The eight young men wore polo shirts emblazoned with Hitler's call to German youth to be "fast as greyhounds, tough as leather, hard as Krupp steel" in a firefighting contest in the neighboring city of Lübbenau on Saturday - but said they had no idea who they were quoting.
"The slogan on the t-shirts was simply supposed to show the sporting character of the contest participants," the firefighters said in an apology issued on Monday. "We were not aware of the explosive nature of the slogan!"
The young men, part of a fire brigade from the Gross Gaglow district of Cottbus, said they had turned in the t-shirts to authorities.
The contest in Lübbenau was not the first time the firefighters wore the shirts, Lübbenau spokesman Hans-Joachim Schiemenz told The Local. Schiemenz said he was amazed that no one had pointed out the origin of the quote earlier.
"I know the history. I was born in 1950. My father was in the war and set great stock in explaining the background of all this to me," Schiemenz said.
Schiemenz said the Gross Gaglow team wore the shirts throughout the competition before organizers realized what the shirts said and approached the men about the slogan.
Authorities called the incident a sign of a lack of proper education. Informal street polling by local newspaper Lausitzer Rundschau found that most of the parents on an elementary school playground in the city didn't know the origin of the saying either.
"Witty quote," one 39-year-old mother told the newspaper, adding that she thought it fit young firemen.
All volunteer firemen in Cottbus will be required to take history lessons as part of their training starting in June, Lothar Nicht, head of the office of public order in Cottbus, told the newspaper.
The neo-Nazi NPD party has won seats in several state parliaments in the former East Germany in recent years and its supporters have grown increasing influential in small-town municipal institutions.