 40s Germany, and his time spent in the Hitler Youth. Heck characterizes Germany’s youth as the “enthusiastic victims of our Führer,” and it is around this idea that he centers the rest of his book. But rather than explain this statement in great detail, Heck takes readers through the daily life of a young member of the Hitler Youth, and shows the subtle (and not so subtle) pressures facing children seduced by the HJ. At times the book reads more like a coming of age story than a commentary on guilt in the postwar era. Some may read the book as an apologia, and in some ways they may be right, but I believe Heck writes more to present the children of the Third Reich as humans, and then proceeds from there. He does not excuse his actions, but asks readers to understand his individual story and to judge him from there. It is up to readers whether or not they are willing to accept him as such.

Hitler Youth giving the Hilter salute

Essay (back to top)

Reflecting on his time in the Hitler Youth, Alfons Heck writes, “I never once during the Hitler years thought of myself as anything but a decent, honorable young German, blessed with a glorious future” (Heck, 206). This blatant honesty permeates A Child of Hitler, and it is his willingness to candidly convey the inner thoughts of a child seduced by the Hitler Youth, as shocking and politically incorrect as those thoughts may be, that sets this book apart from most literature on the subject. The world should never tire of making amends for what happened during World War II, and there could never be enough written about the atrocities suffered at the hands of the Nazis, but the world needs to understand Alfons Heck’s experience of Nazi Germany as well. “Tragically,” writes Heck, “now we are the other part of the Holocaust, the generation burdened with the enormity of Auschwitz. That is our life sentence, for we became the enthusiastic victims of our Führer” (Heck, 207). By this, I do not believe he is comparing his suffering to the suffering of the millions of “subhumans” systematically exterminated by the Nazi party, nor is he writing to excuse his fanatical devotion to a murderous and repressive regime. Instead I believe he is attempting to share with the world the intense pressures facing a young boy raised in the rhetoric of Nazi Germany, and the lasting burden that this has inflicted upon an entire generation. He begins by portraying the children of the Nazi Youth as humans first, and then progresses from their. The Nazi Party and the Hitler Youth consciously and systematically indoctrinated an entire generation of children largely without their knowledge or consent. That Heck considers himself just a “decent, honorable young German” speaks to the extent and subtlety with which the Hitler Youth poisoned these children’s minds. They are still responsible for their devotion, but to truly understand their decisions we must strive to better understand the depths of their indoctrination.

It is important to note that Heck writes, not as an historian aiming for verifiable truth, or as a poet hoping to elicit a powerful emotional response, but simply as a survivor of the Hitler Youth. He admits that he is writing largely from his own memory, and as such it is bound to be subjective. But personal decisions and experiences are inherently subjective, and he is not writing to give a concrete collection of events, but to depict a young boy’s experiences in Nazi Germany. John Ferguson writes that it is the “ordinariness” of Heck’s approach to his autobiography that gives the book such power (Heck, foreword). I believe he is right. His book is meant to share the human side of the story, his human story, instead of offering his own crucifixion for the crimes of the murderous regime he so enthusiastically supported.

Too often as historians I fear that we gravitate towards revision and didacticism in our attempt to instruct and inform future generations with what we have learned from the past. While this is a noble and valid pursuit, the danger comes when we begin to revise history to better fit our lesson plans. But this book cannot be squeezed into the current vein of literature apologizing for the Holocaust. When the war finally ends Heck writes, “suddenly I was an especially tainted citizen of the most despised nation on the face of the earth” (Heck, 206). I believe he is right, and as a German, we expect Heck to play the role of the bad guy. We expect him to denounce all his ties to the Hitler Youth, remember his time in the organization with disdain, and accept the weight of the holocaust on his shoulders. To present himself as anything else would be to besmirch the memory of the millions that died at the hands of Nazi Germany. Or at least that is what we have been told. But A Child of Hitler does neither of those. It is his honest description of how he perceived and experienced the war at the time, not a tale written through a prism of forty years of re-education on Auschwitz and regret. Heck simply writes his autobiography, and encourages us to see Nazi Germany through his eyes, the eyes of a child.

Initially readers may feel uncomfortable putting such a likeable human face on the nation we have been taught to despise, but that is the beauty of Heck’s book. It forces us to see the German youth not as frighteningly fanatical minions, or even as a group of helpless victims of an all-powerful Führer, but as real children thrust into an environment they did not choose. The book takes us through his childhood in Wittlich Germany, and his startling rise through the ranks of the Hitler Youth. Often feared by his family as too fanatical, Heck wholeheartedly accepted the violently racist ideology that the Hitler Youth preaches, and looked upon Hitler as a God-like figure (Heck, 17). By the end of the war Alfons Heck had risen to the rank of bannführer and was prepared to kill in the name of Germany. Aside from a final chapter concerning the aftermath of the war and his eventual acceptance of the evils of Hitler and Nazism, Heck spends little time discussing the ways in which he was indoctrinated, or why he believed what he did. But passages in which he states that he would likely have shot any member of the Hitler Youth attempting to escape leave little doubt about how completely he was seduced by the rhetoric of the Third Reich. Perhaps the author’s silence on the issue can speak volumes and help us to understand just how his mind was warped and manipulated by Nazi propaganda. The evidence for how Alfons Heck was systematically shaped into a wholly devoted follower of Hitler is there, it is simply hidden between the lines.

It is important to note that from here on I will refer directly to the Nazi elite when discussing the indoctrination of Germany’s youth, instead of referring only to the Hitler Youth. This is largely because the impetus for, and development of, practical ways to effectively manipulate German youth came from higher up the Nazi Party ladder than simply Baldur von Schirach, the head of the Hitler Youth (Rempel, 141). Gerhard Rempel writes that the Nazi elite felt “the Greater German Reich could only remain in existence if the upcoming generation were won over to their cause and provided the janissaries to keep it in being” (Rempel, 142). While this desire to win over the youth of Germany is not inherently vicious, Hitler exposed the purpose of this desire when he roared, “You, my youth, never forget that one day you will rule the world” (Heck, 22). Indeed, the Hitler Youth song began with the line, “Today, Germany belongs to us and tomorrow the world” (Heck, 207). Before we go any further, however, I believe we must draw a distinction between calling for solidarity or cultivating pride in one’s country, and cultivating racism and hatred. All countries, especially countries caught in the strong nationalist currents of the twentieth century, attempt to cultivate solidarity amongst its inhabitants and create an ethos of pride. The United States is certainly no exception. And there is nothing sinister about Alfons Heck’s desire to fight and win the war. The real tragedy, and the real crime committed against these children, was that the Nazi party taught them to hate, and then capitalized on it. In the words of William L. Shirer, “It was a disheartening experience to watch Hitler take over the youth of Germany, poison their minds, and prepare them for the sinister ends he had in store for them” (Heck, Foreword).

It is possible the author’s silence surrounding the details of his indoctrination may simply be the guilt ridden conscience of a man struggling to come to terms with his stolen childhood. Or it may be that Heck was only casually aware of the ways in which the Nazi elite sought to control his mind, and that is why their methods are mentioned so little throughout the book. Even when mentioned explicitly they are rarely developed. There can be little doubt, however, that the indoctrination was taking place, not only in Wittlich, but throughout greater Germany. So even if my ill-advised attempt at psychoanalysis is largely incorrect, the point remains valid: Successful indoctrination requires a certain amount of subtlety. The teacher must indoctrinate the student without the student ever realizing what has happened. This is not brainwashing taking place outside of the structures of society, nor is it taking place independent of a family structure. Children would invariably return home at the end of the day to the comfort and moral stability of their families, and therefore, any overly overt attempt to indoctrinate these children into the violence of the Nazi Party would have met with stiff resistance. Unlike the child soldiers in Uganda where leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army simply kidnap children and force them at gunpoint to kill their fellow villagers as a means of indoctrination, the Nazi Party had to be much more subtle (Batstone, 124). Such an openly violent act is only possible when children are entirely separated from their parents and at the mercy of their LRA captives for their daily survival. But within German society, instilling violence in young children and teaching them to hate by killing local Jews would never have been allowed. Therefore, the propaganda and rhetoric used by Nazi elite had to be subtle enough not to raise suspicion, and yet strong enough to fulfill Hitler’s desire for “violently active, dominating, intrepid, brutal youth” from which the world would “shrink back” (Rempel, 2).

In their efforts to achieve this result, Nazi elites began their indoctrination of Germany’s youth almost from birth. Upon entrance into elementary school at age six, Heck was already beginning to feel its pressures (Heck, 3). It is no wonder that the Nazi elite chose to begin the assimilation process so early. Children at such a young age are far more susceptible to coercion and manipulation, especially in a school setting where teachers preach from a position of authority to children who are separated from the stabilizing force of their parents. The nature vs. nurture argument is still up for debate, but it must be nearly universally accepted that children are, as Heck states, “too immature to question the veracity of what they are being taught by their educators” (Heck, 3). Children may question their teacher’s views once they are older, but at such a young age they are uniquely vulnerable.

Emblazoned on the wall of his Gymnasium high school wall read the inscription, “the Jews are the traitors and our misfortune” (Heck, 27). It is easy to see how such constant propaganda would lead Heck to a place where he would not have “even the slightest doubt that this was true” (heck, 27). Not surprisingly, by the time he was sworn into the Hitler Youth at age 10, he had already been conditioned to believe the two basic tenets of the Nazi Creed: “belief in the innate superiority of the Germanic-Nordic race, and the conviction that total submission to the welfare state-- personified by the Führer-- was my first duty” (Heck, 8). Looking back on his education under the Nazi Party, Heck developed a harsh resentment toward his teachers for abusing the power they were entrusted with. He writes, “not only had they allowed themselves to be deceived, they had delivered us, their children, into the cruel power of a new God” (Heck, 206). By starting with the youngest, most malleable children, the Nazis were able to prepare Germany’s youth for their indoctrination even before their entrance into the Hitler Youth.

The propaganda and coercion that Nazi elite used against members of the Hitler Youth continued after their initial training and throughout the war. Only now it morphed to include control through misinformation and rumor. Even in an age when German V2 Rockets were capable of striking targets 200 miles away, news of troop movements and military engagements were slow to filter through to outlying towns. What news did manage to filter through to Wittlich was at best unreliable, and at worst, mere rumor. Even more unreliable were reports of the enemy’s treatment of prisoners. The elites of the Third Reich used this fog of war for their advantage. When Allied troops began advancing on Heck’s town he hurriedly began taking off his Luftwaffe uniform and exclaimed, “I just remembered that some American Jew by the name of Morgenthau has advocated the sterilization of Hitler Youth as well as young officers” (Heck, 186). His aunt berated him for believing the rumors of Goebbels, but Heck is unwilling to take that chance, especially since the information came from someone in such a powerful position.Goebbels’ misinformation had successfully served its purpose.

We have seen that the propaganda and rhetoric of the Nazi elite had thoroughly indoctrinated Alfons Heck to a racist and violent regime from the time he was six years old. But what are we to make of his characterization of Germany’s youth as the “enthusiastic victims of our Führer” (Heck, 207)? In one breath he seemingly accepts responsibility for Auschwitz, and yet he is able to shift the guilt to Hitler and the Nazi elite. That he was enthusiastically supportive of his Führer, there can be little doubt. But how much can we extend the title of “victim” to Alfons Heck when he writes that he would have killed his own men if his duty required it, and admits he is still intoxicated by the power and pageantry of Nazi Germany? It is true that Heck wished only to write a history of his experiences in the Hitler Youth, and not to answer those who would have him admit his complicity in the evils of Nazism. But the systematic murder of millions cannot, and should not, be pinned to one group of Nazi elites. If the men who carried out those exterminations, and the populace that actively supported the regime despite rumors of atrocities, are not to blame, then who is? I do not feel as though I am in a position to make that judgment, for I believe no one can truly understand the internal and external pressures levied against the German people during World War II, unless they experienced it themselves. If there is one group of people that has the right to judge the culpability of the German people, it is those people who stood in the face of Nazism and shouted “stop.” The rest of us should be careful about casting the first stone until we have taken the time to understand the human element and the pressures facing a young member of the Hitler Youth.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/x/08)

Book Reviews:

  • Publisher's review (at amazon):
    This review from the publisher of Heck’s A Child of Hitler characterizes it as a “unique inside view into the methods of youth indoctrination” and applauds him for being the only former high-ranking HJ official to speak openly about his love for Hitler. The review details the multiple award winning documentaries based on Heck’s book such as HBO’s documentary Heil Hitler: Confessions of a Hitler Youth. The publisher also recommends Heck’s other book Parallel Journeys co-authored with Helen Waterford, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz.
  • Prowe, D., review, in: Choice v 22 July/Aug 1985. p. 1684.
    <Available online, but only on WebSPIRS through the UCSB proxy server>
    This rather hostile review of Heck’s book characterizes it as an unsophisticated book “peppered with vulgar German phrases and four-letter words.” The author of this review sees Heck’s book as a tale of “adolescent arrogance, brutality and petty quarreling.” He also writes that Heck refuses to accept responsibility for his actions in the HJ by shifting all his guilt to Hitler. Readers will have to decide if they agree with him or not.

Web Sites:

  • Elizabeth Kirkley Best [Shoah Education Project]. “Hitlerjugend: The Hitler Youth Corp and Organization during the Holocaust, or Shoah” 2003, http://www.shoaheducation.com/HJ.html
    This page on the Hitler Youth is part of shoaheducation.com, which has an abundance of information on all aspects of the Holocaust ranging from descriptions of Nazi concentration camps to resistance. Their goal is to “change hearts, to change perspectives, to make us all far more than tolerant of each other.” As such, all the articles and links are based in the belief that everyone involved in the Holocaust, whether persecutor or persecuted, were human once.
  • The History Place, “The History Place - Hitler Youth” 1999, <http://www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/hitleryouth/index.html>
    This page is part of the larger History Place website. There is an entire section dedicated to the Hitler Youth with 5 chapters of text, as well as audio clips of speeches by Hitler and Schirach in German with English subtitles. The audio clips are crucial to an understanding of how young children were swept up in the passion and emotion of these men’s speeches.
  • Wikipedia, “Hitler Youth” 1999, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hitler_Youth
    The Hitler Youth section of Wikipedia is best used as a starting point for further study of the HJ. The value of this page comes from its hundreds of in-text links to similar articles concerning the Hitler Youth. There is an origins section, a section on the doctrine of the HJ, as well as sections discussing the organization of the HJ and their contributions to WWII.
  • Hitler Youth Videos
    These videos are examples of the pageantry and excitement that surrounded Hitler Youth rallies. The first is footage of a Hitler Youth march for the Fuhrer. The second is a newsreel on the Volkssturm and the Hitler Youth as they prepare to defend the Fatherland. The Third is a Hitler Youth rally in which Hitler speaks to a crowd of enthusiastic young children, and the final video is a German newsreel on the 12th SS Panzer division made up of Hitler Youths.
  • Arvo L. Vercamer [Axis History Factbook], “Hitlerjugend: An In-Depth History” 2004, <http://www.axishistory.com/index.php?id=3002>
    Axis History Factbook claims to be an “apolitical site dedicated to the history of the Third Reich and its allies.” While it is hard to believe anyone could approach the Third Reich apolitically, the site does contain a large amount of useful data and information about the Third Reich. The Hitler Youth section has a year by year description of the Hitler Youth beginning with 1922. The site is also a catalogue of important legislation, letters, and speeches that shaped the war, translated into English.

Books and Articles:

  • Kater, Michael H. Hitler Youth. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2004. 355 pages. UCSB: DD253.5 .K28 2004.
    Michael Kater uses anecdotes, statistics, and interviews with HJ members to trace the experiences of many young HJ members and their eventual fate. Like so many authors writing on the HJ, Kater deals with the question of guilt and the degree to which one can assign guilt to 12 year old children. From the 12 year old child sent to fight on the front lines to the screaming children at Hitler rallies and speeches, Kater assesses the degree of responsibility shared by each individual (and groups) for the atrocities carried out by their Fuhrer. Kater also writes that, “Injuries suffered even by blameless young people ... are often overlooked or downplayed, in light of the towering injustices perpetrated ... on foreign enemies ... [T]his suffering must also find its place in the history of youths under Hitler" (p. 240). With this quote, and others like it, readers may find themselves opposed to Kater’s views.
  • Rempel, Gerherd. Hitler’s Children: The Hitler Youth and the SS. Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, 1989. 263 Pages. UCSB:DD253.5 .R4 1989.
    Rempel’s book is a study of the complex interaction between the SS and the Hitler Youth. He sees the HJ as the training ground for the SS and the pool from which the SS attempted to recruit most of its members. Rempel attempts to set forth simply a history of the SS and HJ and remain as objective as possible in doing so. He assigns guilt where he believes the evidence supports it, but avoids sweeping generalizations. Chapter 6 details the programs and organizations created by the Third Reich in conquered countries in an effort to link them to the supposed superior culture of the Germans, and as such, is a valuable chapter for someone hoping to learn more about Nazi methods of indoctrination.

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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.

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