The Path War Youth Generation Took to National Socialism

Ph. D. Andrew Donson is Assistant Professor For History and German and Scandinavian Studies, University of Michigan Ann Arbor. He is author of „Youth in the Fatherless Land:  War Pedagogy, Nationalism, and Authority in Germany, 1914-1918“ (Harvard University Press, 2010).

Andrew Donson

The Nazi Party called itself the party of the front soldier, and its willingness to use violence grew out of the brutalization of soldiers during the First World War.  However, in both style and membership, the Nazi Party was also a party of youth.  According to Joseph Goebbels in 1926, it so stood in contrast to the ossified “Republik der Greise” that the party aimed to overthrow. Indeed, by the early 1930s about half of the members in the party and its subsidiaries like the SA were born after 1900, the birth year of the youngest cohort conscripted during the First World War.

These men from the so-called war youth generation who never saw combat found their way into the Nazi Party for many of the same reasons as the front generation.  Like the veterans, they were humiliated by the Versailles Treaty and suffered from high unemployment. They also questioned the ability of the Weimar Republic to maintain order domestically and assert Germany’s national interests abroad. Some sought like-minded anti-Semites. 

The willingness to use violence among Nazis in the war youth generation was not because of brutalization in the trenches, however. Their key wartime experiences were instead the schooling, reading habits, pre-military training (“militärische Jugendvorbereitung”), and home life that encouraged fantasies about becoming a soldier and reinforced an unwavering belief that Germany would be victorious.  Such an experience was especially common for middle-class boys in secondary schools (Gymnasien, Oberrealschulen,etc.).

Schools encouraged boys to imagine combat and the “Siegfrieden”by discarding in August 1914 the peacetime curriculum and implementing so-called Kriegspädagogik.  With support from the Kultusministerien in all the German states, teachers put all academic subjects, from mathematics to singing, in relation to the war. The slogans were „Der Krieg ist ein großer Erzieher“ und “Laß die Jugend die große Zeit erleben!”  In mathematics class, some pupils calculated the amount of ammunition necessary to destroy a French division. Almost all pupils read battle narratives and heroic Feldpostbriefe. Teachers had pupils write essays about Germany’s greatness in wartime, with titles like “Inwiefern hat der Weltkrieg einen Aufschwung des Nationalbewußtseins hervorgerufen”. For a school essay, one thirteen-year-old boy wrote:  “Ich wünschte nur, daß ich auch schon Soldat sein könnte. Dann möchte ich den Engländer gegenüberstehen, welchen ich die Schädel mit dem Gewehrkolben einstoßen würde, daß ihnen Hören und Sehen verging.“ According to my survey of 1,200 school essays, the vast majority of pupils who mentioned peace imagined it would come only through military victory. Not a single pupil indicated the possibility the taboo subject of a negotiated peace.

These fantasies about becoming a soldier and achieving the Siegfrieden were transmitted not only by war pedagogy but also by novels, magazines, and short stories for youth. After August 1914 most of the content in magazines and new books was about the current war. Most described a nationale Erhebung on the home front.  Many portrayed German soldiers as patriotic superhumans capable of destroying numerically superior enemies using merciless violence. One such story about attacking French troops described, for example, the joy „in Brand zu schießen und so lange drauflos zu pfeffern, bis wie aufgestörte Ameisen aus ihrem Haufen ein wirres Gewimmel flüchtender Scharen rückwärts zum Dorf hinaus über die Felder flutet!  Und dahinein, mittenhinein, erbarmungslos!“. These stories were immensely popular, even in the last years of the war.

For the typical member of the SA or the Nazi Party from the war youth generation, fantasies about combat and victory were further reinforced by participation in one of the thousands of voluntary military youth companies. These companies seldom trained the sixteen to eighteen year olds in shooting or other fighting skills. Instead, the boys mostly marched and played games that simulated combat. At first, these activities attracted crowds of onlookers who cheered the young “patriots” (“Vaterlandsverteidiger”). Increasingly, as most boys shunned the companies, and some working boys participated in the great antiwar strikes of April 1917 and January 1918, the ones remaining in the companies felt isolated in their “patriotism” (“Vaterlandsliebe”). Many future National Socialists remembered their anger at these alleged “traitors” (“Vaterlandsverräter”) in their cohort who did not march in companies.

None of these experiences guaranteed a fascist point of view until the war seemed to be won but then ended in defeat and revolution. In the January 1918, Germany had settled the war with Russia, gaining huge swaths of new territory in the East. In the spring, the German army was occupying Belgium and a key industrial region of France and advancing on Paris. After four years of war pedagogy, war literature, and military youth companies, future National Socialists from the war youth generation thought that the inevitable Siegfrieden was imminent. They were thus shocked by both the collapse of the army in the summer and fall 1918 and the commencement of negotiations for an armistice. Even worse, they were devastated that they might now never have the chance to demonstrate their manhood in combat. When the teenagers in one elite Gymnasium in Berlin called upon their classmates to engage in mass insurrection to keep back Germany’s enemies in early November 1918, they were expressing beliefs and dreams that captivated tens of thousands of male youth. When the war ended shortly thereafter in revolution, they believed traitors foiled victory by preventing patriots like themselves from fighting.  Indeed, among the famous autobiographies by early National Socialists collected by the Columbia University sociologist Theodore Abel in 1934, almost all the authors from the war youth generation cited defeat and revolution as the moment that crystallized their political consciousness. As a result, tens of thousands in the war youth generation sought to continue the war by joining Freikorps to fight against communists and Polish nationalists, putting them side by side with former front soldiers in a key experience that led so many to the Nazi Party.

The experience of youth during the First World War and its long-term consequences for German political development is, of course, far more complex than one can describe here. One could tell a different story about the women in the war youth generation who had age-specific experiences that later led them to support men in the Nazi Party. The vast majority of youth who went to school during the war and read war literature in fact did not become National Socialists.  But for a good deal of boys who marched in military youth companies at the end war, war pedagogy and youth war literature raised unrealistic expectations about a Siegfrieden and a burning desire to demonstrate their manhood and patriotism in combat. When the war ended in defeat and revolution, such experiences proved crucial in crystalizing the political consciousness that made them susceptible to National Socialism. 


Peter Merkl, Political Violence under the Swastica:  581 Early Nazis (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1975). 

Andrew Donson, Youth in the Fatherless Land:  War Pedagogy, Nationalism, and Authority in Germany, 1914-1918 (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2010).

Andrew Donson, “Why Did German Youth Become Fascists?  Nationalist Males Born 1900 to 1908 in War and Revolution,” Social History 31 (2006):  337-58.


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