Photo of the Day

Members of the German League of Girls were expected to take children from large families to visit the park while the mothers of the infants were at work.

Life in Nazi Germany

“Hille had to join the Hitler Youth and wear the brown uniform with the Swastika on the armband. We both felt uncomfortable and embarrassed about it. It was never talked about”

          Anne Kind OBE 

Holocaust Survivor; Quote from Survival.

Life has a way of forging on — even in the face of evil. A new political regime may present and enact policies that harm many, but for those who benefit from the policy or regime (or at least are not immediately affected by them), many just wake up, get ready, and go about their days.

The League of German Girls (Bund Deutscher Mädel [BDM]) was the female section of the Hitler Youth, its role was to indoctrinate girls into the beliefs and ideals of the Nazi regime. The BDM focused on developing girls into women who were dedicated to Nazism, dutiful housewives, and whose role within in society was to become a mother. Girls were to grow-up with an unquestioning understanding of the intended role of women in the Third Reich. BDM members were required to have German parents, be in good health, and conform to Nazi racial ideals.

The whole idea of having a solely girls organisation within Nazi Germany started in the 1920’s. Hitler had already formulated his belief that young girls had to undergo training to make them fit and strong enough to be goodGerman mothers to ensure the survival of the 1000 year Reich. While the Nazi Party was still a relatively weak political party prior to the 1929 Great Depression, it did have the Sisterhood of the Hitler Youth. In 1932, the name was changed to the League of German Girls. But initially membership of this youth movement was purely voluntary.

Hitler Youth boys play tug of war while wearing gas masks in Worms, 1933.

There were two general age groups: the Jungmädel, from ten to fourteen years of age, and older girls from fifteen to twenty-one years of age. All girls in the BDM were constantly reminded that the great task of their schooling was to prepare them to be “carriers of the… Nazi world view”

While the Nazis, for example, perpetrated atrocities against Jews and others they deemed second-class citizens, many other Germans were simply living their lives.

They went to school, joined clubs, got married, went to work, went shopping… They did everything that every normal person does – but they did it before the backdrop of one of the darkest periods in history.

Yet in the shadows of everyday life in Nazi Germany, horror became quotidian.

Government officials indoctrinated children as school curriculums were shifted to push the radical new political agenda. Propaganda films took over classrooms, and teachers who stepped out of line risked being reported.

Worse yet, families were marked and ushered into ghettos. Their shops were vandalized and they were harassed on the streets. The disabled were forcibly sterilized. Millions of people were forced into work camps and ultimately exterminated.

Soon, war broke out. Husbands rushed off to the front lines to fight and die while their wives and sometimes children worked in factories, hid in shelters, or escaped into the countryside and even abroad.

But throughout it all, life went on. The people of Germany lived in and often simply accepted the new normal that came with the rise of fascism –- a state of normalcy that, if the war had ended differently, could have become normal, everyday life for much of the rest of Europe as well.

At an indoor sports festival in the Berlin Sports Palace, German policemen form a human swastika, probably as part of the festival’s opening ceremony.

The BDM began in 1930, prior to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power as Chancellor, in 1933. Its roots follow the unsuccessful establishment of other girl’s groups in the early years of the National Socialist movement. The first of these localised groups were created by Gustav Adolf Lenk in the early 1920s, but maintained poor membership levels. The early groups focused on celebration of folklore, language, and history, teaching an anti-Semitic interpretation of these areas. With the establishment of the Hitler Youth by Kurt Gruber in 1926, a department was set up for women, led by Helene Kunold and Anna Bauer. Recruitment drives ran in an attempt to get more women into the regional groups. However, the groups were not especially successful and again had limited membership.

On July 7, 1932, Baldur Von Schirach and Gregor Strasser dissolved other Nazi girl’s groups, transferring all memberships to the BDM. By the end of 1932, membership was estimated between 10,000 to 15,000 girls. The movement increased momentum after the Nazi rise to power, with dissolution of non-Nazi girl’s groups. The BDM’s inclusion in the Nazi propaganda campaign and association with the Hitler Youth increased its popularity.

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 (Jungmädelbund), and girls 14 to 18 to be in the League of German Girls. The indoctrination of young people into Nazi ideals was the purpose of the groups, with a focus on the role of young girls as future mothers of the Third Reich.

The Belief and Beauty Society was intended to link young women directly into the women’s wing of the Nazi Party. It was aimed at girls aged between 17 and 21. The group was voluntary and focused on cooking, sewing, education, and politics, in line with Nazi ideals. Members also carried out work in the areas of home help, store and office help, assistance within the health service, and troop support. It was headed by the BDM leader Jutta Rudiger from 1942, when she took over from Martha Mindendorf. Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, leader of the women’s wing of the Nazi Party, desired that all BDM members would eventually transfer over.

A long line of Jewish citizens wait in line outside of a travel company in hopes of fleeing Germany. Berlin, January 1939.

Nazi party members post signs on a Jewish storefront encouraging Germans to boycott the shop in Berlin on April 1, 1933.

From the start, the Nazis pitched their appeal as the party of youth, building a New Germany…. Hitler intended to inspire youth with a mission, appealing to their idealism and hope.” Schirach promoted the idea of the German Girls’ League as “youth leading youth”. In fact, its leaders were part of “an enormous bureaucratised enterprise, rather than representative of an autonomous youth culture.”

The duties demanded of the German League of Girls (BDM) were regular attendance at club premises and camps run by the Nazi Party. Christa Wolf joined the BDM in Landsberg. Her unit used to meet every Wednesday and Saturday. She remembers the importance of singing songs at meetings. This included the following: “Onward, onward, fanfares are joyfully blaring. Onward, onward, youth must be fearless and daring. Germany, your light shines true, even if we die for you.”

The ideal “German League of Girls type exemplified early nineteenth-century notions of what constituted the essence of maidenhood. Girls who infringed the code by perming their hair instead of wearing plaits or the ‘Grechen’ wreath of braids had it ceremoniously shaved off as punishment. As a negative counter-image Nazi propaganda projected the combative, man-hating suffragettes of other countries.”

The German League of Girls was not a popular organization until the election of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor and in 1932 only had 9,000 members. Traudl Junge was one of those who joined after the election: “In school and generally it was celebrated as a liberation, that Germany could have hope again. I felt great joy then. It was portrayed at school as a turning point in the fate of the Fatherland. There was a chance that German self-confidence could grow again. The words ‘Fatherland’ and ‘German people’ were big, meaningful words which you used carefully – something big and grand. Before, the national spirit was depressed, and it was renewed, rejuvenated, and people responded very positively.”

Members of the Reich Labor Service at work, circa 1940.
This state-run labor program both helped lessen the effects of unemployment and create a Nazi-indoctrinated workforce, requiring each young man to serve for a six-month period.

Children buy a frozen dessert from a street vendor in Berlin, 1934.

Students salute their teacher in Berlin, January 1934.
Most teachers in Nazi Germany were required to join the National Socialist Teachers League, which mandated that they take an oath of loyalty and obedience to Hitler. If their lessons did not conform to party ideals, they risked being reported by their students or colleagues.

Melita Maschmann joined the German League of Girls on 1st March 1933 in secret because she knew her parents would disapprove. Like the other girls she was ordered to read Mein Kampf but she never finished the book. She argued that the BDM gave her a sense of purpose and belonging. Maschmann admitted that “she devoted herself to it night and day, to the neglect of her schooling and the distress of her parents”.

Elsbeth Emmerich was recruited by her school: “In High School, I became a member of the Jungmädel (Young Girls). We were all given the entry forms in class to fill in there and then, and told to take it home for our parents’ signature…. I enjoyed being in the Jungmädel. We had to attend classes after school and learn about Adolf Hitler and his achievements. We did community work, singing to soldiers in hospitals and making little presents for them like bookmarks, or poems written out neatly. We also went on hikes and collected leaves and herbs for the war effort.”

Hedwig Ertl enjoyed the activities organized by BDM. “There were no class differences. You went on trips together without paying for it, and you were given exactly the same amount of pocket money as those who had lots of money and now you could go riding and skating and so on, when before you couldn’t afford it. You could go to the cinema for 30 pfennings. We could never go to the cinema before, and suddenly things that had been impossible were there for us. That was incredible, those beautiful Nazi movies.”

Marianne Gärtner joined the local branch in Potsdam. This involved taking the oath: “I promise always to do my duty in the Hitler Youth, in love and loyalty to the Führer.” Other mottos she was taught included: “Führer, let’s have your orders, we are following you!”, “Remember that you are a German!” and “One Reich, one people, one Führer!”. As she later admitted: “I was, however, not thinking of the Führer, nor of serving the German people, when I raised my right hand, but of the attractive prospect of participating in games, sports, hiking, singing, camping and other exciting activities away from school and the home…. I acquired membership, and forthwith attended meetings, joined ball games and competitions, and took part in weekend hikes; and I thought that whether we were sitting in a circle around a camp fire or just rambling through the countryside and singing old German folk songs.”

Hildegard Koch was encouraged to join the BDM at the age of 15. A friend of the family, Gustav Motze, was a member of the Sturmabteilung (SA). He told Hildegard’s father: “Your Hilde is a real Hitler girl, blonde and strong – just the type we need… Don’t let her come under the degenerate influence of the Jews, make her join the BDM.” Her father was sympathetic to the ideas of the Nazi Party but her mother, disliked the movement: “She was terribly old-fashioned and full of Christianity and all that sort of thing.” Despite her mother’s protests, Hildegard joined the BDM in 1933.

A group of young girls parade in Coburg Hauptplatz, giving the Hitler salute and singing the Horst-Wessel, the unofficial anthem of the Nazi Party.

Children wave flags before leaving Berlin, circa 1940-1945.
These children are being evacuated from the city to live in Kinderlandverschickung camps, where they will be safe from air raids. Many will be separated from their families.

The duties demanded of the BDM included regular attendance at club premises and camps run by the Nazi Party. Christa Wolf attended one in Landsberg: “In the Jungmädel camp, the leader or her deputies inspect the dormitory, the chests of drawers, the washrooms, every morning. One time the hairbrush of a squad leader was publicly displayed because it was full of long hairs. That was no way for a hair-brush to look if it belonged to a Jungmädel leader, the camp leader said in the evening roll call.” From that moment on Christa “hid her hair-brush in the soap compartment of her trunk, because she couldn’t manage to pick every last hair from her brush… because she didn’t want the camp leader, of all people, to dislike her.”

Elsbeth Emmerich did not enjoy going away with the BDM: “We even went away to camp. I thought this might be exciting, but it wasn’t like I imagined, even though it was right in the country in some lovely woodland. I was shouted at within minutes of arriving, for not picking up a bit of eggshell I’d dropped. We had to get up early each morning, standing to attention in the freezing cold and singing whilst the flag was being hoisted. Then someone stole my purse. My holiday was mainly doing what other people told you to all the time, like standing to attention and raising our arms for the Sieg Heil.”

Renate Finckh was only 10 years-old when she joined the BDM. Both her parents were active members of the Nazi Party. “At home no one really had time for me… at the BDM I finally found an emotional home, a safe refuge, and shortly thereafter also a space in which I was valued… I was filled with pride and joy that someone needed me for a higher purpose.” Renate was also devoted to her leader, a teenager only three years older than herself. “We Hitler girls belonged together, we formed an elite within the German Volk community.”

People at a resettlement camp in Lublin, Poland receive framed photos of Adolf Hitler to hang in their apartments, 1940.

A family gazes lovingly at their boy, a member of the Hitler Youth, February 1943..

Members of the League of German Girls paste up a recruiting poster urging young women to join their ranks Nazi activists understood the importance of peer pressure as a motivating factor for mass recruitment to the Nazi movement, which emphasized collective social harmony and sacrifice for the greater good of the nation.

Great pressure was put on young girls to join the BDM and by 1936 it had a membership of over 2 million.  In some industrial areas girls had some success in not joining the BDM. Effie Engel lived in Dresden: “We were constantly getting enlistment orders in school for the BDM. You were supposed to report and join up… In our area we had a lot of workers, left-wing oriented workers, there were many students in my class who said that they preferred sports and that they would never join up. In the end, almost half the class refused to join. So my class succeeded in this. But that hardly was possible for the classes after us, as they were put under a lot of pressure to join.”

In 1934, Trude Mohr, a former postal worker, was appointed as the leader of the BDM. In a speech soon after taking control of the organisation she argued: “We need a generation of girls which is healthy in body and mind, sure and decisive, proudly and confidently going forward, one which assumes its place in everyday life with poise and discernment, one free of sentimental and rapturous emotions, and which, for precisely this reason, in sharply defined femininity, would be the comrade of a man, because she does not regard him as some sort of idol but rather as a companion! Such girls will then, by necessity, carry the values of National Socialism into the next generation as the mental bulwark of our people.”

All girls in the BDM were told to dedicate themselves to comradeship, service and physical fitness for motherhood. In parades they wore navy blue skirts, white blouses, brown jackets and twin pigtails.  Parents complained about the time their children were forced to spend outside the home in activities organized by the BDM and the Hitler Youth. Its leader, Baldur von Schirach, argued “that the Hitler Youth has called up its children to the community of National Socialist youth so that they can give the poorest sons and daughters of our people something like a family for the first time.”

These arguments upset many parents. They felt that the Nazi Party was taking over control their children. Hildegard Koch constantly came into conflict with her mother over her membership of the BDM: “After all, we were the new youth; the old people just had to learn to think in the new way and it was our job to make them see the ideals of the new nationalised Germany”.

Members of the BDM later recalled that they welcomed the extra power they had over their parents: “As a young person, you were taken seriously. You did things which were important… Your dependence on your parents was reduced, because all the time it was your work for the Hitler Youth that came first, and your parents came second… All the time you were kept busy and interested, and you really believed you had to change the world.”

Susanne von der Borch was another girl whose mother did not want her to join the BDM. “My mother went early on, before Hitler was elected, to a political rally and she listened to him yelling. She was convinced that something terrible was happening to us. As a child, I could not judge. I was simply besotted by it.” After she joined the BDM her parents called her our “Little Nazi”.

German Girls’ League poster, “Build youth hostels and homes” (1938).

Young women belonging to the League of German Girls, the female division of the Hitler Youth, practice gymnastics, 1941.

Children with Down syndrome sit at Schönbrunn Psychiatric Hospital, 1934. Mentally challenged children were forcibly sterilized to keep them from breeding. They were, initially, taught in separate classrooms, but then considered to be “unteachable.” Later, children like these would be killed in order to remove them from the population.

Adolf Hitler had strong views on how young women should behave. He described his own ideal woman as “a cute, cuddly, naïve little thing – tender, sweet, and stupid.”  This is why he was attracted to Eva Braun. According to Alan Bullock, the author of Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962): “Hitler became genuinely fond of Eva. Her empty-headedness did not disturb him; on the contrary, he detested women with views on their own.”

Hitler also disliked women who smoked and wore make-up. He made it clear about how young women in Nazi Germany should behave. The American journalist, Wallace R. Deuel, pointed out that he read in the Völkischer Beobachter, a newspaper controlled by the Nazi Party, that: “The most unnatural thing we can encounter in the streets is a German woman, who, disregarding all laws of beauty, has painted her face with Oriental war paint.”

The German League of Girls played an important role in developing these values: “They were trained in Spartan severity, taught to do without cosmetics, to dress in the simplest manner, to display no individual vanity, to sleep on hard beds, and to forgo all culinary delicacies; the ideal image of those broad-hipped figures, unencumbered by corsets, was one of radiant blondeness, crowned by hair arranged in a bun or braided into a coronet of plaits. As a negative counter-image Nazi propaganda projected the combative, man-hating suffragettes of other countries.”

There was also a campaign against young women who smoked. Medical experts wrote articles claiming there was a positive correlation between excessive nicotine indulgence and infertility. One report argued that smoking harmed the ovaries and that a marriage between heavy smokers only produced 0.66 children on average compared to the normal average of three.

If caught smoking, members of the German League of Girls were in danger of being expelled. Hedwig Ertl, a loyal member of the BDM, fully supported these values: “The German woman must be faithful. She must not wear make-up and she should not smoke. She must be industrious and honest and she must want to have lots of children and be motherly.”

There was also a campaign in German newspapers against the idea of wearing trousers. Women were described as those “trouser-wenches with Indian warpaint”. Magda Goebbels liked wearing trousers and she gained the support of her husband, Joseph Goebbels, to defend like-minded women: “Whether women wear slacks is no concern of the public. During the colder season women can safely wear trousers, even if the Party mutinies against this in one place or another. The bigotry bug should be wiped out.”

Adolf Hitler argued that the BDM should play its role in persuading women to have more children. “Good men with strong character, physically and psychically healthy, are the ones who should reproduce extra generously… Our women’s organizations must perform the necessary job of enlightenment…. They must get a regular motherhood cult going and in it there must be no difference between women who are married… and women who have children by a man to whom they are bound in friendship…. On special petition men should be able to enter a binding marital relationship not only with one woman, but also with another, who would then get his name without complications.”

The Nazi government encouraged the mixing of the sexes. The Ulm district of the Hitler Youth pointed out the organization of mixed social evenings with dancing “had a more beneficial effect on the relationship between boys and girls than any number of exhortations and lectures”. In 1936, when approximately 100,000 members of the Hitler Youth and the BDM attended the Nuremberg Rally, 900 girls between fifteen and eighteen returned home pregnant. Apparently, the authorities failed to establish paternity in 400 of these cases.

A group of men read a propaganda billboard titled “The Jews Are Our Misfortune” in Worms, 1933.

Members of the German Girls’ League (c. 1934).

League of German Girls in the Hitler Youth (c. 1936).

On 23rd August, 1939, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact. A week later, on 1st September, the two countries invaded Poland. Within 48 hours the Polish Air Force was destroyed, most of its 500 first-line planes having been blown up by German bombing on their home airfields before they could take off. Most of the ground crews were killed or wounded. In the first week of fighting the Polish Army had been destroyed. On 6th September the Polish government fled from Warsaw.

After the government surrendered later that month, Poland was designated as an area for “colonization” by ethnic Germans. On 21st September, 1939, Reinhard Heydrich issued an order authorizing the ghettoization of Jews in Poland. They were expelled from their homes, their land was expropriated and they were deported to the eastern areas of Poland or to ghettos in the cities.

An estimated 500,000 Germans, many living in territories in the Soviet sphere of influence, were now offered land in central Poland. It was decided to send members of the German Girls’ League (BDM), under Schutzstaffel (SS) control, to “feminize and domesticate the conquest”. Their task was to “Germanize” them, “teaching German culture and customs to the families, many of whom didn’t even speak the language.”

Susanne von der Borch was asked to a resettlement camp of 800 Bessarabian Germans in central Poland, to teach children art and woodwork. “I told my mother about it and she said to me, literally: If you do that and if you go there, then I never want to speak to you again. And I don’t want to see you ever again. And I thought, I have to risk that…. Imagine, I was seventeen years old. I was a blonde girl. My parents were writing me off. They knew the camps were run by the SS and they thought I was going to be drawn into their hands and that would be my fate… Formerly they had been rich farmers, breeding sheep, and they were plunged into misery. They didn’t have any ration cards, they were living in poverty in these camps.”

In 1941 Susanne visited the Jewish ghetto in Lodz: “The windows were covered with paint so you couldn’t see through. The tram doors were locked and then we drove through the ghetto. People had already scratched little peep holes in the paint. And I scratched a little more to see as much and as clearly as possible what was happening in the ghetto. Jewish children stood there, half-starved, wearing their Jewish stars, at the fence, this barbed wire fence. They were in a terrible state, dressed only in rags, like all the other people. What I saw – it was dreadful. It was worse than my worst fears… I saw one Jewish child, I couldn’t see whether it was a boy or a girl, and he was there at the fence and he was looking out with huge eyes, starved eyes, in rags and obviously in despair… The ghetto was horrific and when I returned to the camp I was totally shattered.”

Hedwig Ertl was recruited to be a teacher at a German school in Poland: “The Poles were told that they had a short time to get out and they could take with them a few possessions… They didn’t want to be resettled, they were really fed up, because they had very bad quality land and they couldn’t get along with… I would say they were bitter, but I never experienced anyone who fought it, or threw stones or showed outrage. They went in silence… Looking back, I never had the feeling of doing something that wasn’t right.”

On her return to Germany, Susanne von der Borch made a report on her experiences for the BDM. She decided to include “everything that was important to me, I didn’t keep silent about anything. I didn’t gloss over anything.” Her group leaders were horrified; BDM reports were read out to the girls at the weekly home evenings. One of the leaders told her: “You know that concentration camps are there for young people too.” The report was returned to her a few weeks later with her signature, “but all the things that were important to me had been taken out. It was a beautiful trip and an exciting trip, and it was just a description of a trip”. However, Susanne was not punished for her report but she now decided to distance herself from the organization: “For me personally, I drew the line and decided that this movement, which had been so very important, was now finished for me.”

Hitler Youth members camp out in a tent at an unspecified location, 1933.

A group of League of German Girls with Adolf Hitler (c. 1934).

Ilse Hirsch, member of the BDM in Nazi Germany (c. 1934).

During the Second World War there was an acute labour shortage. Jutta Rüdiger was at a meeting where Heinrich Himmler called for German women to have more children: “He (Himmler) said that in the war a lot of men would be killed and therefore the nation needed more children, and it wouldn’t be such a bad idea if a man, in addition to his wife, had a girlfriend who would also bear his children. And I must say, all my leaders were sitting there with their hair standing on end. And it went further than that. A soldier wrote to me from the front telling me why I should propagate an illegitimate child.” A deeply shocked Rüdiger replied: “What! I don’t do that.”

Some members of the BDM were asked to take part in the Schutzstaffel (SS) breeding programme. Hildegard Koch was told by her BDM leader: “What Germany needs more than anything is racially valuable stock”. She was sent to an old castle near Tegernsee. “There were about 40 girls all about my own age. No one knew anyone else’s name, no one knew where we came from. All you needed to be accepted there was a certificate of Aryan ancestry as far back at least as your great grandparents. This was not difficult for me. I had one that went back to the sixteenth century, nor had there ever been a smell of a Jew in our family.”

Koch was then introduced to several SS men. “They were all very tall and strong with blue eyes and blond hair… We were given about a week to pick the man we liked and we were told to see to it that his hair and eyes corresponded exactly to ours. We were not told the names of any of the men. When we had made our choice we had to wait till the tenth day after the beginning of the last period, when we were again medically examined and given permission to receive the SS men in our rooms at night… He was a sweet boy, although he hurt me a little, and I think he was actually a little stupid, but he had smashing looks. He slept with me for three evenings in one week. The other nights he had to do his duty with another girl. I stayed in the house until I was pregnant, which didn’t take long.”

Melita Maschmann was a member of the BDM who was totally opposed to this breeding programme. Lynda Maureen Willett argues that Maschmann played a key role in fighting against this “population policy”. “Maschmann states that one of the male leaders in the Hitler Youth had presented an argument for bigamy, with racially suitable women, to ensure the numbers of babies produced… Maschmann reports that this debate also began to go on in public. Maschmann herself became involved in producing leaflets and reports against this policy.”

In 1942 Martin Bormann suggested that the BDM established women’s battalions to defend Nazi Germany. The BDM leader, Jutta Rüdiger replied: “That is out of the question. Our girls can go right up to the front and help them there, and they can go everywhere, but to have a women’s battalion with weapons in their hands fighting on their own, that I do not support. It’s out of the question. If the Wehrmacht can’t win this war, then battalions of women won’t help either.” Baldur von Schirach said “Well, that’s your responsibility”. Rüdiger retorted: “Women should give life and not take it. That’s why we were born.”

However, when the war began to go badly for Germany, attitudes began to change. In September 1944 German women began to be conscripted to reinforce frontier fortifications. They were now ordered to fight alongside the Nazi Party controlled citizen militia.  When the Red Army was advancing towards in Berlin in 1945 Rüdiger instructed BDM leaders to learn to use pistols for self-defence.

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