Heinrich Himmler Targets Edelweiss Pirates

Heinrich Himmler Targets Edelweiss Pirates

On this day in 1944, towards the end of World War II, the Reichsführer of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, ordered a crackdown on the so-called Edelweiss Pirates (Edelweißpiraten): a loosely organised youth culture in Nazi Germany that had assisted army deserters and others to conceal themselves from the Third Reich. On this day, 13 of the Edelweiss Pirate leaders were publicly hanged in the city of Cologne—six of them, including one Bartholomäus Schink of the local Navajos, were still only teenagers, executed for their acts of rebellion.

The Edelweiss Pirates were comprised of all manner of disparate and only distantly affiliated gangs existing in Nazi Germany, and as a movement they coalesced in the 1930s as Adolf Hitler consolidated his power. Localised gangs included the Kittelbach Pirates of Oberhausen and Düsseldorf, the Navajos of Cologne and the Roving Dudes of Essen. Although they were a varied bunch, most hailed from a working class background, most opposed the outlawing of the popular and apolitical German Youth Movement, and most were objectors against the compulsory membership, sexual segregation and strict regimentation of the Hitler Youth paramilitary organisation for the young. The Pirates even had a subcultural dress sense of sorts: chequered shirts and shorts, in stark contrast to the rigid Nazi uniforms.

Edelweiss Pirate activities included peaceful pastimes such as hiking through the mountains, but were more often violent: they would attack Hitler Youth leaders, and spray graffiti slogans like “Eternal War On Hitler Youth.” Over the course of the war the group inevitably ended up becoming more politicised and more provocative, even going so far as to assist deserters, spread allied propaganda, and shelter downed or injured allied pilots: all heroic, but also highly dangerous acts.

Unsurprisingly, the Nazi government (and of course the Hitler Youth) fought back furiously against the young Edelweiss Pirate gangs. As part of the Gestapo’s reign of terror, its secret police rounded up many of the teenage Pirates, shaved their heads and sent them away into forced labour camps and concentration camps. Then, on 25 October 1944, came the 13 executions in Cologne. After the war, the bravery of the Edelweiss Pirates received surprisingly little recognition, from the Germans or the Allies, and in fact they have been largely written out of history.

Credit: Alamy C455TD
Caption: Edelweiss Pirates are being prepared for execution in Cologne on 10 November 1944.