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  • Youth in the Fatherless Land: War Pedagogy, Nationalism, and Authority in Germany, 1914-1918
  • Bryan Ganaway
Youth in the Fatherless Land: War Pedagogy, Nationalism, and Authority in Germany, 1914-1918. By Andrew Donson. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2010. xii + 329 pp. $49.95 cloth.

Youth in the Fatherless Land by Andrew Donson explores how World War I impacted the birth cohort 1900-1908 in Imperial Germany. The author discovered that the conflict radicalized some of them, setting boys in particular on a trajectory that would take them to the Nazis or to the Communists in the 1920s. Donson also learned that the war altered the nature of pedagogy and therefore the relationships between youth, their teachers, and the state, although the relationship between the strands is not always clear. These insights are grounded in an impressive source base that includes archives from across Germany as well as professional periodicals and literature. The result is a fascinating book that shows the potential and some of the challenges of trying to understand modern societies by researching youngsters.

Donson reminds readers that before 1914 Imperial Germany used education to regulate and control children to a greater degree than France, England, and the United States. This included nearly fifty thousand officials whose sole job was to mobilize patriotic youth via extracurricular activities. However, plenty of teachers wanted to reform the regimented curriculum in an effort to cultivate critical thinkers rather than manufacture chauvinists.

When war began in 1914, the government worked hard to remake the curriculum and institute "war pedagogy" to mobilize children behind the state. This included a document by Theobald Ziegler entitled "Ten Commandments of War Pedagogy." Commandment seven reads as follows: "Thou shalt speak of battles in history class and be happy" (p. 244). In the short run, the new curriculum succeeded in mobilizing youth across diverse segments of society (male and female, middle-class and working-class, Protestant and Catholic, German and non-German) behind the monarchy. Over the long run, however, [End Page 164] war pedagogy functioned in quite a different way. Implemented by progressive teachers who saw it as a way to finally enact their reform program, it provided a framework for free essay writing, critical discussion in class, and individualized reading programs. In other words, the instructors told children to support the war, but also to think about it regularly.

This leads Donson to the complexity at the heart of his thesis. There is no doubt that the government worked hard to mobilize youth in school and via massive, state-sponsored volunteer programs. Popular juvenile war literature and movies also supported these initiatives. By 1916, however, the dreadful mismanagement of the home front by the military led to severe shortages of food, coal, and clothing that completely undermined "war pedagogy" and caused at least some youth to question their teachers and the state. Over one million urban children had to be taken out of school and sent to farms so they could eat. Many of their teachers (not to mention their fathers) had long since been conscripted, and this weakened both the schools and the family as institutions designed to maintain order. The result was an increase in independence for many youth. From the perspective of parents this led to a rise in impertinence, sexual experimentation, and crime. Starving urban teachers lost enthusiasm for "war pedagogy," and the most mobilized youth drifted to the right or left fringes of the political spectrum in search of an alternative to the government in Berlin.

Donson concludes the book by returning to the limits of government mobilization in a country that was both modern (in terms of art, technology, education, politics, and the public sphere) and authoritarian in government. For all its undoubted military success, the regime in Berlin criminally mismanaged the home front, and this thwarted its efforts to indoctrinate youth. As the war situation worsened, youth slowly moved away from the government (both on the left and on the right), showing the limits of state authority even in time of war. The author reminds us that many of the early Nazis were from the birth cohort of 1900-1908. Similarly, some of the most diehard...


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