Dynamic, Resilient, and Forward-looking : Nazi WWII Propaganda
German Propaganda In World War 2 Nazi film and propaganda’s role to seduce and influence the greater German population into the Nazi cause is well understood, but the recruitment of young Aryan Germans into the Nazi party through these means is less understood. Hitler heavily emphasized the Aryan youth as the future of the Third Reich and the face of Germany by claiming their superiority over the other European populations.
Fostering this superiority complex required indoctrinating Aryan sons and daughters across the entirety of Germany; from Brandenburg, to Bavaria, to Baden-Wurttemberg, and to the other German states that were only unified half a century earlier.
The youth propaganda and film would become a high flying success after its distribution, as there was a chance that German self-confidence could grow again among the younger generations. After The Great War, the national spirit was depressed, but now it was renewed, rejuvenated, and people responded very positively.
Two main programs became the means of this early indoctrination; the Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls. Propaganda featuring and targeting German youth almost always featured members from these groups and film promoted these groups to other German youth; for example, Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will promoted a grand-scale brotherhood among boys in the Hitler Youth to the greater German public and abroad.
In Roberto Rossellini’s film Germany, Year Zero, a young German boy named Edmund struggles to survive with his family in 1947 post-war Berlin, with practically every building in ruins and the city stinking with the smell of dead corpses. Edmund’s experience, and later suicide, is an allegory of innocent Germany falling under the seduction of Hitler and the Nazi Party and then being destroyed for generations.
Later in 1990, Agnieszka Holland’s film Europa Europa traces the experience of a young German Jew named Solomon and his ironic experience joining both the Soviet communist and the Nazi fascist youth groups while giving a different perspective than that of films produced during and right after the war. With all of these sources, the questions presented are how were young German kids turned into Nazis through media and propaganda and how were the German youth portrayed in propaganda and film during and after the war?
How Did Young Boys Become Nazis Through Propaganda?
To properly analyze the use and memory of Nazi youth propaganda, it’s important to look at the process by which the youth became Nazis through this medium. Starting in 1922, the National Socialists had a youth arm designed to train and recruit members for its paramilitary, eleven years before Hitler became chancellor of Germany. As the 1930s progressed, the Nazis waged war on the most popular groups among the German youth, such as the Boy Scouts, and promoted posters that analogized participation in the Hitler Youth with service in the Wehrmacht.
This first poster features an adult German soldier set behind a young Aryan boy in the Hitler youth. This adult soldier is in fact the young boy at a later time, drawing on the fact that the fine print reads “notifications for 4.5 and 12 years of service in the army” in English and the Hitler Youth prepared young boys for a life of service to defend the Fatherland. The large German writing translates to “sergeant in the army, your role model” which is the position those in the Hitler Youth looked up to and were expected to become.
The word “notifications” is an interesting word choice and induces a tone of command instead of a request for service, which supports the fact that those who qualified for the Hitler Youth were expected to join and those who resisted faced severe ridicule and harassment. By 1939, over 90 percent of German children were part of the Hitler Youth organization and with the banning of scouting, the Nazis sent a clear message to every German youth—obey, or be punished
In the second poster, a portrait of Hitler is placed behind a current Hitler Youth member with the rough translation “youth serve the guide every ten year old in the Hitler Youth.” Denoting the age of ten serves to place importance on the youngest members, and this poster in particular, is intended for recruiting new members as young as ten years old. By recruiting young boys this early, the Nazi party infiltrated the German family nucleus and established its importance over the family itself. The children would then develop with the Party’s interests over the immediate family’s, which made it possible for these children to spy on and report their parents for disloyalty.
The second poster is formatted with the same dual-face format as the first with Hitler, the preeminent role model, in the background and the current Hitler Youth member in the foreground. Similar to the first poster, the upward gaze emphasizes the potential of the current Hitler Youth members, with the aspirational ambitions projected in the background for the youth who are viewing these posters to imagine themselves achieving.
In both posters, the boys look extremely youthful and vibrant, sending a clear message emphasizing that the Nazi Party was a movement of youth: dynamic, resilient, forward-looking, and hopeful. In addition, the young boys in each of the featured posters are wearing their Hitler Youth uniforms, incorporating the idea of being a part of a larger homogeneous group and placing the Reich above the individual.
These youth propaganda posters targeted at German Aryan youth had profound results. In January 1933, the Hitler Youth had approximately 100,000 members, but by the end of the year this figure had increased to more than 2 million. By 1937 membership in the Hitler Youth increased to 5.4 million before it became mandatory in 1939. As we will explore later, the posters featuring Hitler Youth members also served to present the male standards and ideal traits that young German women were expected to look for, since girls were taught that good health and an acceptable racial background, in line with Nazi racial theory, were essential qualities for finding a husband.
“Triumph of the Will” Nazi Youth Summer Camp Scenes
The Nazi Youth camp scenes in Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will were the German public’s first insights into the youth group and was meant to calm and assure the audience that their children were in trusted Nazi hands. In the first image, one boy is cleaning the back of another, as the Hitler Youth camp functioned as one large fraternity and fostered a sense of brotherhood between the members. It was expected that through this film, the presentation of an Aryan brotherhood would unite German boys across the country in the Nazi cause.
In the arial scene overlooking the tents of the Hitler Youth summer camp, this image captures the vastness of the camp through this revolutionary cinematography and displays the program’s popularity, influencing non-members to feel as if they were missing out on the fun and a sense of belonging.
Order and discipline are captured as well, seeing how the tents perfectly match one another and are aligned in rows. This aerial shot is captured at a time when all the boys are right outside their tents, adding credibility to the high number of attendees and showing the strength of the Nazi movement through numbers.
In this closeup of a young boy attending the Hitler Youth camp, the camera quickly captures the young German boy laughing and in high spirits. Riefenstahl put a great emphasis on flashing close-ups of cheerful and laughing faces to give an overall uplifting vibe within the film and assure attendees to the movie that the boys were enjoying themselves.
In this next scene with the two boys wrestling, there is a noticeable gallery in the background cheering on the participants. “Manly” actions, such as wrestling and other roughhousing, were encouraged by both the adult leaders and other Hitler Youth members as ways to prepare them for their future military service.
There is a great emphasis on the human body and the bodies of the Hitler Youth in many scenes like this one, since the boys are often shirtless with camera closeups on their bare chests. The bare strength and healthiness of the boys conveys to youth non-member viewers that they could become these boys through the Nazi Youth program and prove to the rest of Europe that they were the strongest and most disciplined youth on the continent.
This last image captures these young boys drumming during a formal camp gathering as the rest of the camp falls into formation. This scene directly parallels that of army drummers during a colors ceremony as soldiers fall into formation for roll call. The camp consisted of militaristic ceremonies and items, such as flags, to prepare these boys for the military ceremonies they will later participate in.
Showing these ceremonies explicitly allowed youth in the film viewing audience the closest opportunity possible to be a part of the German war machine they had heard about at home and in the news. Again, it was important to display this extraordinary discipline of the young men, since the youth in other European countries were not nearly as disciplined nor as militaristic, and thus, these scenes intended to intimidate and discourage them; especially those of the former allied countries.
How Did Young Girls Become Nazis Through Propaganda?
Although the Hitler Youth attracted the most attention regarding children in Nazi Germany, an equally influential structure existed for German girls to become Nazis. The only groups allowed to operate in Germany during Nazi rule were the Young Girls League and the League of German Girls. In 1939, on the implementation of the Law on the Hitler Youth, it became mandatory for all young girls aged 10 to 14 to be in the Young Girls League and girls 14 to 18 to be in the League of German Girls. Other groups existed prior to the rise of Nazi control, but similarly to the non-Hitler Youth male groups, these groups were also dissolved and their members shifted to the Young Girls League and the League of German Girls.
In this first poster, a young German girl is featured with the words “federation of German Girls in the Hitler Youth.” Given that the organization focused on developing girls into women who were dedicated to Nazism, dutiful housewives, and whose role within society was to become a mother, it makes sense that there is a majestic home in the background in the lower right to reinforce this message. Similarly to the Hitler Youth boys, girls in the League of German Girls wore a uniform that served as a reminder to place the organization and the mission of the Reich above the individual and the family nucleus.
In the second poster, an attractive German girl is featured with the words “build youth hostels and homes.” These youth hostels and homes were places where Hitler Youth and League of German Girls members were encouraged to mingle and have children that would then be given to the Reich.
The details of the Lebensborn program, where children of young Nazi members were separated from their mothers and raised in state-sponsored child care, is out of the scope of this paper, but youth propaganda showcasing the most attractive features of both sexes surely played a role in encouraging this practice.
Therefore, these posters were not exclusively targeted at young girls, but also at young boys as well. For young girls, it was believed that joining the organization would increase their physical as well as social attractiveness in order to attract the healthiest boys in the Hitler Youth. For young boys, these posters preyed on their sexual desires and also displayed the physical traits that they should look for in acceptable mates.
Postwar Perspectives on German Youth
After the war, the German youth who had survived were left in a rubble heap of a country. This was most obvious in postwar Berlin, which the Allies relentlessly bombed at the end of the war. Roberto Rossellini, an acclaimed Italian director, traveled to Berlin in 1948 to film an account of the physical and cultural status of postwar Berlin. In Germany, Year Zero, Rossellini depicts an innocent-looking young German boy in the midst of bombed-out Berlin trying to survive with his family in the poorest of living conditions.
Throughout the film, Rossellini represents the innocence of prewar Germany through Edmund and the manipulation of this innocence by his former school teacher as an allegory for the Nazi influence on Germany.
This first scene depicts Edmund’s former school teacher, an unknown pedophile, observing Edmund’s physical presence in a very uncomfortable manner for the viewing audience. The teacher comments how grown up Edmund is, which represents how Germany rebuilt itself stronger after the Great War under Nazi rule than it had been before the war. The hands caressing Edmund’s head are symbolic of how the Nazis slowly grasped the entirety of German society and fetishly admired its youth.
In this next scene, the boy’s father states how he’s glad that he has children like Edmund as he is lying ill in bed. Edmund hands his father a glass of poison to drink and his father ends up dying a short time later. This sequence of events represents how many German parents were completely unaware of the level of Nazi indoctrination that occurred within the Hitler Youth and League of German Girls. They let the innocent physical appearance of their children disguise the psychological transformation occurring within their children which they could not stop.
The last scene shows Edmund’s body planted face down after his suicide at the end of the movie. Edmund’s death summed up Germany’s experience under Nazi rule, with an entire society committing not only a physical suicide with the tremendous loss of German lives, but also a cultural suicide with the loss of German masculinity, art, buildings, and much more.
Europa Europa, directed by Agnieszka Holland in 1990, includes an informative perspective on Nazi youth from a removed perspective of about 45 years after the end of the war. Solomon’s story is an outsider’s perspective within the best Hitler Youth school in the entirety of the Reich and allows for evaluating the most memorable characteristics of young Germans almost a half century later.
In this first scene set at lunchtime in the cafeteria, a more personal side of the Hitler Youth boys is shown. The dialogue between the boys about who is the cutest girl at school is a common attitude of boys in other countries and is one of the few times where the Hitler Youth “lets boys be boys”. The exchange also exposes some vulnerability among them, since Solomon’s classmate is admitting that he’s too intimidated to approach the cutest girl in school. At the time, it was thought that these young boys were invincible and the toughest boys in all of Europe, so it’s important to note that as time has passed and the war has become a distant memory, more vulnerabilities and personal elements have been projected onto the Hitler Youth.
In this second scene featuring Solomon winning the swimming competition in full military gear, there is a focus on being as competitive as possible to develop the young boys into strong fighting men. The women spectators go crazy for the winner and completely ignore all the losers, which is attributable to the Nazi mindset of only the “best” (best looking, best physique, etc.) reproducing to keep the society pure. The large swastika in the pool serves as a reminder that every action and challenge they undertake is for the future benefit of the Reich.
Section VI: ConclusionClearly, young Germans became Nazis through a multitude of media and propaganda that preyed on their seemingly unlimited potential, desire to become famed military figures, and their sexual desires and obligations to the Reich. Films such as Triumph of the Will attempted to draw in non-members into the Hitler Youth by illustrating how boys were having the time of their lives, while at the same time, assuring their parents that the Nazi party could be trusted with their boys. Immediately after the war, films such as Germany Year Zero recognized that the German population had been damaged for generations under Nazi seduction, and thus the greater German population should not be thought of as the perpetrators of this atrocity, but rather as victims as well.
Lastly, Europa Europa, with it’s 45 year removal from the end of WWII, illustrated how the perception of the Hitler Youth in film had shifted over the years, going from invincible and monstrous fighters during and right after the war, to seeing them with vulnerabilities and as victims of the Nazi machine as well decades later.
German Propaganda In World War 2 Written by Paul Griessel Jr.
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