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Edelweiss Pirates

The Anti-Hitler Youth

Barthel Schink was a German teenager who led a resistance movement of Hitler Youth dropouts who fought Nazi tyranny.

Born to a postal worker and a homemaker in Cologne in 1927, Barthel was one of five children. Like millions of other young Germans he was conscripted into the Hitler Youth, the only legally permitted youth group in the country (the Boy Scouts were banned in 1935.)  Membership was mandatory for Aryan boys, even if their parents objected. Parents were informed that children who didn’t join would be taken from their homes and placed in orphanages. There was a similar youth organization for girls, but the focus was on turning young boys into eager warriors for their Fuhrer.

By 1940, the paramilitary group had eight million members, all of whom were being brainwashed in weekly meetings and rallies to support Nazi ideology.

The brainwashing did not work on Barthel. He was uncomfortable with the forced conformity and militaristic ideology of the Hitler Youth movement. He started getting together for hikes and bike rides with other disaffected Hitler Youth who, like Barthel, had a moral compass and critical thinking skills.They called themselves the Edelweiss Pirates, named for the Edelweiss badges they wore on their jackets. A sturdy flower that grew in the Alps, the Edelweiss became a symbol of resistance. Something of a street gang, these working-class teenagers had long hair and wore colorful clothing that set them apart from the somber, bland attire of the Hitler Youth. They listened to and sang “unapproved” music by Jewish composers, a crime punishable by arrest. The Pirates appreciated the freedom that came with breaking the Hitler Youth’s restrictive rules, but Barthel wanted to do more than have a good time. He wanted to fight the Nazi regime.

Under Barthel’s leadership, the Pirates started playing “pranks” like pouring sugar water into the gas tanks of Nazi vehicles. They spray-painted walls and buildings in the dead of night with slogans such as “Down with Hitler” and “No More Nazi Brutality.” Their motto was “Eternal War on the Hitler Youth.”

The grass-roots movement spread throughout Germany, with Edelweiss Pirate cells in major cities like Dusseldorf, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Leipzig. They were able to identify each other because of the Edelweiss pin and their noncomformist style of dress. The largest group was Barthel’s crew in Cologne. Some of the boys dropped out of school to avoid conscription in the Hitler Youth, and they got jobs in factories or mills.

The Pirates’ anti-Nazi activities escalated from attacking Hitler Youth patrols to stealing from Nazi supply lines, looting Nazi warehouses, and dropping anti-Nazi leaflets in city centers. They committed brazen acts of sabotage such as derailing train cars and disrupting Nazi supply chains. They wanted to join the Allied forces to fight Nazis on the battlefield. When Pirates were captured their heads were shaved to humiliate them, then they were beaten and sent to reform schools, psych wards, or labor camps. Despite the danger, some Edelweiss Pirates groups shielded German deserters and escaped labor camp prisoners.

In July 1944, Barthel and several other Pirates were arrested for planning to blow up a Gestapo headquarters in Cologne. They were imprisoned and tortured for four months. On November 10, 1944, a gallows was set up on a public thoroughfare in Cologne. Barthel Schink and four other teen Edelweiss Pirates, along with seven adult members of the anti-Nazi resistance, were hanged in front of hundreds of Nazis. Barthel was 16 years old.

Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem honored the Edelweiss Pirates as Righteous Among the Nations in 1998, but their story has not been widely known. Female Pirate Gertrud Koch, who survived the war, explained to a reporter, “We were from the working classes. That is the main reason why we have only now been recognized. After the war there were no judges in Germany so the old Nazi judges were used and they upheld the criminalization of what we did and who we were.” Gertrud spent decades urging the German government to recognize the Pirates’ heroism, and finally in 2005 they were “politically rehabilitated.” Their criminal status was invalidated and they were officially honored as resistance fighters and heroes. The street where the public execution took places has been named Schink Strasse and there is a plaque recognizing Berthel and the other martyred Edelweiss Pirates.

For sacrificing their young lives to resist the Nazis, we honor Barthel Schink and the Edelweiss Pirates as this week’s Thursday Heroes.

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