How the Nazis Captured the Minds of Germany’s Youth

The Hitler Youth was a frightening and powerful organization, but it was just one of the many ways the Nazis captured the minds of Germany’s youth.

Feb 25, 2024By Jacob Wilkins, BA History

how nazis captured minds germany youth


Many consider the Nazis to be the most sinister political party of all time, and it’s hard to argue with this point. Driven by a fervent belief in the superiority of the Aryan race, they transformed Germany into a fascist state and carried out one of the worst crimes in human history: the Holocaust.


The Nazis intended their ideology to live on for centuries, so young people were an essential part of their long-term plan. By plaguing the education system with Nazi propaganda and creating organizations like the Hitler Youth, they indoctrinated the younger generations, capturing their minds with powerful imagery and inspirational rhetoric.


Life in the Hitler Youth

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Adolf Hitler arriving at a stadium in Nuremberg for a Hitler Youth rally, 1938. Source: Time


Back in 1925, Hitler stressed the importance of physical exercise in Mein Kampf. He believed a strong body was the foundation of a strong mind and that physical development was a matter for the state, not the individual.


The Hitler Youth put these principles into practice. The organization aimed to turn boys into soldiers who would fight for the Nazis’ cause. Boys in the Hitler Youth engaged in plenty of physical activity, working on their conditioning and developing their sense of camaraderie. Activities like hiking and camping complemented sports like boxing, swimming, and running.

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Boys in the Hitler Youth also watched Nazi propaganda films. These films depicted young men competing in athletics events, learning to march, working outdoors, hiking up mountains, and using equipment like maps, compasses, rifles, and grenades.


adolf hitler hitler youth meeting obersalzberg
Adolf Hitler at a Hitler Youth meeting in Obersalzberg, 1938. Source: The Times


Those who didn’t join the Hitler Youth could be refused their school leaving certificate, barring them from getting an apprenticeship or a job. This pushed parents to ensure their child joined the Hitler Youth, and by 1939, membership was just under nine million.


Alongside the indoctrination of teenagers, there was another division of the Hitler Youth aimed at younger boys, who joined up when they were just ten years old.


Brainwashing the Girls of Germany

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The League of German Girls practicing gymnastics, c. 1930s. Source: The Holocaust Explained


The female counterpart of the Hitler Youth was called the League of German Girls. This organization brainwashed girls into believing they should be healthy, fertile housewives who reared the next generation. Physical education was paramount once again, with a particular focus on athletics and gymnastics. This led to tension within the organization, as some felt the girls were becoming masculinized.


Alongside their exercise routines, the girls took part in domestic and agricultural activities, including the Women’s Labour Service. This six-month working period in either the agricultural or domestic sector became mandatory in 1939. The girls also attended political rallies and meetings with members of the Hitler Youth and entertained crowds by singing at festivals in Germany.


Like the Hitler Youth, there was also a younger division that allowed girls to join up when they were ten years old.


Nazi Propaganda in the Classroom

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German boys in a classroom featuring a portrait of Adolf Hiter, c. 1933-1945. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum


Even those who managed to escape the clutches of the youth organizations couldn’t evade Nazi propaganda indefinitely.


Schools became hubs of indoctrination, with children facing Nazi propaganda before they even opened a textbook. School buildings featured swastika signs and portraits of Hitler and Nazi flags in the playground.


Though certain subjects, like maths and physics, didn’t alter too much, others underwent dramatic changes. In biology lessons, teachers emphasized racial purity, contrasting the superiority of the Aryan child (often depicted with stereotypically blonde hair and blue eyes) against members of the Jewish community. Teachers told girls to be selective with their marital partners, encouraging them to keep bloodlines pure and avoid interracial breeding.

Just like the Nazi youth organizations, schools placed great importance on physical health. In 1934, the Nazis brought back the three-lessons-a-week exercise schedule (previously removed under the Weimar Republic). In addition to making children healthier, physical education was also designed to teach leadership skills and provide the boys with the mentality of a soldier.


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Jewish boys being made to stand at the front of the classroom, c. 1930s. Source: The Holocaust Explained


As for essay-based subjects, students were required to write essays on topics such as Hitler’s place in history, the inferiority of Jews, or the writer Horst Wessel, a Nazi supporter who became a martyr after he was killed by communists. Geography lessons were plagued by Nazi propaganda as well, with textbooks emphasizing geopolitics, the expansion of Germanic tribes throughout history, and German superiority.


To ensure their principles would be upheld in the classroom, the Nazis purged public school systems of Jewish teachers and those who were politically opposed to the new regime. But most teachers went along with the changes without complaint. Indeed, teachers joined the Nazi Party in greater numbers than any other profession.


In 1937, the Nazis expanded their educational scheme even further by establishing Adolf Hitler Schools. These institutions were exclusive and selective. Potential students had to take an entrance exam that tested their judgment, comprehension, ingenuity, and retention. When the selection process was complete, the primary aim of these schools was to develop the leadership skills of their students.


Book Burnings & Higher Education

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Joseph Goebbels speaking at a Nazi Party gathering, 1939. Source: The Times


The Nazification of higher education was surprisingly easy, as plenty of young adults supported the Nazis before they came to power in 1933.


Spearheaded by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda machine targeted Germany’s youth by portraying themselves as a fresh, forward-looking party that could unshackle the country from the chains of the Weimar Republic. Alongside traditional propaganda methods like posters and pamphlets, the Nazis channeled their message through the modern media, using tools like films and radio broadcasts to appeal to the youth of Germany.


The Nazis emphasized their love of the homeland and the preservation of the nation. These patriotic values stood out against the rhetoric of Germany’s moderate politicians, who often focused on the country’s economic woes. In other words, the Nazis framed themselves as a much more optimistic party, captivating young minds with an exciting sense of purpose.


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A book burning in Germany, 1933. Source: The Times


In 1933, the nationwide book burnings shed light on how much popular support the Nazis had amongst students. Indeed, this infamous event was organized by the German Student Association, which wanted to cleanse academia of books that contradicted the principles of National Socialism. This included books by Jews, liberals, pacifists, and foreigners.


During the book burning in Berlin, Goebbels addressed the assembled students, calling upon them to be courageous in the face of death and embrace the new spirit of Germany. Similar book burnings took place across the country, most notably in towns and cities with universities.


Just like the students they taught, many of the professors were frustrated by the failings of the Weimar Republic and welcomed the Nazi takeover. Those few professors who did oppose the politics of the Third Reich risked losing their jobs. Jewish professors were simply dismissed from their posts.


The Night of Broken Glass

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The aftermath of the Night of Broken Glass, 1938. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica


The Night of Broken Glass was another key event that demonstrated the ideological hold the Nazis had over young people. It took place on the 9th of November 1938, with the violence carrying through to the next day.


The event was designed to look like a spontaneous outburst against the Jewish community, but it was actually coordinated by the Nazi Party. With the help of the Brownshirts (the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party), the Hitler Youth attacked buildings belonging to the Jewish community, such as synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses. They even desecrated cemeteries and broke into Jewish homes.


The emergency services did nothing to stop the violence, allowing members of the Hitler Youth to continue their destruction. Around 1,000 synagogues were burned or damaged, and 7,500 businesses were looted and ransacked. Thousands of Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps. Those Jews who remained had to clear up the rubble without assistance.


The Night of Broken Glass was a watershed moment. In the wake of the event, the Nazis passed anti-Semitic laws, enforcing the transfer of Jewish-owned properties to Aryans. Other laws barred Jews from employment and public transport. Jewish children were also removed from schools.


Young Resistance Groups in Nazi Germany

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Members of the White Rose resistance group, 1942. Source: Smithsonian Magazine


Youth groups outside of Nazi influence,  far from growing in size,  stopped altogether. Catholic groups, for example, were disbanded in 1939, and music groups also suffered following the boycott of all organizations that didn’t align with National Socialism.


However, some young people did fight back against the Nazis. At Munich University, a student organization known as White Rose opposed the fascist regime. Formed in 1942, the organization consisted of a group of students and a professor who rebelled against the Nazis by distributing leaflets. These leaflets highlighted the crimes of the Nazi Party and urged people to resist.


Other notable resistance groups included the Leipzig Meuten, a communist-inspired group, and the Edelweiss Pirates, who went out and picked physical fights with the Hitler Youth. Being a member of these organizations was risky, as it could result in being arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned in a concentration camp.


Denazification After World War II

The Soviet flag being raised during the Battle of Berlin, 1945. Source: The Guardian


The speed at which the Nazis managed to implement these changes was frightening. They were only in power for twelve years, yet they completely revolutionized the education of young people by Nazifying schools and creating fascistic youth organizations.


Thankfully, these changes were not permanent. Under Allied occupation, the denazification process filtered through every aspect of Germany. But not everyone was pleased about these changes. Young people who remembered the economic woes of the Weimar Republic protested against democratization.


At the same time, they couldn’t ignore the failings of the Third Reich. The revolutionary principles promoted by the Nazis appeared hollow and deceptive after Germany’s loss in the Second World War. Young people, far from being politically active, became increasingly disillusioned with political affairs once the Nazis had been defeated.

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By Jacob WilkinsBA HistoryJacob Wilkins holds a BA in History from Royal Holloway, University of London. He has written for several publications and has a particular interest in modern European and British history. When he’s not working, he enjoys reading books, watching tennis, and running up hills.