A bunch of teenagers, music lover and with an American aesthetic isn’t really what you would expect to be the rivals of the Nazi youngsters that Hitler was making up. But in the Germany of the years preceding the WW2, the regimentation of the population involuntarily triggered the spread of many teenager groups which were beating the young Nazis, leaving ani-nazi graffitis in the train stations and listening to jazz music.

Those guys, aged between 14 and 17 years old, were renamed by the Gestapo as “Edelweiss Pirates”, subculture of rebels to the German system, set up by the National Socialist party. They had escaped the Hitler Youth by leaving school (which was mandatory until the 14 years old) yet they were still too young to be called for the conscription, starting at 17 years old.

When the participation to the Hitler Youth became mandatory in 1936, thousands of boys and especially the ones from Cologne and from the working class, did not want to be part of them. The strict military organisation, organised according to the genre of each individual, did not match whatsoever with the lifestyle of the children from the streets, interested in Jazz and Swing and who were into flirting with the opposite sex.

According to the words of a Nazi official in 1941:

“Every child knows who the Kittelbach Pirates are. They are everywhere; there are more of them than there are Hitler Youth… They beat up the patrols… They never take no for an answer”.

Jazz music was considered “degenerated” by the Nazi ideology because often it was performed by black or Jewish musicians as well as it would support the concept of free love. Even the unauthorised trips were strictly illegal at the time, therefore the Edelweiss pirates used to do the exact opposite: they would organise camping sites in the mountain, used to hide in the forest to listen to the music, they would sing and establish relations with the other sex.

In the city of Essen, another similar group adopted the name of “Farhtenstenze”, the “Travelling Guys” while another subgroup named “Navajos” in Cologne, wrote down a song saying:

Des Hitlers Zwang, der macht uns klein,
noch liegen wir in Ketten.
Doch einmal werden wir wieder frei,
wir werden die Ketten schon brechen.
Denn unsere Fäuste, die sind hart,
ja — und die Messer sitzen los,
für die Freiheit der Jugend,
kämpfen Navajos.

 

The translation goes along these lines:

The power of Hitler makes us small;
we still lie bound and chained.
But one day we will be free again,
No more to be restrained.
For our fists are strong and hard,
Yes — and our knives are sharp and drawn;
For the freedom of our youth
Navajos fight on.

Besides them there were also the “Guys of the Swing”, a group of students of upper schools who would admire the English and American lifestyle. They were used to hanging up to dance in clubs or rented rooms; the boys were having pins with the Union Jack on while the girls had short skirts, lipstick and had their hair down instead of in their classic German braids. When the party rose to power, all these groups’ different language became for them declaration of political hostility.

Therefore, while the Edelweiss Pirates wanted to rebel, the “Travelling Guys” were looking for adventure and the “Guys of the Swing” wanted just to dance, all of them had a common objective which was avoiding the subordination to the Hitler Youth and affirming their own identity.

All this did not go unnoticed though

In a Gestapo folder by the end of the 30’s only in Cologne there were 3,000 names of guys belonging to such groups. In terms of numbers this meant that those boys represented a potential resistance which would have outnumbered any other opposing group of adults in Germany.

The acts of dissent were unorganised and went from the realisation of graffiti such as “Down with Hitler” or “Medals for Homicide” to the throw of bricks to the windows and the sabotage of cars of Nazi officials. There was the project of blowing the headquarter of the Gestapo in Cologne, but the plan was never realised.

During the war the Edelweiss Pirates helped the allied forces in the occupation of Germany as well as aided the German deserters, hiding them from the authorities.

Even though they could be seen as partisans, in reality most of the Edelweiss Pirates did not consider themselves as such, and fought to claim self-determination and freedom.

Naturally both the members of the Hitler Youth and the Gestapo hunted them. The patrols of the Hitler Youth raided in their campsites or their secret dancehalls. On the other hand though, the pirates would ambush the Hitler Youth to beat and humiliate them. One of their slogans was:

Eternal War to the Hitler Youth

The prosecution of those groups of teenagers took a completely different turn when the Gestapo was then involved. One of the leaders of the Navajos, Jean Julich of 15 anni, was tortured for 4 months. Another guy, of 16 years old was hanged, naturally without trial.

The Nazi answer to the Edelweißpiraten was “relatively” light since those groups were seen as minor rebels and they were not politically sided. Through the course of the war the activities of some pirates became more intense and the punishment intensified with them. On the 25th October 1944 Heinrich Himmler commanded a repression of the group and in November of the same year a group of 13 people, leaders of the “Ehrenfelder Gruppe” were publicly hanged in Cologne. Some of those were ex Edelweiss Pirates, 6 adolescents to be exact; one of them, Bartholomäus Schink, called Barthel, was an ex member of the local Navajos.

Postwar period

Contrary to what the allies had hoped for, the Edelweiss Pirates were neither pro-soviets nor pro-Americans. At the beginning of the occupation they looked for a contact with the authority suggesting to organise patrol groups. They were taken seriously and courted by many factions. Also the first known booklets of the KPD (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands) were dedicated to them in 1945.

While a minor number of pirates remained in the organisations of the Anti-Nazi Youth and the Free German Youth, most of them left those organisations as they felt that “politics was coming back to the center of the stage”. For example a group in Bergisch Gladbach came undone when the youngsters of communist ideology tried to form a majority within the group.

The removal of the pirates from the young political groups forced them to the margin of society, putting them against the occupying power. The headquarter of the American Counter-Intelligence Corps in Frankfurt reported that in May 1946 the Edelweiss Pirates activities were well known in all British and American areas. The youngsters attacked the women who were accused of having had contact with the occupying soldiers and in general they started a rebellion against the new German governments.

Even in the Soviet- influenced area the rebels did not have an easy life. They clashed with the new regime and many were imprisoned with a prison sentence of 25 years.

In a trial happened in Uelzen, in April 1946, an underage guy named Heinz D. was initially sentenced to death for his “extremely active part in the development of the evil plans of the E. Piraten. An organisation of this kind could threaten the peace in Europe”. The sentence was turned into prison sentence one month afterwards.

The heritage of the young German rebel groups

The pirates were anti-politics and against any environment where politics was in the spotlight. This aspect led them to a condition of outcasts and their memories were never described in the books of history. Furthermore up until 2005 they were mainly considered as a criminal organisation.

Some time ago though, those guys who faced Hitler and one of the harshest dictatorship in history, were officially recognised as fighters of the Resistance. The major of Cologne awarded the Order of Merit of Germany to the 5 survivors, officially identifying their organisation as anti-dictatorial and in favour of freedom and democracy. Maybe the young pirates would have preferred the title of “Rebel Knights”, but even such a name could do justice to their past.

Below: The Edelweiss Pirates during the “Edelweißpiratenfestival”in Cologne, 2005. Picture by Factumquintus shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons 3.0

As for the Edelweiss Pirates, a film was made in 2004, with the name of the group as a title. Trailer below

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Matteo Rubboli

I am a publisher specialised in the digital distribution of culture and founder of the portal Vanilla Magazine. I don't wear a tie or branded clothes, I keep my hair short so I don't have to comb it. That's not my fault but just the way I've been drawn as...

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