Marching in step

Objects & Images

In early 1943, by official decree, 16 and 17-year-old Hitler Youth boys were ordered to serve as auxiliaries in the Luftwaffe, the German air force, where they were tooperate anti-aircraft guns. Known from then on as Flak­helfer (anti-aircraft assistants), they were incorporated in the military command structure, but since they still had to wear Hitler Youth armbands, which we can just make out in the picture, they remained recognisable as such. Meanwhile, girls of the League of German Girls were tasked with operating the search lights. These efforts were meant to free up men for the front. The introduction of this legislation was unexpected and sudden, and often came as quite the shock to parents. Whole school classes were called up simultaneously to be trained at Luftwaffe batteries. It was preferable that these youngsters would be deployed near their own town – sometimes causing embarrassment among boys whose mother would come to check up on them – but when the situation required it they were sent across the country, often accompanied by their teachers.

Many considered being deployed as a Flakhelfer a big adventure, and the confidence in the strut of the older boy in the picture suggests that he took pride in his task. The younger boy accompanying him looks equally confident. We don’t know who these two boys are – perhaps they are brothers – but it is nevertheless clear that the smaller one of the two mimics the behaviour of the older boy, and seemingly marches in step with him. The candid picture is taken in a park, a common location of anti-aircraft guns, and the clean overcoat and well-knotted tie might very well indicate that the picture was taken to commemorate the older boy’s first days of service, with his family seeing him off. Unable to gauge the danger, younger boys saw the older boys as ‘Stur’, brave and cool, and wouldlook up to them. The deployment of these 16 and 17-year-olds would, however, not be limited to service in the relative safety of the rear. In the final months of the war they were incorporated into Germany’s last-ditch militia, the Volkssturm, and deployed on the front line. Hans-Burkhardt Sumowski, who was eight years old at the time, remembered how

Emergency drills took place everywhere in the city. The Hitler Youth boys practised on the slope where three tanks had been dug in. (…) We observed them from a distance with extreme jealousy. They were only a few years older than us, but they got to learn how shoot a Panzerfaust (single-shot bazooka), while we were left out.

Sumowski’s eagerness eventually ‘pays off’ when soldiers ask him to pass artillery coordinates and use his sled to haul grenades – tasks he carries out with a deep sense of pride. The Nazi regime was present at every step of the way from infancy to adulthood. For boys, this meant that they were constantly exposed to rhetoric and confronted with decisions that glorified war and violence, laying the ideological foundations of Germany’s future soldiers.