German children, writes Lisa Pine, at first sheltered from the war, were finally sent to die under Russian tanks
Witnesses of War is an important book on a subject that has not been adequately treated before. The Third Reich shaped the lives of children profoundly, and while it is a difficult task to reconstruct their experiences, it is certainly a worthwhile endeavour. A history of children and children's experiences in the Second World War is a significant contribution to our understanding of the Nazi regime and its consequences.
Nicholas Stargardt has marshalled a range of source material, including diaries, letters and children's drawings, to write a vivid and poignant history of children's lives under Nazism. He argues: "Children provided a crucial measure of Nazi success in realising their utopian visions." This meant that different children had different experiences and that "children would be saved or damned according to their racial value".
Racially pure German children were the safeguard of the nation's future and, at first, the Nazi regime attempted to shield them from the war and its consequences. In the first winter of the war, many German children enjoyed "coal holidays", as schools were closed due to coal shortages.
Later, children were evacuated from the cities to the countryside. During the first years of the war, the Nazis protected German children from hunger and labour as part of the war effort. Stargardt points out that after the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Nazis created "a continental-wide system of rationing and agricultural delivery quotas" that imposed starvation and death on the vanquished populations to save the German people from such a fate. The Allied bombing raids, however, did disrupt their lives. Air-raid sirens in the middle of the night and the destruction of homes and lives had a great impact on children in the German cities.
But where the devastation was farther away, children looked on in wonder at the vivid colours and spectacles. Children often described the fires from distant burning cities as "beautiful". Boys swapped flak splinters in school playgrounds, and children gathered to watch unexploded bombs being defused. After particularly heavy bombing raids in 1943, whole schools were evacuated to the countryside. Stargardt has portrayed the very mixed fortunes of the evacuee children.
Despite early attempts to shield the home front, the Nazi regime ultimately required young Germans to sacrifice themselves during the last stages of the war. Heroic death was extolled as German boys from the Hitler Youth were sent to face Soviet tanks. Yet Stargardt also points out that "between the eastern and western fronts, a strange semblance of normality continued", even in the spring of 1945.
But as the Soviet soldiers advanced towards Berlin, fear predominated.
Families moved underground into cellars and basements with their gas masks and provisions. Children played at being Russian soldiers. Once the Soviet troops entered Berlin, some children felt relief as the soldiers handed out sweets and chocolates. Others watched as their mothers were raped in front of them. Many of the children who later mentioned the subject of the mass rapes carried out by Soviet soldiers insisted that nothing happened to them personally, to their mothers or even to women in their building.
Stargardt describes the persecution of conquered children throughout Poland and the Soviet Union, from the expropriation of their possessions to their mass murder.
In the Warsaw ghetto, many children became involved in smuggling efforts in order to obtain food. Once the ghetto was liquidated, Jews who had evaded the deportations attempted to go into hiding. Some children were adopted into families as "nieces" or "nephews" and had to learn Catholic prayers and New Testament stories. They also had to memorise their cover stories and always lived with the fear of detection or denunciation. Many had to move on, sometimes several times, once their hiding places were discovered.
Stargardt explains the attempts of the Nazi regime to Germanise or "depolonise" Polish children as part of its aspirations for a "racial empire".
Lev Abromovsky, from the small Belorussian town of Mir, was caught up in a mass shooting in November 1941. He passed out as several bodies fell on top of him. "When Lev came to, he was surrounded by warm bodies and warm blood.
Following the direction of a draught of cold air, he scrambled through the dark, tangled mass of the dead towards the top and climbed out of the pit."
Children who survived the Nazi liquidations roamed the forests surviving on nuts, mushrooms and berries, in constant fear of being caught.
Stargardt's description of the role of play and types of games played by children during the war is particularly interesting. In the Vilna ghetto, children played "Blockade", a variation of hide-and-seek, based on their experiences of round-ups in the ghetto. The children were divided up into "Jews", local "policemen" and "Germans". The "Jews" had to hide; the "policemen" handed them over to the "Germans" when they found them. At Auschwitz, children played "roll call", in which the bigger children played Kapos (concentration camp prisoners appointed to supervise other prisoners) and guards, beating the little children for "fainting". They also played "gas chamber", but in this game they did not play at being dead. They threw stones at the hole in the ground that was the "gas chamber", imitating the cries of the people inside.
Most important, Stargardt shows that the different fates of children in Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe during the war were determined by their place in the Nazi system of power and rule. He emphasises that children's lives were bound together by war and conquest, and that their place in this was the most significant factor.
The events of the Holocaust and the war as experienced by German families are not comparable. Stargardt argues that: "Whatever emotional similarities children exhibited across national boundaries in the ways they dealt with hunger or loss of home, the death of parents or physical terror, their experiences of the war would be for ever separated by the places they had occupied within the Nazi system of rule."
This excellent book provides scholars and students of the era with an important perspective that has not been presented before. It also contains much of interest to a wider readership.
Lisa Pine is senior lecturer in history, London South Bank University.
Witnesses of War: Children's Lives under the Nazis
Author - Nicholas Stargardt
Publisher - Cape
Pages - 509
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 224 06479 7