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  • Faces of Opposition: Juvenile Resistance, High Treason, and the People’s Court in Nazi Germany
  • Wayne Geerling (bio), Gary B. Magee (bio), and Robert Brooks (bio)

Youth is drawn to the promise of change. Whether as advocates of reform in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, schoolchildren in apartheid-era Soweto, or protesters on the streets of the Arab Spring, juveniles have stood side by side with adults in the struggle for freedom. Many have paid a great price for their activism. Beyond personal stories, however, little is known about juvenile resisters; fundamental questions remain. What, for example, turns disaffected youths into active resisters; what motivates their actions; and what determines how their resistance is to be expressed? Taking the case of juveniles charged with high treason in Nazi Germany as its focus, this article sets out to remove some of those gaps in our knowledge.1

Although German resistance to the Nazi regime has attracted considerable academic attention, the overwhelming emphasis in the literature has been on adult resisters. The analysis of juvenile resistance, [End Page 209] when it receives any coverage, tends to rely heavily on a handful of well-known case studies. The Memorial to the German Resistance (Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand) in Berlin is a case in point. The monument, which also serves as a museum, marks the spot where Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg and other members of the failed “20 July plot” to assassinate Adolf Hitler were executed. Although initially intended to commemorate only those involved in the plot, the memorial now embraces all of the resistance and opposition to the National Socialist regime.

The Memorial’s museum includes an exhibit on “youth opposition” divided into four sections—working-class groups; young Christians; the circles headed by Hanno Günther and Helmuth Hübener; and Bündisch Youth, Edelweiss Pirates, and Oppositional Youth (which included Leipzig Meuten and Swing Youth). The catalog accompanying each section is three to four pages in length. Despite this recognition, however, only two groups of juveniles charged with high treason—Hübener’s and Walter Klingenbeck’s—are represented in this memorial. The most recent Encyclopaedia of German Resistance 1933–1945 features short biographical sketches of these two groups; the entry about youth opposition per se, which is only 200 words long, makes no specific reference to juveniles charged with high treason. As a result, our knowledge of juvenile resistance in Nazi Germany (and more generally) is not well developed.2

In his seminal work, Im Schatten der “Weißen Rose,” Schilde neatly summarizes the consensus among historians regarding the [End Page 210] existence of juvenile resistance in the Third Reich: “It requires no further explanation that resistance in general, and more particularly that from juveniles, was at no time successful and in no way seriously threatened the National Socialist regime, but the existence of oppositional juveniles proved that another German youth did exist.” Schilde points out that “earlier investigations were predominantly marginal, [were] introduced relatively late and produced a small number of scholarly monographs,” due in no small part to the predominant assumption that juvenile opposition was unimportant.3

Nonconforming juveniles were one of many groups persecuted by the Nazi regime. From 1933 to 1945, at least sixty-nine juveniles were indicted for high treason and arraigned before the People’s Court (Volksgerichtshof). Of these defendants, thirteen were sentenced to death; twelve to a penitentiary (Zuchthaus), which entailed the loss of civil rights for the entire term; and thirty-one to jail (Gefängnis) for three months to ten years. Eight were later executed; only Hübener and Klingenbeck rate a mention in contemporary scholarly literature. Among these juvenile resisters, one finds few well-known martyrs, no Claus von Stauffenberg, no Dietrich Bonhoeffer, no Ernst Thälmann, and neither of the Scholl siblings (Hans and Sophie). Perhaps this silence explains the lack of recognition. Juveniles did not possess the means, know-how, or experience to effect “conspiratorial” resistance in the mould of Stauffenberg, certain prominent religious figures, or the Scholls’ White Rose group. When historians began to document the “other Germany” after the war, juveniles who did not fit the idealized picture of resistance fighters were dismissed as mere...


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