Cocooned in Guilt:
The Consequences of having been German Children during and after WWII
Written and Posted by Karla Poewe, August 24, 2010
Defeat makes children of war invisible. After the Second World War, it was as if the Allies conspired with guilt ridden postwar German political elites to ignore, indeed, forget a whole generation of people who were severely traumatized by the consequences of bombing, expulsion, rape, hunger and homelessness. Now those children are grown up and retired and the cocoon of guilt within which they lay dormant burst open. The taboo still exists, but it is circumvented in many ways.
The events that triggered the flood of memories in Germany and the uncountable publications that followed it did not only have to do with the fact that war children had grown older. Rather, following the Kosovo conflict of 1998, the 9/11 tragedy of 2001, and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, people remembered World War II as if it happened yesterday. Television pictures of refugees fleeing bombs were sharp reminders of our past and they raised the haunting question, are we sleepwalking into another war?
In other words, in Germany at least, relatively recent conflicts touched off debates about childhood memories of violence and deprivation. However, repeatedly, just when they surfaced, knowledge of the Nazi massacres of Jews blocked them. The crimes that Nazis committed first made one speechless.
That is how I often experience it. Likewise, Harald Welzer says as much in his book Täter, 2005, (Perpetrators). At times, he wrote on p. 12, he lost the courage to explain so overwhelming a phenomenon as the mass murder of Jews in the East. Most people do not even want to look at it anymore. Jörg Friedrich expressed similar thoughts when, in his case, he looked at the documents and pictures that captured the remains and corpses from the Allied bombing raids.
To be frank about it, sometimes when I read the unpublished documents about the expulsions and tortures that German women and children, as well as broken soldiers, had to endure after WWII was over, I experience myself screaming soundlessly. A similar suffocation overcomes me when I read about the fate of the three million Russian soldiers who were left to die by the four million German soldiers because, of course, there were no means to feed them all in a war that should not have been started.
Furthermore, there is no experience bitterer than that of repression in an open society. The soundless scream makes my eyes burn at the same time that pain consumes my body. – Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream captures best my childhood memory of a burning sky and a path of no return because the crime was done – and by people among whom I was born. Perhaps that is why recent German popular writers as well as serious researchers and therapists often compartmentalize their work into two parts: the Nazi past and the War past, as if to lift the shadow of the first so that light might fall upon the second.
But lifting is not removing. The indisputable central tragedy of the Second World War, preceded by the bitter betrayal of especially assimilated and liberal German and European Jews, is and remains their destruction in what we call the Holocaust. In 1936, when he hoped that a catastrophe could yet be averted, Peter Drucker pointed out in his moving article about The Jewish question in Germany, that the race theory of National Socialism was a new and original doctrine of salvation and a new weapon of moral ostracism and economic boycott. It consisted of the dogma of an “ineradicable, biologically stronger, Jewish hereditary disposition” only to eradicate it in the name of the dogma of the “natural biological” domination of the Nordic race. When reality overtook this fantasy, there remained formidable depictions of war crimes and the silence of and surrounding German war-children.
The term war children refers to millions of German children, born between 1935 and 1945, who were bombed out or forced out of their homes in the former East provinces of the “Reich.” At the end of the war, these civilians, including mothers of these children, were the first to experience the revenge and punitive measures of the Red Army. For these refugees the war did not end until 1949, indeed, not until 1989 with the fall of the Berlin wall.
Most war children were either orphans or half-orphans. Overwhelmed bureaucrats or marauding Soviet soldiers forced orphans through internment camps much like a heavy storm might force fallen leaves through abandoned tunnels. Alternatively, distraught mothers who had themselves become free game raised fatherless children. And if it had not been for churches and church institutions and the brave efforts of Pius XII and the American Bishop Aloisius J. Muench, many of these uprooted would have joined the more than two million people who died during the expulsions or who were deported into Russian forced labor camps to serve another illusion—that of Stalin.
Prisoners of war in Russia served as “living reparations.” On little food, usually watery, tasteless cabbage soups, they cleaned huts, shoveled sand, felled trees, collected stones or mined coal. They did deadening work that benefitted no one and their only steady companion was what Herta Müller in her new book (Atemschaukel) called the “Hunger Angel.” Icy coldness cut, hunger tortured, fatigue burdened, homesickness paralyzed, bugs and lice bit. Children wasted away. And when the men developed dropsy or lung gangrene, when they reached the state of skin and bones, they were sent “home” – to the rump of what was left of Germany.
My father was one of them. He returned from Russian imprisonment end July 1947 and died May 20, 1948, barely ten months later. That is how it was.
I was born January 1941. Like thousands of others, I ask myself what determined my childhood more, Nazis or bombs and hunger. The fact is bombs and hunger, war and flight determined my childhood; only in North America did the Nazi past determine my teens and adult years. The last (i.e. the Nazi past) overshadowed the first (i.e. the war childhood) and, as said, silenced it. Because Nazi crimes were so horrendous, writing about them eclipsed for decades the task of analyzing the fate of war children. But what has the obsession with Nazi crimes brought us? In a twisted way, it has brought us more war, which people, children then, who experienced the last one, do not want. Bombs and fire burned into our bodies the recognition that nothing whatsoever can justify war because it is directed primarily against civilians—no matter what military strategists and their historians say otherwise. War is a mirage of ultimate control that leaves civilians with the stark reality of arbitrary chaos: a Guernica, which breeds, if it breeds at all, revenge. When Pope Pius XII condemned the revenge and retaliation politics of the Allies, he was a voice crying in the wilderness.
To be continuerd.