“Live faithfully, fight bravely, die laughing”:
The Behavioral Socialization of German Boys
in the pre-war Hitler Youth
Middle Tennessee State University
In this article, Nancy Rupprecht discusses the implementation of the Reich Youth Leadership’s personality profile for German boys that was structured to create enthusiastic and obedient future soldiers for the Third Reich. To that end, German youth was systematically steeped in National Socialist ideals in which they were expected to believe, and behavioral traits they were required to exhibit. The values that the Hitler Youth organization sought to inculcate included bravery, courage, toughness, discipline, duty, loyalty, obedience, selflessness, sacrifice and sacrifice-readiness (Opferbereitschaft). These values were designed to socialize boys to sacrifice their lives for their nation without hesitation. To achieve this goal, Adolf Hitler planned to create a new being who would set aside personal ambitions in order to be totally loyal, unconditionally obedient and utterly submerged in National Socialist racial ideology.
Rupprecht suggests that none of the behavioral values were new. Grouped together they might serve as a personality profile for warriors in any authoritarian society. The primary ideological contribution of the Reich Youth Leadership was to infuse these ideals with National Socialist racial content. Ideals that had been depicted as essentially apolitical were redefined in distinctly National Socialist terms. The Reich Youth Leadership strove to solidify German children’s commitment to these values. Because followers have to believe fervently in an ideology before major changes in personal behavior and attitudes can be demanded of them, the ideal of faith was the cornerstone upon which all subsequent behavioral ideals were built. Belief in Hitler and the German fatherland served as the twin foundations for that faith. Hitler Youth members sometimes were characterized as “young fighters” or “young soldiers” for National Socialism.
Despite clichés to the contrary, psychologists assure us that familiarity breeds not contempt but acceptance. By frequent individual and communal professions of personal commitment to the behavioral ideals, the ritual of public avowal became a socializing agent for them. No aspect of the Reich Youth Leadership’s socialization process was more crucial than the Hitler Youth member’s acceptance of the ideals of selflessness and sacrifice. Without the willingness of Hitler Youth members to subordinate their private desires to Reich Youth Leadership authority—as soldiers subordinate themselves to military authority—HJ members would not have followed orders that seemed antithetical to their self-interests.
Unconditional obedience to orders was the lynchpin of the RJF’s system of behavioral socialization. German boys were groomed to sacrifice themselves for the whole. Rupprecht argues that this willingness to live and die on command was the final piece in the jigsaw puzzle of behavioral values designed by the Reich Youth Leadership to transform German boys into both political and military soldiers for the German future.