A Footnote to History: Boys as German Soldiers during WW2

I have always been fascinated how a youngster would cope with the ardours of war. In the case of the indoctrinated youths of the Hitler Jugend perhaps that were able to endure it as they were supposedly the Herrenvolk, Master Race. Notwithstanding that, can the level of brainwashing overcome the trauma of war? This blog contrasts two such callow youths.

The best known example is a 15 year old lad by the name of Wilhelm “Willi” Hubner in March 1945. Hubner, short for his age, possessed the visage of a 10 year old and the vocal register or pitch of a young child. With a naivety belying the deadly job that he was performing, he fixed his gaze on Hitler as he approached the squad of German youths about to be rewarded for their acts of valour.

Main picture: Adolf Hitler congratulating Hitlerjugend boys including Wilhelm Hubner

Outside the purportedly impregnable Fuhrerbunker, these unlikely war heroes lined up beside a wall near the Reich’s Chancellery, now abandoned due to Allied air attacks. This whole sequence of events was to form part of filmed episode of the morale boosting weekly newsreel entitled “Die Deutsche Wochenschau” Nummer 755” – “The German Weekly Review Number 755”. Even at this late stage in the war with the Soviets inexorably closing in on Berlin, the Reichsminister für Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels had arranged one final newsreel. The stars of this show would be the twenty young boys receiving their very own copy of the Eisernes Kreuz (“Iron Cross”) Second Class.

Auszeichnung des Hitlerjungen Willi Hübner
For one last time, Hitler would appear in a propaganda newsreel. The fusion of youthful innocence and Hitler’s charisma was supposed to re-invigorate a despairing volk. In his stiff Nazi Officers cap and full-length great coat, Hitler wanders along the line of boys. As Hitler approaches Hubner, he grasps the cheeks of the excited child. As if Hubner were an infant, he then gently pats his cheek with the hand not afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. In front of the cameras Hubner recounts his war time experiences in the tone of a child attempting to impress his teacher. Before shuffling off, Hitler mumbles some words of gratitude and then he is gone.

alfred-czech

Alfred Czech at 12 years old, the youngest recipient of the coveted Iron Cross

What an exhilarating experience for such an impressionable youth except that the Germans were losing the war. Disastrous losses had been inflicted on the Central Front as the amassed Soviet forces overran 26 Divisions. It was then left to the young boys in the Hitler Jugend and the old men in the Volksturm mainly armed with a crude form of anti-tank grenade called a Panzerfaust to prevent the imminent collapse of the Third Reich.

Indoctrimation started at am early age

Indoctrination started at an early age

What the newsreel did not state was that Hubner had actually earned his Iron Cross in the retaking of the town of Lauban on 6th March, 1945. Hubner was a messenger attached to the Fuhrer-Grenadier-Division and was decorated for bravery under fire in the city square on March 9.

Hubner was then flown to Berlin, given a new uniform, and after waiting a short time, was redecorated by Artur Axmann, the Reichjugendfuhrer [Reich Youth Leader].

Wilhelm Hubner receiving his Iron Cross from Artur Axman

Wilhelm Hubner receiving his Iron Cross from Artur Axman

Over refreshments in the Fuhrerbunker after the ceremony outside, Hitler who had been impressed with Hubner’s enthusiasm and courage personally questioned him about his experiences as a messenger. In all probability the tales related by Hubner reminded Hitler of his own experiences during WW1 as a messenger.

After the war, Hubner appeared in several documentaries about the Hitler Youth, including “V Was for Victory” and “The World at War” where I first saw him. In 1973 Hubner appeared with Erwin Scheideweg, a fellow member of the Hitler Jugend, in a Dutch Television documentary entitled “Die Hitlerjugend.”

Hitler Youth Parade in 1933

Hitler Youth Parade in 1933

In marked contrast to Hubner’s heroic story, the second vignette is about Hans-Georg Henke, a 16 year old soldier in an anti-aircraft detachment of the Luftwaffe. His father died in 1938 but when his mother died in 1944 leaving the family destitute, Hans-Georg had to find work in order to support the family. At 15 years of age he joined the Luftwaffe.

Hans-Georg Henke#1

As a son of a former Communist sympathiser, Hans-Georg himself joined the Communist party and went to live in Finstewald in East Germany after the war. Unlike the hordes that crossed from East to West Germany during the period before the erection of the Berlin Wall, Hans-Georg did the exact opposite. Perhaps it is for this reason that he changed the story of why he was crying so inconsolably in these photographs.

According to the story that Henke maintained throughout his life – he died in 1997 – he was based in Stettin with a battery of 88mm guns. As the Russians advanced so the German forces were pushed back towards Rostock. It was here where the Russians finally overran their unit, that these photographs were taken.

Hans-Georg Henke#3
The alternative story is given by an American photo-journalist John Florea. He alleges that he took these photographs in Hessen, in the village of Hüttenberg-Rechtenbach, which is just north of Frankfurt am Main.

The area in which the photos of Hans-Georg were taken is incontrovertibly Hessen. A number of photos taken clearly show areas of the town which still exist today. Furthermore as these photos indicate, he was bearing boots when captured and not, as he alleged later, with rags on his feet.

On another aspect there is also a difference of opinion. John Florea is adamant that Hans-Georg is not sobbing because his world had crumbled but rather due to combat shock after being overrun by the American forces.

Hans-Georg Henke#4
The sole motive for Henke dissembling on this issue must relate to the fact that he elected to join the Communist Party and live in East Germany. The East German Communists regarded all those who had surrendered to the Americans as a potential third force. To cover his tracks, Henke changed the story from being overrun by Americans to being captured by the Russians.

Notwithstanding that, these photographs have been used extensively to illustrate the effect of the world crumbling around the German populace.

Hans-Georg Henke#2
The effect of the defeat on a normal youth like Hans-Georg was probably initially worse and that of a member of the Hitler Jugend but probably many members of the Hitler Youth would have been deeply embittered for the rest of their lives.

Hans-Georg Henke#5

Hans-Georg Henke during an interview with the Western Press at which he presented a conflicting account of the events that led to this episode

Hence they would have found it difficult to come to terms with Germany’s collapse and defeat.

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