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Cruel World

The Children of Europe in the Nazi Web

Cruel World by Lynn H. Nicholas
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To be a child in mid-twentieth-century Europe was to be not a person but an object, available for use in the service of the totalitarian state. Very soon after Adolf Hitler came to power, policies of eugenic selection and euthanasia began to weed ill or disabled children out of the New Order by poison, gas, and starvation. Defect-free “good blood” children were subjected to an “education” based on racism, propaganda, and the glorification of the Führer, and were deliberately deprived of free time that would allow independent thought or action.

Once the war began, “Nordic”-looking children were kidnapped from families in the conquered lands and subjected to “Germanization.” Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of “bad blood” children—Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians(were separated from their families and condemned to forced migration, slave labor, sadistic experiments, starvation, and mass execution. At the end of the war, uprooted children of every origin wandered the bombed-out cities and countryside, some having been taken from home at such a young age that they did not know where they had come from or even their own names. Millions surged into and out of DP camps, exploited by political and religious groups, while the Allies and the fledgling United Nations tried mightily to put families back together and to find new homes for the orphans.

All the riveting narrative skill and impeccable scholarship that distinguished Lynn Nicholas’s first book, The Rape of Europa (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction), are present in her study of these terrible crimes against humanity. To research this story she has delved into the governmental and military archives of many nations, and has interviewed countless individuals. She shows the relationship of the deadly Nazi policies to the brutal tactics used in the USSR in the 1930s and to their rehearsal in the Spanish Civil War, and vividly describes the abject failure of Hitler’s campaign to plant Germanizing colonies in the conquered nations. She gives us the stories of survivors of ghastly war-spawned famines(in Greece and Russia in the 1940s, Holland in the “Hunger Winter” of 1945, and Berlin in the Airlift year of 1949(and of British, French, and Dutch children who were evacuated to the countryside; boys and girls sent alone from Europe to England on the Kindertransports; the teenaged soldiers of the Reich; the small veterans of the quarries, the factories, and the camps as well as those who survived in lonely hiding.

In Cruel World Lynn Nicholas shows us clearly, and with passionate empathy for the innocent victims, the crimes against children that inevitably result when ideology overwhelms humanity. This powerful book, as it recounts the waking nightmare that enmeshed the lives of Europe’s boys and girls, bears witness to our own responsibility to the children of the twenty-first century.

From the Hardcover edition.
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; May 2011
ISBN 9780307793829
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Cruel World
Author: Lynn H. Nicholas

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.