War and Childhood


Dr Mischa Honeck, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Dr James Marten, Marquette University, Wisconsin


This is the story of Sadako, Theodore, and Konstantin. Although their paths never crossed, their young lives exemplified the drama, horrors, and hopes of the intersecting worlds of war and childhood in the twentieth century. Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese girl who was just a toddler when the atomic bomb destroyed her Hiroshima home in 1945, ranks among the most famous war children of her generation. Sadako survived the blast, yet her goal of folding 1,000 paper cranes – a symbol of healing in Japan – was cut short when she died of radiation-induced leukemia. Sadako became a global icon of peace and forgiveness. No such fate awaited Theodore Petzold, a Boy Scout from New York who fervently supported his nation’s war effort after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Collecting scrap metal, however, failed to satisfy the American teenager, who sated his thirst for heroic adventure reading about the exploits of young Konstantin Gregorivich Konstantinov in a U.S. Scouting magazine. An underage Cossack soldier fighting on the Eastern Front, Konstantin had become the darling of the Soviet propaganda machine. He had been wounded four times and allegedly killed more than seventy German soldiers.

War and Childhood in the Era of Two World Wars recovers, reconnects, and reassesses stories like those of Sadako, Theodore, and Konstantin. Spanning multiple armed conflicts and continents in first half of the twentieth century, the essays collected in this volume show that children’s involvement in war did not proceed in a linear fashion. Technology, geography, ideology, age, gender, race, and class all shaped the scale of their engagement. The questions of how and whether young people joined, survived, adapted to or perished in war had at least as much to do with where they lived as with the nature of the regimes to which they belonged. Modern nation-states, in turn, viewed their own children as a precious demographic and symbolic resource. Nationalists and imperialists of various ideological stripes – from liberal and democratic to fascist and communist – utilized images of imperiled and brutalized youngsters to spark moral outrage and justify the use of military force.

In placing children’s observations, experiences, and actions centre stage, the volume complicates the standard equation of childhood and victimhood in times of war. Young people arguably bear the least responsibility for the most ghastly episodes of modern warfare, not to mention mass atrocities and genocide. However, simply clinging to the myth that children are innocent by nature fails to capture the ways in which young people acquired agency, mobility, and subjectivity in the century’s bloodiest conflicts. Even in the most harrowing circumstances, children responded creatively to the environments of violence and death in which they grew up. While Jewish children who languished behind ghetto walls in Nazi-occupied Warsaw articulated their experiences through writing and art, Ottoman orphans sent to work in Germany openly protested the lack of food and proper clothing.

Even more discomforting may be the fact that modern war brings out the worst impulses not just in adults, but in young people as well. War and Childhood’s cast of characters includes children and youths who were genuinely enthusiastic about war, and who often relished the idea of defeating and killing the enemy. Adults who sought to channel this enthusiasm frequently cringed at just how ruthless their children were when playing war in the streets or consuming war-themed penny dreadfuls. In the case of Nazi Germany, the fanaticism injected into the nation’s young minds before and during the war came back to haunt their elders. Many of the casualties in the war’s closing weeks were inflicted and suffered by Hitler Youths unwilling to surrender in the face of certain defeat.

Young people continued to pass through the ages of childhood and youth during the wars of the twentieth century. For some, the usual markers of maturation remained more or less in place; for others, whatever expectations they might have had for a predicable path to adulthood vanished in blood and flames. The experiences of most children lay somewhere between these extremes, and although our volume does not provide a complete history of children and war in the first half of the twentieth century, it brings structure to this fascinating and awful topic. The range of experiences offered in War and Childhood in the Era of the Two World Wars reminds us that modern warfare and modern childhood have been, and continue to be, interwoven in complex ways. Our hearts go out to children devastated and uprooted by the wars of our own time. Empathy alone, however, will not solve the problem, much less allow us to fully comprehend the roles that young people play in armed conflict. More than victims, children were seen as future citizens and defenders, and as one of the reasons for going to war. To this day, they have been key witnesses of, and active participants in, humanity’s brightest and darkest chapters.


War and Childhood in the Era of the Two Wold Wars
is available from Cambridge University Press

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About the Authors: Dr Mischa Honeck teaches US and transatlantic history at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.  He was a research fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC, and is the author of Our Frontier Is the World: The Boy Scouts in the Age of American Ascendancy (Cornell University Press, 2018).

Dr James Marten is Chair of History at Marquette University, Wisconsin, and a leading authority in both the history of the US Civil War and the history of childhood. His books include The Children’s Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 1998).

Together they are co-editors of War and Childhood in the Era of the Two World Wars (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

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