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The term ‘Hitler Youth’ conjures up images of a paramilitary organisation turning boys into men – ‘hard as Krupp steel and quick as lightning’. And the girls, so the cliché would have it, were educated to be good German mothers, happy within their domain of home and hearth, a domain subordinate to the larger world of men just as the League of German Girls (BDM) was a subdivision of the larger organisation of the Hitler Youth (HJ). That, at any rate, is the conventional picture. But such a crude caricature tells us little about the real experiences of the millions of boys and girls who were members of the HJ or about the significance of those experiences for shaping social behaviour and attitudes in the two post-war German states.
How, then, did the almost nine million boys and girls in the HJ and BDM experience the Nazi youth organisations? Accounts of the period tend to dwell on ‘camp fire romanticism’, on the appeal of a ‘youthful community’, on sport and games, sometimes on paramilitary drill or political education. Only rarely do they tell us whether the HJ was accepted or rejected by its members. Until very recently, the historiography of the Third Reich neglected such central questions as what in retrospect was seen as positive or negative in the HJ. How did the HJ generation subsequently interpret and deal with the experiences of those years? How did those experiences shape their subsequent lives and, through them, the society in which they lived?.
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