Witnesses of War: Children's Lives Under the Nazis
Alfred A. Knopf / 512 pages / $30
With Germany's defeat a foregone conclusion in the last months of World War II, Adolf Hitler nonetheless chose to hurl the nation's last human resource into the maw of destruction. He ordered teenage boys into combat and to senseless deaths. It was a final exhibition of the Third Reich's ultimate nihilism. At the end, nothing mattered beyond fanaticism itself.
"Now, the very youth in whose name the Nazi regime pursued its utopian vision was to be sacrificed for its defense," Australian historian Nicholas Stargardt writes in Witnesses of War, his monumental, penetrating exploration of the lives of children who came under Nazi rule.
That many of the boys went to their deaths drunk on fascist idealism is testament to the propagandistic efficiency of the Third Reich, but also to the way in which the Third Reich and the war it wrought burrowed into and ravaged the consciousness of children.
In comprehensively studying a population defined not by race, religion or nationality but by age, Stargardt has added considerably and imaginatively to the scholarship of the Holocaust and war. With vivid, muscular prose, he ranges across the experience of wartime life under the Nazis, which by no means held children harmless. They were subjected to fearsome Allied bombings, forced labor, deportations, the violent deaths of parents and siblings, brutalization by enemies, starvation. And extermination.
To his credit, Stargardt dispenses with the notion of equivalence between the deprivations of German children who witnessed killings, rapes and other terrors and the Jewish children and others who faced wholesale slaughter. The impact of war in Fortress Europe varied considerably by religion, nationality, class and timing. The experiences of children were not comparable; what they shared, however, was an impressionability, a psychological openness through which war surged.
"The war was not just something that had happened to them," Stargardt writes in powerful conclusion. "It had also been fought inside them, tearing apart their inner emotional world."
Stargardt uses the word witnesses in his title, but children were far from passive actors in the horror befalling them. They propelled themselves into active roles, often as a result of the deaths or impotence of parents.
Children could more easily move between the Jewish ghettoes in Poland and the outside world and became major operators in the black market that was essential to the survival of their families. Some children in Eastern Europe became spies and arms smugglers for resistance groups. At the end of the war, German children often acted as intermediaries with Soviet troops, hoping to spare their mothers and elder sisters from the epidemic of rape.
This is what children did, but the more impressive achievement in Stargardt's work is his exploration of what they thought. Some children became inured to death to the point of casualness. One diarist, a selfless pediatrician in Warsaw, described a scene in which street kids ignored a corpse in their midst until it became entangled in their game. Children, Stargardt concludes, actively worked to keep death at a remove. They used imaginative play to try to master the shocking sights of their daily lives. They acted out executions and roundups, turning into a game what they feared the most. In such games, they vied to portray the strong - SS troops and the Gestapo - but never the weak.
"Children were torn," writes Stargardt, "between models of heroic resistance and the power of their conquerors."
Children's drawings also conveyed the potency of the perpetrators, with German authority figures portrayed as much larger than other characters, including images of the children's parents. In artwork from the Jewish ghetto of Theresienstadt, they dwelt on what they had lost, tidy homes with curtains and flowers. The lack of food preoccupied them.
The playfulness of children extended literally to the doors of the gas chambers. Children were more likely than adults to adopt a gallows humor in the shadow of the crematorium. They even continued playing out what they witnessed at Auschwitz, the beatings and roll calls and punishments. But in those games, no one was forced to pretend his or her own death. That, apparently, would have broken the spell dividing the escape of imagination and reality.
After the war, many adults complained that the horror of the Nazi experience had corrupted children. It had taught the young to lie and deceive, to be cynical toward idealism and authority, to be insensitive to suffering. Indeed, Stargardt observes, the experience had certainly destroyed the innocence of children. But, he writes, "It also had taught these children how to survive."
At a minimum, the children of the war are in their 60s, if they are still alive today. That's six decades to recover from the havoc visited upon them in their earliest years. Hardly enough time.