The Edelweiss Pirates: Badass German Teens Who Fought The Hitler Youth

They ran in gangs, they hid in the woods and they beat up Hitler Youth. They were awesome.

One of the great mysteries of World War II is how the German people simply gave in to the incredible evil of the Nazis. To some this is so unfathomable it can only be ascribed to a national failing, or a specificity of time and place. The reality is that the Nazi takeover was gradual enough to be seen as reversable but then brutal enough to be unstoppable. But while many were cowed by the vicious retribution of the Nazis, some stood tall and fought back. And they happened to be kids, aged 12 to 17.

The Edelweiss Pirates - called that because of the custom edelweiss badges many wore - were a very loosely affiliated movement. It was like the punk of 1930s Germany - anti-authoritarian kids with similar musical tastes (in this case swing and jazz) chafing against the system. Except their system happened to be National Socialism.

There had been youth movements in Germany before the Nazi takeover, but in 1936 they were all disbanded and membership in the Hitler Youth was made mandatory. The Hitler Youth was paramiitary, highly structured, no fun, gender segregated and plain old evil. Many kids happily - or begrudgingly - joined the Hitler Youth, but there were a whole bunch who wanted nothing to do with it. These largely working class kids - perhaps thousands of them - formed their own secret social orders, doing their own secret things. They did stuff that every teenager recognizes:  they hung out in parks, cafes and on street corners, against the rules. They grew their hair long and wore colorful clothes. They would escape out into the forests and mountains for unauthorized weekend camping trips, away from Nazi eyes, where they could party (with members of the opposite sex, denied under Hitler Youth rules) and listen to jazz and swing, music that had been banned by the authorities. Eventually they began traveling to other regions - something illegal in strictly controlled Germany - to meet up with other groups.

The different groups had the kinds of colorful names children would give to themselves. Essen had the Farhtenstenze - The Traveling Dudes. There were the Kittlebach Pirates in Dusseldorf. In Cologne they were the Navajos. All of these Lost Boys names must have begun to inspire them; as the war progressed and things got grimmer the Pirates escalated their activities from hanging around, mixing with members of the opposite sex and listening to race music to actual subversion. The very acts of hanging around and having fun were technically illegal, and the Pirates would run into Hitler Youth Streifendienst patrols; sometimes they would run, but sometimes they would fight (the unofficial Pirate motto was "Eternal War With The Hitler Youth"), and it seems like the Pirates won more often than they lost.

They began spraypainting anti-Nazi slogans on walls ("Down With Hitler!" and "Medals for Murder!"). They collected anti-Nazi leaflets that had been dropped by the Allies and stuffed them into mailboxes, where they couldn't be missed. They threw bricks through Nazi windows and poured sugar into the gas tanks of official Nazi cars. There are reports of Pirates helping Jews and army deserters get out of the country. They raided military bases for explosives and arms. They derailed trains and stole supplies, which they would give to the hungry or to partisan fighters. They upped their activities to the point where the Navajos made a plan to blow up the main Gestapo headquarters in Cologne. Basically they were the original Wolverines.

The Navajos weren't able to carry out their plan. Jean Julich, one of the ringleaders, was captured and tortured for four months. He was 15. His friend, Bartholomaeus (Barthel) Schink was hung in public, days shy of his 17th birthday. Schink was accused of killing five people, but there was no trial - he was summarily executed, along with other suspected Pirates. 

After the fall of the Nazi regime things didn't automatically get better. The Pirates weren't interested in being bossed around by anybody, and that included the Allies and the Communists. The Allied Forces that took West Germany found themselves at odds with the still anti-authoritarian kids, who kept pranking and subverting the new order. Things were tougher in the Soviet zones, where Edelweiss Pirates battled Soviet Russians, and where membership in a Pirate group carried an automatic 25 year prison sentence.

Because the Pirates didn't submit meekly to the new order they found themselves shoved aside from the history books. It wasn't until 2005 that their criminal categorization (placed on the books by the Gestapo) was dropped by Germany, and they were officially recognized as resistance fighters. Today Barthel Schink has a street named after him in Cologne.

This was one of the songs the Navajos wrote for themselves:

Hitler's dictates make us small,
we're yet bound in chains.
But one day we'll again walk tall,
no chain can us restrain.
For hard are our fists,
Yes! And knives at our wrists,
for youth to be free,
Navajos lay siege.