Membership of the Hitler Youth (HY) was made compulsory for all boys aged 14-18 from 1939 onwards. From ‘39 the HY ceased to be a boy scout group and became far more military-minded. A student police force was also introduced, allowing and encouraging adherents of Nazi ideology to spy on and report students who displayed free thought or anti-Nazi attitudes.
Increasing military obligations by 1942 meant a disruption for some HY organisations. Elder boys who showed great leadership and loyalty were rewarded with conscription into the army, where it was thought their youthful and blind obedience to National Socialism would keep in check professional or conscripted soldiers who might baulk at some of the more challenging tasks falling upon the German military.
With military duties enforced on the HY an ideological vacuum developed in some units. Although the groups maintained their activities of walking and other excursions encouraged by the HY, without the constant assertions of Nazi ideology, the groups gave way to more teenage endeavours. Death in the battlefield was hitting home, increased bombing raids by the Allies the norm and a general dissatisfaction with life in the Fatherland set in. With fathers away at war, and instructors called away to fill military duties, slowly but surely, but not exclusively, rebellion set in.
It is reported that there were 3,000 members of the Hitler Youth in Cologne alone, now identifying themselves by their badge - an Edelweiss lapel. Although many of the units renamed themselves as local gangs do, the tag ‘Edelweiss Pirate’ was one shared across Germany as different groups met on camps. One Gestapo report went as far as to label the movement ‘riff raff’ as the supposed cream of German youth openly fell into disrepute. The student police, Streifendienst became a target of first ridicule, then violence. Many of the rebellious Edelweiss Pirates found themselves sent to war as punishment, but this only hardened the resolve and the hatred of the Pirates.
It is worth remembering that the Pirates also had a more than rudimentary military training, and as the war turned for the worse for Nazi Germany, many went into hiding in burnt-out cities and attempted to engage with the Allies. In particular, this meant acts of sabotage and rescuing Allied airmen shot down over cities. As well as targeting the conformist Hitler Youth it is claimed they also targeted the head of the Gestapo in Cologne for assassination.
As defeat loomed for Nazi Germany it was decided to teach these teenagers a lesson. Many were sent to certain death in the military, others imprisoned and heads shaven. The leaders of the Cologne Edelweiss Pirates were publicly hanged in 1944.
Köln-Ehrenfeld: murals in honour of the "Edelweißpiraten" (Edelweiss Pirates)