Friday, October 30, 2009

Hitler Youth A Powerful Reminder for Modern Youth

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"I begin with the young. We older ones are used up ... But my magnificent youngsters! Are there finer ones anywhere in the world? Look at all these men and boys! What material! With them I can make a new world." - Adolf Hitler
Hitler committed so many atrocities against his "enemies" - Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses, intellectuals, the disabled, etc. - that it's almost easy to forget those he inflicted on his "friends." Preying on those he perceived to be weak and inferior was the Fuhrer's specialty, so maybe it's not surprising that he bullied thousands of Germany's children into forming an army - one that served only him, of course. In the youth he saw great potential. Although some of them became disenchanted with their leader, many, many kids fought, killed and died for the man they feared, revered and worshipped as much as God Himself. Hitler Youth by Susan Campbell Bartoletti is their story.
The book, which is geared toward mature middle graders, gives the reader a good overview of WWII in Germany. It discusses the disappointments that led the German people to Hitler and thus to war - the country's humiliation after losing WWI; bitterness and great debt resulting from the Treaty of Versailles; widespread poverty; and growing unemployment. The people needed hope. It came in the form of Adolf Hitler, a charismatic man who promised change. Though some of his ideas were dangerous - defying the Treaty of Versailles, for example - they seemed to be the exact kind of radical thinking the country needed to rise again. No one could have foreseen how his extremism would lead directly to one of the greatest horrors in human history - the Holocaust. The book follows Hitler's rise to power, as he takes control of every school, church and household, then thrusts them all into another world war. It covers the horror of Jewish ghettos, concentration camps and the mass murders of anyone Hitler deemed unfit to live. It talks about the Allies' entrance into the war, liberation, and, finally, the fates of Hitler, SS men and others responsible for unspeakable crimes against humanity.
Bartoletti's focus is, of course, on the children. Hitler recognized the power of Germany's youth. He saw what a force they could be. So, he set about molding them into loyal servants. Not only did he re-write their textbooks, fire teachers who encouraged independent thinking, and do away with most youth groups, but he also persuaded them to join his own pro-Nazi club. Using snappy uniforms, bold flags, shiny badges, and the promise of adventure as bait, he lured boys and girls into becoming members of the Hitler Youth. Once there, the kids were plied with propaganda. They learned to become "good" Nazis, loyal to and supportive of The Fuhrer. As such, they were required to turn in anyone who made derogatory remarks about the Nazis, including their teachers, priests, friends and parents. The kids also performed hard labor, marched and drilled for hours, learned First Aid, and received weapons training. Above all, Hitler taught "unity" or the sacrifice of individual expression in favor of collective thinking. The stringent rules and demanding physical requirements became too much for some, but many stuck with it, happy to be part of the group.
By December 1, 1936, membership in the Hitler Youth became mandatory. Non-compliance meant fines, jail time, loss of job opportunities, even death. His demands were harsh, but Hitler had a purpose, of course: "A violently active, dominating, intrepid, brutal youth - that is what I am after. Youth must be indifferent to pain. There must be no weakness and tenderness in it" (43). For the most part, he succeeded in grooming his young army to become efficient killers, willing to die for their leader. The children knew they were fighting against the Allies, but most had no idea their revered Fuhrer was murdering millions of Jews. That grisly discovery led some, like the brave Scholl siblings, to take action against the Nazis. Others refused to believe, continuing to battle with blind allegiance.
In the end, although they caused numerous deaths, no members of Hitler Youth were tried at Nuremberg. The international court recognized that the children had been cruelly used by a power-hungry madman. Some were punished in civilian courts, made to pay fees, serve jail time, view gruesome films of corpse-strewn concentration camps, and rebuild what they helped destroy. Interviews of former Hitler Youth conducted by Bartoletti and excerpted in the book, reveal just how horrifying the situation was for the children involved.
No one can judge which victims suffered the most. We can only agree that one man's greed, hate and violent extremism brought about the physical and emotional murders of millions of people. Hitler didn't act alone, of course, but he, above all else, deserves to burn in Hell for what he did, not only to his "enemies" but also to the youth who served him with childlike devotion. With all the power he held over them, Hitler could easily have influenced Germany's children to do good. But, no, he led them away with the evilest of intentions. Hitler Youth shows numerous angel-faced children, arms raised in salute to the devil in brown - it's unbelievably chilling. Reading their stories makes my heart ache for the great loss of innocence, the marring of purity, the depraved indifference of adults toward the most vulnerable of German citizen.
The book never glosses over atrocities committed during the war, but it doesn't go into graphic detail either. Because it's meant for children, Hitler Youth dispenses information in an honest, readable format that allows readers to draw conclusions for themselves. While I don't think any book about Hitler and the Holocaust can be called "clean," I do feel this one is appropriate for older middle grade readers. It contains no profanity, really graphic violence or sexual content. While its subject is disturbing, the book does something very powerful for modern youth - not only does it teach them about what happened, but it also teaches them to question, to think and to never allow themselves to be coaxed down dangerous paths. Children are the future - only through knowledge of the past can they make sure it's a good one.
Grade: A
If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for violence and mature themes
To the FTC, with love: I got this one for free - at the library.

4 comments:

  1. This sounds like the perfect book for the WWII reading challenge. I will have to check this out. Wow, must be powerful. Thanks fro the review.

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  2. I think I checked this out at the library once but didn't get to it. I'll have to look for it again sometime.

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  3. Hmmm ... would this be on about the right level for my 11-year-old son? He has become interested in WWII, particularly in Europe, because of the video games he plays. *LOL* We've been having discussions about WWI, the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler, the Allies' failed appeasement policy, etc. He is not all that bookish (sometimes the proverbial apples *does* fall far from the tree. :-) ) so I am choosy about the books I get for him. But based on your review, I think I'll give this a try.

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  4. Absolutely agree with you - this one left a huge impression on me! Especially the message for young people. I was totally freaked out, too, by Hitler's immersion programs - get them while they're young and susceptible.

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