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Reviewed by:
  • Hitler Youth
  • Jennifer L. Jenkins (bio)
Michael H. Kater . Hitler Youth Harvard University Press. l, 355. US $27.95

As its founder Baldur von Schirach stated in 1939, the Hitler Youth was the 'largest youth movement in the world.' Founded in 1933, with ideological origins reaching back into the 1920s, by 1939 the movement had marshaled a remarkable 98 per cent of German youth into its ranks. Michael Kater's new book traces the social and institutional history of the Hitler Youth. Yet, in keeping with Kater's extensive scholarship on the Third Reich, Hitler Youth offers more than a straightforward social history. Kater focuses on the collective experiences of the young people who made up the movement, paying particular attention to the dialectic of emancipation and subjection that characterized the group's activities. While the Hitler Youth freed children from parents, and youth from the social institutions of church and school, it furthered group experiences that were heavily ideological and strongly militarized. [End Page 421]

Rather than exploring his topic through the framework of coercion, Kater places ethics and responsibility at the centre of this work. At the heart of his book is the question of complicity, a particularly difficult issue when the subject is youth. How were Germany's young people actively responsible for the crimes committed by the Nazi regime? Rather than seeing young people as primarily coerced and controlled by a movement that they had no freedom to reject (after 1939 membership was compulsory for children over the age of ten), Kater explores how the movement advanced their desires both personally and politically. Weaving testimony from letters and diaries with an analysis of social and political frameworks, Hitler Youth foregrounds the voices of the young perpetrators, analysing the contradictions in their experiences. The emancipation from traditional authorities, namely parents and teachers, many young people found intoxicating. It provided them with a sense of liberality and modernity. Young girls, for example, released from the control of fathers and brothers reported on a new-found sense of pride and possibility. Yet, this new freedom was transformed into new forms of control, as Kater shows convincingly how the Hitler Youth actively prepared Germany's children for war. Activities bent on raising boys for active participation in war were matched by programs moulding girls into racially fit mothers. Boys from the age of ten years on were taught to handle weapons; both sexes submitted to physical exertion to the point of exhaustion. Moreover, this indoctrination had a particular goal. It worked to dehumanize others, to create a sense of readiness for children and young people to exercise violence against all deemed 'enemies.' This included civilians.

The book's most gripping sections detail the wartime activities of young people. Outlining the institutional connections between the Hitler Youth, the army, and the ss, Kater shows the paths young boys followed into combat, usually on the Eastern Front. We see the activity of young boys and girls in policing dissidents in their own ranks, guarding the captured youth of other nations, in the state-sponsored pogroms of Kristallnacht, in the colonization work of racial resettlement, and in the battles against the Red Army in the last years of the war. Through deep reading in primary and secondary sources, Kater shows us in detail the willing activity of girls and boys in ethnic cleansing and genocide. Brutality begat brutality, and complicity brought harsh reprisals at war's end. 'Czech insurgents,' writes Kater, 'singled out' the Hitler Youth for their anger in the spring of 1945. 'Approximately 40 Hitler youths, blood stained and with swollen, beat-up faces,' were tormented in a square in Prague. 'After unspeakable cruelties,' he writes, 'they were finished off with knives and clubs.'

Through thick description and a wealth of evidence, Kater gives his readers a multifaceted picture of the movement. An entire chapter on 'dissidents and rebels' focuses on youth who resisted, and Kater is careful to show that not all youth embraced the ideology of the movement or [End Page 422] participated willingly in its activities. Yet at the end his judgment is clear. 'Whether on orders or not,' Kater writes, 'Hitler's youths served and...


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pp. 421-423
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