Resistance against Nazism often took the form of military action. On the whole, the history surrounding rebel groups during World War II takes on a Star Wars-esque quality, where every movement fought militarily against the evil empire and helped bring about their demise. However, in reality, resistance against the Third Reich took on many forms and resisted many parts of Nazi ideology. Opposition movements led by adolescents may not be the first thing that comes to mind when considering Allied support. Regardless, young people throughout Europe, specifically within Nazi Germany, took on the courageous job of opposing the Third Reich during World War II. Here are four youth groups that did precisely that.
1. The Edelweiss Pirates
By the end of the 1930s, the Nazis had failed to indoctrinate all the children in Germany. It was a simple fact, and their solution was to make membership for boys in the Hitler Youth (HJ) compulsory. However, they could not stop working-class youth from dropping out of school at 14, at which point service couldn’t be required. A growing intolerance for the rigidity of Nazi youth groups among poorer adolescents meant that other, less cohesive groups started forming.
These groups went by different names in different cities. In Cologne, they were the Navajos. In Essen, the Roving Dudes. In Düsseldorf and Oberhausen, the Kittelbach Pirates. These groups were different, but they had a few things in common. First, the members were generally 14 to 18 years old and wore a badge depicting an edelweiss flower. They were all united under the title of Edelweiss Pirates. Many of these groups saw no use for the paramilitary rigidity of the Hitler Youth, so they formed their own youth organizations to take back their leisure time and independence.
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The Edelweiss Pirates were an alternative type of resistance group. They were made up of a loose group of working-class teenagers who worked at mills and factories while other kids were at school. They didn’t do anything especially violent at first. Mostly, they spent their time going on subversive co-ed camping trips and occasionally beating up a Hitler Youth patrol.
Before the war, the Edelweiss Pirates were nothing more than a pest to the order of the Hitler Youth and the Nazi regime. However, once war broke out, the groups started escalating. Many Edelweiss Pirates began participating in organized resistance movements against the Nazis. The Navajo group of Cologne was known to assist and hide escapees from concentration camps, distribute Allied propaganda, and conduct missions to sabotage and steal from the Nazis. This escalated to violence, and in addition to fighting Hitler Youth, the Navajos took on the secret police, which resulted in the death of Cologne’s Gestapo chief.
Heinrich Himmler personally had a problem with the Pirates and ordered them rounded up and dealt with. Members of the Edelweiss Pirates were imprisoned, forced into Nazi labor camps, ordered to youth concentration camps, and, for many, killed. Thousands of Edelweiss Pirates were punished, and many lost their lives. The leaders of the Navajos were hanged publicly in 1944, and this continued across Germany as the Nazis began to raze any opposition in the face of losing the war.
Though the stories of the Edelweiss Pirates may have faded throughout time, they are now slowly being remembered by the public as heroic young people who fought in the face of an imposing opponent. Every year in Cologne, a festival commemorating the Pirates is held. There, they sing songs from the era, including a song that speaks to their enduring bravery:
We march by banks of Ruhr and Rhine
And smash the Hitler Youth in twain.
Our song is freedom, love and life,
We’re the Pirates of the Edelweiss.
2. The Swing Youth
Resistance to the Nazis was not always scrappy and violent. This was the case with many upper-class teenagers labeled as Swingjugend or “swing youth” by the Nazis. Their name was based on their favorite music, swing or big band music, which the Nazis despised and deposed. The wealthy teenagers who composed the Swing Youth, however, did not stop listening to swing, nor did they give up their idolization of Anglo-American culture.
Nazis saw Jazz music as intrinsically un-Aryan, as it was often written and performed by Black people. This villainized the Swing Youth immediately, as did their style of dress. Girls in the Swing Youth curled their long hair, wore makeup, and painted their nails. Boys also wore their hair long, donned British-style hats and, often, Union Jack lapel pins. The teenagers also started secret dance clubs, where they would gather and listen to illegally imported jazz records.
The swing youth preferred to speak English, as it seemed more stylish. This baffled the Nazi authorities, striking them as subversive to their ideals. However, the Swing Youth never saw themselves as political and didn’t involve themselves in political actions beyond doing what they saw as cool. They also accepted Jewish members and half-Jewish members. These small actions were resistance against the culture of Nazism and the rigidity of the Third Reich.
Though the Swing Youth never participated in overtly political actions, they did support the Allies once war broke out. It is thought that they also may have had a hand in spreading Allied propaganda by listening to banned broadcasts from the likes of the BBC.
The Nazi distaste for the Swing Youth resistance came to a head in 1940 when a jazz concert organized by Swing Youth in Hamburg garnered an attendance of 500 adolescents. Heinrich Himmler was, once again, personally incensed by the Swing Youth and recommended that the ringleaders of the groups be thrown into concentration camps. In August of 1941, this is exactly what happened. Over 300 swing youth were arrested and either had their heads shaved, were forced into school under close supervision, or, in the case of the leaders, were sent to concentration camps.
The swing youth is remembered for their apolitical subversion of Nazi culture and showed that the opposition to the Third Reich came in many styles.
3. The Leipzig Meuten
Translated literally to mean the “packs” of Leipzig, the youth movements born in the industrial city were descendants of social-democratic and communist children’s groups. After these groups were banned and replaced with the Hitler Youth, small, loosely organized groups began to form, mainly within the working class.
Like the Edelweiss Pirates, the Leipzig Meuten worked industrial jobs and were centered around the ideals of the banned unions of workers. The name meuten, or “packs,” was given to the groups by the Gestapo, and they preferred to be called the Bündische Jugend– the Union Youth. The Union Youth was not a cohesive front, and they were made up of several different groups in several locations throughout the city. Two groups of about 40 members each were called the Hundestart and the Lile, after a cemetery and plaza in Leipzig. Another group, one of the largest cohesively organized, was the Reeperbahn, whose 100 or so members operated out of the district of Lindenau in Leipzig. Between 1937 and 1939, around 1,500 adolescents in Leipzig were involved in a pack, with up to one-third of the members being female.
The style of dress within the Union Youth was distinctive and based on the tradition of socialist youth hiking groups. The boys wore lederhosen, while the girls wore dark skirts with checkered shirts, knee-high socks, and hiking boots. Another calling card of the Union Youth was their red neckerchiefs, skull and crossbones badges, or badges with the insignia “BJ” for Bündische Jugend.
Like the Edelweiss Pirates, the packs of Leipzig engaged in increasingly violent conflict with members of the Nazi regime. They distributed leaflets throughout the city that read “Down with Hitler” or “HJ Perish.” They also attacked individual members of the Hitler Youth and vandalized their meeting spaces by changing signs and smashing windows. The local leadership of the Hitler Youth complained that their members could not go out in uniform during the evening.
Due to these complaints, the Nazis attempted to crack down on the packs’ activities, and in 1938, several members were tried for the crime of “preparation for high treason.” The trial and subsequent prison sentences, however, did little to quell the actions of the Union Youth. In 1939, this led to mass arrests and imprisonments for pack members, with a concentration camp formed as a “youth training camp” where they were sentenced. This led to the downfall of the Bündische Jugend in 1939, and they never quite resurfaced in full force, though a few packs attempted to materialize as a mix between the Swing Youth and the Bündische Jugend during the war.
The Leipzig Meuten represented the fight of working-class citizens, as well as the banned political parties, to rear their heads against the Nazis. Though it was quelled, the movement is likely to have inspired exiled social-democrat and communist party members elsewhere to keep fighting.
4. The White Rose
After the invasion of Poland, it became clear to already-established groups like the White Rose that the atrocities committed by Hitler and the Third Reich needed to be opposed. The White Rose began as a cultural society of like-minded University of Munich students disillusioned with the Nazi regime.
The founder, Hans Scholl, a medical student, was a former Hitler Youth member who became wary of the Nazis after he was accused of homosexuality and illegal youth activities. However, he and his classmates, Alexander Schmorell, Christoph Probst, and Willi Graf, had been sent to the Eastern Front of the war, conscripted by the Nazis. When they returned to Munich, they knew they had to do something to resist the atrocities they witnessed at the hands of the Third Reich. Unlike many other German youth resistance groups, the White Rose was ideologically non-violent and instead chose to oppose the Nazis through intellectualism.
The first leaflets that the White Rose produced were circulated in the summer of 1942. They focused first on the systemic abuse of the Nazi government and second on the treatment of Jews they bore witness to. Sophie Scholl, Hans’ sister, became involved soon after the release of the two documents, as did their professor, Kurt Huber, who helped write later leaflets and facilitate the group’s actions at the university.
As later pamphlets were released, the White Rose became increasingly bold, addressing the German people directly and urging them to fight passively against Hitler. They used language against the Führer that spelled certain death if they were ever caught, saying that every word out of his mouth was a lie and deeming him to be Satan. The fifth leaflet was a foreshadowing of what the White Rose called “a war of liberation.” The Nazis were aware of the flyers being distributed throughout their party’s birthplace and were keen to stop the flow of the anonymous group’s message of opposition.
The sixth and final leaflet led to the downfall of the group. In an attempt to spread more leaflets, Sophie Scholl went to the roof of the university’s central hall and let the papers fly. Unbeknownst to her, a janitor saw her and immediately reported her to the Gestapo. Hans and Sophie Scholl, along with Christoph Probst, were brought to trial in the “people’s court,” where, within a day, they were tried for treason, sentenced to death, and guillotined on February 22, 1943. The other members of the White Rose were similarly tried and sentenced, and they were all executed by October of the same year.
A little over a year after their resistance began, the White Rose was eliminated by the Nazis and disgraced by the German press. However, as its ideology caught hold in other countries, many groups who supported the Allies attempted to make the White Rose an everlasting legacy of resistance. Today, the members are commemorated in many locations throughout Munich and are the most well-known youth resistance group that fought the Nazis during World War II.