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War and Childhood in the Age of the World Wars Print E-mail
Local and Global Perspectives

June 5-7, 2014
Conference at the GHI
Conveners: Mischa Honeck (GHI Washington), James Marten (Marquette University), Andreas Gestrich (GHI London), Arndt Weinrich (GHI Paris)

Participants: Valentina Boretti (University of London), Sabine Frühstück (University of California, Santa Barbara), Julie K. deGraffenried (Baylor University), Antje Harms (University of Freiburg), Robert Jacobs (Hiroshima Peace Institute), Kate James (University of Oxford), Martin Kalb (Northern Arizona University), Esbjörn Larsson (University of Uppsala), Emma Lautman (University of Nottingham), Nazan Maksudyan (Kemerburgaz University, Istanbul), Susan A. Miller (Rutgers University), Sharon Park (University of Minnesota), L. Halliday Piel (University of Manchester), Manon Pignot (University of Picardie Jules-Verne), Karl Qualls (Dickinson College), Kara Ritzheimer (Oregon State University), Birgitte Soland (Ohio State University), Thomas Christopher Stevens (University of Oxford), Suzanne Swartz (Stony Brook University, NY).

Conference Report

This conference explored the intersecting histories of modern war and childhood in the early twentieth century. Its goal was to come to grips with a fundamental paradox: How was it possible for modern societies to reimagine childhood as a space of sheltered existence and yet mobilize children for war? Rather than merely investigate adult representations of youth and childhood in war, it uncovered the processes by which young people acquired agency as historical subjects. The participants paid attention to the voices and actions of children in the different locales of modern war - from the home to the homefront; the bomb shelter to the battlefield; the press to the pulpit; the school to the street. In addition, they examined how adult institutions (governments, civic organizations, social movements) utilized images of children for wartime propaganda. These images could be deployed for various purposes: to mobilize patriotism and popular support for the war effort; to discredit and dehumanize the enemy; but also to subvert the logic of escalating military and political violence.

The first panel looked at different discursive and material modes of infantilizing war in first half of the twentieth century. Using examples from Japanese propaganda, Sabine Frühstück showed how the Japanese were emotionally sensitized and mobilized by iconography that co-configured soldiers and children. Portraying soldiers as caring fathers and linking war with infancy made war appear natural and inevitable. Valentina Boretti illustrated the importance of toys for militarizing Chinese children under the republican and communist regimes. War toys were disseminated to foster a martial spirit among youths perceived as frail and unmasculine. Julie K. deGraffenried compared American and Soviet alphabet books published in World War II. While the war and military life were more prominent in the Soviet case, the American example tended to highlight traditional gender roles and a normative whiteness.

The second panel explored forms of different forms of youth mobilization. Antje Harms argued that ideological constructions of "youth" in the German youth movement during World War I stressed attitude over age. The concept, according to Harms, was broad and fluid enough to encompass both militarists who volunteered for a "new Germany" and pacifists who refused to fight. Esbjörn Larsson analyzed the Swedish government's implementation of defense training in national schools. He underscored the importance of traditional gender roles, financial feasibility, medical education, and ethics in Swedish debates over children's roles in civil defense. Mischa Honeck challenged the idealized image of the Boy Scouts of America during World War II, which papered over generational and racial conflicts. While adults envisioned the organization as a tool of social control and wartime conformity, young Scouts conceived it as an opportunity for self-mobilization and self-actualization.

The third panel focused on issues of agency and victimization. Kate James examined boy soldiers in the Royal Navy and British Army in the early 20th century from an intergenerational perspective. Working-class boys enlisted in search of adventure and social advancement. British military leaders, on the other hand, sought to heighten youth's physical fitness while restricting their involvement in combat. L. Halliday Piel talked about the Manchu-Mongol Pioneer Youth Loyal and Brave Army, which was composed of Japanese boy soldier-settlers in the 1930s and 1940s. Lured into Manchuria with the promise of education and land, the boys from rural Japan who joined the Army wanted to rise socially but ultimately faced poverty and death. Suzanne Swartz's paper about Jewish child smugglers in the Warsaw Ghetto demonstrated how generational roles could be inverted in times of crises. While adults faced increasing restrictions, children formed their own networks and became breadwinners for their families.

The fourth panel centered on juvenile delinquency on the home front. Kara Ritzenheimer talked about Kriegsschundliteratur in World War I Germany, a popular genre in youth literature that featured sensationalized wartime heroics. Discredited as inferior literature that would lead young people astray, the genre was suppressed by governmental authorities as part of Germany's wartime censorship regime. Emma Lautmann analyzed widespread claims of juvenile delinquency in Britain during World War II. She linked these claims to children's public visibility after many schools had been closed but also highlighted the fact that the young contested adult definitions of good citizenship. Martin KALB dissected constructions of the "delinquent boy" and the "sexually deviant girl" in Munich during the 1940s. These stereotypes emerged in war-ravaged spaces and due to a mismatch of the sexes, with women outnumbering men in postwar Munich. Young German women who socialized with U.S. soldiers were accused of tarnishing the nation's future, even more so if those soldiers were black.

The fifth panel shed light on the role of children as witnesses of war. Manon Pignot analyzed World War I drawings from French, Russian, and German children. Enemies were illustrated with animal features, and depictions of battles often merged modern and medieval symbols of war. Reflecting traditional gender divisions, boys overwhelmingly depicted battle scenes, while the drawings of girls contained references to the home front. Susan Miller's presentation revolved around the art German children made in response to the American Quaker feeding program after World War I. Arguing that children's art should be regarded as a genuine reflection of their feelings, Miller identified two conflicting emotional reactions: gratitude for the relief, but also ambivalence about needing it. Thomas Christopher Stevens drew on autobiographic writings to investigate the perception and (re)interpretation of childhood in revolutionary Russia. He regarded the writings as deliberate efforts to construct childhoods that were consistent with the ruling ideology, and as personal expressions of individual interactions with a violently changing social environment.

The sixth panel dealt with wartime relocation and child relief. Nazan Maksudyan focused on Ottoman orphan boys brought to Germany as apprentices in the final years of World War I. The few sources available show the diverging expectations of the parties involved: German authorities sought to bolster their dwindling domestic workforce, while Turkish authorities wanted to get rid of delinquent boys. Karl Qualls talked about Spanish refugee children, mostly boys, who migrated to Russia to escape the violence of the Spanish Civil War. Struggling to overcome homesickness and adjust to a foreign culture, these children were idealized by Soviet propaganda and held up as examples of a heroic childhood that young Russians should imitate. Sharon Parks gauged the scope and impact that U.S. postwar aid programs had on European refugee children. The figure of the destitute child was used to attract funding and symbolize the boundless generosity of a victor nation, although personal accounts reveal discrepancies between official representations and the programs' actual impact.

The seventh panel explored how children remembered war, and how wartime children were remembered in postwar societies. Arndt Weinrich argued that generational conflict structured the collective memory of World War I in Weimar and Nazi Germany. Although youth groups across party lines seized on the cult of the fallen warrior, National Socialists exploited this myth best by eventually turning it against the older generation. Drawing on 200 oral interviews, Birgitte Soland told the story of American orphans who had become subjects of medical experimentation conducted to boost U.S. combat efficiency in World War II. She suggested that most of the survivors of these experiments took pride in having contributed to the war effort, even if that contribution had left physical and psychological scars. Robert Jacobs talked about the nuclear attack on Hiroshima in August 1945 and its impact on children. Examining the absence and reemergence of children in Western stories about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Jacobs highlighted changing representations that range from military personnel secretly assessing the destructive impact of atomic bombs on school populations to sentimentalized depictions of child victims used to promote global peace.

The conference concluded with a roundtable that pulled together the major methodological and historiographical strands. A focus on children, the participants agreed, calls into question and productively disrupts common boundaries of modern war. On an emotional level, it shows the importance of children for the morale of the soldiers and their symbolic value as embodiments of suffering and national survival. On the level of agency, it shows that while childhoods were ideological constructions and children semiautonomous actors at best, their modes of self-determination also proved empowering. For the young, war was both a devastating trial and a locus of socialization where issues of age, gender, sexuality, and citizenship were negotiated, adapted, and redefined. As adults were grappling to regain control over their children in times of war, children constantly reinvented the meaning of childhood for themselves.

Mischa Honeck (GHI), Susanne Quitmann (GHI), and Stina Barrenscheen (GHI)



War and Childhood in the Age of the World Wars: Local and Global Perspectives

June 5-7, 2014
Conference at the GHI
Conveners: Mischa Honeck (GHI Washington), James Marten (Marquette University), Andreas Gestrich (GHI London), Arndt Weinrich (GHI Paris)

  • Program (pdf; as of April 15, 2014)

Call for Papers

We are looking for presenters who can enrich our understanding of the place and role of children and youth in war during the first half of the twentieth century. The goal of our conference is to come to grips with a fundamental paradox: How was it possible for modern societies to reimagine childhood as a space of sheltered existence and mobilize children for war at the same time? And how did modern warfare disrupt or accelerate rites of passage in the realms of gender, sexuality, national loyalty, ethnic and racial identity, and military involvement? We ask these questions on the assumption that young people experienced war in ways that were age-specific and different from how adults endured it. Usually, these differences found some means to express themselves, and despite the devastation suffered by real children in wars, the power of youth as a symbol of renewal outlived them.

Rather than merely investigate adult representations of youth and childhood in war, we are just as much interested in uncovering the historical processes by which young people acquired agency as historical subjects. This means paying attention to the voices and actions of children in the different locales of modern war - from the home to the homefront; the bomb shelter to the battlefield; the press to the pulpit; the school to the street. On the level of representations, we want to examine how adult institutions (governments, civic organizations, social movements) utilized images of children for wartime propaganda. These images could be deployed for various purposes: to mobilize patriotism and popular support for the war effort; to discredit and dehumanize the enemy; but also to subvert the logic of escalating military and political violence.

We invite contributions that address the nexus of childhood, youth, and war across political and geographical boundaries. But we also encourage proposals from scholars whose research revolves around a group of people, a region, a nation, or a certain cultural space. We do this in the spirit of practicing a "connected history," a history that is aware of global influences on local events without losing sight of local particularities in an interconnected world. We want to attract historians specializing in various fields (military, political, social, economic, and cultural history) who can help us develop a comprehensive and exciting synthesis of the historiographies on war, youth, and childhood from roughly 1910 to 1950. We will give particular, but not exclusive, preference to proposals that focus on the following areas:

Representations:
  • Depictions of young people in war and antiwar propaganda;
  • Children as casualties of war (death, disease, malnutrition) and the politics of emotion;
Agency:
  • Youth organizations and war;
  • Young people on the home front;
  • Children as soldiers, partisans, prisoners, refugees, and resistance fighters;
Education and Leisure:
  • Military toys and war in children's games;
  • Militarism and anti-militarism in schools;
  • War in youth literature and popular culture;
Memory:
  • Childhood and war trauma;
  • Narrations of war and youth in postwar politics and culture.

Please send a proposal of no more than 500 words and a short CV to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

The deadline for submission is November 30, 2013. Participants will be notified by early January 2014. The conference, held in English, will focus on discussing 6,000-8,000 word, pre-circulated papers (due April 30, 2014). We intend to publish the contributions.

Expenses for travel and accommodation will be covered.