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July 22, 2020

Soldiers of Freedom: Why the Edelweiss Pirates Are Important to History and Today’s World by guest @Sammarquisbooks

by Samuel Marquis


Edelweiss Pirates (Cologne Navajos) Song of Resistance:

Hark the hearty fellows sing! 
Strum that banjo, pluck that string!
And the lasses all join in
We’re going to get rid of Hitler,
And he can’t do a thing.

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.
We’ve got fists and we can fight
We’ve got knives and we’ll get them out.
We want freedom, don’t we boys?
We’re the fighting Navajos.

We’re Edelweiss Pirates, and we’re on our way.
We march by banks of Ruhr and Rhine
And smash the Hitler Youth in twain,
Our song is freedom, love, and life
We’re Pirates of the Edelweiss.
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Soldiers of Freedom
As protests from ancient Egypt to the American Revolution to the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement reveal, resistance in the face of oppression—whether it be against British Empire or the Nazis or in the name of black equality and social justice—is one of the greatest qualities of the human experience. We don’t like to stand pat with the status quo or be bossed around or enslaved by anyone—and we are willing to fight hard in the process for those inalienable rights.

That’s ultimately why I was attracted to writing a book about the parallel lives of the 761st Tank Battalion, the first African-American tank unit in U.S. history, and the Edelweiss Pirates, German Youth Resistance fighters who took on the Hitler Youth and Nazis during WWII. In short, I am drawn to people throughout history who fight back, passively and actively, and especially those who kick a little ass in achieving their oppressor’s comeuppance. In this article, I am going to focus on the Edelweiss Pirates and the concept of youth resistance in the name of social justice and freedom, as this group mirrors what is going on today with the Black Lives Matter movement and similar anti-Fascist movements. 

Who were the Edelweiss Pirates?

They were a loose confederation of anti-Nazi rebels that emerged, in response to the strict regimentation of the Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth), out of the Scout and Youth Movements that had been banned in 1933 by the Nazis—the Pfadfinder and Bündische Jugend. The principal groups of Edelweisspiraten were the Navajos of Cologne, the Kittelbach Pirates of Oberhausen and Düsseldorf, and the Roving Dudes of Essen. In contrast to the Hitler Youth, the Edelweiss Pirates came together spontaneously as neighbors, schoolmates, teammates in local sports groups, and coworkers. What united them was their hatred of Nazism and its stultifying regimentation, inhumanity, and ideology of hatred.

In defiance of Hitler and his henchmen, they handed out pro-Allied, anti-Nazi propaganda leaflets; listened to outlawed foreign broadcasts; wrote anti-Nazi graffiti on the walls of public buildings; committed acts of politically charged vandalism and sabotage of Nazi-controlled munitions factories, trains, and military vehicles; stockpiled illegal weapons; hid army deserters, escaped foreign slave laborers, and Jews; and attacked Hitler Youth, Gestapo officers, and Nazi officials. They also provided active aid during the final Allied advance, intimidated last-ditch Nazi resistors, and attempted to help the occupation forces develop a clear opinion about the character of the movement. Furthermore, once Germany surrendered, they offered to hunt down war Nazi criminals and other law-breakers if the Allies would give their group official sanction, which was unfortunately denied.

Just as the members of the Black Lives Matter movement wear “Bleak Lives Matter” t-shirts of protest, in a spirit of unabashed pride and rebellion against Hitler, the members of both sexes of the Edelweiss Pirates brandished metal badges of the edelweiss flower—Edelweissblume, the emblem of the anti-Nazi resistance movement—on their hats or left lapel of their shirts or jackets. They also dressed alike though not in uniform. The boys wore their hair long and donned checked shirts, dark short trousers, white stockings, and windbreaker jackets, while the girls sported white pullovers or waistcoats with their skirts. Their common outfits ensured that like-minded individuals on outings in the industrial Rhine and Ruhr regions of Western Germany could recognize one another even if they had never met before, thereby striking up an instant friendship.

Their universal greeting was “Ahoy” or “Heidewitzka,” the latter a subversive anti-Nazi substitute for “Heil Hitler” that the gang members particularly enjoyed. Despite the ravages of war all around, they liked to take weekend trips into the countryside, where groups from the surrounding region met up, pitched tents, sang, and talked about how much they loathed the Hitler Youth, food rationing, Goebbels’s ludicrous propaganda, and the relentless Allied bombing that had killed and displaced millions of innocents while turning German cities into rubble. Most had finished their formal schooling but were not yet of draft age; many were apprentices and steady wage earners as unskilled workers due to the shortage of manpower in the Reich with the Allies attacking on three fronts: Western France, Northern Italy, and the Russian Front. A large number of the boys had evaded the Hitler Youth by leaving school, which was allowed at 14, and were still young enough to avoid military conscription, which was only compulsory from the age of 17 onwards.

In refusing to participate in the activities organized by Nazi Party associations, the Pirates had sufficient free time to meet at nearby street corners, cafés, or parks and participate in weekend outings into the surrounding countryside, despite wartime restrictions on travel and tight Gestapo controls. Though the individual groups were associated with distinct regions, all members of the group remained identifiable and united by their distinctive edelweiss flower badges, their common style of dress, and their opposition to what they saw as the paramilitary cult of the Hitler Youth and adult Nazi population. Most importantly, unlike the gender-segregated Hitler Jugend and Bund Deutscher Mädel—the League of German Girls, the female wing of the Nazi Party youth movement—the Pirates contained both boys and girls, though males made up around three-quarters of the Rhineland groups. Companionship with the opposite sex gave members an opportunity for uninhibited romantic encounters—yet another reason for young people to join given the indecency and delinquency attributed to sexuality by the puritanical Nazis.

Needless to say, like pot-bellied modern confederates clinging to their antiquated statues of Lee and Jefferson Davis, the Nazis went ballistic over these passionate youthful resisters undermining their Fascist institutions. Himmler’s brutal Gestapo considered them a significant threat, subjecting them days, weeks, and sometimes months of agonizing torture. Edelweiss Pirates who were caught could expect to face any number of draconian consequences. At the very least, the captured were threatened, beaten, or subjected to a head shaving, one of the most popular methods of humiliation. But more often than not, they were packed into overcrowded jails; sent to reform schools, psychiatric hospitals, or labor, re-education, or concentration camps; or outright murdered without trial like sixteen-year-old Barthel Schink on November 10, 1944, who now has a street named after him that runs along the very place he died next to the Ehrenfeld train station in Cologne.

One of the major reasons I wrote Soldiers of Freedom was to help chronicle their little known story, as it is only recently that the Edelweiss Pirates are securing their well-deserved place in history. I wanted to show how the determination, forcefulness, and strength of the group played an important role in undermining the Nazi regime’s attempts to rigidly control the hearts and minds of its youth. As Daniel Horn makes clear in Youth Resistance in the Third Reich: A Social Portrait, “As a final testimonial to the amazing effectiveness of the youth opposition, Himmler proclaimed the task of bringing the gangs under control as being ‘important to the war effort.’ Ordering immediate and stern measures, the SS chief gave additional far-reaching credit to the youth opposition when he warned that ‘every omission or delay strengthens the activities of the cliques and undermines the trust of the population in the regime.’”

Surviving Gestapo files, postwar investigative records, and first-hand accounts have firmly established this redemptive narrative in which “Germans” fought “Nazis” in the streets of Cologne. That’s another reason I wanted to write the book. I wanted to provide a much-needed corrective to the mythology of the Edelweiss Pirates as degenerate youth committing crimes against legitimate police authority, which, of course, the Gestapo and other German security forces were not. Like the Black Lives Matter movement, the Edelweiss Pirates are important to world history. Operating during perhaps the darkest chapter in human history, the Edelweißpiraten made a meaningful contribution not only to history but to humanity. They sang for freedom, love, and life; they are the Pirates of the Edelweiß.

About the author:

The ninth great-grandson of legendary privateer Captain William Kidd, Samuel Marquis is the bestselling, award-winning author of a World War Two Series, American historical fiction, and an international espionage series. His novels have been #1 Denver Post bestsellers, received multiple national book awards (Kirkus Reviews and Foreword Reviews Book of the Year, American Book Fest and USA Best Book, IPPY, Readers’ Favorite, Beverly Hills, Next Generation Indie, and Colorado Book Awards), and garnered glowing reviews from #1 bestseller James Patterson, Kirkus, and Foreword Reviews (5 Stars). Book reviewers have compared Marquis’s books to the epic historical novels of Tom Clancy, John le Carré, Ken Follett, Herman Wouk, Daniel Silva, Len Deighton, and Alan Furst. His website is samuelmarquisbooks.com and for publicity inquiries, please contact Books Forward at info@booksforward.com.


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