Would-be totalitarian regimes place a great deal of emphasis on cultivating, shaping and forming youth. Although repeated by a number of figures in history, the phrase ‘He who has the youth has the future’ is closely associated with Joseph Goebbels. The two very different books under review focus on attempts to manipulate and mould youth according to nationalist/fascist precepts. As reflected in the historiography of Weimar Germany, the Bündische Jugend is the weak link between the tremendous energy and enthusiasm of the Wandervogel and the ruthless regimentation of the Hitler Youth. The heterogeneous and overlapping collection of youth movements, formed in the early 1920s, reflected a rightward shift in youth politics post-First World War but nevertheless preserved some independence, authenticity and diversity in comparison with the naked instrumentalisation of the Nazi years. In his new history of this interim period, Rüdiger Ahrens uses a thorough and rigorous social history approach to shine light on an otherwise neglected topic. The fruits of his painstaking, exhaustive research constitute a richer, more complex and layered assessment of the functions of these mostly right-wing nationalist youth organisations. Ahrens claims new sources which illuminate the mentalities of his youthful subjects. His wider source-base helps to clear up confusions about the different movements active at different times. He uses grey literature, biographies and apologist memoirs to good effect—but most of these are from the perspective of functionaries rather than ordinary members. The Bündische Jugend saw themselves as heirs to the Wandervogel, but they possessed many features which would be familiar to members of the British scouts. Just as Robert Baden-Powell wanted to teach the skills of reconnaissance, basic survival and frontier dwelling, so his German homologues wanted to instruct their charges in ‘putting up a fight’. ‘After diverse splits … compact, strictly led and overtly right-wing [youth] associations developed’ with a strong emphasis on hiking, camping and physical training (p. 376). Where they diverged from the British (and wider European) experience of ‘dib dib dibbing’ around camp fires was in their overt martial overtones (of willing subservience and soldierly bearing) and their rigid and unbending defence of Germanness. In a period of profound economic, political and cultural disruption, nationalist ideals served as a reliable bedrock for many young people. Presenting themselves as heirs to the Teutonic Order strengthened their sense of racial identity as well as fuelling boyish romantic notions. Many members overlooked or embraced the anti-Semitism and racism, which became more virulent over time. Above all, Ahrens emphasises the long-lasting legacy of the First World War. Contemporary youth leaders and functionaries were deeply marked by the experience of combat and stressed the need to develop the skills and defences necessary for future conflict. Here, he emphasises the masculine role-models and ‘warlike examples’ (p. 217) represented by veterans and Freikorps members. The overwhelmingly military ethos also helped to develop esprit de corps and cultivated obsessions with elitism, racial superiority, authority and hierarchy. Ahrens explores the shaping of the habitus of members, and the symbols and rituals they embraced, but has little in the way of first-hand accounts of what participation meant to ordinary members of this elite male fraternity (or Männerbund). There is some attention to issues of purity and homoeroticism within the movement, but Ahrens stops short of a thorough examination of sexuality and the channelling of desire within such an all-male environment. Overall, Ahrens is more interested in the birth of the movement than in its demise. He suggests that the youth organisations were neither precursors nor simply victims of National Socialism (pp. 384–5). Rather, they represented an avant garde for nationalist ideals that slotted in well with what the Nazis wanted for, and of, youth. With their focus on masculinity, authority, duty and sacrifice (as well as being part of an elite and serving Germany) they were easy to manipulate. In conjunction with the Freikorps, they pioneered defence of the frontier and contacts with Germans living outside the Reich. Towards the end of the Weimar Republic, the right-wing youth movements underwent a radicalisation which helped in their eventual incorporation into the Hitler Youth. Missing for me in this insightful and careful study is more of a sense of the alternatives. How did the Bündische Jugend interact with rival democratic, socialist and communist youth organisations? Weimar politicians and politics seem to have impinged little on members, who are presented as isolated and immune from the political and economic maelstrom surrounding them. One gets little sense of the wider context and forces that drove the Nazis into power. It would be interesting to investigate the degree of co-option of Bündische Jugend members into organisations such as the SA at the height of the street-fighting era. More in the mode of organisational history, Alessio Ponzio, in the second book under review, offers the first thorough comparison of youth indoctrination in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. In doing so, he builds on the work of a number of scholars, such as Tracy H. Koon, who have assessed the two countries separately. Ponzio stresses the vital role that fascist leaders wanted youth to play. After the seizure of power, there was a similar focus in Italy and Germany on removing sources of competition and ensuring a comprehensive hold on youth. Youth was to provide the blank slates necessary for constructing a new totalitarian (and racial) utopia. In highly-controlled regimes, youth had to be ‘courted, organized, trained, entertained and indoctrinated’ (p. 4). Winning over youth was fundamental if fascism and Nazism were to achieve the physical and mental transformation of the populace necessary to establish the new order. Both regimes relied on the co-option of opportunists and enthusiasts. Opponents soon found themselves swamped, with few opportunities to challenge the new ethos. Ponzio’s book is more about Fascist Italy than about Nazi Germany. He emphasises the role of youth in sweeping aside the ‘rotten’ liberal state in Italy. He suggests how, aided by futurist ideology, the fascists ‘seduced’ and ‘corrupted’ youth (p. 216). By shedding their blood for the fatherland, the new warrior caste would purify and re-cleanse the earth. Taken as a whole, Ponzio seems more interested in totalitarian control than in gender models and roles (or other slippery and diffuse social history topics). There is a brief mention of women (on pp. 36 and 222), but they do not feature prominently. As with Ahrens’ book, there is a strong focus on structures and leaders at the expense of a concern for the experiences and motivations of ordinary members. Much has been written in German historiography on the ways in which young people managed to instrumentalise their membership of the official youth organisation and obtain benefits which were unintended by their leaders. Little of this historiography makes it into Ponzio’s ostensibly comparative book. Although he points to some crossovers, one gets the impression that, in spite of their alliance and some superficial ideological parallels, these were two very different regimes. They had very divergent focuses and emphases: one a blustering, but optimistic, mass of contradictions; the other a ruthlessly efficient dystopia, fuelled by hatred in its pursuit of Lebensraum and a racial new order. Although he does not say much about his sources or methodology in the introduction, for Nazi Germany Ponzio cites secondary literature rather than archival sources. This gives the impression of a book primarily about Fascist Italy with some German comparisons added rather than full and equal treatment of the two regimes. The book finishes with a chapter on the ‘aftermath’ of the fascist regimes rather than a proper conclusion. Likewise, it is missing a separate bibliography. It would have been better to draw the loose threads together into a cohesive summing up. In the absence of such a clear ending, the book’s ability to provide convincing transnational comparisons is somewhat reduced. Both books advance our understanding of youth in the first half of the twentieth century, but a gap is left for a truly bottom-up approach to the experience of belonging to a would-be transformative youth organisation. © Oxford University Press 2017. All rights reserved.
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 21, 2017
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