Hitler’s regime corrupted an impressionable generation.
NAZI INDOCTRINATION BEGAN with the systematic brainwashing of German youth from early childhood—a practice made vivid in a permanent exhibit at Germany’s Bunker Museum of Hagen.
“Our visitors are thoroughly shocked about the deceitful toys that are displayed in our exhibit,” called Hitler’s Invasion of Children’s Rooms, curator Michaela Beiderbeck told World War II. “Few people today are aware of just how much children were manipulated in the Third Reich.” Following Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933, German toy manufacturers voluntarily produced Nazi-themed items to capitalize on the success of the new regime. Children as young as two or three were given puzzles with Wehrmacht military scenes as toys. “The children grew up believing that soldiers, war, heroism, and death were completely normal aspects of everyday life,” Beiderbeck said. “This was an attempt to prevent future generations from questioning Nazi policies.”
The regime’s targeting of young Germans was methodical. No child was safe from exposure to Nazi propaganda at home, play, or school, the exhibit shows. Beiderbeck said she particularly wanted to shed light on children’s stolen innocence. “I believe this topic is very, very important,” she said, “because it clarifies to observers that the regime conditioned a generation who could not recognize that all these militaristic, inhumane values were wrong, because all these subjects were ‘sold’ to them in day-to-day life as correct.” ✯
This Brownshirt doll from the Bunker Museum of Hagen was made in 1935 and intended for three- and four-year-old children. Like many Nazi toys, the doll—in the dress of the early Nazi militia—features blond hair and blue eyes to advance the regime’s racial ideals.
Nazi U-boat commander and war hero Joachim Schepke shows a model of a German submarine to a young boy in 1941. A constant onslaught of Nazi-themed toys created an environment where “children and youth accustomed to war games would volunteer for military service as early as age 15,” notes the Bunker Museum’s Michaela Beiderbeck. Nazi propaganda encouraged children to die for Hitler and the regime. (Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)
Board games such as "Vereint-gegen den Feind" ("United Against the Enemy") were common playthings. During the war years, with German industries channeling their efforts into producing war materiel, toy manufacturers had access to paper products only. As the war dragged on, manufacturers’ resources further dwindled—as did their audience, with young boys and Hitler Youth deployed to fight.
In the board game "Durch Kampf zum Sieg!" ("Through Struggle to Victory!"), players participate in the Nazis’ 1933 rise to power. Beiderbeck calls this game (pictured above and below) the rarest and most frightening item in the exhibit. “Hitler was always distinctly celebrated as the strong Führer and was also featured as a hero in scenes in children’s magazines, but this game literally revolves entirely around him on the playing board,” she says.
Cover art for the Eagle Air Defense Game shows a British bomber crashing in flames. A majority of Nazi board games focused on air battles and demonized Allied airmen. Play involved identifying, reporting, and destroying enemy planes—all intended to incite hostility. The tactic apparently worked: during the war, German townspeople often massacred Allied aircrews who crash-landed in Germany.
Like many similar toys, this smiling Hitler figurine had a flexible right arm to familiarize children with the Hitlergruß (Hitler greeting). The Nazis were sensitive to disrespect and mockery. When toy makers produced a Hitler Christmas ornament, the Führer found it too “kitschy,” Beiderbeck explains, motivating him in 1934 to pass an “Anti-Kitsch Law for the examination of all products before they were sold on the market.”
This set of puzzle blocks glamorizing war was intended for two- to four-year-olds, with images designed to shape their views. The scene in the foreground shows mounted soldiers deploying; an idealized German village is in the background. Families are minimized at a distance—Nazism emphasized duty to the state. Strikingly, a tombstone appears in the lower left corner, an indication that Nazi-inspired manufacturers wished to familiarize even the very young with the concept of death.
The Nazi regime sought to appeal to idealistic teenagers through books like “Utz Fights for Hitler” and “Ulla: A Hitler Maiden” (both 1933).
Both main characters experience difficulties until events and persuasive arguments help convert them to diehard Nazism. The two characters also have German names of non-Christian origin, reflecting the
Nazi Party’s goal of creating a new state religion based on nationalism.
A swastika-shaped cookie cutter makes disturbingly clear, Beiderbeck says, “that the swastika as the symbol of the Nazi Party was all-present,” with the totalitarian regime even taking control of “baked goods for children.”
All images courtesy of the Bunker Museum of Hagen (Germany), except where noted.
This article was published in the August 2020 issue of World War II.