Thursday, March 10, 2005

Youth Gangs of the Third Reich

[Givin' the people what they want.]

I am surprised that there is so much interest in the Edelweiss Pirates, a youth gang that I have only written about in passing. Perhaps I will dig up some stuff in the next few days (including other groups, like the Munich Rabble). This is from Eric Johnson's Nazi Terror:
Middle-class youths, who had been heavily represented in the independent youth group movement in the Imperial Germany and the Weimar years, had most often found the conservative and patriotic ideas of the Hitler Youth congenial to their ideological tastes and had decided to disband their associations sometime in 1933 or shortly thereafter. Although the remaining independent youth groups had been made illegal after 1936 and were populated by the children of former Socialists and Communists, they did not necessarily espouse political opinions hostile to the Nazi state. Like the Krefeld group cited earlier, most either had no particular political positions at all or were conformist in their political beliefs.

Usually these groups simply wanted to have some fun and some freedom to spend time with their friends away from the regimented routine mandated by the Hitler Youth. They organized into small bands, often on a neighborhood basis, gave their groups names like Navajos, Nerother, Edelweiss Pirates, or Kittelbach Pirates, wore clothing, pins, medals, and other insignia that gave their group a common identity, and participated in group activities like hiking, bicycle touring, swimming, tenting, playing the guitar, and singing. In warm weather they usually met in the evenings, and on weekends in parks or woods. In cold weather they moved indoors to bars and restaurants. On summer vacations they often ventured further afield, touring the Alps or the Black Forest and visiting faraway cities like Berlin, Munich, or Vienna.

These groups were also attractive to many German youths as a venue for the kind of activities that teenagers in all countries like to experiment with, but that were forbidden within the confines of the Hitler Youth. On the journeys and outings they often smoked cigarettes, drank alcohol, and caroused with members of the opposite sex. Even the Gestapo and the Hitler Youth recognized correctly that allowing girls to join gave these independent groups special recruitment advantages over the Hitler Youth, which kept the activities of boys and girls strictly separate.

Despite their similarities in style and activities, and despite the similarity of their names, these groups had no organizational ties beyond the local level. Resembling gangs in postwar American and European cities, rival bands from different parts of the same city often fought territorial battles against one another. They also fought frequently with Hitler Youth patrols. The Hitler Youth knew that they were often hated by the buendisch; otherwise, even they were divided over what these groups were about.

A Hitler Youth leader in Cologne in September 1936 defined a Navajo simply as "any young person who wears a colorful, checked shirt, very short pants, and boots with overturned stockings." In December 1940, a member of a Hitler Youth patrol in Essen identified Edelweiss Pirates in his city as "youths who no longer go to church." This characterization contrasts with that of a Hitler Youth leader in another city two years later: he defined the Edelweiss Pirates in almost the exact opposite terms, saying that they "are all Catholic."

Whatever they were or were not, the Nazi authorities finally took strong measures against them in the war years. A large dragnet organized by the Dusseldorf Gestapo in December 1942 broke up twenty-eight groups of Edelweiss and Kittelbach Pirates; 739 adolescents were arrested in the cities of Diisseldorf, Duisburg, Essen, Wuppertal, and Cologne. Citing their agitation as illegal youth group members, the Cologne Special Court started a large case in June 1943 against local Edelweiss Pirates who met in the Leipziger Platz in Nippes on the city's north side.

According to the specific charges against them, in the fall of 1942 they had painted provocative graffiti on the walls of local buildings and distributed flyers around the city—some of which had even been sent to different local police precinct headquarters—advertising an upcoming "week of accomplishment" to be carried out by the buendisch youth. Convinced that the case dealt with "a political and in part criminally contaminated circle," the Gestapo's painstaking investigation led to a total of thirty-eight arrests. On September 15, 1943, the Cologne Special Court convicted twelve of the arrested youths, and on April 9, 1944, an additional nine were convicted. Their sentences ranged from six months in jail to four years and three months in prison.

But this was still not the most draconian example of the punishment of Edelweiss Pirates in the war years. On November 10,1944, without the judgment of any court, the Cologne Gestapo publicly executed thirteen people in the working-class Ehrenfeld section of the city. Five of them were youths of sixteen or seventeen years of age. Three others were in their early twenties. Most were Edelweiss Pirates, though the rather amorphous group of executed people also included some fleeing eastern workers, deserting German soldiers, and a few outright criminals. The Gestapo believed that this extreme punishment was justified by the Edelweiss Pirates' traitorous and criminal acts and necessary to serve as a warning to the rest of the Cologne population not to fall out of line in the final stages of the war.

No one disputes that this was one of the most egregious examples of the Gestapo's ruthlessness. But ever since this event, scholars and the Cologne population have remained divided in their evaluations of the activities of the Ehrenfeld Edelweiss Pirates. Some consider them patriotic heroes. Others see them as traitors and common criminals. Among the many controversial acts of the Edelweiss Pirates were providing shelter for army deserters, prisoners of war, forced laborers, and concentration camp escapees; stockpiling weapons after armed raids on military depots; and carrying out partisan-style attacks on local Nazi leaders, one of which claimed the life of a Cologne Gestapo officer in the fall of 1944.

Although the example of the Edelweiss Pirates of Cologne-Ehrenfeld shows that some independent youth groups eventually became involved in resistance activity in the latter phases of the war, such activities were not typical of the buendisch youth for most of the Nazi period, and certainly not in the prewar years. With only a few modest exceptions during the war years, the underground Communist Party's overtures to enlist these youths in resistance activities ended in failure. The age gap between the generations was one reason.

Another was that most Navajos, Edelweiss Pirates, and other independent youth group members did not truly hold anti-Nazi views. They should be seen for the most part as somewhat nonconformist youths seeking adventure and romance. As the German scholar Alfons Kenkmann explains, "Youthful Edelweiss Pirates and Kittelbach Pirates in the early phases of the National Socialist regime were by no means born anti-National Socialists." Many voluntarily joined the German army and navy. Still others were drawn to the Waffen SS, finding its elitist and manly consciousness particularly to their liking.

A longing for romance and adventure and a nonconformist inclination also motivated many youths of the higher social classes in Nazi Germany. Probably the best example comes from a somewhat bizarre phenomenon known as the swing movement. Best documented for the city of Hamburg during the 1940s, with its uniquely patrician and English-influenced upper classes, swing dancing and swing clubs arose in the mid-1930s and spread rapidly to nearly every large and mid-sized German city. There was nothing political about this phenomenon. Its members were in fact emphatically apolitical. There was no organization to it whatsoever.

Indeed, it is a stretch to even call it a movement. Its teenage and young-adult adherents simply found the stodgy and sentimental Nazi "moon in June" music and Nazi restrictions on youthful comportment and social intercourse boring and tiresome, preferred the popular American swing music enjoyed by their peers across the world at the time, and adopted the casual style of American and British youth.


At 2:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm curious: would you happen to know how the "Navajos" got their name?

At 2:35 PM, Blogger Nathanael said...

Good question, but I can only give a partial answer. During the Weimar years, westerns (of a Germanic variety) were popular literature for young people. I assume that those books would be the source of the name. What is more interesting is why they would pick "Navajos" as opposed to a cowboy name or the name of another tribe.

At 6:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have a look at for the historic backround.

At 5:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was taught they took their name from an American Indian tribe.

At 11:13 AM, Blogger Nathanael said...

Obviously. I believe the question was one over how they might have learned about the Navajos and why that name would be appealing.

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