Germany

A New Generation Of Germans Plagued By World War II Demons

Pychologists say the so-called "grandchildren of war" are beset by problems directly related to their parents' experiences during and after the Second World War.

The ruins of Dresden in 1988
The ruins of Dresden in 1988
Karin Janker

MUNICH — War doesn't end when a peace agreement is signed. It leaves behind scars and heirs, and those born with the lingering legacy of World War II are now between 40 and 55 years old. They see themselves as the "grandchildren of war," carrying the burden of World War II's aftermath, and the legacy of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust.

It is a psychological weight that may seem out of place in the era of peace and abundance in which they were raised. And yet they have nonetheless been touched by the fleeing, displacement, bombs and a profound breach of civilization that their parents had to witness.

Members of this "grandchildren" generation exchange their ideas and experiences on the Internet, through forums and self-help groups. This virtual community is growing steadily, even as grandchildren groups also regularly meet in German cities to share their stories and experiences in person.

The term "grandchildren of war" derives from the term used for their parent's generation, the so-called "children of war," who experienced it firsthand in their youth. "The "grandchildren of war" are the offspring of highly traumatized people," says Sabine Bode author of The Grandchildren of War: The Heirs of a Lost Generation.. "Their problems, which are rooted in the war experiences of their parents, don't just go away by themselves."

Bode interviewed members of the post-War generation and discovered that many of them suffered from the same conditions, such as psychosomatic illnesses, relationship problems, lack of self-confidence, a heightened fear of risk, inexplicable restlessness and depression.

Denial and silence

A recurring pattern is overarching silence. "The root of the problem is the enduring silence in families," Bode says. "People who witnessed the war as children will tell you that war was normal at the time, that it was not that bad. They are not aware of the fact that they have experienced awful things."

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Germany refugees in Bedburg, 1945. Photo: Imperial War Museums

It's clear to psychologists that children numb themselves against the horrors they witnessed during the war. They seem outwardly to have survived without damage, but the wounds are psychological and social. "These "steeled" children became "steeled" adults who could not understand or take to heart the problems of their own children," Bode explains.

Social psychologist Angela Moré explains that the trauma of the parents is "passed on through body language, which children learn to interpret very early on." Many "grandchildren" lament the lack of emotion displayed by their parents, which Moré says is the result of supressed pain and grief from the war, whether it is unspeakable acts by Nazi soldiers or German women raped by occupying troops.

"You could not grieve during or after the war because you were too busy just simply trying to survive," she says

Psychoanalyst Andreas Bachhofen says that he often encounters the same patterns in his practice. "One way to deal with the trauma of war is the creation of an ideal world," he says. "Parents do anything to care for their children, to give them a better life than they had, and they are the pillars upholding that ideal world."

Conflicts arise when their children want to flee that ideal world, by, say, learning a trade rather than working in an office as the parents had planned. That's when that world collapses, bringing to the fore aggression on the parents' part and guilt or spite on the children's.

Hope vs. reality

Among the issues the "grandchildren" must deal with are the inner conflict between what are often their unfulfilled dreams and the expectations the outside world places on them. Bachhofen explains that the trauma that their parents experienced shaped relationships within the family and therefore also the identity of their children.

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"Grandchildren of War" by Sabine Bode

Theologian Joachim Süss, head of the association Grandchildren of War, often sees insecurity and discontentment among this generation. Most of the time, it presents itself as a sort of midlife crisis in which they feel restless with their jobs and/or relationships. That's when many of them begin to delve deeper into their parents' history as a way to understand themselves.

"You learn that your parents couldn't impart the necessary strength in you because they were traumatized," Süss says. "You realize that it isn't all your fault, that there are things you had no control over." Coming to this realization can help the "grandchildren" relieve their own trauma and reconcile with their past.

Bode agrees. "You have to come to terms with your own past, things for which you are not responsible, to understand what has burdened you throughout your life," she says.

Research conducted to date on the impact of war on children in general, which has become quite established over the last few years, will become even more important in the face of current global conflicts, Moré says. "It will help us to provide therapeutic help to children that have fled the war in Syria. These children have experienced horrific things and are in danger of passing their trauma on to their children if we do not help them to confront their past."

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