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In the Hitler Youth, as in classrooms, the goal was to produce obedient, race-conscious Germans who were willing to die for Führer and Fatherland. Hitler explained, “After four years of the Young Folk, they go on to the Hitler Youth, where we have them for another four years…. And even if they are still not complete National Socialists, they go to Labor Service and are smoothed out there for another six, seven months…. And whatever class consciousness or social status might still be left … the Wehrmacht will take care of that.” Conformity to detailed social and cultural norms was demanded; nonconformity was punished.
Although the emphasis was on boys to be fed into the military machine, the Nazis did not exclude girls, although they did separate them. At the age of 10, every girl was eligible for the Jungmädel, or Young Girls. From the ages of 14 to 18, the Bund Deutscher Mädel, or the League of German Girls, trained girls for domestic duties and motherhood.
The Pirates’ tactics
Meanwhile, the Edelweiss Pirates loitered on street corners, congregated in parks, danced to jazz, and filled typical teenage spaces. On weekends, many went for hikes and camping trips into the countryside or visited other cities — travel that was illegal for the general public. The Pirates dared to enjoy themselves on their own terms, which was a crime. Indeed, much of the Pirates’ early resistance fell into the category of having fun. They let the air out of the tires of Hitler Youth bicycles and army vehicles or they poured sugar into gas tanks; they scrawled graffiti; they gathered Allied propaganda that fell from the sky and shoved it into mailboxes in the middle of the night.
All this fun came to the attention of authorities, especially since the Pirates often clashed with Hitler Youth Streifendienst (patrols) and the Pirates often prevailed, acquiring a reputation as street-fighters. At first, however, the Nazis seemed confused about what to do with thousands of young, purebred Germans who refused to obey. The Nazis must have wondered if they were dealing with freedom fighters or juvenile delinquents, or both. Without question, however, the Nazis lashed out at Pirates they caught in the act. For example, after Gertrud Koch dropped anti-Nazi leaflets from the top of Cologne’s train station, she was jailed for nine months. The Gestapo beat Koch and threw her down a flight of stairs, breaking her arm. At a bare minimum, captured Pirates were threatened, beaten, or otherwise humiliated. The Nazis’ arsenal of punishment included round-ups, detentions, reform schools, labor camps, and youth concentration camps. Pirates could also face criminal trial or summary execution.
But it could be difficult to catch the Pirates in a crime. Walter Mayer of the Dusseldorf Pirates described how spontaneously his group planned their actions. A member would ask, “What are we going to do next?” Then someone might respond, “You know, the Hitler Youths, they all store their equipment at such-and-such a place. Let’s make it disappear.” Another member would continue, “Okay, when are we going to meet?” Spontaneity tends to confound bureaucracy. Mayer also commented on the consequences of the Edelweiss Pirates’ drift into more serious resistance. “People began to look for us because we went a little too drastic, we, you know we started maybe by deflating the tires, then we made the whole bicycle disappear, so it came to the point where [there were] too many complaints.”
In 2011, the UK newspaper The Independent reported on one of the last surviving members of the resistance group and offered a glimpse into their evolving activism:
Jean Jülich tramped the hills south of Bonn with his guitar, singing at their [the Edelweiss Pirates’] secret meetings. He had lived with his grandparents from the age of seven, after seeing his communist father badly beaten by SS men and jailed for high treason. In a deserted bomb-disposal bunker, the Navajo group of the Ehrenfeld district of Cologne supplied black market food and shelter to runaway forced labourers, concentration camp escapees, fugitive Jews and German army deserters. They attacked Hitler Youth patrols, derailed ammunition trains, catapulted bricks through the roof of a munitions factory and sabotaged machinery.
As a caveat, some Edelweiss Pirate groups were less admirable than others; some were anti-Semitic, for example. Others committed common crimes, such as burglary, which soiled their reputations as anti-Nazi resisters; of course, stealing may have been necessary for some to survive. What united the Edelweiss Pirates was their adamant anti-Nazism and the demand for personal freedom.
The evolving radicalism of the Edelweiss Pirates was expressed in their graffiti. A 1943 report from the Dusseldorf-Grafenberg Nazi Party to the Gestapo expressed the party’s frustration. “There is a suspicion that it is these youths who have been inscribing the walls of the pedestrian subway on the Altebbergstrasse with the slogans ‘Down with Hitler’, ‘The OKW (Military High Command) is lying’, ‘Medals for Murder’, ‘Down with Nazi Brutality’ etc. However often these inscriptions are removed, within a few days new ones appear.”
This article was originally published in the February 2024 edition of Future of Freedom.