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The Children of Europe in the Nazi Web

Written by Lynn H. NicholasAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Lynn H. Nicholas


List Price: $13.99


On Sale: May 25, 2011
Pages: 656 | ISBN: 978-0-307-79382-9
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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In this riveting, powerful narrative, Lynn Nicholas shows how children under the Nazis became mere objects available for use in the service of the totalitarian state. Nicholas recounts the euthanasia and eugenic selection, racist indoctrination, kidnapping and “Germanization,” mass executions, and slave labor to which the Nazis subjected Europe’s children. She also captures the uprooted children’s search for their families in the aftermath of the war. A disturbing and absolutely necessary work, Cruel World opens a new chapter in World War II studies.



Just before lunch on May 29, 1945, three weeks after the formal end of the Second World War, Sister Wörle, head nurse of the children’s wards at the Kaufbeuren-Irsee Mental Institution near Munich, approached the bed of four-year-old Richard Jenne and put him to death by lethal injection. She had plenty of experience, having, as she readily stated to her interrogators, previously so injected “at least 211 minors.” The time of death was 13:10. Richard, classified as a “feebleminded idiot” had been taken to the hospital some months before and put on a diet carefully calculated to bring him to the brink of starvation. By May 29 he had reached the desired state of weakness and was ripe for Sister Wörle’s visit. The death certificate, intended for dispatch to Richard’s parents in the town of Ihringen in the German state of Baden, did not mention the injection, but listed the cause of death as typhus.

The American troops who had occupied the picturesque town of Kaufbeuren in the hilly, blossom-laden countryside of Swabia on April 26 were unaware of Richard’s demise, and indeed would not discover his body and those of a number of other victims of Sister Wörle and her colleagues for five more weeks. The Americans had arrested the Nazi director of the institution but, put off by a large sign warning of typhus in the hospital, had not ventured inside, where routine continued as usual. On July 2, two medical officers finally entered the premises. What met their eyes was beyond belief: some fifteen hundred disease riddled patients confined in the most squalid conditions, among them a ten-year-old boy who weighed twenty-two pounds, and a stifling morgue filled with bodies which had not been buried and which could not be disposed of quickly as the shiny new crematorium, finished in November 1944, had been closed down (i).


Richard Jenne was probably the last person to be put to death by the Nazi extermination machine, which in performing this act had come full circle. For it was in this institution, and a network of similar ones, that basic training, using German nationals, had been provided for those who would run the death camps so recently liberated by the Allies. Richard was not alone in his death: millions of other children were deliberately murdered in the Nazi era. Tens of thousands would die of conflict-induced starvation in Leningrad, Athens, the Netherlands, and other war zones. Others did not survive the unprecedented forced transfers of populations engendered by Nazi racial policy and carried out under the most primitive conditions. Thousands of teenaged Hitler Youth died in battle, and children of all involved nations were sterilized, perished during evacuations, died of war-borne diseases, or succumbed as forced laborers. They wasted away in concentration, refugee, and disciplinary camps, and died in the bombings of cities and in the Nazi revenge burnings of hundreds of doomed villages in the USSR, Greece, France, and Czechoslovakia, of which Distomo, Oradour-sur-Glane, and Lidice are merely the best known. A precise figure can never be compiled, but it is vast. The historian Alan Bullock estimates the total number of military and civilian deaths due to World War II in the European nations to be some forty million. Mortality of this magnitude defies comprehension and tends to destroy normal human reactions to the reality of the events, a phenomenon which was highly evident among both perpetrators and victims during the conflict itself. It is therefore necessary to remember, as Bullock puts it, that the statistics are important,

…but because they can have the effect of numbing the imagination, which cannot conceive of human suffering on such a scale, it is equally important to underline that every single figure in these millions represents…an individual human being like ourselves--a man, a woman, a child, or even a baby (ii).


The discoveries at Kaufbeuren, coming weeks after the more horrendous accounts of conditions in the death camps, and coinciding as they did with the formal entry of Western Allied forces into Berlin, received small mention in the international press. But the Army was sufficiently embarrassed to replace the detachment occupying the town with another. The incident was only a detail in the gigantic mosaic of efforts underway to cope with the tremendous human needs of liberated Europe. The London Times of July 6, 1945, reported that the Combined Civil Affairs Committee of the Anglo-American allies had announced that they had, so far, found 5.8 million displaced persons in Germany. Of these 2.3 million had already been repatriated, which left 2.5 million to be cared for in camps. Their optimistic assessment was that the problem might “resolve itself” by September 1 into “the care of the residue of stateless persons and those who cannot be sent home.” No figures were given for this group, whose fate would then be determined by an Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees which would “have the task of finding places” for them.

The bland Civil Affairs announcement was fine as far as it went. But much is left out of its statistics. Other estimates put the number of the displaced at war’s end in Germany alone as high as 12.5 million. The announcement does not mention the 7.8 million expellees from Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia who would arrive in Germany in 1946 or the hundreds of thousands who would continue to move westward from areas controlled by the Soviet Union. It does not include the malnourished populations of newly liberated countries from Greece to Norway, the bombed-out millions of Warsaw, Stalingrad, Berlin, and London, or the exiles and evacuees trying to get home from all over the globe, whose numbers would burgeon after the defeat of Japan. A large percentage of these had, or would, become the responsibility of the Allied armies and help organizations, who were soon faced with situations beyond their most extreme imagining or preparation and challenged in their charitable desires by political policies, racial attitudes and nationalistic self interests not in the least moderated by the events of the war.

For large numbers of the children of Europe who had escaped Richard Jenne’s fate, life was far removed from the norm. In every liberated nation wild, streetwise groups attached themselves to troop formations and scrounged for food. Parentless children waiting for transfer out of concentration camps played among stacks of corpses, or lay near death in makeshift hospitals. Others, taken to still inadequate refugee camps with their families, fared little better. Evacuated children nervously boarded ships and trains to reunions with parents they no longer knew, while others waited in vain for parents who would never return from concentration camp or battlefield.

Thousands more roamed the countryside alone, moving towards the last homes they had known along with the masses jamming the roads and trains. Everywhere, children who had been hidden for years, sworn to silence and subterfuge, emerged to deal with a strange world. Many who had been sent from occupied countries at a very young age to foster families in the Reich for “Germanization” would stay hidden until ferreted out, and some would never find out who they really were.

* * *

This was Hitler’s legacy. The evil Utopian dream of the Nazis, which envisioned a world controlled by a physically perfect people of pure ethnicity in which the racially unacceptable and economically useless would be eliminated, had lasted only a brief moment in history. But in that time it had grown to monstrous proportions, fertilized by indifference and unwitting support in the nations which had, with enormous human cost, put an end to it.

Hitler’s undeviating progress toward the creation of the Aryan super-empire he described in 1926, in Mein Kampf, was carefully paced and politically astute. He was only too willing to adjust his ideology as necessary to procure temporary political support or economic advantage, even allying himself for a time with the “Judeo-Bolshevik” rulers of the Soviet Union the better to devour Poland. Not even his obsession with race was inviolable. Hermann Rauschning, an early colleague, quoted Hitler as stating:

I know perfectly well…that in the scientific sense there is no such thing as race. But you, as a farmer and cattle breeder, cannot get your breeding successfully achieved without the conception of race. And I as a politician need a conception which enables the order which has hitherto existed on historic bases to be abolished and an entirely and new anti-historic order enforced and given an intellectual basis…And for this purpose the conception of race serves me well… With the conception of race, National Socialism will carry the revolution abroad and re-cast the world (iii).

But first, it would be essential to establish total control of German society. New visions must be promoted to replace the bad aftereffects of the First World War and the economy must be revived by stringent elimination of waste and by full employment. Above all, there must be no more factionalism or variance of point of view, but total obedience to a particular leader, and it must all be achieved without arousing domestic resistance or foreign sanctions.

From the beginning, Hitler recognized the importance of children in his scheme. The state must “declare the child to be the most precious treasure of the people.”(iv). But not all children. They must be healthy “Aryans,” free of “hereditary weakness,” and they must also be properly educated. Those not complying with the first criterion would be eliminated. The rest would be removed at a pliable age from the influence of family and religion and be inculcated with Nazi ideology, ranked from high functionary to serf-like laborer according to certain rigid mental and physical standards, trained accordingly, and then be used as commodities where most convenient. The children of the conquered lands would be included. In occupied areas populated with unworthy beings such as Slavs, the indigenous would be eliminated or enslaved and the area would be repopulated with individuals “subject to special norms,” who would be chosen and resettled by “specially constituted racial commissions.” In this way it would be possible to found “…colonies whose inhabitants are exclusively bearers of the highest racial purity and hence of the highest racial efficiency.” (v).

As a result of these theories, expressed in Mein Kampf and implemented by gigantic overlapping bureaucracies, thousands of children would have experiences no child should ever have, spend years in wandering and exile, be separated from their families forever, and die. The process would begin at home.

Notes on Chapter 1: Prologue
i. NA RG 338/54 ETO/USFET Detachment F1F3 Report “Asylum at Kaufbeuren, Swabia” 5 July 1945; NA RG 238 Nuremberg Doc.1696-PS; Klee, Ernst, Euthanasie im NS-Staat (Frankfurt, 1985), pp. 452-454.
ii. Bullock, Alan, Hitler and Stalin. Parallel Lives (New York, 1993), pp. 983, 805.
iii. Rauschning, Hermann, Hitler Speaks (London, 1939), pp. 113, 229-30, as cited in Pipes, Richard, Russia under the Bolshevik Regime (New York, 1993), p. 280.
iv. Hitler, Adolf, Mein Kampf (London, 1974), ed. D. C. Watt, p. 367.
v. Ibid., p. 368.

From the Hardcover edition.
Lynn H. Nicholas|Author Q&A

About Lynn H. Nicholas

Lynn H. Nicholas - Cruel World
Lynn H. Nicholas was born in New London, CT, and educated in the U.S., England, and Spain. The Rape of Europa, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, has been translated into eight languages. It inspired an international movement to locate and repatriate works of art and other property confiscated and stolen by individuals and governments before and during World War II. Ms. Nicholas was elected to the Légion d'Honneur by the government of France and was named an Amicus Poloniae by Poland. She has become widely known as a lecturer on the issues addressed in The Rape of Europa and Cruel World and has appeared as an expert witness in art-repatriation trials and before Congress.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Lynn Nicholas
author of
Cruel World

Q: CRUEL WORLD focuses on the lives and experiences of the children of Europe during and immediately following the Nazi era. Few would remain untouched by the events of that time, and millions of them would be subjected to ferocious indoctrination, torturous deprivation, forced migration, medical experiments, slavery, and murder: What inspired you to write about such a difficult subject?
A: Well, I am myself a child of that era. Some of my earliest memories are of things like wartime blackout curtains and my mother going off work in an air raid warning center in Virginia. I have always been fascinated by the stories European friends of mine told about their lives during World War II. Very soon after the war my father served at the US Embassy in the Netherlands and I saw for myself the bombing damage done to Rotterdam and other places. I did not question at the time the fact that there were people from a number of countries in the Dutch school I attended, but I realize now that they were undoubtedly refugees or displaced persons, as was our housekeeper. During that time (1948-51) we also went to Germany, where the devastation and living conditions and the appearance of the people wandering about, among whom were many war wounded, were truly terrifying. Later I wondered how daily life could continue during full blown war: how families and children coped with destruction of their houses and the lack of food, and what exactly the Nazis did with the children of Germany and the occupied countries and with those of their racial and political enemies.

At college I studied history and specialized in Modern Europe; but at the time I did so the social aspects were not really much emphasized and the courses did not answer these question for me or tell me just how a totalitarian system of government can, so insidiously, overcome a nation accustomed to a democratic one, and dominate even the smallest aspects of daily and family life. As time went on I became more and more interested in the complexity of the Nazi plans for the future of the Third Reich. Most studies of this period, understandably, are rather “vertical” and tend to focus on one particular group or nation. But the Nazi plan was for global domination, and all their agencies, civilian and military, including youth organizations were linked to this international plan, so I have attempted a more “horizontal approach” and tried to compare events taking place simultaneously in different areas. It has certainly been quite a journey of discovery and I have been amazed at some of my findings.

Q: Your first book, The Rape of Europa, also focused on the Second World War. What, initially, brought you to this subject?
I think the same impulses led me to The Rape of Europa, but the immediate catalyst there was the death of Rose Valland, a little known Louvre curator, who, the obituary recounted, “had saved thousands of works of art.” This made me curious about what had happened to all the European museums during the war. I had worked off and on in museums for years and therefore knew many of those who had participated in the recovery of works of art. No one had ever asked most of them anything about their extraordinary experiences, which make up most of the second half of The Rape of Europa. But the story of the art could not be told without constant reference to the war in general, and of course to the fate of human beings, and it is that aspect that I address in Cruel World. What is spooky is that the Nazis had the same policies for people as for art: destroy the unacceptable and “degenerate” and gather in and promote the Germanic.

Q: The Rape of Europa inspired an international movement to find and repatriate objects lost and stolen during the Nazi Era and World World II. Do you anticipate any similar reaction to CRUEL WORLD?
There could be some revival of the search for missing relations and children, but in fact those searches have never really stopped. It would be wonderful indeed if, due to a bit of information in Cruel World, a family were re-united, but I doubt that will happen. My hope is that this book will make people, in this country especially, aware of the realities of war. We basically, and very fortunately, have no idea of what living in a war zone does to normal human life, but as the only super power we need to know such things. I also hope that the book will serve as a revelation of the damage that results from ideology and tribalism run amok, a problem that is very relevant in today’s world, and still the cause of the deaths of thousands of children.
Q: What research was involved in this book? Did you talk to any of the children—now grown—who were subjected to this awful treatment?
I did talk to many, many of the “children” who are now mostly grandparents. They include, among others, Russian forced laborers, Germans who were in the Hitler Youth, the children of resisters in many countries, Greek communists, Holocaust survivors, Kindertransport children, Dutch children interned in Japanese camps, “bundles from Britain,” Polish exiles and many more. In addition I talked to numerous members of the agencies that worked with children after the war. It was an astonishing experience. The reactions were very frequently not what I expected—both admirable and unacceptable behavior surfaced in surprising places—and the interviewing process was a good lesson in judging people as individuals and not as members of a labeled entity.

I also, of course, did a great deal of reading and research in the archives of various countries. Washington, DC, where I live, is a gold mine of documentation on this period. At the National Archives, the Library of Congress and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, in addition to the American and Allied records, there are literally tons of captured German documents. If you have the time and patience, and can read German, the material on Nazi methodology is staggering. In the seven years I took to write this book I could only make a small dent in these documents; but it was enough to produce a devastating picture of their intent.

Q: What was the biggest surprise for you when you were researching the book?
I think that there were two main surprises. First, I had not realized how important the concept of Germanization was to the Nazis. Most histories since the war have concentrated on the destructive aspects of the Nazi regime: their conquests of nations and governments and their extermination of “alien races” such as the Jews. Much less coverage, at least in the more popular histories, has been given to the Nazi plans to colonize and Germanize the areas they conquered. This included continued elimination of undesirable races such as the Slavs, the eventual suppression of all religious denominations, and the rescue and “re-Germanization” of those they considered to have sufficient Germanic “blood.” Even at the height of the war they had enormous bureaucracies and enforcement agencies working on these racial matters, all using criteria which were ludicrous, but still deadly. The degree of German blood a child possessed determined his fate: those who were not pure enough could be killed or used as forced labor and were destined for short and miserable lives. The second surprise, or I should say shock, was the fact that the end of the war, which put an end to Nazism, did not put an end to many other long standing ethnic, political and religious hatreds, which indeed seemed to bloom with renewed vigor. Researching the archives of the relief agencies, again and again, one is amazed at the attitudes of organizations and nations and the fact that children, especially, were regarded as a sort of commodity up for grabs to whatever group could get them, often without any reference to their families, who were often searching for them with desperation.

Q: What happened to the approximately 5,000 children of the Lebensborn Societies (pg. 80)? At the time, they were considered “biologically sound,” but after the war, was their background uncovered? Was it a source of shame?
The fate of Lebensborn children depended on their nationality. Most German Lebensborn children did remain with their mothers and being illegitimate, might have suffered from that stigma, if the fact were known. Those without parents went to German orphanages and homes. In the chaos of postwar Germany fatherless and completely unidentifiable children were not unusual. In that atmosphere it would not be difficult for a Lebensborn child to escape notice. The fact that most Lebensborn records as well as many municipal records and archives were destroyed, plus the closing off of East Germany made any tracing of children difficult. Generally, I do not believe Lebensborn was an issue in Germany due in part to the great silence there about parental activities in the war. That was not the case in other countries. In Norway, which had the next largest number of Lebensborn babies, the Lebensborn label was shameful. The babies were treated as the children of collaborators, not a good thing. Those in orphanages reportedly were not given the best care, and for many years the Norwegian government refused repatriation of some of the children from Germany or any financial aid to them and their mothers. In Poland, from which thousands of children were kidnapped and sent to Lebensborn schools and institutions, there was no shame attached. There the quest to find and return them lasted for years and produced many extremely emotional situations and conflicts of identity.

Q: In the chapter HITLER’S CHILDREN, you write about the German children who were forced to spend time away from their homes, where old ideas (contrary to the Nazi regime) might reside. The children were essentially brainwashed with the slogan “You were born to die for Germany.” Was this damage reversible?
The conquest of the areas contiguous to Germany was an integral part of Hitler’s policies. For this effort, and for its later exploitation he needed large and loyal armies, which meant the young. Every effort was therefore made to turn young people toward nationalism and “defense” of their nation, never mind that it was not actually threatened. This included total allegiance to and worship of the “leader” or Fuhrer, who was, of course Hitler. To attract children, and indeed the whole population, relentless propaganda was used and soon proved the adage that if a lie is repeated often enough by government authorities, people will believe it. In addition, for the young, uniforms and ceremonies with dazzling panoply were the order of the day, as were group activities in which fear of reprisal and peer pressure were knowingly manipulated to replace parental guidance. Just in case there were children who did not follow along, membership in the Hitler Youth was made obligatory for all in 1936. The actual advent of war, in which disinformation was heavily employed to make it appear that Germany had been attacked, brought out the natural patriotic tendencies of youth, who eagerly went forth to defend their homeland. Later on the young were also sent by the thousands to promote the glories of German civilization to the residents of the conquered areas. The constant allied bombing of Germany late in the war seems to have sustained the children’s will to resist. But their dedication was finite. Hitler’s suicide would remove him as an icon. By then the futility and horror of war were obvious to older children. Germany’s defeat and occupation, the revelation of the truths about the regime, and the devastation of the economy, which made pure survival the principal occupation of most families, gave the final blow to the Nazi call to glory. It was also soon clear to most young people that the Allies were not the monsters they had been told to expect. For all but a few hard-core youth leaders adherence to Nazi methods, which had in any case been involuntary for many, did not long outlast Hitler’s demise or the death of his Germany.

Q: Do you equate the treatment of the “good blood” and “bad blood” children to anything happening in our world today?
There are many places in the world where “ethnic cleansing” goes on. One has only to think of the former Yugoslavia, Sudan, Rwanda and areas of the Middle and Far East etc. But I have not so far heard of anything that parallels the pseudo-scientific determination of ethnicity used by the Nazis and their passionate efforts to preserve every droplet of “German” blood. I even found a document indicating that they had considered setting up special POW camps for German-American GI’s in which they would attempt to convert them to the Germanic cause!

Q: What’s next for you?
Well, I think that World War II, may finally be over for me!! But it is a hard thing to shake as the Nazi phenomenon remains essentially unfathomable and fascinating. And there are still so many more documents I could read!!! But I may go back to earlier times and the art world. We shall see.

From the Hardcover edition.



“For anyone interested in an unglossed World War II history, Cruel World is a must read. . . . A historical gem.” —The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

“A thoroughly researched and incisively written account. . . . This is not merely another book about the Holocaust, although the Holocaust is the most glaring event in these pages. Cruel World is more shocking and upsetting than any book that deals with ‘only’ one persecution.”—The Washington Post Book World

“A well-written, compelling history that makes us look at the war era anew.” —Publishers Weekly (starred)

“Powerful, passionate. . . . The combination of the authoritative overview with the searing detail makes this an invaluable reference source as well as riveting history.”—Booklist

"Passionate, powerful, riveting,"
—Hazel Rochman, starred review for Booklist

"Compelling history that makes us look at the war anew,"
—Publishers Weekly, starred review

"This book is an extraordinary achievement, particularly because, although the author's theme is Europe’s children, she is in fact, with astonishing research, writing a new history of World War II. And remarkably, in writing about the children, she does - as one might expect - write not only about their suffering, but also about their joys."
—Gitta Sereny

“A work of impressive scholarship . . . Cruel World is a historical gem. For anyone interested in an unglossed WWII history, it is a must read. It revives memories that the world forgets at its peril.”
—Jackie Loohauis, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

". . .a thoroughly researched and incisively written account of horrendous crime, suffering , folly, and indifference, as well as of heroism, sacrifice, and the will to survive . . . Cruel World's originality lies in its broad sweep--more shocking and upsetting than any book that deals with 'only' one persecution. By broadening her scope to include every affected nationality . . . Nicholas makes us aware how children across Europe were caught up in the Nazis' cruelty."
—Ruth Kluger, Washington Post Book World

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