When one raises the topic of the German resistance, one often gets responses along the lines of '...er...German resistance?' The received wisdom when talking to Germans is 'don't mention the war'. But just try discussing this topic and you may get a surprise.
Of course, many Germans did not support Hitler, and a courageous few took active stands against Nazism. The names of Pastor Niemoller1 and Oskar Schindler reside in popular memory and the story of the officers led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, who almost succeeded in killing Hitler in 1943, is widely known. The exploits of the White Rose students are also acknowledged to some extent (at least among Germans)2. But resistance was also provided by various youth groups whose stories remain largely untold.
The Swing Kids
Of these groups, the most apolitical were perhaps the swing clubs, groups of youths with a shared interest in Jazz. British and American music was not actually banned in Nazi Germany3, but clearly those with an interest in African-American culture would naturally be antipathetic to the Nazis' Aryanist ideals, and swing clubs tended to be open to association with Jewish friends.
Members of swing clubs defined themselves by the term Lottern (sleaziness) and their musical interests went hand-in-hand with a desire to undermine the sexual mores of Nazi orthodoxy. As in the US and Britain, the jitterbug was believed to be a particular threat to public decency. The Hitler-Jugend (Hitler Youth) would regularly attend swing parties as spies and their reports often concentrated on the overtly sexual nature of the dancing.
Membership of swing clubs was mostly middle class and members were not generally involved in political activity. However, their need to listen to overseas radio stations to hear their music will have brought them into contact with allied propaganda, and it is believed that some were instrumental in spreading this. They would also have a natural affinity with the English language, needed to understand their beloved jazz records. Despite these connections, swing clubs were tolerated until 1940, when a gathering in Hamburg drew alarm when it was attended by 500 youths. After this, jazz appreciation went largely underground. On 2 January, 1942, Heinrich Himmler wrote to Reinhard Heydrich calling on him to clamp down on the ringleaders of the Swing movement, recommending a few years in a concentration camp with beatings and forced labour.
The Helmuth Hubener Group
The Helmut Hubener Group were in some ways the antithesis of the Swing Kids. The resistance group led by Helmuth Hubener included Gehard Duwer, Karl-Heinz Schnibbe, and Rudi Wobbe. With the exception of Duwer, they were all members of the church of Latter Day Saints4. They distributed illegal transcriptions of BBC broadcasts and antigovernment leaflets. The Gestapo eventually arrested them. Hubener was executed by guillotine on 27 October, 1942, while the other members received long prison sentences.
The Edelweiss Pirates
Die Edelweißpiraten5 were a disparate assortment of loosely-affiliated gangs. Largely from the working class, they tended to share a subcultural dress-sense (shorts, chequered shirts) which identified them to one another. Many were objectors to membership of the Hitler-Jugend and Bund Deutscher Mädel6 - some in resistance to the strict sex segregation and others because of loyalty to other youth groups which were incorporated into the HJ7. Older members also included deserters and objectors to military and labour service, and these led a shadowy existence living off their wits on the margins of society.
Popular activities amongst the Pirates included beating up HJ leaders, organising hiking trips where they could escape the scrutiny of the authorities (many trips also provided the opportunity to beat up HJ parties similarly engaged), spraying graffiti (a popular slogan was 'Eternal War on Hitler Youth') and generally causing mayhem. As the war progressed, they became more political, and activities included sheltering allied pilots.
The authorities responded harshly to the gangs. Many were rounded up by the Gestapo, had their heads shaved as a mark of shame, and were sent into forced labour. On 25 October, 1944, Heinrich Himmler ordered a crackdown on the groups, and in late November of that year, thirteen Edelweißpiraten were publicly hanged in Cologne. There is a (tiny) plaque commemorating this massacre.
After the war, the Edelweiss Pirates received little recognition, among both the Germans and the Allies. Despite their honourable record of dissent, the Allies ignored them in the political process and they have largely been written out of history.
The Leipzig Meuten
In the working class strongholds such as Leipzig, were found die Meuten ('packs'). These shared many similarities with the Edelweiss Pirates, except they tended to come from more organised socialist or communist traditions. Because of this background, they received more official attention. Between 1937 and 1939 the Gestapo estimated their numbers in Leipzig at 1500. There were complaints that many areas were 'no-go' areas for Nazis, due to the abuse and violence meted out by the Meuten.
The Legacy of Youth
It is by no means clear the extent to which the existence and activities of these groups influenced the outcome of the war. In many cases, it may have amounted to little more than 'opting out' or, at best, a minor annoyance to the authorities. However, it is sometimes salutary for those on the victor's side to remember what has been written out of a history viewed largely from their own perspective. While the atrocities of the Nazis must never be forgotten, we should be careful to avoid attributing blame to the whole of a diverse nation. Within every political system, there are those who choose to differ. They stand as an example to us all.