‘You Were Born to Die for Germany’

In her new book, historian Lynn Nicolas moves from writing about the Nazis’ cultural looting to looking at their youngest victims — the 13 million children who died in World War II



Tibor Krausz

The Jerusalem Report, November 28, 2005


Children are "the most precious treasure of the people," declared the man who would murder millions of them. To be sure, Adolf Hitler, writing in "Mein Kampf" in 1925, didn't mean just any young tykes. The man who would industrialize genocide by mass-manufacturing it in death factories meant only select "purebred" youngsters. The rest of the world's children, whom he despised as "bastardized" hybrids, didn't have much of a place in his genetically "perfected" humanity.

The iconic image of a Jewish boy raising his arms during the Warsaw Ghetto's evacuation in 1942. The evacuees were sent to the Treblinka extermination camp


So it's no surprise that the last victim of the Nazi extermination machine should have been a young child. On May 29, 1945, almost a month after the unconditional surrender of Hitler's Thousand Year Reich, which lasted barely a decade, 4-year-old Richard Jenne was administered a lethal injection by a nurse at the children's ward of the Kaufbeuren-Irsee Mental Institution outside Munich. The boy had been classified a "feebleminded idiot," and became the final casualty of the Nazis' euthanasia program. Nor was it a coincidence that shortly after coming to power, Hitler launched his grand scheme of social engineering by targeting the unborn. By 1936, some 170,000 people — handicapped, deaf, blind, mentally deficient, epileptic, alcoholic, antisocial Germans —  had been sterilized through systematic eugenics.


In the intervening years, millions were meticulously exterminated for no other reason than that they, too, failed to fit the profile of acceptable human beings. Racial, mental, physical and social undesirables of all ages were being culled from the human gene pool (never mind that Hitler himself — a puny, pasty-faced high-school dropout turned megalomaniacal sociopath suffering from Parkinson's disease — would scarcely have passed muster by his own criteria). For the Nazis, mass murder became a social experiment.


Still, the gas chambers didn't spring into existence in an inspired moment of homicidal revelation; Nazi exterminators fine-tuned their methodologies as they went along. As American historian Lynn H. Nicholas meticulously documents in "Cruel World," the Holocaust grew out of a euthanasia program designed to put down Germans "unworthy" of life. Starting shortly after the Nazis came to power in 1933, tens of thousands of Germans would be dispatched to special "sanatoriums," complete with carbon monoxide-fed "disinfection" chambers. While their parents were told their offspring were receiving treatment, disabled and mentally ill children were being put to death.


In 1939, the war provided the Nazis with the pretext to dispose of all legal niceties, and presently the extermination of Jews began in earnest as well. In the ensuing apocalypse, an estimated 13 million children, gentile and Jewish, would perish; millions more would lose their parents and siblings; and countless others would be scarred mentally and physically for life. Most of the dead children became nameless statistics in the stupefying death toll (a conservative estimate is 50 million dead) of World War II.


Not for Nicholas, though. With "Cruel World," the award-winning author of "The Rape of Europa" (1994), the book that reenergized international attempts to repatriate artworks looted in World War II, adds another magnum opus to her credit. In a comprehensive investigation into Nazism's epochal crimes against children (often relegated to the footnotes of history books), Nicholas examines what happens to infants, toddlers and adolescents -- the most defenseless of victims -- when the moral fabric of civilization disintegrates into the murderous anarchy of systematic, state-sponsored violence. She weaves a grand tapestry of youngsters' tribulations in Nazi-era Europe with anecdotes providing poignant close-ups in the dreadfully familiar panorama of suffering and death.


In the hands of ruthless, tyrannical adults, Nicholas demonstrates, children become either malleable puppets (think Hitler Youth boys flashing awkward Nazi salutes) or disposable biological raw material. "When it suited him," she writes early on apropos Dr. Joseph Mengele, the "Angel of Death" at Auschwitz, "Mengele hugged the children and fed them candy; he even set up a little kindergarten painted with fairy-tale scenes for some of them. But a child he seemed to dote on one day could be killed with total indifference the next, so he could examine its organs."


Jewish children stand behind the barbed wire of a concentration camp

Yet "Cruel World" doesn't deal much with the Holocaust. The suffering and death of Jewish children in the death camps remain largely unexplored — as do the ghastly experiments of Mengele (he's never mentioned again until an en passant reference some 400 pages later). Thus paradoxically, the book's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: its vast scope. Nicholas's epic story of children caught in "the Nazi web" across Europe between 1933 and 1945 has an unfocused, episodic feel. Often, little seems to connect individual sections except that children suffer, die or survive in them.


Lengthy detours take us to the Spanish Civil War and to Siberian camps in the Soviet gulag (where in several episodes children remain mere bit-players or eyewitnesses); meanwhile, in 558 closely printed narrative Anne Frank gets mentioned only in passing. So do other telltale facts. Surely, for instance, nothing exemplified the Nazis' infanticidal morals better than that on May 1, 1945, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, a doting father, poisoned all his six children, aged 4 and 12, before shooting his wife and himself in Hitler's bunker. The revealing episode merits only a single throwaway sentence.


Where Nicholas succeeds eminently is in demonstrating, through their effects on children, the motivating impulses behind the greatest mass murder in history. What was truly terrifying about the Nazis' unspeakable crimes wasn't the wanton savagery of sadistic underlings in famously "following orders," but rather the perverted idealism of the masterminds in issuing them. The 20th century taught us the colossal dangers inherent in misplaced idealism. Nazism and Communism were both attempts to redefine humanity on pseudo-scientific yet religiously deterministic grounds of messianic proportions. Nazi chiefs fancied themselves as ordained agents of racial destiny, not least biologically speaking.


And so, "Cruel World" shows, just as the Nazis were busy exterminating one breed of people, they were religiously propagating another. Contraceptives and abortion were outlawed for German mothers, who were urged to become human battery hens producing fine young Aryan specimens in a national hatchery of perfect future Nazis. Polygamous promiscuity was encouraged. Women who bore at least four little Aryans were rewarded with the Honor Cross of the German Mother. Not to let mother and child languish without spiritual sustenance, "Mein Kampf" was to replace the Bible on church altars and bedside tables. Before meals at maternity homes, Nicholas says, German mothers were instructed to give the Nazi salute, thank Hitler for their food, and — yes — say grace. "To thee," they were to intone, "we devote all our powers. To thee we dedicate our lives and those of our children."


At Hitler Youth camps, enormous signs instructed older children about their collective destiny: "You were born to die for Germany." At mass-hypnotic propaganda fests in Nuremberg, Hitler exhorted kids in a similar vein: "You, my youth, never forget that one day you shall rule the world!" To that end, during barbarous hazing rituals teenage boys were ordered to slit the throats of bunny rabbits.


Yet even at the height of indoctrination, Nicholas says recounting a little-known historical curiosity, nonconformist German youths defied the Nazis. Gangs like the Hamburg Swingboys, the Bush Wolves and the Edelweiss Pirates risked harassment and worse by flouting regimentation and propaganda alike, defiant in their last hurrah of youthful rebellion. Though politically disorganized, they were among the precursors to beatniks and hippies. The German rebels would later find themselves on the Russian front.


Pace these German youngsters, many ostracized Jewish kids yearned for the opposite: to blend in. Ironically, some of them, blond and blue-eyed, were often mistaken for pureblood Aryans and paraded in schools by visiting eugenicists as paragons of Teutonic racial virtues. In heart-wrenching snippets, Nicholas explains how Jewish children -- sitting ducks for petty malice until Kristallnacht turned them into full-blown pariahs after 1938 -- wanted to be just like their Aryan peers. There's the Jewish girl whose mother dyes her daughter's hair blond, thereby exposing her to intensified ridicule. There's the Jewish boy who longs to wear the swastika armband and Hitler Youth badges forbidden to him. There's the 8-year-old from an assimilated family who, beaten savagely by a sadistic teacher for giving the Nazi salute like his classmates, learns he's just a despised Saujude. Jewish children, Nicholas writes, "sometimes became suicidal or physically ill at the revelation of a heritage that overnight... turned them into social outcasts."


Far worse was, of course, to come once war began.


* * *


After the German invasion of Poland, SS chief Heinrich Himmler, a race-obsessed crank who had sponsored eugenics field trips even to Tibet, decreed that Nordic-looking Polish youngsters between 2 and 12 be taken from their parents, given Germanic names, and locked up in special boarding schools to be thoroughly Nazified. All over war-torn Europe, Nicholas explains, children developed "a self-protective shell of voyeurism and casualness": Often they carried on playing even when bombs started to fall again on streets strewn with mangled corpses.

Hitler bids fond farewell to members of the Hitler Youth before sending them off to their deaths in the dying days of the war in 1945


For Jewish children, though, playing was no longer a priority. Bare survival was. Well over a million of them would perish by war's end. Arbeit Macht Frei ("Work Sets You Free"), the Nazis promised, but true to form, they lied. Jews had either of two options: Be exterminated forthwith or worked to death over weeks or months. Needless to say, children made for poor laborers....


In occupied Holland, Denmark, France, Poland and elsewhere, though, many a righteous citizen was risking arrest and execution to hide orphaned Jewish children. Talkative toddlers, Nicholas writes, "were apt to [tell their gentile rescuers] that Mommy had gone away, sing Jewish songs, or refuse nonkosher food."


German youth was in no enviable position either. With the Wehrmacht bleeding to death on all fronts from early 1943, German boys were drafted en masse. Paradoxically, they were deemed old enough to die for Hitler but too young to be issued rationed cigarettes like their older comrades: an 8-year-old boy would be on record as having taken out an American tank with a bazooka. Like him, many brainwashed German teens relished playing soldier for real. Dispatched into action in Normandy on June 7, 1944, the morning after D-Day, the child soldiers of the 12th Panzer Division Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) would, Nicolas writes, "amaze the Allied commanders with their ferocity and refusal to surrender." By September 1944, only 600 of the division's 10,000 teens were still alive.


And so in the dying days of the Third Reich, the children of victims and victimizers often ended up in the same condition: dead. Before his ignominious suicide, the childless Fuehrer emerged from his bunker under pulverized Berlin one last time to pin medals on a ragtag band of boy soldiers and pat them on the cheek. Welcome, boys, to his brave new world.


Nicholas's book should serve as a warning for the ages. Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels are history; yet their legacies of children enslaved, children singled out for murder, children enlisted as cannon-fodder aren't. Chechen "freedom fighters" take schoolchildren hostage in Beslan and machine-gun fleeing youngsters. Paramilitaries in West Africa turn 10-year-olds into crazed murderers. Sweatshops across South Asia enchain kids in factories of Dickensian squalor. Palestinian terrorists dispatch teens on "martyrdom operations"....


It's still a cruel world.



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