The Wehrpass and the active use of children in Germany’s war

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Every soldier of the German Armed Forces, the Wehrmacht was given a Wehrpass, a military passport, upon joining its ranks. It showed your service record, the places where you had fought, the medals you were awarded, and the promotions you received. What it meant to be a soldier, however, changed completely throughout the war. When by late 1944 boys as young as 16 were drafted into the Volkssturm (while even younger children were similarly no longer discouraged from assuming military tasks), it became clear that Party and military authorities no longer considered that young age precluded these boys from active service.The regime had long sought to ensure that young boys would join the armed forces willingly. The Wehrpass of this 16 year-old boy, who volunteered, embodies the Nazi’s hopes for children. By the time he joined the Wehrmacht, this boy had already been ‘highly-decorated’, having received the German Jungvolk Performance Medal, the Hitler Youth Performance Medal, the Reich Youth Sport Medal, the Hitler Youth Shooting Medal, and had received medical training. These medals could be earned at a constant string of public events where young children were introduced to the different branches of the military, effectively turning an entire generation of boys into cadets.

During the final defence of Germany commanders learned to count on these children, and (although after the war they claimed they did not) would often deploy them on the front line. Jochen Volmar, for example, had joined the ‘Flyer-Hitler Youth’ (Flieger-Hitlerjugend), a unit which flew gliders, with the hope of becoming a pilot. Since the war was reaching its apex, he was instead deployed as a Flakhelfer, then was pressed into the Labour Service, and eventually transferred to East Prussia. Receiving only three hours of weapons training, his unit, which consisted of 90 boys, was driven to the front. After being told that in case of desertion they would be shot on the spot, they were deployed against strong Red Army units. A few hours later they were withdrawn from the front line, but only after their unit had suffered 20 casualties. Yet, what the regime expected of youths was not limited to battle; it could also demand complicity in genocide. In late January 1945, the young Volkssturm boy Martin Bergau witnessed a large procession of concentration camp inmates passing through his village of Palmnicken. A few days later he and other boys were ordered by a Party official named Friedrichs to come to the Party office and bring their guns. Bergau remembers:

Hitler Youth boys were huddled in the office with shouldered rifles. As we joined them, Friedrichs said that we were chosen to be part of a special unit, and he briefly introduced us to two SS-men. The job we had to do required real men (ganze Kerle), said Friedrichs. He poured us schnapps and mumbled something about the “hour of trial”. He swore us to absolute secrecy. “The two gentlemen will familiarize you with your task.”

Bergau, it turned out, was being drafted into an execution commando, something he did not learn in the office, but only as he arrived on site. The boys of the town had to guard a group of women as they were shot by the SS and their helpers. For Bergau this was a traumatic experience which eventually encouraged him to write his memoirs, but other boys mistreated the Jewish women and seemingly performed their task with little hesitation and full commitment. The ease with which these boys passed the threshold into genocide is a testament to the success Nazi propagandists had in shaping the minds of their youth.