How does modern Germany present WW2 to school kids? As my kids have gotten older, I’ve wondered at what age they’ll begin to learn about the war and Germany’s responsibility for what it did to so many countries in Europe. I knew that high school-age kids learn about it, but how young can children be and still grasp what happened and why?
My kids haven’t gotten to it in school yet, but last week they had a chance to immerse themselves in the topic in a way they had never done before. Kika, German national TV’s children’s channel, launched a series called Der Krieg und ich (The War and Me) for 8-year-olds and up. Each episode follows a child from a different country as they struggle with their fate before and during the war. The stories come from Germany, Norway, France, Britain, Poland, the USSR and the Czech Republic.
This international focus really impressed me. It seems like the war is largely portrayed inside of national bubbles — the German experience seeming to have little to do with the Russian or British etc experience on a personal level. But the series manages to zoom out to show the war as the link between 7 different but in some ways similar dramas. These are all children. None of what happens is their fault, but they are growing up in a conflict that forces them to make hard and fateful decisions.
My whole family settled onto the sofa to watch the first episodes together. My 9-year-old is especially sensitive, and I watched how she reacted to the show. The first episode focused on Anton, a German boy who desperately wanted to join the Hitler Youth so he could have better clothes and belong to a group of boys who looked like true friends and wanted great things for Germany. He didn’t understand what the group truly stood for until he had to face a choice: betray the family of his Jewish friend, or stand by them, which would endanger his own family.
My 9-year-old is a bright kid, good in school, and very curious about the world. She’s asked about WW2 before, but not in great depth. As she watched Anton’s story, she couldn’t sit still. She climbed onto the back of the sofa, slid to the floor and hid behind it, peeking over the top as she continued to watch. The story scared her. Basically good people like Anton can end up doing bad things. This was only one of the lessons of the show, and it was a hard one to process.
After we turned off the TV, my daughter and I talked through some of these issues. It wasn’t easy. Germany is a very different country than it used to be, and many of its basic values are so different, I had to explain those before my daughter could make sense of what she’d seen. For instance, she wanted to know: why did people think the army and being a soldier was such a good thing? It’s a legitimate question in a basically anti-war country like modern Germany.
We told her that her great grandfathers on her Papa’s side fought for Germany, while her great grandfather on my side fought for the United States and the anti-Nazi Allies. She personally had nothing to do with the war, but as a half-German, she has a responsibility to know what happened and to try to prevent such a thing from happening again. Having the courage to speak out and take risks is hard for everyone, especially children. But Der Krieg und ich has done a good job showing kids struggling with those decisions and their consequences. A great introduction to WW2 that even adults can learn from.