From the time Adolf Hitler rose to power and prominence in his native Germany, his mission had been to indoctrinate the next generation of citizens to be fearless, cruel, and unwavering—all the qualities he needed to combat democracy. The Hitler Youth organization was developed to satisfy his goals. Enrollment was mandatory; members played sports and contributed to Nazi-approved artistic endeavors. Military training followed.
But, not all of Germany’s adolescents were willing to be subordinates to Hitler’s cause. A small but subversive number of teenagers severed ties with state-approved groups and rebelled both culturally and politically, listening to American music, growing their hair long, and eventually graduating to sabotage. They were known as the Edelweiss Pirates, and their delinquency would grow to become a very sharp thorn in the side of the Reich.
Regardless of social class, boys and girls under the age of 14 were expected to affiliate themselves with the German Youth Group. From 14 to 18—the age in which they became eligible for military service—teens were corralled into the Hitler Youth movement. Disinterest wasn’t tolerated. If a child refused, Gestapo would threaten families with relocation to an orphanage.
Owing to either fear or loyalty, it’s estimated that more than 90 percent of German children were enrolled in the groups. But by the end of the 1930s, a growing number of members began to feel the tug of teenage rebellion. With fathers off to war, parents killed for Communist activity, and bombing raids loosening adult supervision, kids began to resist the conformist status quo. They disliked being told how to think, what to wear, and where to go.
The Edelweiss Pirates, which named themselves after the edelweiss flower covertly pinned to their lapels as a sign of their affiliation, began as a loosely organized resistance in the working-class areas of towns like Cologne and Essen. Checkered shirts, white socks, and scarves distanced the boys (there were very few female members) from the sterile attire of Hitler Youth squads; they let their hair grow long and loose. Guitars and other instruments accompanied parodies of Hitler Youth songs that they sang while camping or hiking, away from the Gestapo constantly on the lookout.
Initially, the Pirates were meddlesome simply for leading by bad example: The SS was concerned their activities could influence youths that were already in line. Depending on the region, police waved them away as a nuisance. In other areas where officials were more concerned, the Pirates would be detained and beaten, their heads shaved to send a message.
The group met the increasingly violent response to their presence with an escalation of misbehavior. Hitler Youths spotted on the street were challenged to fights; anti-Nazi graffiti dotted buildings; leaflets air-dropped by Allied forces were gathered and stuffed into mailboxes. Word spread that army deserters or camp escapees could find safe harbor in their homes. Eventually, the Pirates began organized raids on munitions factories. If a Nazi car was in sight, it was a likely target for sugar in the gas tank.
While the Pirates grew to express open hostility, another faction—the Swing Youth, or Jazz Youth—rebelled by embracing the banned music and culture of the American enemy. Big band sounds would echo through dance halls that attracted up to 6000 attendees performing the jitterbug or other salacious moves. In contrast to the Pirates, the swing cliques were generally made up of upper-middle class teens who could afford contraband records, clothing styles, and audio equipment. When the Gestapo cracked down on public gatherings and violated curfews, they moved to private dances in their own homes. According to a report filed with the Hitler Youth about a February 1940 dance in Hamburg:
Notorious SS official Heinrich Himmler told officers that anyone caught listening to jazz should be “beaten.” But after a long stretch of dealing with both the Pirates and the swing members, Himmler decided to send a more serious message to anyone thinking of joining their movement.
While captured Pirates being tortured and sent to “re-education camps" may have proved individually discouraging, Himmler felt the need to broadcast the Reich’s distaste for free thinkers. In October 1944, he captured 13 agitators, including seven Pirates, and marched them to the gallows in the middle of Cologne. All prisoners were hung in full view of the public.
Other Pirates had been sent to forced labor camps, where they maintained a ritual of singing songs in protest of the Nazi regime. Before the war ended in 1945, at least one rebel, Herbert Schemmel, was able to retrieve his stash of confiscated records.
The Pirates and the groups affiliated with them were labeled criminals by the courts of the era. In 2005, German officials officially relabeled them as resistance fighters and honored the surviving five members still in Cologne. The Edelweiss Pirates had fulfilled Hitler’s desire for German youths to be fearless and unwavering in the face of adversity. He just hadn’t anticipated it would be pointed in his direction.