- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 14, 2005

CRUEL WORLD: THE CHILDREN OF EUROPE IN THE NAZI WEB

By Lynn H. Nicholas

Knopf, $35, 606 pages

REVIEWED BY ROGER K. MILLER

Lynn H. Nicholas, whose “The Rape of Europa” laid bare the Nazis’ wholesale ravaging of the continent’s artistic treasures, turns her sights in “Cruel World” on their rape of its children. Their infinite varieties of wickedness and inhumanity, difficult to contain even in this thick tome, are impossible to convey in one short review, but here goes.

Ms. Nicholas took up the topic because she was struck “by the continuing damage done to families by rigid ideologues and by war.” She set out to show how Nazi policies and actions simultaneously affected “many different communities, which are linked in unexpected ways.” She succeeds with a vengeance.

Through direct warfare, through concentration camps, conflict-induced starvation, massive transfers of populations, war-borne diseases, forced labor, euthanasia, sterilization, horrible medical experiments, denial of education and of other necessities, through these methods and uncountable more, Ms. Nicholas shows, the Third Reich brought millions of its own and other countries’ children to ruin and death, from the British Isles to beyond the Urals, from Norway to North Africa.

Children were important to the Nazis, but that meant the “right” children, “Aryan” children. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, in particular took an interest in cultivating them and in eliminating the rest — the “unfit” and “undesirable,” Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Slavs, and other Untermenschen — through the grinding machinery of gigantic, overlapping bureaucracies.

As early as 1938, great progress was made in “cleansing” the Reich of those who were “ballast in the ship of state.” Proposals to encourage an increase in the birthrate of the racially pure, on the other hand, met with less success. They were doomed, Ms. Nicholas argues, for several reasons; they “not only violated every human need and desire and flew in the face of the civil and religious traditions of centuries, but were also economically impossible.”

Some were also slightly nutty. A ban on sales of contraceptives to “pure Germans” was attempted. “Stimulating literature” was given to girls to, well, stimulate procreation. Efforts to support single motherhood and remove the stigma of illegitimacy flopped. One thing, however, did work: The injunction for a soldier heading to war, whether married or not, to “leave an heir behind.” Though the idea was condemned from many quarters, “the number of illegitimate births rose immediately.”

Adolf Hitler even proposed state-supported plural marriages. Something similar was promoted in conquered Nordic countries, especially Norway, whose populations were prized for their “Germanizing” potential. An official memo urged that German soldiers there be encouraged to have as many children as possible, in or out of wedlock. Most of that, reprehensible as it is, pales in comparison to the colossal actions that made children’s lives a misery or ended them, the concentration camps being of course the most infamous. To highlight a few others:

— Vast, unworkable schemes of eviction and resettlement (notably ethnic Germans in Estonia and Latvia).

— Seeking to rid Poland of most of its indigenous population, which brought “the massive killing, imprisonment, or deportation of hundreds of thousands of people.”

— Taking tens of thousands of Soviet young people “from all along the long front from the Baltic to the Black Sea … to work camps in the smallest corners of Germany.”

— The insatiable demand for forced labor that sucked in those of university age and younger in the conquered countries. Germany alone had 22,000 labor camps. The cruel paradox was that forced labor offered Jewish youth “the only small possibility of survival.”

— Turning children into soldiers. By mid-1943, German youth were actively engaged in combat, especially to man antiaircraft batteries. An SS-Hitler Youth combat division was formed. Children served in the Volkssturm, the home guard.

“Cruel World” is, of necessity, not exclusively a chronicle of the effects Nazis had on young people, but of Nazi racial and ethnic policies in general. It is big enough to frame a lot of this horrifying picture. That, in turn, raises one niggle that might be voiced about this volume — that in taking in so much, it tends to overwhelm. A kind-of “compassion fatigue” sets in for the reader.

The sorrows of the children did not end when the war did. With liberation came gargantuan problems of food, shelter and other humanitarian needs. Years after war’s end, thousands — “all with heartrending histories” — were still in stateless limbo. Nor is it over yet. In Germany an international tracking service still operates, helping to reconnect long separated family members throughout Europe. In a recent year its website received 200,000 hits.

Roger K. Miller, a former reporter and book review editor, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.

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