BookBrowse Reviews Witnesses At War by Nicholas Stargardt

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Witnesses At War

Children's Lives Under the Nazis

by Nicholas Stargardt

Witnesses At War by Nicholas Stargardt X
Witnesses At War by Nicholas Stargardt
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2006, 512 pages

    Paperback:
    Jan 2007, 528 pages

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Some of the best historical writing about the aftermath of the war I have ever read . . . stunning. History

From the book jacket: Children were at the center of Nazi ideology; now we have their history of those years. Their stories open a world we have never seen before. War came home to children as a set of events without precedent, spectacular and terrifying by turns. As the Nazis overran Europe, children were saved or damned according to their race. Precious few remained unscathed during the war, and most suffered a moment that overturned their lives. For some, it was the evacuation to become junior colonists in the East; for others, it was the onset of heavy bombing, the separation of families or learning to keep their parents alive by smuggling food, creating black markets and devising their own escape networks. Some herded women waiting to be shot. Girls manned flak batteries; boys confronted Soviet tanks.

Drawing on an untouched wealth of original material – school assignments; juvenile diaries; letters from evacuation camps, reformatories and asylums; letters to fathers at the front lines; even accounts of children's games — Nicholas Stargardt breaks stereotypes of victimhood and trauma to give us the gripping individual stories of the generation Hitler made.

Comment: Reviewers agree that Witnesses at War covers ground that other books have not. There have been many memoirs written over the past 50 years by those who spent their childhoods under the influence of the Nazis (including the excellent On Hitler's Mountain, and some third party accounts, such as Dorothy Macardle's Children of Europe (1949) and Gerald Posner's Hitler's Children (1991) in which he recorded his interviews with the children of high ranking Third Reich officials, such as Edda Goring and Rolf Mengele; but Stargardt extends this topic by not only exploring how children managed during the war, but how these child survivors are coping with their memories in later life.

The dark side of the tale comes in reading about how easily the children assimilated the horrors around them. The coping mechanisms used by many Polish and Jewish children are ghastly but understandable - such as Polish boys acting out Gestapo interrogations and executions, or camp children playing at 'Kapos and guards' with the older children beating the younger ones who pretend to be prisoners fainting during roll call. However, as Stargardt points out, the same adaptability that helped many Jewish children cope better than their parents also made it very easy for other children to embrace the Nazi agenda. Many proved much more enthusiastic and adept at hunting down and denouncing Jews than their parents, and the concepts of purity and dedication were compelling to many young volunteers who were eager to assist; such as one German student who recorded her feelings having watched the SS herd Polish villagers into a shed - "Sympathy with such creatures? No, at most I feel quietly appalled that such people exist."

However, the positive note from this book is elegantly summed up by Ruth Kluger, writing in The Washington Post, who says "Reading about these years, one can only marvel that Europe recovered so thoroughly. The war children who survived to see a more prosperous world did not become a social burden (as many seem to have feared at the time) but became productive and responsible citizens. Their wounds were real enough, but they coped -- and cope -- with them privately, and with dignity. If there is any hopeful message to be gotten from this harrowing book, it is the wonder of human resilience."

Perhaps this can give us hope that the countless children affected by wars today, including the estimated 300,000 child soldiers fighting in more than 85 countries today, might find peace and productive lives at some point in their adult lives, even if not in their childhoods.

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in February 2006, and has been updated for the January 2007 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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