Researching the Hitler Youth generation
What is it like to be researching the Hitler Youth generation? I’m two years into my PhD; I’ve written and re-written around 45,000 words at this point. I’m approaching the halfway point of the thesis (say what?!). Whenever my friends or family ask me what I’m doing/what I think I’m doing, the vague response I give is as follows: ‘writing a chapter’, ‘researching’, or ‘rewriting a chapter’. Insert sad frog meme.
Whilst the majority of my posts have been on rigorously researched material or my various side-interests, I’ve never openly talked about I actually research. I have often wondered why that is, as there are many academic blogs out there. So this post is a jump off the deep end: it’s only going to get more vague as you read on and the points don’t matter.
My research focuses on Hitler Youth (HY) life narratives, written by the so-called ‘1929ers’ or ‘the Hitler Youth generation’. These people were born from 1925 to 1933 in Germany, and typically participated in the Hitler Youth organisation as children and teenagers. Once the Second World War ended, many expressed their ambivalence, uncertainty, and scepticism towards the old and new political order—what should you believe in, when what you believed in no longer exists?
This project has been a combination of history, literary criticism, and (with great reluctance) some new research methodology from psychology. It’s just about as interdisciplinary as you can make it. So explaining it to someone often becomes a garbled mess!
Currently, I’m thinking about my third main chapter on World War II. I’ve written two main chapters: the first on how the Hitler Youth generation discussed their (Nazi) families in life narratives; the second on how the Nazi education system was understood. And now, I’m really stuck: I am attempting to figure out what exactly I want to argue about World War II memories and its relation with the HY generation’s writings. (Read: I need to say something incredibly original.)
Reading through these memoirs gives you a sense of how diverse experiences actually were, and it’s difficult to figure out what memories are fabricated and what is actually true. In a sense, much of this work relies on the idea of Philippe Lejeune’s concept of the ‘autobiographical pact’: the reader and the author create a bond of trust that what is written is true. Even though this concept allows me to trust sources, I still doubt.
From an emotional perspective, you end up living with the writers through their experiences. There is a fine balance you have to keep, and it’s often rather tricky. This happened to me, for example, with Loni Klause’s life narrative, written when she was around eighty years old. She writes of her joy working on a farm for her RAD service at the age of fourteen and having a crush on the young Russia POW working on the farm, but then, as we approach the end of the narrative, we are provided with this image:
I kept going for three days in freezing cold weather. Three days I kept going, in freezing cold. The prisoners had to to load the frozen bodies onto carts and take them away, always under strict supervision. You weren’t allowed to say a word to them.
After that I came down with a fever and severe flu. My parents kept me at home. Mother nursed me back to health with old home remedies.
I remained at home for around 14 days, then went back to the farm. Everything was still very chaotic there. No one asked me where I’d been for the last few days. I was relieved; I only had to show my work identification card and enter my details in a register. All the files had been lost or burnt. What would become of me now?
I see these paragraphs and wonder—what would it have been like to be her, standing and watching those prisoners? Is this an act of perpetration from a young woman, or can we just call her a bystander? How much agency does a younger person have? Further, I am quite shocked that she did not reflect on this memory—this is another interesting question for me to further theorise.
Another writer, this a time a young man, writing in 1947 offers us this analysis of his experiences in the war:
On 14 April I was taken prisoner by the British near Fallingbostel. I was a POW until the end of the year, in a camp in Belgium between Ostend and Bruges. Though I never want to go through anything like that again, it did give me a glimpse of humanity in all its forms. I returned from the camp at Christmas 1945, disappointed, bitter and directionless. I learnt how to fend for myself and cope with any situation. If to be ‘young’ is to be enthusiastic, lively, full of zeal, frivolous, unspent and unpredictable, I no longer feel young. I’m searching for meaning in life, just as I did back then when I witnessed the first meaningless death… (Report 38, in )
There are a lot of emotions in this piece, as well. For me, the most striking one is the pointlessness of it all, when the reality of the war goes against the propagandised image one was presented with at school or in popular (Nazi) culture.
Looking at the distance between the two short quotes, we can make some conclusions about the vividness of memory, but also discuss ideas of perpetration and victimhood. Was Loni a perpetrator when she saw prisoners (most likely those from concentration camps) loading bodies onto carts and did not react to it negatively? Why does she not discuss her current feelings about this memory? Indeed, it could also be her personality not to reflect.
In Report 38, we see the young man lose his innocence: seeing death had a profound impact on him. Yet, whilst he says he ‘witnessed the first meaningless death’, perhaps he was the one who pulled the trigger. These ambivalences and nuances are what makes this research so interesting, and capture a sense of the emotions this generation experienced.
As I finish this post, I turn over to spend the rest of my evening watching the new BBC documentary ‘My Nazi Legacy’, on how two Germans born in the late 1930s deal with their fathers, who were high ranking Nazis responsible for murdering Jews in Poland. The research continues…