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Hitler’s power may lay us low,
And keep us locked in chains,
But we will smash the chains one day,
We’ll be free again
We’ve got fists and we can fight,
We’ve got knives and we’ll get them out
We want freedom, don’t we boys?
We’re the fighting Navajos!
— song of the Cologne
Everyone has heard of the Hitler Youth — the organization in Nazi Germany that indoctrinated young males into becoming good National Socialists. Far fewer people have heard of the Edelweiss Pirates (Edelweißpiraten) — a loose but large network of young Germans who rejected Nazism and attacked the Hitler Youth, sometimes physically so. (Edelweiss, or “noble white,” is a white flower known for growing in tough alpine conditions.) Compared to smaller youth resistance groups, such as the White Rose of Sophie Scholl fame, the Edelweiss Pirates received little attention until recently. Former pirate Gertrud Koch, who lost her father to a concentration camp, offered an explanation of why this happened. “We were from the working classes. That is the main reason why we have only now been recognized,” Koch stated. The Edelweiss Pirates deserve better from history.
Resistance is for everyone
Everyone today needs to remember that ordinary people — in this case, working-class teenagers from 14 to 18 years of age — can successfully resist even the most tyrannical state. In fact, tyranny cannot exist without the cooperation or compliance of average people. The Edelweiss Pirates are dramatic proof that ordinary people can resist and that resistance is a creative venture, ranging from pranks like putting sugar in gas tanks to derailing trains, from playing outlawed jazz to assassinating Gestapo officials. The motives of the Pirates have been debated — were they freedom fighters or thugs? — but one thing is sure: Try as they may, the Nazis could not stop the Edelweiss Pirates, although some of the teenagers paid a terrible price.
The Marxist historian Timothy Mason argued persuasively that much of the German working class opposed the Nazi regime. Certainly, they had reason to resent Nazism. Shortly after Adolf Hitler assumed the chancellorship in 1933, he seized control of the German trade unions. Prominent labor leaders and militants were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Workers were forced to join the German Labour Front, which imposed strict rules on both their workplace and personal behavior. Compulsory activities filled the workers’ leisure hours, for example, in the belief that keeping them busy left no time for anti-Nazi activism. Noncompliance was punished.
The children of workers watched as their parents were beaten; they listened to them complain bitterly behind closed doors; they heard of neighbors who had been sent to concentration camps; many de facto “lost” their fathers to the military that shipped them out. These were not “children” as we understand the word in our culture, however; they were premature adults. Most working-class German youth left school at 14 to go into factories, apprenticeships, or unskilled labor, while the children of middle-class families advanced through school into professions. Working-class children filled low-paying jobs and constituted the rank and file of the Hitler Youth.
The essay “Resistance to Nazism: Resistance to Nazism Shattered Armies: How The Working Class Fought Nazism and Fascism 1933–45” commented:
It is not difficult to imagine the scene of a snotty doctor’s kid still in school trying to give orders to a bunch of young factory workers and having to use the threat of official punishment to get his own way. Dissatisfaction grew. Initially, the acute labour shortages of the early war years meant that the Nazis could not resort to the kind of Nazi terror tactics that they employed against other dissidents. As the war went on, many of these young people’s fathers died or were sent to the front. Many were bombed out of their own homes. The only future they could see for themselves was to wear a uniform and fight for a lost cause.
In early 1933, all youth organizations were outlawed with the exception of the Hitler Youth and Catholic ones. Working-class youth groups went underground, but dissatisfied working-class youth managed to avoid the Hitler Youth or were thrown out of it. Instead, they gathered together in their own gangs.
The birth of the Pirates
From western Germany, where industrial cities were clustered, the Edelweiss Pirates emerged. From town to town, the gangs adopted different names. In Essen, they were the Farhtenstenze, or Traveling Dudes; in Dusseldorf and Oberhaussen, they were the Kittelbach Pirates; in Cologne, they became the Navajos. But the umbrella term was the Edelweiss Pirates, named after an edelweiss flower badge most of them wore. The boys tended to wear checkered shirts, dark trousers, neck scarves, and white socks — an “American” look rather than the paramilitary clothes of the Hitler Youth; the unofficial Pirate motto was “Eternal War With The Hitler Youth.” The Pirates’ hair was long and flowing, not short-cropped like their nemesis. Instead of “Heil Hitler,” their standard greeting was “Ahoy,” or Heidewitzka, meaning “Woo Hoo.” Most of the Pirates were male, but females were encouraged to join as well; Nazi groups were sex segregated.
The number of members in this secretive network can only be estimated. Gestapo files in Cologne reportedly contained over 3,000 teenagers identified as Edelweiss Pirates. But the names were only those identified; given that the teens often went by nicknames, the count is almost certainly low. According to an historical study of the Edelweiss Pirates, in certain western cities, “a conservative estimate suggests that 5 percent of the adolescent population may have been involved in these bands, at least peripherally.” In 1941, a Nazi official wrote of the Dusseldorf gang: “Every child knows who the Kittelbach Pirates are. They are everywhere; there are more of them than there are Hitler Youth…. They beat up the patrols…. They never take no for an answer.” Nevertheless, it is not possible to accurately gauge the number of members.
Over time, the Edelweiss Pirates evolved from a rebellious teenage rejection of rules into serious anti-Nazi activism. Other than being anti-Nazi, however, no political ideology bound the Pirates together. The majority turned their backs on ideologies and politics. In his essay “‘The Enemy of our Enemy’: A View of the Edelweiss Piraten from the British and American Archives,” history professor Perry Biddiscombe commented, “At most, there were a few nebulous connections to the Catholic and communist undergrounds, and several groups displayed some vaguely bündische influences.” Biddiscombe noted that a Pirates group in one city disbanded when young communists tried to dominate. What united the network was an insistence on personal freedom and a loathing of Nazism.
Before exploring their activism, however, it is useful to touch upon specifically what the Edelweiss Pirates rebelled against. The Hitler Youth tops this list.
At the age of 10, every German boy had to register with the authorities, who determined if he qualified for membership in the Deutsches Jungvolk, or German Young People; racial purity was emphasized. At 13, the boy was eligible for the Hitler Youth, from which he graduated at 18. After this came membership in the Nazi Party, with service at state labor and in the armed forces until the age of 21, at least. The Hitler Youth law of 1936 made membership in the Hitler Youth compulsory; a 1939 law specified punishment for children and parents who did not obey.
This article was originally published in the January 2024 issue of Future of Freedom.