Excerpt from Witnesses At War by Nicholas Stargardt, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Witnesses At War

Children's Lives Under the Nazis

by Nicholas Stargardt

Witnesses At War
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2006, 512 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2007, 528 pages

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Chapter 1
The Home Front

Germans at war

Janina came out of the privy at the bottom of her grandparents' garden on the morning of 1 September 1939 to see two planes circling overhead. The sound of their machine guns opening up brought her parents, grandparents and brothers running out of the house to join her. Then they all rushed back inside again to listen to the radio. They just caught the announcement of the German attack on Poland, which had begun at daybreak, then the voice faded away as the batteries died. "Grandpa turned the switch off and looked at our anguished faces," ten-year-old Janina noted in her diary at the end of that long day. "He knelt in front of the picture of Jesus Christ and started to pray aloud." They joined him in the Lord's Prayer. Janina had been expecting to return with her parents from the little village of Borowa-Góra, where they had spent the summer holidays with her grandparents, to Warsaw for the start of school on 4 September, and had been happily anticipating the set of new school books they had promised to buy her. The ten-year-old knew that something momentous had just occurred, but had no images yet of war. Even those adults who had lived through the First World War in Poland could have no conception of what the second would be like.

That September the start of the new autumn term was seriously disrupted across Europe. In Germany, schools remained closed at the end of the summer holidays and children hung around the gates to catch a glimpse of reservists as they poured in to register at these temporary mobilisation centres. In the rural calm of the Eifel, west of the Rhine, two little girls enjoyed the envy of all their friends for being allowed to stand in the village square with a bag of apples and throw them to the passing troops. Unfortunately, for many older children, like sixteen-year-old Gretel Bechtold, the excitement soon died down: the French fired no shots at the West Wall and soon she had to go back to school.

As street lights were turned off and windows blacked out, Germany's towns and cities were plunged into a night-time darkness they had not experienced at night since the pre-industrial era. In Essen, little girls started pretending to be the nightwatchman who patrolled the streets reminding people to conceal their lights by calling out "Blackout! Blackout!" All too soon classes began again. Dangling gas masks and satchels over their shoulders on the way to school, many children found they had to write assignments when they got there about blacking out and other measures of civil defence against air attack. What with trams and trucks colliding in the unlit streets and pedestrians missing their footing as they stepped off the kerb, the most significant change to strike one Hamburg boy, after four months at war, was the increase in traffic accidents.

In September 1939, there were no scenes in Germany reminiscent of the jubilation of August 1914, however short-lived and partial that mood of public ecstasy may in fact have been. Even strongly Nazi families were unsure how to view the outbreak of war. As fourteen-year-old Liese listened to the radio broadcast of the Führer's Reichstag speech in Thuringia in central Germany, she squealed with pleasure. But after only two weeks of war, she was asking her father what he thought the chances were of bringing things to a speedy conclusion:

Excerpted from Witnesses of War by Nicholas Stargardt Copyright © 2006 by Nicholas Stargardt. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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