Hitler Youth
A member of Hitler Youth aged 13 captured by the U.S. Army near Nartinzell in 1945. / Wikimedia

To anyone with a strong stomach and a willingness to face up to some grim truths about human nature, I recommend this two-part documentary on the Hitler Youth movement (the Hitler-Jugend). Its impact is terrifying, and it uses colour footage that most of us have never seen before. Some of the colour shots are clearly original; some have been colorised by modern techniques, which add shocking immediacy to their impact.

It is the work of a French director, David Korn-Brzoza, who has done some excellent work on other aspects of World War II (Churchill, Vichy France), and on the Ku Klux Klan. That someone can document such horrors without pulling his punches, yet with a high degree of objectivity, is in itself remarkable.

But the important thing about this short series is that it demonstrates unforgettably the power and the naivety of young people when their trust is abused and perverted by corrupt and evil adults. The membership of the Hitler Youth grew from about 30,000 in 1929 to more than 9 million in just 12 years.

Eventually its boys were being sent as cannon fodder to replenish the devastated battalions on the Western Front and elsewhere, where their ruthless and often cruel fanaticism horrified even hardened Wehrmacht troops. The 12th SS-Panzer Division, entirely formed of Hitlerjugend members, won dreadful distinction in the Battle of Normandy for its brutality towards British and Canadian forces including, on several occasions, the massacre of prisoners and civilians. The divisional commander Kurt Meyer was only 33 at the time of his appointment: he had joined the Hitler Youth at the age of 15 and his whole adult life had been corrupted by the noxious nonsense of Nazism.

Towards the end of the war, as the fight for Berlin approached, boys as young as 12 were conscripted to throw their lives away against the invading Russians.

There are grave lessons to be learned by all of us.

But first let’s take stock. The temptation to use dramatic and exaggerated hyperbole in political discourse is well known and should be resisted. Reagan, Thatcher and Howard were not Nazis, and it is equally absurd to dismiss left leaders such as Sanders, Corbyn or our own Daniel Andrews as Leninists. No good is served by exaggeration and glib insults, even if some of our leaders make some of us very angry. We need a sense of proportion: unbridled and immoderate abuse effectively trivialises the far more brutal tyrannies of Hitler and Stalin.

But it’s a slippery slope from minor to major transgressions, and we all agree in theory with Acton’s judgement that absolute power corrupts absolutely. None of today’s Western democracies can be seriously likened to the horror regimes of the mid-20th century by anyone who has the slightest knowledge of the facts.

But that said, it would be foolish indeed to say, as some do, that full-blown Nazism “can’t happen here”. Have you ever heard someone say that Hitler rose to power because the German people are gullible and easily led? I have, many times, and I think it’s dangerous nonsense. Please God it won’t ever happen here, but it could happen in any human community — if the conditions are favourable to it.

This is assuredly not just a German thing. We have seen in more recent living memory the awfulness of Pol Pot’s class-driven vendetta, the part that children played as betrayers of their elders in Stalinist Russia and the Cultural Revolution in China, the repression of North Koreans, and the ruthlessness of Islamic State.

Under any such tyranny children suffer most, for their inexperienced hearts are readily open to persuasion and their whole lives can be ruined by early radicalisation. Hitler quickly learned to put the innocence of German children to work. Others have too, and others will if we are not constantly alert.

We are skating on thin ice. Here are some worrying trends in modern Western societies:

  • Adults are increasingly shirking their responsibilities as leaders and educators, passing the buck to schools, yet not supporting the schools when hard disciplinary decisions have to be made. Indeed discipline is a word we all try to avoid.
  • Systematic history teaching has almost disappeared from schools, having been replaced by a gormless sort of “social studies” curriculum. Children are profoundly ignorant of current events and the background to them. Fanaticism thrives on ignorance.
  • Children’s views are being taken too seriously by adults who woo them by pandering to their opinions, however ill informed. Witness movements to lower the voting age to 16, and the eagerness with which world leaders fell over themselves to give an audience to Greta Thunberg!
  • The mushrooming of demands for sexual re-assignment, and the willing acquiescence of adults in allowing minors to undergo radical therapies is being extended in some jurisdictions to give pre-pubescent children the authority to make decisions in defiance of pastoral and parental advice.

The great weakness of adults who have lost their moral compass, who are drifting in a world that is losing all sense of objective truth, exposes us to considerable danger. There are few signs that the danger is easing. We desperately need more and more people of courage to buck the trend, people who have the hardihood to laugh in the face of the cowardly Twittersphere, and shrug off its calumnies.

All the miseries I have sketched above are symptoms, though, of a greater problem, a problem that few of us in a secular world want to face. Christians call it Original Sin, secularists deny its existence entirely, preferring to believe that all humans are basically decent and will always do the right thing. They hold to this view in the face of very considerable evidence (I would say overwhelming, but one tries to be charitable) that it is false.

Yet the Christian and secular positions are not entirely contrasting, despite appearances. Christians actually believe that all things God created are good, but that they are corruptible. Christians recognise the existence of evil, but they believe in forgiveness and redemption and are, in the final analysis, the most optimistic of people. A world without religion denies evil, hopes for the best, and is always disappointed.

So how do we, in our confused and troubled secular world, prevent the abuse of children by such organisations as the Hitler Youth? By sticking to our guns and shoring up our secular friends until such time as they can see beyond the symptoms to the causes. That’s a challenge than calls for more than human help!

David Daintree is Director of the Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies, in Hobart, Tasmania.