That descent from twisted idealism to cynicism and eventually disillusionment is traced in “Tempted, Misled, Slaughtered: The Short Life of Hitler Youth Paul B.,” an exhibit at the American Jewish Museum of the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill.
The exhibit, on display in the Kaufmann Building through Dec. 31, is presented with the Holocaust Center of the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh — part of a busy schedule of events commemorating the anniversary of Kristallnacht that centers around the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre production “Light: The Holocaust and Humanity Project.”
Through photographs and propaganda material from the time, the exhibit highlights one of the lesser-studied aspects of the Nazi party: its use of children for military purposes.
The Nazis believed that childhood loyalty could form the basis of a “thousand-year Reich,” and promoted an inclusive system of propaganda. Ideas about blind obedience to the state appear in toys and extend to textbooks and lesson plans. “The Hitler Youth — as an independent educational tool vis-à-vis school and parents — was the most effective instrument for incorporation of the youth into the Nazi dictatorship,” the exhibit notes.
In Hitler Youth programs, “everybody lead somebody,” as the exhibit notes. While that meant older children mentored younger children, it also guaranteed a lack of independent thinking, because the chain of “somebodies” of course lead directly to the party leaders.
The militaristic ends of the Hitler Youth could be seen in its founding. The movement promoted physical strength over mental acuity, training children to be “fast as a greyhound, tough as leather and hard as Krupp steel,” as Adolf Hitler himself put it in 1935, speaking before 50,000 youth assembled at a rally in Nuremberg.
Children originally flocked to the Hitler Youth, attracted by the camaraderie, the sense of being valued and the masculine fascination with artillery and heavy machinery.
When it began in July 1926, the Hitler Youth competed with more than 200 other German youth groups for the attentions of German children, and only around 42,000 of the 4.2 million children in the country participated in the new Nazi-backed program.
By 1933, those other groups became outlawed or merged into Hitler Youth. Participation quickly became mandatory. By 1935, membership in the Hitler Youth topped 3.5 million.
Hitler Youth activities became increasingly regimented, taking children from their parents for long stretches and forcing children into strict and repetitive daily routines.
“That does grate on youth over time,” William Meinecke, with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said at the opening at the exhibit on Nov. 2.
In the late 1930s, free-spirited German youths formed opposing clubs and cliques with names like “The Edelweiss Pirates” and “The Swing Boys,” opposed less to the racist principles of the Nazi Party than to the forced rigors of the Hitler Youth movement.
In the final years of World War II, the Hitler Youth allowed the Nazis to free up more experienced troops. Children collected money, helped nurses and first aid crews, and served on the fire brigades. They served on anti-aircraft brigades and fought on the Western Front. They also were encouraged to engage in guerrilla tactics after the war.
With the destruction of German cities and the exhibition of German atrocities at the end of the war, disillusionment set in among children, Meinecke said. The 20-year focus on strength over education left a generation of children unfit for work. Shame and disgust kept Germans from speaking publicly about the Hitler Youth for several generations.
The exhibit makes a point of noting, though, that the use of children by dictatorships around the world is one of the most pervasive violations of the warning: “Never Again.”
“Once terminated in Europe, this insanity transplanted itself elsewhere,” the exhibit notes, estimating that 300,000 children under 18 are employed as soldiers worldwide.
But translating the lessons of the Hitler Youth to the present presents challenges.
In a question and answer session following Meinecke’s talk, audience members saw modern shadows of the Hitler Youth movement in a wide and contradictory range of current situations, from the anti-Semitic educational materials Hamas uses to teach Palestinian youth about Jews and Israel, to “the cult of personality” surrounding President Barack Obama, to gang violence in inner-city America, to child soldiers in Africa.
Meinecke said the discussion proves that the story of the Hitler Youth still holds relevance for people around the world today.
“This has ramifications for us now, in the multicultural democracy in the United States,” he said. “And basically, what I believe is, I’m not answering questions anymore. I’m moderating a debate. I think this is great.”
(Eric Lidji can be reached at email@example.com or 412-687-1006.)