Tomlin on Honeck and Marten, 'War and Childhood in the Era of the Two World Wars'

Mischa Honeck, James Marten, eds.
Hannah Tomlin

Mischa Honeck, James Marten, eds. War and Childhood in the Era of the Two World Wars. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. 410 pp. $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-108-47853-3.

Reviewed by Hannah Tomlin (Independent Scholar) Published on H-War (July, 2022) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

Children’s experiences in war have been considerably under-researched until recent years. In fact, there was a time when historians just did not feel it necessary to consider children’s experiences during conflict. In this groundbreaking book, Mischa Honeck and James Marten have sought to address the lack of focus given to childhood experiences in war. War and Childhood in the Era of the Two World Wars brings together accounts of children’s exposure to war, against the backdrop of two world wars. Examining local, national, and international stages, these essays use a number of sources including governmental documents, news articles, drawings, and oral testimonies to build new evidence of the indoctrination and recruitment of children in war.

Considered the “true missing link” for understanding the era of the two world wars, the introduction sets out clearly what historians need to address in order to incorporate children’s experiences into war studies (p.10). The editors establish five areas of historiography that are key to this incorporation: “the global history trend,” the total war paradigm, “the social spaces in which politics and play intersect,” the mobilization of children in wartime, and finally, “the voices of children when writing about childhood” (pp. 7-10). Exploring the complexities that surround youth and war, they effectively highlight children’s “capacity to develop their own responses to the violent conflicts that engulfed them” (p. 16).

Taking a global look, the essays in this work compound the idea that a child was simultaneously living a sheltered existence and being mobilized to help fight in war. Calling attention to children as both victims and actors in war, the totalitarianism and competition prevalent in the era of the two world wars swept children into conflict on a scale never before seen. Drawing on sources from Europe, Asia, and the United States, the fourteen essays compiled in this book cover a broad spectrum of childhood experiences during war, as well as the limbo in between the wars.

Part 1 addresses the idea that children were “inspired” into mobilization through various means across the globe. The idea that children should be children competed with culture-specific responses to the wartime involvement of children in various countries, such as the recruitment of Japanese boys for the Pioneer Youth Corps or the introduction of Defence Service Training to schools in Sweden (chapters 3 and 6). The promise of acceleration into adulthood enticed children into rejecting their childhood to take up their wartime responsibilities, while simultaneously there was no consensus ever reached in many of these countries as to the appropriateness or usefulness of training children for national duty.

Focusing on the ways in which adults guided children’s interest into supporting the war effort, through toys, books, and popular culture, the essays in part 1 highlight the differing ways in which children were used to promote the ideal of patriotic behavior and boost the spirits of the nation and the fighting forces. Often more keen to contribute than adults, children were essentially manipulated into wartime roles and duties that simultaneously conflicted with adult ideas on the level of involvement the youth should have in wartime.

Part 2 focuses on the adaptability and survival of children during wartime, specifically in relation to how adult decision-making altered children’s mobilization and involvement in war, both voluntarily and forced. Addressing an environment in which children had no choice but to be involved in the war effort in some way, the essays in this section focus on the ways in which children negotiated the wars around them, as well as how local and national institutions sought to respond to the presence of children in conflict on a large scale, such as Ottoman orphans in Germany and the medical experimentation on children in the United States (chapters 11 and 13).

The idea of childhood at the beginning of the twentieth century suggested that children should have been protected from conflict; however, as it became increasingly possible for children to be mobilized in an era of geopolitical warfare, it became impossible for children to be hidden from conflict. Showing the experiences of children across a wide range of areas, this book’s engagement with children and youth within different geographical, technological, and political climates, along with experiences of class, age, race and gender, reveals how children acquired agency during the era of the two world wars. Its success lies in the profound way in which it analyzes the impact of modern warfare on childhood, filling the gap in historiography and laying the foundation for further research. In order to better understand the era of the two world wars, we must move past the focus on the over-researched military and political aspects and instead seek to understand how children lived in it, the roles they played in it, and their place within the wider context of wartime life.

Citation: Hannah Tomlin. Review of Honeck, Mischa; Marten, James, eds., War and Childhood in the Era of the Two World Wars. H-War, H-Net Reviews. July, 2022. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.