Podcast episode about anti-fascist youth cultural movements in Nazi Germany before and during World War II. In particular we look at the German Edelweiss Pirates and Swing Kids, the French Zazous and the Austrian Schlurfs.

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Despite years of indoctrination, young people in fascist Europe in the 1930s and 40s resisted the authoritarianism and conformism of Nazi rule. We hear from former Edelweiss Pirate Walter Mayer, and speak with historian Nick Heath about these little-known movements.

  • E72: Swing Kids and Edelweiss Pirates

E72: Swing Kids and Edelweiss Pirates Working Class History

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In Nazi Germany before and during World War II, groups of young people defied years of indoctrination and rebelled against their ultra-hierarchical society. They rejected the militarism, conformism, culture, work ethic and boredom of fascism. Risking arrest, torture, concentration camps and even death, these young people met in underground clubs and in the countryside. They listened to jazz, danced, hiked and fought Nazis in the streets. This is Working Class History.

[Intro music]

Before we get started, just a reminder that our podcast is brought to you by our patreon supporters. Our supporters fund our work, and in return get exclusive early access to podcast episodes without ads, bonus episodes, free and discounted merchandise and other content. For example, our patreon supporters can listen to an exclusive bonus episode now, about similar anti-Nazi youth movements in France and Austria. Join us or find out more at patreon.com/workingclasshistory, link in the show notes.

People who have listened to our show for a long time may remember that our episode 4 was about World War II era  anti-Nazi youth resistance. But like all of our earliest episodes, it was basically raw audio from our interview, so the sound quality was pretty bad and there was no narrative to fill in any gaps, explain context and pull the story together. In addition to producing new podcast episodes, we are also going back over our earliest episodes to re-edit and release them in the new, narrative format we use for all of our later episodes. So this is one of our improved and rereleased episodes, which has additional narrative with better quality audio to explain things more clearly and tell the story in a more cohesive way. So whether you listened to that early episode or not, we  hope you enjoy these ones.

We talked in quite a bit of detail about the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany in our episodes 63-64, about Mildred Fish-Harnack, an activist born in the US who was heavily involved in the resistance in Berlin. So these episodes have more background, and they also go into some detail about certain aspects of resistance to the Nazis, namely in terms of resistance by people who had grown up under democracy, and many of whom had some sort of involvement with the political left.

But there was a whole other side to the resistance as well, from people who for the most part had no involvement with any left parties or groups, and for young people who had been largely raised under the Nazi dictatorship, and didn’t know anything else.

Unlike the established left groups, like the Communist Party (KPD) or the Socialist Party (SPD), the Düsseldorf Pirates didn’t have so much a distinct political ideology as a general culture.

Walter: For us to give you one word, I would say anti-authoritarian. We’re not going into psychoanalysis here but it may be because I hated authority.

This is Walter Meyer, speaking in an interview with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, to whom we are grateful for giving us permission to use this audio.

Walter was a leader of a group called the Edelweiss Pirates in Düsseldorf.

Walter: I really did not hate authority of a benevolent man but authority was always, in my life, somehow related to something bad. My father’s authority meant beating me up. There was nothing positive about the priniciple authorities. With the guys becoming leaders and telling me what to do, that was no good. Anti-authority is probably the answer coupled with a lust for adventure. It was like a gang, and like gangs here, we resented other gangs, resented the police and resented authority. That’s what I did. I resented authority because, to me, authority was negative.

Outside of Düsseldorf, groups of Edelweiss Pirates were also established in towns and cities around Germany.

Nick: They seemed to have been, predominantly, working-class youth who organised against the Hitler Youth and the female equivalent, the Hitler Mädchen.

This is Nick Heath, a historian and member of the Anarchist Communist Group in the UK. Along with many other topics, Nick has researched anti-Nazi youth resistance in Europe in the 1930s and 40s for years, and he has written several articles on the subject. More has become available in recent years, but there is still a real dearth of information about these movements in English, and Nick’s articles were among the first in the English language to bring attention to these movements to an English-speaking audience.

Nick: They organised youth activities in Germany that were common since the 19th century. You had the development of youth groups going out into the countryside to enjoy nature or hike. They were into hiking and they used to like to wear check shirts and red neckerchiefs as well.

Nick: They also had an Edelweiss emblem that they wore.

The edelweiss flower is an Alpine flower which grows in rugged conditions at high altitudes. Ironically, while it became a symbol of resistance to his regime, the edelweiss flower had been Hitler’s favourite flower.

Nick: I think they wanted to show how different they were from the uniformed Hitler Youth by wearing something casual. They wanted to show that they were distinct from this regimented Völkischer group of the Hitler Youth.

By Völkisch, Nick is referring to a German and Austrian ethno-nationalist movement, which saw dominant groups of Austro-German people as a distinct racial or ethnic group. This group crucially excluded Jewish people, people of colour, Roma and Sinti people, LGBT+ people and so on.

The Hitler Youth was established by the Nazi party in the 1920s as a boys’ auxiliary wing to the party, under the remit of the paramilitary SA, or Brownshirts. It was a lot like a scout group. Its sister group for girls, the  League of German Girls (BDM) or Hitler Mädchen, was established a few years later.

By contrast, the Edelweiss Pirates were always mixed groups.

Nick: There were a lot of women involved in the groups, as you can see from some of the photographs. It was very much mixed with equal numbers of young men and young women.

One of the main activities of the Pirates was holding country walks, as well as socialising, and physically confronting their rivals in the Nazi youth groups.

Nick: They were a rambling group, as well as organising in the towns and bashing Nazis.

Walter: Generally, we had meetings at a cafe on King’s Avenue. In Germany, there are a number of streets which are well-known like 5th Avenue but King’s Avenue in Düsseldorf is one of the best-known avenues in the world. It’s gorgeous. It has a river in the middle and all chestnut trees around. There was a cafe and in the back of the cafe was a pool room. We used to play pool and we had our little meetings there.

At the beginning of 1933, the Hitler Youth had around 100,000 members. But after the Nazis took power, the Nazis used the state to encourage and pressure young people into joining, and by the end of the year its membership was over 2 million.

In the early days of Nazism, a lot of young people quite enjoyed being in the Hitler Youth and the BDM. There were activities like sports, camping and games and involvement in the Nazi youth groups gave young people the opportunity to play different authorities off against each other, so they could avoid schoolwork by saying they had to do Hitler Youth work and vice versa.

As the drive to war progressed, the Hitler Youth and the BDM changed to be more a recruiting and training ground for the army. This was less attractive to young people and the groups didn’t get popular enough for the Nazis’ liking and so they made membership compulsory. By 1940, the Hitler Youth had over 7 million members – more than 80% of the eligible young population.

When the war started, older Hitler Youth members were called up to the military and the organisation became much more openly repressive. The leaders were then replaced by middle-class students who then had the right to order around rank and file members, many of whom were working-class teenagers who had been working in the factories since they were 14 and who really didn’t appreciate it.

Walter: I was pretty much the king on the street. If something had to be done, like stealing apples or whatever, they would call me. I saw guys that I considered sissies and weaklings. They suddenly got a star, they became lieutenants and I had to salute them. Well, I was not about to do a thing like that. That brought upon the first resentment. That’s how it started. There were others who kind of felt the same way I did. That prompted me to start a little movement.

The Edelweiss Pirates groups were careful about who they recruited as members, and gradually over time their resistance activities escalated.

Walter: If we had a new member, we would ask them questions and test them and ask, ‘Why would you like to join us?’ We wanted to have some assurance.

 Someone would say, ‘What are we going to do next?’ Maybe someone would say, ‘The Hitler Youth store their equipment at such and such a place. Let’s make it disappear.’ ‘Okay, when are we going to meet?’ ‘We’ll meet at such and such a time.’ That’s what we did. It came to the point where we became enemies and people began to look for us because we went a little too drastic. We started maybe by deflating the tyres and then we made the whole bicycle disappear. It came to the point when there were too many complaints.

Eventually, Walter would be arrested by the Nazis for looting and being a leader of the Edelweiss Pirates. He was sent to a concentration camp where he became extremely ill and almost died but fortunately, he was able to escape and was given shelter by a local farmer.

Elsewhere, Edelweiss Pirate groups continued to grow, and began to be more open in their opposition to the Nazi regime.

Nick: Yes, they started getting involved in resistance activities by distributing anti-Nazi leaflets and that sort of thing.

Nick: They also confronted the Nazi youth organisations on the street in pitched battles and they often got the better of the Hitler Youth [laughter].

On their country walks, the Edelweiss Pirates would often re-purpose classic hiking songs with their own, subversive lyrics, like this, by a group of Pirates who called themselves the Navajos: named after the colonial name for the Native American Diné people:

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.

The total number of Edelweiss Pirates is hard to estimate. But it must have at least been in the thousands, and possibly tens of thousands. In Cologne alone, for example, Gestapo files listed 3000 Edelweiss Pirates in the city, with loose groupings in every suburb, and several hundred more in nearby cities.

Pirates in Cologne started throwing bricks through the windows of weapons factories, and pouring sugar into the petrol tanks of Nazi cars.


Cologne was a stronghold. You’ve got to remember that 13 young people, one of whom was a teenager, were hanged by the Nazis in Cologne and some of them had previously been Edelweiss Pirates there. They were involved in the resistance activities.

In 1944, 13 anti-Nazi resistance activists were hanged in the street in Cologne by the Gestapo. They were members of the Ehrenfeld resistance group, and six of them were Edelweiss Pirates. The leader of the group was Hans Steinbrück, a man who had escaped from a concentration camp and formed the group in the suburb of Ehrenfeld. The group had stockpiled weapons, and shot several Nazis including a local Nazi leader, Heinrich Soentgen. They were also accused of planning to blow up the headquarters of the Cologne Gestapo. A fictionalised version of their story is told in the 2004 film, the Edelweiss Pirates.

In other parts of the country, Pirates distributed anti-Nazi leaflets and even derailed trains carrying weapons.

The Pirates weren’t political as such, but in some places they made links with local political anti-fascists.

Nick: There was an incident when there was a link-up between one German anarchist, who was in the FAUD… He came to the help of some Edelweiss Pirates who were being attacked by the Nazis and they actually formed links as a result of that.

There were links with formal groups, like the Scholls’ White Rose group.

Alongside that, there were other groups of youth, like the Leipzig Meuten, who were more openly political but there were connections between all of these groups as we’ll see.

The FAUD was the Free Workers’ Union of Germany, an anarchist trade union which had been crushed by Hitler.

The White Rose group was a more middle-class, student-based, pacifist anti Nazi group, led by Hans and Sophie Scholl.

There were other groups of working class anti-Nazi youth around the country which were more political as well.

The Leipzig Meuten were similar to the Pirates in terms of the fact that they were a self organised group of young people, who dressed differently from the Nazis, and were active in leafleting and other anti-Nazi activities. The Gestapo estimated that around 1500 girls and boys in the city were members.

Aside from occasional loose connections on a local level, the Edelweiss Pirates didn’t have any formal relationship with the established left.

Nick: They didn’t want anything to do with the formal political organisations and towards the end of the war, when the communists and the socialists tried to start recruiting, they rejected these people. While they were anti-Nazi, they seemed to have a suspicion of the Communist Party and the Socialist Party.

What is particular interesting about the group is that they came into being after Nazi rule was pretty well established, and so they didn’t emerge from any of the major left groups which attempted to oppose the Nazi rise to power, like the Socialist Party,  Communist Party, or the anarchists, although some of them had left-wing parents.

Nick: No, they’re not related to any of that at all or to any of the street-fighting organisations that confronted Nazis, like the socialists, or the communists, or some of the council communist groups who had a lot of Kämpfer organisations.

Council communists are communists who were independent of the Moscow-linked communist parties, who believe that communism had to be implemented directly by workers’ councils themselves, rather than by a political party taking over a state. There were some quite large council communist organisations in Germany prior to the Nazi takeover, like the General Workers’ Union of Germany (AAUD) and the Communist Workers’ Party of Germany (KAPD).

Another group of young people who came into conflict with the government during the period of Nazi rule were the Swing Kids. They had some similarities with the Edelweiss Pirates, but also one major difference.

Nick: The thing with the Swing Kids was whereas the Edelweiss Pirates were predominantly working-class, the Swing Kids were upper-class really. A lot of them came from well-to-do backgrounds. They had a love of jazz and it looks like they acquired it in places like Hamburg where there was a very strong Swing Kids’ movement because it’s a port town. It’s a bit like Liverpool. You get all these musical influences coming in and they were very keen on a lot of swing and jazz.

Some African Americans and some Jewish [18:30 – unclear] as well. It was seen as Entartete or ‘degenerate art’ because of these connections to both ‘negro music’, as the Nazis called it, and also Jewish musicians. They also developed a style partly taken from American movies and partly from English styles as well. The sorts of things they wore were very similar to what the Zazous wore in France. Both the Zazous and the Swing Kids had rolled umbrellas. They wore long [19:17 – unclear] jackets and quite long hair with greased up quiffs, in the case of the males. Both the French Zazous, which we’ll talk about later, and the Swing Kids had that look with thick, soled shoes and often too large outfits, as it were. They would wear a great, big jacket and big trousers. The young women wore short skirts, striped stockings and bright, red lipstick as well. There were two reasons for this, both in the cases of the Zazous and the Swing Kids. It was the use of material that was actually rationed and they were putting two fingers up to the whole idea of rationing clothing. They wore heavy make-up which challenged the whole Völkisch idea of healthy, German females who looked natural with no make-up and a suntan.

Aesthetically, there are some similarities between the Swing Kids, and British Teds from the 1950s and 60s.

Nick: The Teds’ phenomena started as a fashion amongst the young upper class in London. They started wearing Edwardian style clothing but it was taken up by working-class youth. They were people who had a disposable income and they said, ‘We’re going to dress well. We deserve to.’ There was a certain pride there.

The Swing Kids were not inherently anti-authoritarian like the Edelweiss Pirates, but despite this, the Nazis still clamped down on them.

Nick: They reacted really ferociously. Himmler said that it had to be crushed because as well as the admiration for American music, there was also admiration for Britain and an Anglophile tendency. I’ve already talked about the rolled umbrella. They also wore a Homburg hat which was popularised by Sir Anthony Eden. They even wore little Union Jack badges as well.

Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, headed up the repression of the Swing Kids.

Nick: Himmler recommended sentences of between at least two and three years with regular beatings in concentration camps, especially for the ringleaders. He wanted this ‘Anglophilia’, as he called it, eradicated because he regarded it as very dangerous. Quite a few Swing Kids got sent to concentration camps, both male and female.

This repression appears to have had the effect of even encouraging some Swing Kids to get involved in resistance activities.

Nick: Yeah, they started getting involved in resistance activities. Well, they started distributing propaganda and all that sort of stuff. In some ways, they were a reaction to being brought up under the Nazis. The Swing Kids were a reaction to the official Nazi youth events that were put on with this new, German community dancing which was horribly tedious and boring – Völkisch dancing.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, music the Nazis encouraged was also not super popular with the kids, like the works of antisemitic composer, Richard Wagner.

[Short Wagner interlude]

Nick: No, it was horrible [laughter], so they set up their own swing clubs. Eventually, these places were banned and the Nazis passed a law saying that you couldn’t go to one of these clubs if you were under 21. They were driven into clandestinity.

While the profile of the Edelweiss Pirates has been raised a little in recent years, especially since the 2004 film, they are still relatively unknown compared with the more middle-class White Rose Group and the Swing Kids, which Nick believes is related to their class.

Nick: I’m sure it’s to do with their class background, yeah. Working-class movements are painted out of official history; bourgeois history and Stalinist history [laughter]. That’s always been the case.

It might be connected with the disapproval of dissident youth movements, both the Edelweiss Pirates and the Swing Kids. They’ve only recently been written up, I’d say.

After the war ended, Germany was occupied by the Allies, the UK, US, France and the Soviet Union. But the Pirates didn’t necessarily fare well under the new authorities either, as their anti-authoritarian, anti-work spirit wasn’t in line with the values of the democratic Allies or the USSR.

You’ve got to remember that a lot of these youth movements were repressed under both the Allies and the Communists at the end of the war.


Some were sentenced to long prison terms in Allied territories. One was sentenced to death and it was commuted.

This was a young boy named Heinz D, who was sentenced to death by a military court in Uelzen. And the Soviet zone was pretty similar.

There was a bloke in the Edelweiss Pirates who was sentenced to 25 years in East Germany.

They were seen as youth movements that were feared because they questioned orthodox morality, the work ethic and all of those things.

Even decades after the end of the war, Edelweiss Pirates, even those who were sent to concentration camps or executed for fighting against the Nazis, weren’t considered as part of the resistance.

Nick: The Nazis regarded them as criminals and as late as 1987, the authorities were looking at old Gestapo records describing them as criminals and they decided that description would stand. It wasn’t until 2005 that they were recognised as resistance fighters which is quite appalling.

Some surviving Pirates, like Jean Jülich from Cologne, spent 60 years campaigning for the overturning of their criminal status. In 1987 there was a state review of criminal records given to former Pirates by the Gestapo, but they were upheld.

Only in 2005, after the release of the film about them, were their criminal records annulled, and their actions recognised as legitimate resistance. And in 2011, the known surviving Pirates, were given the Order of Merit, recognising their resistance activities. The last known surviving Pirate, Gertrud Koch, died in 2016, but not before writing her memoirs and founding a festival, the Edelweiss Pirate Festival, which took place in Cologne.

Across Germany’s borders, in France and Austria, there were other similar youth cultural movements which took on the Nazis: the Zazous and the Schlurfs. Learn more about them in our bonus episode, linked in the show notes, available for our patreon supporters.

In general, Nick thinks that these countercultural movements show the potential impact that art can have.

Nick: I think the power of culture and the power of music is underestimated. It should be used more as a weapon. I think rock ‘n’ roll itself helped break down the racist, apartheid system in America. Music was used in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa as well. I think it’s a potent thing and an underestimated weapon in our armoury and more needs to be made of it.

[Outro music]

That’s all the time we have today. As always, we’ve got more information, sources and links in the webpage for this episode, link in the show notes. Also on there is a playlist Nick put together of music which these groups would have been listening to at this time.

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Thanks again to our Patreon supporters for making this podcast possible. Special thanks to Jazz Hands and Jamison D. Saltsman.

This episode was edited by Louise Barry. The theme music was Functionizin’, by Fats Waller, courtesy of the Swiss Foundation and Wikimedia Commons. Also featured was Richard Wagner’s Gerechter Gott, performed by Ernestine Schumann-Heink also courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Thanks to Anton from dna merch, of our T-Shirt of the Month collaboration, for the Edelweiss Pirates song reading and for help with pronunciation.

Thanks to all of you for listening. Catch you next time.

Interview transcript by PODTRANSCRIBE


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