Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Hitler Youth and Literature, an interesting correlation

Last night as I was doing some research in a book about the Hitler Youth organization for my WIP, I stumbled on to some information I found very interesting. Though it won’t help me as far as my novel is concerned, the words on the page made me sit up and take notice, especially as a writer for young readers. The particular chapter of interest was about literature and its role in Hitler Youth.

In quick review, Hitler Youth was an organization set up in pre-WWII Germany to help Hitler rise to power. After Hitler gained power it continued as a mechanism to instill his ideals in the German youth, teach racial purity, and eventually train the young people to fight in his armies. Near the end of the war, as the man power of Germany dwindled, Hitler drew upon the Hitler Youth as a source for more soldiers. Boys as young as fourteen were drafted and forced to fight the losing battles.

The novel I am working on, Hitler’s Promise, is about one such boy. It is based upon a true story of a young German boy forced to join the Hitler Youth (as were all young boys and girls in the early 1940’s) and his struggle with wanting to follow God, but having to serve an evil man like Hitler.

Now back to the tidbit I found so interesting. A whole chapter of this book (which was lent to me by the 83 year old gentlemen from Saarbruecken, Germany whose story I am writing, and written by one of his peers, another former Hitler Youth, Professor H.W. Koch of Munich, Germany) was dedicated to literature and its relationship with the Hitler Youth program. It seems that the nefarious leaders of the Hitler Youth organization recognized the powerful role that literature has upon the minds of the youth. Not only did they try to eliminate books that cast a poor light upon Hitler’s advancing empire and ethnic cleansing, they encouraged Y.A. authors of the day to write books according to their tight lists of requirements. During this period of time many books were banned, especially adventure books that took place outside of Germany and with heroes and problems that were not relevant to Nazi Germany and its propaganda, especially books with ethnic characters. They were replaced with books about war, and unrealistic Arian heroes that behaved how Hitler wanted them to, not ones with interesting storylines. What they wanted was literature aimed to appeal to the emotions, elicit reactions of blind obedience and total surrender and cement a “fanatical faith in the Third Reich and in the Fuhrer, whose legacy they will one day have to preserve.”

In essence, they were using literature to brainwash the youth of Germany.

But thankfully many youth turned away from most forms of this direct propaganda. As war increasingly became a grim reality, the less were war books in demand. The kids wouldn’t read them; they wanted an escape from the horrors of war, not something that aggrandized it. The propaganda defeated its own end.

The Hitler Youth leaders could not control what was read in a child’s own home, or control church libraries. There were always the “smuggled” books. Kid knew what they liked to read, just as they do now. There are elements of good fiction, and though kids couldn’t tell you what they are, they know when they have a good book in their hands. They know when a book is written to get across one’s agenda.

Unfortunately, because many children were forced to read these propaganda based books, they did have a measure of effect on the youth of Germany. “The party’s control function and its intervention in the sector of youth book production was unprecedented, and would inevitably have resulted in serious psychological damage among German youth had the Third Reich lasted even a generation, rather than the promised thousand years.”

What this chapter about Hitler Youth and literature did to me was to open my eyes to the power that lies within my grasp as a writer of youth fiction. Kids have always turned to literature as a source of entertainment and escape, and they will continue to do so. What we as writers create can entertain them, uplift and edify them, or brainwash them. The kids of the Hitler Youth had little freedom and choice in what they read. But the kids of today are bombarded by more choices, authors, and access to books than in any other time in history. What a heavy responsibility rests on the shoulders of Y.A. authors. We can choose to follow the growing trend of infusing a good story with trash and writing it with graphic immoral content because “that is what life is really like out there.” Or we can choose to write something that is not only entertaining, but can infuse them with goodness, truth, and self-confidence. Kids need to read to escape from that grim reality, just like those Hitler Youth needed to escape from the realities of war. We shouldn’t be touting trash like it is normal and good, but giving them other alternatives; giving them hope.

Two months ago at the LTUE conference at BYU, renowned author, Brandon Sanderson mentioned that there was only two times in his life he remembered the Spirit telling him what to do. The first was to marry his wife. The second was to become a writer. But not just any writer, one of wholesome uplifting literature. I too, feel that same “calling” (for lack of a better word. I have met many other Y.A. authors out there with good values and are endeavoring to do the same. I really feel that God knows that in these perilous times there is a need more than ever to have good options in literature available for the youth of today.

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