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Girls in Uniform

By Pine, Lisa | History Today, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Girls in Uniform

Pine, Lisa, History Today

Lisa Pine explores the impact of the BDM Nazi girls' movement and discusses both the opportunities and constraints it presented to young German women

GERMAN YOUTH was extremely important to the Nazis in the creation of a new Volksgemeinschaft or `national community'. Their Staatsjugend or National Youth Movement, comprising the Hitlerjugend (HJ), Hitler Youth, for boys and the Bund Deutscher Madel (BDM), League of German Maidens, for girls, was part of the regime's attempt to reorder German society in line with its own ideological imperatives. The HJ was set up in 1926 and the BDM in 1930. Both were for those aged fourteen to eighteen. By the end of 1934 total membership of these organisations had reached 1.5 million. Younger boys and girls aged ten to fourteen were recruited into the Deutsches Jungvolk and Jungmadelbund respectively.

Youth was seen as the dynamic force, the catalyst for change away from the old, decaying political system. Young people were malleable enough, in general, to be instilled with the central tenets of the Nazi Weltanschauung. Having swept away the values of the past and been inculcated with Nazi ideology, contemporary German youth would grow up to become the embodiment of the `national community' of the future. Ernst Krieck, a leading Nazi education theorist, described the youth as the bearer of the principle of the German revolution, out of which would develop `a new nation, a new form of humanity and a new order of living space'.

Many girls were attracted to the BDM because it allowed them to escape from their tedious home lives, where they were usually under the constant scrutiny of their parents. It gave them opportunities to get away on hikes and camping trips and to take part in group activities. In her autobiography, Margarete Hannsmann, a former BDM member, describes how, within the organisation, `girls did what hitherto only boys were allowed to do'. Renate Finckh, another member, joined the organisation in order `to feel important' and `not excluded from the world of adults'. The BDM held particular appeal to girls from middle-class families. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 had shattered confidence and led to financial hardships and tensions in many middle-class households. The children of such families were traditionally subjected to strong parental discipline, and girls felt especially intimidated by their fathers. The BDM offered them a chance to overcome feelings of insecurity, uselessness and constriction. Some girls even joined the BDM as an act of rebellion against their parents. The movement gave them a sense of camaraderie, involvement in their national cause, excitement and independence. Melita Maschmann, a former BDM leader, has described how she wished to escape from her `childish, narrow life' and `to follow a different road from the conservative one prescribed ... by family tradition'. Many of her contemporaries joined the BDM for similar reasons.

In this respect, the organisation had a modernising and liberating effect upon German girls. However, in place of parental influence came state authority and social control.

The Nazi regime claimed that youth autonomy and the principle of self-leadership were central to its youth groups, but in practice, as in all Nazi formations, individual independence was not valued. Members were bound to a community of peers, and above and beyond that, to the community of the nation. The BDM fostered independence neither among its members nor its leaders. It was not an aggregate of the individual personalities of the girls who attended, but rather a community into which individuality was dissolved. This community ethos, which formed a central part of the character formation of those who joined, was closely tied to Nazi ideology. There may have been a degree to which individuals involved believed they were acting on their own initiatives, but this feeling was manufactured. They were, instead, being manipulated in line with a broader socialisation process.

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