When the Nazi’s came to power, one of the things they did was begin to indoctrinate the youth. In 1936, children of both sexes under the age of fourteen were required to be in the Hitler Youth movement. The Hitler Youth emphasized Nazi ideals and clean living through sports, hiking and approved artistic pursuits. Then military service would follow at fourteen. As the war geared up, recruitment and military activities increased. Sports and nature walks were replaced with marching, drilling on the proper use of bayonets, grenades, and pistols, and maneuvering through dugouts, trenches and barbed wire. Members were also taught and encouraged to steal, vandalize, fight and bully. Any children that did not seem interested or refused were threatened by the Gestapo with removal to an orphanage. Because of these rules, the Hitler Youth became the largest youth organization with 90 percent of all eligible German youth enrolled.
Despite all that was at stake, teenagers will be teenagers and rebelled. One of the counter movements became known as the Edelweiss Pirates. Groups of disaffected youth, mostly young men, banded together in larger German cities such as Cologne and Essen. They took their name from the metal pins and badges of the Edelweiss flower they wore on their hats or collars. They had a loose uniform of checkered shirts, white socks and long hair. Most of the cities in western Germany had a similar bands of youths, although not all of them took up the Edelweiss badge. They avoided Hitler Youth membership by dropping out of school, which was not unusual for kids in working class families. They took jobs in mills or factories, but were generally thought of as lazy and social outcasts, which was just fine with them.
The boys met in cafes, parks or street corners and hung out. They took hikes, went camping or biked to neighboring towns to visit fellow Pirates. All of this sounds quite innocent to our ears, but to the Nazis any sign of individuality was considered disloyal to the state. On their hikes and campouts they sang unapproved songs by Jewish composers that had a distinctly anti-Nazi flare. Because of their refusal to join the Hitler Youth, they were ostracized and had no other friends besides other Pirates, making their groups quite tight knit. They were not delinquents in the traditional sense of the word. They simply hated the what the Hitler Youth movement stood for and embraced an anti-conformist and free thinking lifestyle.
At first their activities were harmless and considered a nuisance, but as the war progressed their activities got more serious. The groups were met with violence if discovered on the street by any Hitler Youth. The Pirates pulled pranks that got more and more serious- throwing bricks in the munitions factory window and pouring sugar in the gas tank of Nazi vehicles. Soon anti-Nazi graffiti was springing up and being attributed to the Pirates. Some groups even provided shelter to German Army deserters and those escaping from concentration camps. The punishment for these activities was severe. If they were lucky, there was only a beating and or a head shaving. Some members were sent to prison, reform schools or psychiatric hospitals. Still others were sent to forced labor, reeducation or concentration camps. Even imprisoned, they didn’t lose their spirit. They maintained a ritual of singing songs in protest of the Nazis. Some were simply killed. In the fall of 1944, Himmler decided to send a message. Thirteen captured agitators, including seven Pirates, were hung in the public square in Cologne in full view of the public. One of the Pirates killed, Bartholomaeus (Barthel) Schink, was only fifteen years old.
As the war drew to a close, the Pirates were not embraced by their liberators either. The Red Army in eastern Germany declared them a subversive group and any member who was caught was imprisoned for twenty-five years. Not surprisingly, the communists were not big on free thought. However, in western Germany the Pirates were shunned by the Allied Occupying Authority, who they tried to work with at first. The group was declared “Righteous Among the Nations” by Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in 1988, but were not completely rehabilitated in the eyes of the government until 2005. They were officially recognized as resistance fighters and heroes.
Sources available on request