An absorbing study of Nazi-era childhood, drawing on diaries, interviews and other primary sources.
The Third Reich was founded on the premise that the German “race” could and would be purged of putatively unhealthy elements—the mentally and physically disabled, the antinomian, the “mongrel.” From the start, as Stargardt (History/Oxford Univ.) notes, the regime executed children defined as unfit, though it took pains to disguise its program of medical murder. Meanwhile, the Jewish children who remained in Germany—Stargardt observes that more than 80 percent had emigrated by 1939—lived in a liminal world; one recalls that the children on his own block would not play with him, but all he had to do was go to a neighborhood where he was unknown and he “was able to enjoy the anonymity of the streets and join other Berlin children in their games.” Some children mounted rebellions in the face of totalitarianism; Stargardt recounts a swing festival inexplicably staged in Hamburg in 1940, in which 500 adolescents clad in English fashions spoke English and French, to the horror of the Gestapo. In general, of course, life for children was as horrible as it was for adults. There is no room for false sentimentality in Stargardt’s pages; he resists the notion that suffering is necessarily ennobling, particularly when the suffering has been experienced by the children of the aggressors, who become “the objects rather than the subjects of history.” And his account is full of moral nuance, as he explores the world of a teenage kapo in the Terezin concentration camp, of a child assigned to guard women awaiting execution and other children who carefully noted where they buried their Hitler Youth badges when the Allies arrived.
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.