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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Witnesses of War’ Tells Horrifying Story of European Children Under Nazi Rule; Germans Later Claimed ‘We Were Victims, Too’

Posted by kinchendavid on August 13, 2006

Reviewed By David M. Kinchen
Huntington News Network Book Critic

Hinton, WV  – Defining the Yiddish word “chutzpah,” one often quoted source says chutzpah is when you kill your parents and throw yourself on the mercy of the court, asking for leniency because you’re an orphan.

After World War II, recounts Nicholas Stargardt in “Witnesses of War” (Knopf, 512 pages, 16 pages of black and white pictures, 6 maps, index and bibliography, $30.00), Germans who suffered horribly in the war and who were driven out of territory they had lived in for centuries claimed that they were victims of a natural disaster, a “total collapse” a “Zusammenbruch.”

East Germans celebrated May 8, the day the Nazi regime surrendered and were “liberated” by the Russians, as a day of liberation; in West Germany, the day was treated as a “day of shame.” (Page 344). Rather than celebrating the men of the July 20, 1944 plot against Hitler, the plotters were disparaged as traitors by most West Germans, Stargardt points out.

During the Battle of Berlin, German women and girls were victims of rape on a huge scale and in West Germany, the Soviet rapists were portrayed as Asiatic monsters. The last German POW returned from Russia in 1955 and Germans wondered how many were still imprisoned.

Stargardt, born in Australia to an émigré German Jew and an Australian mother, points out on Page 340 that “The numbers of German prisoners of war who died in Soviet camps stood at about a tenth of the number of Soviet prisoners who had died at German hands.” Gentile Germans co-opted images of the Holocaust and the German death camps in many nations, comparing themselves to victims of Nazism.

Similarly, the Russians co-opted the September 1941 Babi Yar massacre of at least 34,000 Ukrainian Jews at the hands of German invaders and Ukrainian collaborators by eliminating references to Jews and referring to the victims as “Soviets.” Stalin personally ordered changes in Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar” and Dimitri Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony based on the epic poem.

Chutzpah, indeed, and on a grand scale on both parts.

After all, the Germans and their Russian allies – up to June 22, 1941 they had succeeded in reworking the map of Europe on a monstrous scale – ended up being responsible for the deaths of at least 60 million people. German military deaths were about 5 million, with civilian deaths close to 2 million – not counting, of course, the German Jews who were murdered by their countrymen.

Like Lynn H. Nicholas in “Cruel World: The Children of Europe in the Nazi Web” (Knopf) which I reviewed earlier this year, Stargardt concentrates on the children of all nationalities and religious backgrounds whose lives were shaped by the Thousand Year Reich that lasted just under 13 ½ years.

He deals extensively with the eugenics movement, inspired by American exemplars of the so-called Progressive Era, a topic covered extensively in “Better for All The World” also reviewed on this site. Nicholas also covers the eugenics and euthanasia movements of the Nazis in her book.

Like Mel Gibson, exhibited in his July 2006 Malibu post arrest drunken rants, the Germans displayed another variety of “chutzpah” by blaming the war they started on the Jews, especially when their cities were being firebombed by the British and later American air forces.

Most of the 5 million German soldiers who died in the war perished from mid-1944 – when it was clear to everybody but the most fanatical Nazis that the war would end in German defeat – until the very end on May 8, 1945. Stargardt writes movingly of the fanaticism of the Hitler Youth and Volkssturm units in the final days in the ruins of the German capital.

Just as Nicholas drew on memoirs, diaries, oral histories, letters and interviews with survivors, so does Stargardt draw upon similar sources, personalizing the horror by putting names and faces and art work on the people involved. The drawings and paintings by Thomas Geve and Yehuda Bacon, among others, saved from the “model” concentration camp at Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia – the ones the Nazis showed to the International Red Cross and groups from such neutral countries as Sweden – are painfully graphic reminders of the war as seen through youthful eyes – eyes of children who’ve aged far beyond their years.

Both books show how the Gentile children of Germany were shaped by their indoctrination. Since this category includes the current pope, it’s an important part of Stargardt’s monumental work of history.

Whenever I read books of this type, I check the bibliography to see if Daniel J. Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” (Knopf, 1996) is included. Sure enough, Stargardt includes Goldhagen’s book. Good for him! Despite the objections of many historians who say Goldhagen is wrong in his emphasis on innate German anti-Semitism, I found Goldhagen to be a serious and insightful writer on the subject of the Holocaust. “Witnesses of War” and “Cruel World” are complementary, with each contributing valuable insights and information.

It’s worth noting again that Knopf – a unit of Random House – has been owned since 1998 by the German publishing group Bertelsmann AG, a company that has preserved and enhanced the reputations of the distinguished publishers Knopf, Random House, Crown and other imprints.

Publisher’s web site: http://www.aaknopf.com

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