1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Campaigning for Cologne's Maligned Resistance

Jennifer MaceyNovember 10, 2004

They wore their hair long, sang songs by banned Jewish composers and fought the Nazi regime. But history has so far remembered Cologne's Edelweiss Pirates as criminals rather than resistance fighters...until now.

Jean Jülich (right, with guitar) and his fellow Edelweiss Pirates

On November 10th 1944, the Gestapo hanged 13 people in a residential street in Cologne without trial. Six of those killed were teenagers, members of an underground group called the Edelweiss Pirates. An alternative movement to the Hitler Youth, the Edelweiss Pirates grew their hair long and risked arrest, torture and their lives to carry out small acts of sabotage against the Nazi regime.

Sixty years later they are still officially listed as petty thieves and criminals. Their acts of resistance -- while having been recognized by the state of Israel -- have not yet been officially acknowledged here in Germany. That’s about to change with a new initiative by the District President of Cologne Jürgen Peters who wants to rehabilitate the Edelweiss Pirates.

While the city of Cologne debates the acknowledgement of the Pirates' war efforts, Jean Jülich, a surviving member of the group, has published his memoirs and is supporting an upcoming film about the Pirates, due for release on the 60th anniversary of his friends' execution.

Father's internment a pivotal moment

Porträt: Edelweißpirat Jean Jülich
Jean Jülich.Image: Palladio Film, Köln

Born in 1929, in the working class Cologne suburb of Sülz, Jean was just seven years old when his father, a member of the communist party, was arrested by the Gestapo. "In 1936, sometime in the morning they turned up in grandma's apartment - my father was in the toilet, he'd hidden himself there - they pulled him out and bashed him up and down the corridor, he was bleeding from his mouth and nose, his face was swollen - it was really horrible. Then they took him away."

Jean’s father was sentenced to 10 years with hard labor for belonging to the communist party. His grandmother and aunt were also imprisoned for six months and Jean was placed in an orphanage until they were released.

The experience led Jean to distrust the Nazi’s and the Hitler Youth, which he rejected in favor of the free living, romantic youth group called the Edelweiss Pirates. Besides, he said, the daily drills of the Hitler Youth were too boring. "Then I was put into a Nazi Reichsbahn training center in Nippes - it consisted of a factory, school, Hitler Youth – all in one, and in the morning you reported in - Heil Hitler, if you wanted to go to the loo it was Heil Hitler, Heil Hitler reporting back, the whole day long your hand went up and down, and I really hated that."

Hiking Songs and anti-Nazi leaflets

Edelweißpiraten Jean Jülich (Mitte)
Jean Jülich (center) survived the Nazi purge on the Pirates.Image: Jean Jülich

Towards the end of World War Two, there were about 3000 Edelweiss Pirates in Cologne and several hundred more in neighboring cities. They developed out of a youth hiking movement called the "Bündische Jugend" which was neither aligned to a political party nor a church but there was no organized structure and several loose groupings of Edelweiss Pirates existed in each suburb of Cologne.

With the rise of the Nazi’s in the thirties, these young people refused to join the Hitler Youth. They were like any other teenagers rebelling against the authorities. However this was a totalitarian state and rebelling could cost you your life.

Dr Nicola Wenge is a historian at the Nazi documentation center in Cologne, which is housed in the city’s former Gestapo headquarters. According to Dr Wenge the Edelweiss Pirates established their own subculture in the Rhine-Ruhr region by wearing a certain style of clothing, singing their own romantic ballads and later anti-nazi ditties.

Unlike the Nazi youth organizations, girls and boys interacted together and traveled for weekend hiking trips to nearby Konigsforst. "For this reason they were persecuted by the Hitler Youth, the police, the Gestapo and even the Nazi judiciary and branded as criminals, sexual deviants and as threat to the state," says Dr Wenge.

Opposition gathered pace as war raged

Britischer Bomber über Köln
While the allies flattened Cologne from the air, the Pirates fought the Hitler youth on the ground.Image: AP

As the allied bombing of Cologne intensified, the city, as well as public order crumbled, and the childish pranks and fisticuffs with the Hitler youth grew more serious. Jean Jülich and his band of friends took to throwing bricks through munitions factories and pouring sugar water into the petrol tanks of cars belonging to Nazis. Other groups derailed train carriages loaded with munitions or distributed leaflets critical of the regime.

In 1944, Jean along with several of his friends were arrested for allegedly being involved with a man called Hans Steinbruck or Bomber Hans who was reportedly plotting to bomb the Gestapo headquarters in Cologne. Jean was fifteen years old and spent four months in a tiny cell at the Brauweiler prison on the outskirts of Cologne. He and the other prisoners were interrogated and tortured by the Gestapo. And then one day, Jean said some of his friends, including Bartholomaeus Schink were taken away.

In all, 13 people were hanged early in the morning on the tenth of November 1944. Among the six executed was the youngest, 16 year old Pirate Schink. The street is now named after him but he and the others executed that day are still officially listed as criminals.

Dr Nicola Wenge believes the Edelweiss Pirates should be rehabilitated as victims of the Nazi regime, but she is cautious not to apply the term ‘resistance fighters’. "I think one has to differentiate the term ‘resistance’. But primarily I would describe it as resistant or opposition conduct." However she adds that actions such as distributing leaflets, or chalking slogans on the walls like "down with the dictatorship" or pulling down Nazi flags required considerable courage and could be regarded as a form of youth resistance. However, the label of criminals in Cologne remain.

Even the state of Israel has recognized that some form of opposition existed in wartime Cologne. In 1984, the Israeli Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, Yad Vashem, awarded Jean Jülich, and Bartholomaeus Schink, with its highest accolade for their actions. Jean said receiving the medal and travelling to Jerusalem to plant a tree in the Yad Vashem garden was wonderful and positive experience for his entire family.

Now the case has been reopened and the new District Governor of Cologne Jürgen Roters wants to fully rehabilitate the group. He says he wants to lift the stigma of crime that still surrounds this youth movement.

Local heroes and a feature film

Eine Gruppe Kölner Edelweißpiraten
Both boys and girls were members of the Cologne resistance.Image: NS-Dokumentationszentrum

The Edelweiss Pirates have become local heroes in Cologne and are due to be immortalized in film. The director Nico von Glasow said he made the film after being surprised to discover the existence of this group. He says like many Germans he knew nothing about the Edelweiss Pirates despite having grown up in Cologne.

"And I wanted to know why I had not heard about them and I asked my friend Jean Jülich and he said something very interesting. He said that if there is one hero in the country then the rest of the country could say they knew nothing about what was going on. But if there is one hero on every street, then it looks bad for the rest of the street."

The rehabilitation of the Edelweiss pirates has once again touched upon the sense of collective post war guilt in Germany. While many argue that it’s important to regain a stronger sense of self consciousness by acknowledging that there was a resistance against the Nazis, others caution against a tendency to focus on those exceptions at the risk of forgetting the greater proportion of the population who did nothing.

After the war, Jean Jülich received a certificate acknowledging the four months he had spent in jail and recognizing that the had been politically persecuted. And although Jean Jülich has never called himself a resistance fighter, he says it’s important that the memories of his friends are finally restored.

"And I have faith, okay I've always had faith, but in this case, I really believe that my dead friends will at least be rehabilitated and will no longer be portrayed as criminals. I don't have any problems because I've got my certificate. But this case needs to be processed by the District Governor Roters and that can't happen overnight. It's taken 60 years, and six more months won't make much difference."