What are some dark facts about WWII

The consequences of the 2nd world war for the children

Mr. Radebold, please tell us a little bit about your work.

Hartmut Radebold: I am dealing with two subjects. For five decades I have been asking myself whether people over the age of 50 can still be treated with psychotherapy at all. My research shows: this is very possible. In practice, the age variable only plays a minor role. In 1985 I was concerned with something else: whether people between the ages of 50 and 60 are still developing, and if so, in which areas. Back then, people thought: Development only happens until puberty - then practically hardly any more.
Later, in addition to my chair for psychology at the University of Kassel, I had a neurological practice in the city. Many elderly patients came to me and were also sent to me through the health insurance company. After about four years I felt bad mentally myself. I got depressed. I was still able to work, but withdrew from my relationships and noticed that behind the couch I suddenly began to get sad, sometimes crying [note. d. Red .: in the classic way, the patient lies on the couch, the psychoanalyst sits behind it]. I asked two questions: Do you have a midlife crisis? Since I live in a good and satisfying relationship, I could say no. The other question was: are you getting demented? No, that could also be ruled out.

Then what was the cause?

Hartmut Radebold: Looking back, I noticed that I had war children as patients. Many were born between 1935 and 1945. Their symptoms came on suddenly in middle age. But they never related this to their experiences from the war. They worked all their lives - just like me. This brought my own story back to life. I treated about 19 patients by 2000 - more men than women - and all of them were children of war. Children of war from Kassel, which was badly damaged by the war. I wrote my first book about it in 2000. I then did research in an interdisciplinary group for ten years and have since known what I'm talking about and am often invited to give lectures.

I am 25 years old and education about the Second World War looked like this: At school, the Holocaust was discussed in history lessons for years. On television you often see the documentaries about National Socialism, here and there you stumble across articles on the Internet. The suffering of the war children was seldom or never the topic. Not even in the family. Why is that?

Hartmut Radebold: It is estimated that around 80% of German families never talked about the First or Second World War with its consequences and experiences. There are some, relatively few, families where the children have been showered with terrible stories that are constantly told at family gatherings. Very few have handled their children properly. For most of them it was a great silence. Even today among married couples, if the statistical surveys can be trusted. That's one thing.
After the war we were - I quote Herr von Weizsäcker - the defeated, the liberated and then the allies in East and West. It was not until 1995 that people talked about the suffering that adult Germans had experienced. At first they didn't talk about the children at all. The idea was: children can have had terrible experiences in war, but it grows out. That means: you forget it, you can't remember it very well and it disappears again and no longer matters. That has only changed gradually. In 2000 I wrote the first book. The topic: The importance of absent fathers in war and what makes this absence for a lifetime. In 2003 there was the book by Hilke Lorenz [note. d. Red .: Title: Children of War. The fate of a generation], 2004 the novel by Günter Grass “Im Krebsgang”, which describes the fate of a war child, and by Sabine Bode “The forgotten generation - the war children break their silence”.
In 2005 the first international war children’s congress was held in Frankfurt am Main. Children of war came from all over Europe. For the first time, there has been very extensive and extensive discussion of what the war has achieved.

How do you experience the situation today?

Hartmut Radebold: To this day it is a difficult subject. Over the past 13 years, there has been a lot of resistance to applying for research funding. As if the opinion of research institutions, politicians and other authoritative people reflected: We war children were also involved in the war and would have to bear it for our entire lives. That sounds a bit sharp. But if I see that I don't even get an answer to an inquiry or an application to a federal minister, then that's probably the case. There is a lot of opposition to this issue. This irritates me. Apparently there is a general opinion that is never clearly expressed. As a German one shouldn't do research on this. That's why you won't find anything about this in the school books - because that has not yet been an issue.

What distinguishes the war children? Who is affected?

Hartmut Radebold: If you were born until '47 - until then there were still displacements - then you can have experienced a lot. It is estimated that every war child went through three to four traumatic experiences. For example experiences of violence: injuries, shootings, rape. 90% of those questioned have experienced bomb attacks and / or bombings, with evacuation and deportation to Kinderland. That means: with a long separation from parents, away from the big cities. Then the absence of the fathers - whether temporarily or permanently. It is estimated that there were 2.5 million half-wise men after the war. Ergo, a quarter grew up without a father.
By today's standards, 30% of the war children are seen as traumatized and 30% as damaged. About 40% did not experience anything - for them the war and the end of the war were an adventurous time.

People process experiences very differently. Which factors play a role in this?

Hartmut Radebold: There are protective factors. A good mother-child relationship, a generally sound extended family or a family that offers children a well-protected atmosphere. Questions arise: If the fathers were absent, were there surrogate fathers? Older siblings? Grandfathers? Teachers at school who have taken on protective tasks? Such protective factors can soften and cushion the experience. It also influences whether children actively approach things or passively wait.
After the war there was hardly any research into the fate of the children. An examination shows that the children were very disturbed in 1945/46, shortly after the war. They were malnourished, had little growth in length, were neglected to criminal, and had poor to miserable school performance. They talked nonstop about what they had experienced. They could not sleep through the night, were extremely homesick and were not able to group. Three years later it all disappeared and ten years later after the end of the war in 1945, the only investigation reveals no results.

Have the consequences of the war really disappeared or have they just remained hidden?

Hartmut Radebold: The consequences have not gone away. I always say: It has been preserved under a stable, emotional concrete ceiling. Encapsulated. Nonetheless, we noticed: We war children were described as small, serious, quickly grown adolescents in puberty. How can that be explained? These children obviously used certain defense mechanisms. You generalized: "Everyone has experienced that." Of course not true. You have suppressed the experiences, put them into perspective. “It didn't do us any harm” or “It wasn't that bad” were frequent statements. There has been a lot of displacement. Many do not remember until they are six years old. They turned the painful experiences into the opposite, i.e. replaced them with their adventurous war stories. Fear, panic, despair and grief were not an issue. They have split into content and affect. The feelings were gone - the content remained. You can talk about it objectively, which you also do when you get up at one of my lectures and then start telling terrible things, completely affect-free. I freeze in front of it. They have identified with the social, political and general views of their family, as protection, so to speak, hidden in the family's social memory. This is how the war children fended off the horrors they had suffered.

What is still penetrating outside under this “concrete ceiling”?

The war children developed a number of behaviors that they take for granted, but which may be strangely noticeable in their surroundings. Again and again I meet younger people who say that the war children have such “quirks”. What are they for? You eat everything that's on your plate. There is absolutely nothing you can throw away. The floors and basements of war children whose houses are being disbanded are full of things that have never been thrown away. They collect and hoard. You are relatively good at planning and organizing. They don't care much about the body, keyword: early detection examinations for men and women. A disaster for this age group because they are underutilized. They don't do proper treatments and rehabilitation. You don't spend any money on pampering yourself. Surveys show that they have a limited ability to cope with everyday life and have limited quality of life.

I would like to know more about it. What mental illnesses do the war children suffer from?

So far there is no specific research on this in Germany. In summary: you have panic attacks, anxiety and phobias more often than others. Estimates in Europe say: In war-hit countries, 26 to 28 percent of people over the age of 60 are depressed. You have mild to moderate forms of depression. In the other countries, only 14 to 16 percent have depression. Children of war more often have functional disorders for which no physical cause can be found. This also includes chronic pain syndromes. But this is never recognized as a consequence of the war. There is a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. It was first found among young American soldiers during the Vietnam War. There is only one representative study from Germany in 2008. It says that, added together, 7.25 percent of people over the age of 60 in Germany suffer from an incomplete and complete post-traumatic stress disorder. In other countries like Switzerland it is only 1.8 or 2 percent.

How are the children of the war children affected?

The children of the war children have been expressing themselves for about five years. They are now 45, 55, 60 years old. They say: “You raised us according to standards, norms and guidelines that you never explained to us. You have not been able to develop any emotional closeness to us. You were always at a distance. We weren't hugged. We felt: there is an area that we cannot reach. Isolated. You tried to give us an outwardly pampering, safe childhood. Rooms, toys, pocket money, travel, a safe atmosphere - that which you didn't have when you could. We were also allowed to sit down or see what training or which course we want to do. You just weren't open to our "little" problems. Bullying at school, difficulties in training. You apparently subconsciously assumed that we would have to do it on our own. Because you had much more difficult things to deal with. We took over symptoms from you. Why do people born long after the war dream of bombing raids? Why do they dream of fleeing and being bombed? ”But some of them also say:“ You brought us up to be socially involved, critical, committed people. ”This is what the children of war children say. We don't know anything about the next generation, the grandchildren. There is only one investigation from Hamburg. The questionnaire was given to children and young people who had experienced the Hamburg firestorm with their children and grandchildren. No statements can yet be made about the consequences for the grandchildren.

How does the passing on of the characteristics to the children work?

A lot happens without words. Suggestions, ideas, feelings, sighs, avoided stories. Aborted sentences that the children should not be aware of. Have you ever come across the term epigenetics? The individual genes are responsible for switching mechanisms. They switch body processes everywhere in the body. In recent years there have been increasing indications from animal experiments that permanent stress - and that would be, for example, childhood during the war with constant threat, insecurity, anxiety and panic - changes genes with regard to these functions over the long term. This can mean that in the body, figuratively speaking, you do not drive 90 km / h, but 140 km / h - over many years. There are indications that this could also have been the case with adults and children during the war. In animal experiments, the consequences for the next generations gradually weaken. Nevertheless, if that is the case - and there is a lot to be said for it, especially with very young children - then of course it is a terrifying prospect. Then wars would also have an extreme effect.

Let's think a little further - what important tasks will the nursing staff of retirement institutions face in the future?

It is so that the nursing staff is increasingly confronted with these war children. Look, I was born in 1935, I am now 80. The admission age to care facilities is 82. Outpatient care services, hospital chaplains, psychiatrists and other employees in the field are constantly dealing with "war children". However, these are initially not recognized as such. The situation is difficult. That's why I'm always invited to lectures and seminars. Because these employees want to understand what happened to the war children. How to understand their reaction and behavior, how one can help in this age situation. And there is another problem in the nursing area. Nursing staff from the former Eastern Bloc are increasingly coming to us. Poland, Russia, Ukraine. And they bring their own story with them, their own family history with the war and the Germans. Now they are supposed to take care of Germans. Especially those who grew up in war. There are still around 100,000 men over 90 and 400,000 women over 90 living in Germany. There are 14,000 over 100 year olds in Germany. Then - as a classic example - a nurse comes to an older woman and on her chest of drawers is a picture of a man in uniform with a steel helmet and medal on his chest. What might the nurse think? She brings her own story. You have to be clear about what that means: I should care for someone in a friendly, loving and attentive manner and I care for someone whose husband has waged war against my family. And then communicate that to the family. That too is European history.

Last but not least: Where does your motivation come from for giving so many lectures? What's your message?

This is an interesting question. The first time that someone interviewed me asked me this way. The indirect message is: The story that you have lived and suffered belongs to you. Irretrievable, for life. Now you have to be careful, in your situation of getting older and of being old, and also at the end of your life, that this situation can disturb you again and again, but not destroy it.

Thank you for the interview!

Selection of some books:

  • Hartmut Radebold: The dark shadows of our past: Help for children of war in old age. Stuttgart, 2005/2009
  • Hartmut Radebold and Werner Bohleber: Transgenerational transmission of war-torn childhoods. 2009
  • Hartmut Radebold: Absent Fathers and War Childhood: Coping with Old Injuries. Stuttgart, 2010
  • Hartmut Radebold and Hildegard Radebold: Searching for traces of a war child. Stuttgart, 2015
  • Hartmut Radebold and Hildegard Radebold: Getting older has to be learned. 2009