Summary and book reviews of Witnesses At War by Nicholas Stargardt

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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Book Summary

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.

Already hailed as "magnificent . . . some of the best historical writing about the aftermath of the war I have ever read . . . stunning" (The Guardian), Witnesses of War breaks new ground in its exploration of the lives and the fate of children of all nationalities under the Nazi regime.

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.

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 ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

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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 for the countless children affected by wars today, including the estimated 300,000 child soldiers fighting in more than 85 countries (according to Amnesty International, 2006).   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews

The Washington Post - Ruth Kluger

The child witnesses here are both boys and girls, "Aryans" and Jews. The author, who teaches history at Oxford and is himself the son of a German-Jewish refugee, recreates everyday life in the Nazi Reich with multilayered quotes that provide a sense of intimacy unmatched by any other narrative I know. At the same time, the reader never loses sight of the larger historical framework.

Library Journal - Maria Bagshaw

Owing to the subject, the content of this book is frequently disturbing to read. Therefore specialists on this topic may be best prepared for it. The book is recommended for academic and large public libraries.

Booklist - George Cohen

Starred Review. Stargardt's riveting account draws on original material from children's schoolwork, juvenile diaries, letters from evacuation camps, letters to fathers at the front, letters from reformatories and psychiatric asylums, children's artwork in the Jewish ghetto of Theresienstadt and German villages in the Black Forest, as well as adult accounts of children's games.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Perhaps most unusual is Stargardt's illumination of how the Nazi regime affected German children, from those sent away to be "re-educated" to the idealized Hitler Youth sent to die in battle; it's a sharp and taut account of misery.

Kirkus Reviews

Fascinating and often unsettling; an illuminating companion to firsthand accounts such as Irmgard Hunt's On Hitler's Mountain and The Diary of Anne Frank.

The Sunday Times - John Carey

The 21st century promises to be as full of wars as the 20th, which is why we need books like Stargardt's that remind us and our leaders what war really means.

The Guardian - David Cesarani

Magnificent new book .. His concluding chapter contains some of the best historical writing about the aftermath of the war I have ever read ... stunning.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

About the author: Nicholas Stargardt is the son of a German-Jewish father and Australian mother. Born in Melbourne, he has lived in Australia, Japan, England and Germany. He studied at King's College, Cambridge, and is a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, where he teaches modern European history. Witnesses of War is his second book; his first, The German Idea of Militarism: Radical and Socialist Critics, 1866-1914 was published in 1994. He has written widely on the history of modern Germany, political and social thought and the Holocaust. He has two sons and is married to the historian Lyndal Roper.

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