On this date in 1944, the Gestapo publicly hanged 13 men without trial at an S-Bahn station near Cologne.
Heavily bombed by the Allies in World War II, the Rhineland industrial center had spawned two overlapping anti-Nazi movements both represented in this evil baker’s dozen. Their purchase on posterity’s laurels of anti-Nazi “resistance” has been debated ever since.
The first of these were the Edelweiss Pirates (English Wikipedia entry | German), a thousands-strong network of dissident young people dating back to the 1930s after Berlin made youth membership in the Sieg Heiling Hitler Youth (HJ) mandatory.
Often derogated as mere “delinquents”* — who failed to articulate “a positive view of goals”** — the heavily working-class Edelweißpiraten were expressly delinquent from the Third Reich’s project of youth indoctrination.
“Our banding together occurred primarily because the HJ was dominated by a certain compulsion to which we did not want to submit,” one “pirate” declared to Gestapo interrogators. Another said that his clique simply wanted “to spend our leisure time going on trips as free boys and to do and act as we pleased.”†
Many looked longingly back on the Bündische Jugend, romantic and far less authoritarian traditions of youth outdoorsmanship that the new regime had suppressed.‡ These pirates shirked their Hitler Youth “responsibilities” and did their rambling without odious political officers, repurposing old hiking tunes into confrontational subversive songs that they backed up with a penchant for fistfights with the HJ. A song of one band, the Navajos, ran:
Hitler’s power may lay us low,
And keep us locked in chains.
But we will smash the chains one day.
We’ll be free again.
For hard are our fists,
Yes! And knives at our wrists,
For the freedom of youth
The Navajos fight.
We march by the banks of the Ruhr and the Rhine
And smash the Hitler Youth in twain.
Our song is freedom, love, and life.
We’re Pirates of the Edelweiss.
Maybe one ought to see these as a totalitarian state’s edition of nascent 20th century youth counterculture, rejecting the stultifying ideology imposed upon them but not yet sure of their own project.
The discourse parsing the degree of “criminality” in youth defying a criminal society strikes the author as an all too precious critique from the security of the postwar world. These pirates might make for less congenial martyr figures than the likes of Sophie Scholl but in the end, they took desperate risks to maintain a sphere of freedom in circumstances of inconceivable peril. Not much adult opposition to Hitlerism with proper manifestos did better than they.
And the Pirates had a handle on larger stakes than their own jollity. Many gangs listened to outlawed foreign broadcasts, committed acts of politically charged vandalism and sabotage, and hid army deserters or Jews. Certainly the authorities viewed them politically when they were subjected to Gestapo torture.
Some current and former Edelweiss Pirates were among the young people in increasingly war-ravaged Cologne who in 1943-44 came under the sway of an escaped concentration camp prisoner named Hans Steinbrück. His “Steinbrück Group” (or “Ehrenfeld Group”, for the suburb where they had their headquarters and, eventually, gallows), the second faction represented in the November 10 hangings, had a more distinctly criminal cast — stealing food and trading it on the black market.
Steinbrück, who claimed anti-fascist motives of his own, was also ready to ratchet up the associated violence past adolescent brawling. He stockpiled illegal weapons and had his gang shoot several actual or suspected gendarmes on a “Nazi hunt” shortly before their arrest. He would ultimately be accused of plotting with Eidelweiss Pirate Barthel Schink to blow up a Gestapo headquarters. The activities of the Ehrenfeld Group in particular have been controversial for many years: were they resisters, or merely gangsters who conveniently appropriated a patina of anti-fascist activism?
Under whatever label, their activities were far too much to fly as youthful transgression; Heinrich Himmler himself ordered the Ehrenfeld gang busted up in the autumn of 1944. Sixty-three in all were arrested of whom “only” the 13 were extrajudicially executed: Hans Steinbrück, Günther Schwarz, Gustav Bermel, Johann Müller, Franz Rheinberger, Adolf Schütz, Bartholomäus Schink, Roland Lorent, Peter Hüppeler, Josef Moll, Wilhelm Kratz, Heinrich Kratina, and Johann Krausen. (Via)
* They would survive the end of the war and prove defiant of the Allied occupation authorities too, which is one reason they had to fight until 2005 for political rehabilitation. Perry Biddiscombe explores this Pirates’ situation in occupied postwar Germany in “‘The Enemy of Our Enemy’: A View of the Edelweiss Piraten from the British and American Archives,” Journal of Contemporary History, January 1995.
** Hans-Christian Brandenburg in The History of the Hitler Youth)
† Both quoted by Daniel Horn in “Youth Resistance in the Third Reich: A Social Portrait,” Journal of Social History, Autumn 1973.
‡ Hence the Edelweiss — a Wandervogel symbol.