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1945: Youth in ruins

Sarah Judith Hofmann / cmkJune 21, 2014

After the surrender in May 1945, Germans wanted to start a new life – to clear away the rubble and forget 12 years of National Socialism. But just months earlier, 17-year-olds were being sent to fight as "a last resort."

Image: ullstein bild

In the first months of 1945, Allied troops were moving in on the Nazis from two fronts and advancing steadily into Germany. Adolf Hitler saw that the outcome was inevitable, and on April 30 he committed suicide. But German troops would only surrender once the Red Army invaded Berlin. On May 8, World War II came to an end in Europe.

Germany was left in ruins, with around 7 million Germans had lost their lives, more than half of them civilians. But it wasn't just Germany: the UK suffered a loss of about 430,000, while in the Soviet Union more than 20 million soldiers and civilians were killed. And more than 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust, the largest genocide of all time.

After the German surrender came what's known here as "Stunde Null," or "zero hour." For many young people in Germany, it was the start of a whole new era. They had grown up under Nazi rule, were shaped by Hitler's dehumanizing ideology from childhood onward and in the last weeks and months of the war were spurred one final time to fight for their country. And then, all of a sudden, there was peace - an all but unknown way of life.

'Youth leads youth'

Berlin - Hitlerjugend 1934
In 1938, Hitler Youth set off for Nuremberg in anticipation of seeing Der Führer at one of the Nazi ralliesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In 1933, after Hitler's rise to power, the Hitler Youth became the only permitted youth organization. By the start of the war in 1939, membership was compulsory. Almost every young German - excluding Jews, Sinti or Roma - was made a member of the organization.

Bildergalerie Aufbruch der Jugend
Image: DW/S.Hofmann

The Hitler Youth was separated by age and sex. Between the ages of 10-14, boys and girls were either part of the "Jungmädelbund" ("Young Girl's League") or the "Jungvolk" ("German Youth"). Between 14 and 18, the boys moved up to Hitler Youth proper, and the girls joined the "Bund Deutscher Mädel" ("League of German Girls").

The offer was attractive: hiking, singing, and gymnastics with their peers - far from the strict rules imposed on them at home by their parents. "Youth leading youth," that's how it worked - and that's how young leaders were drawn in and molded from an early age.

Girls were prepared for their future role as mothers, and the future soldiers were taught to stand at attention and obey. With scouting games and military sports, they were trained to invade foreign countries. In school, students were not taught to be independent thinkers. Instead, they were told to surrender to Der Führer and practice blind obedience.

Rules and regulations

Jewish students had been facing hostility from teachers and classmates ever since Hitler's rise to power. Starting in 1938, they were completely restricted to Jewish schools. Jewish organizations, such as Youth Aliyah and Hakhshara, attempted to help young people prepare for emigration to Palestine, but only a few managed to escape before the systematic deportation of the Jewish population to ghettos, concentration and death camps - in the autumn of 1941.

A free and unrestricted life was impossible for youth under the strictly controlled guidelines set out by the Nazis. Starting in 1940, boys and girls under the age of 18 were forced to respect a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

There was also a dress code: Boys were required to wear their hair short and dress in a Hitler Youth uniform, while girls wore the traditional German braid - and no makeup. To ensure that everyone complied with the regulations, some 50,000 Hitler Youth patrolled the streets across the country, cutting long hair short and spitting in any girl's face who dared to wear even a touch of lipstick.


And yet there were those who opposed the Hitler Youth. In Hamburg, it was the swing crowd, who met for dances and coiffed their hair with pomade. A risky rebellion. In the autumn of 1940, 64 young swing fans were arrested. Those over 18 were sent directly to the front.

Köln - Edelweißpiraten 1939
Not everyone followed the rules - Edelweiss Pirates around 1940Image: NS-Dokumentationszentrum der Stadt Köln

In the Rhineland, some young rebels wore edelweiss flowers on their lapels - and quickly became known as Edelweiss Pirates. They went on bike trips, played guitar and satirized well-known Hitler Youth songs with new lyrics. They were risking torture by the Gestapo and even deportation to concentration camps.

There were also those exceptional people, like Hans and Sophie Scholl of the White Rose resistance group, who stood up against the inhumane regime they were living under. They attempted to spread their understanding of the regime with leaflets at the University of Munich. On February 22, 1943, after being caught, they were executed.

Child soldiers

The vast majority of German teenagers, however, fell to Nazi indoctrination methods. And as the war dragged on, they were forced deeper and deeper into the conflict. In 1943, Hitler Youth leader Artur Axmann declared the deployment of Germany's youth, sending students from the age of 17 to the front. Most served as anti-aircraft auxiliaries in the air defense units. By 1945, there were around 200,000 young air force and naval auxiliaries. The average age of all enlisted men in May 1944 was 16 years and seven months.

Young girls were also required to perform military service, for the most part on the home front. They collected old clothes, knitted sweaters and socks for the soldiers, plowed fields and helped with the harvest. In 1945, there were around 500,000 women in service between the ages of 16 and 26. Two-thirds were volunteers.

Deutschland Zweiter Weltkrieg Filmszene Die Brücke 1959
Just before the end, adolescents were pulled into the warImage: ullstein bild

A new life, in ruins

And then came May 8, 1945, the offcial date of the German capitulation. Peace at last? Most people were traumatized. Either from first-hand experience, or because they were alone, living frightened in an air raid shelter during the bombing of German cities, often without their parents and searching for family amongst the ruins. Or because they were the victims of sexual assault immediately after the war. An estimated 2 million German women - in addition to several million other women across Europe during the war - suffered this fate.

Nevertheless, zero hour meant a new beginning, symbolized by the Trümmerfrauen, the women who cleared away the rubble left after the war. But psychological studies today show that war-time experiences are not so easily forgotten. The children who came of age during World War II were deeply traumatized, and they often passed their trauma on to their own children.

Deutschland Nachkriegszeit Berlin Trümmerfrauen beim Enttrümmern
Image: ullstein bild