War in the Twentieth Century

Children were included in international conventions for the first time in 1949, when the rights and protection of children in war–as part of the civilian population–were mentioned in the fourth Geneva Convention. This was supplemented in 1977 to refer to child soldiers for the first time. The convention provided that children should be protected from military conscription, from the dangers of warfare, from sexual exploitation, and from starvation. In 1989 the UN CONVENTION ON THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD was introduced. Its articles defined standards for the treatment of children, including a child's right to name and nationality, the need for family reunification, and protection against torture. It prohibited recruitment of children under the age of fifteen as soldiers. These international laws are difficult to enforce, but they set a standard for children in war and for our view of children's legal rights. The fifteen-year-old age limit for military conscription provoked much discussion, and some have suggested it be raised to eighteen. The age issue is interesting because it focuses on the question: When is a child a child, and when does a child became an adolescent or an adult? That in turn brings our understanding of the apolitical child into focus and whom we see as perpetrators and victims in an armed conflict. This is sometimes also an open question in the literature when information about a child's age is unclear or not discussed at all.

Child Soldiers and Activities in Resistance

During World War II, young boys contributed to the war effort on the Allied side as well as in the army units of the Axis powers. There are examples of American boys between thirteen and fifteen years old who lied about their age and succeeded in joining the U.S. Navy, taking part in the battles in Europe. In Germany, meanwhile, during the last period of the German defense in the autumn of 1944 and spring of 1945, many boys between the ages of twelve and sixteen were drafted as German troops on both the Eastern and Western fronts. Many of the boys were recruited from the HITLER YOUTH, and the Führer awarded some the Iron Cross. The boys handled antiaircraft artillery, grenade throwers, and other weapons. Many of the soldiers who refused to surrender when the Americans occupied the Ruhr Valley were boys. They devised roadblocks, ambushes, and other mischief wherever they could until the final German defeat in May 1945.

Technological developments in the last decades of the twentieth century, especially the manufacture of light, easy-to-handle weapons, made it easier to use children as soldiers. UNICEF estimated that in 1988 almost 200,000 children were involved in military actions as soldiers and fighters. In the 1980s many children joined armed groups in Cambodia to get food and protection. In 1990 the situation was the same in Liberia, where boys between six and twenty were gathered in military units. In Myanmar that same year, when guerrillas began to provide clothes and food many parents handed over their children as soldiers for the rebel army.

Girls also were recruited as soldiers, as in the National Resistance Army in Uganda, where approximately 500 girls were among the 3,000 child soldiers there in 1986. Some children fought for political, religious, cultural, or social reasons; others sought revenge for the deaths of family members.

One way to recruit children into military service was to inculcate schoolchildren with propaganda (a tactic used by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka). Others kidnapped and forced children into military activities, for example in Ethiopia in the 1980s and the Renamo in Mozambique in the 1990s. Indoctrination, physical abuse, terror, and execution of children's relatives in front of them were practiced to brutalize children and accustom them to violence and warfare.

One example of children as prisoners of war was during the Boer War of 1901–1902, in which children were among forty-three prisoners who fought on the Boer side. During

Kim Phuc, age nine, runs from a napalm attack on her village in Vietnam by South Vietnamese troops under U.S. command, 1972. In the late twentieth century, civilians, including children, were the chief victims of war. .

World War II, about 10,000 underage German boy soldiers were imprisoned in the largest Allied camp for child soldiers, located in the French village of Attichy. In Rwanda, child soldiers were interned and faced trial for genocide.

Children also took part in military conflicts through their activity in resistance movements, for example during World War II in France, Holland, Denmark, and other German-occupied countries. In France boys were trained by the resistance movement. Older children were used as occasional informants or took part in sabotage actions. Others were instructed in how to behave in case of an inspection of the home, keeping quiet about illegal persons living in the house or apartment; others reported to the resistance movement about persons cooperating with the occupation army. The Pioneers Organization of Montenegro, founded in 1942, was for children from ten to fifteen years of age. The children helped the partisans by bringing them food, weapons, clothes, and other necessities. In the war in Uganda (1986) children were used as spies and messengers.

In the long war in Vietnam (1940, 1961–1975) many children grew up with the experience of their mothers and fathers fighting against the French for independence and against the Americans in favor of Ho Chi Minh and the communists. The period of war was so extended that many children were drawn in the military struggle. Both boys and girls distributed leaflets, brought messages, found hiding places for the soldiers, served as liaisons for the resistance fighters, brought them food and equipment, and took part in ambushes. Smaller children, held by their mothers, were among those who stood up or lay down as shields to prevent the enemy from destroying crops. Children were killed in demonstrations, and fifteen- and sixteen-year-old girls became martyrs.

Rape, Torture, and Genocide

Rape of women and young girls was used throughout the twentieth century as a tool of war violence and organized war activity. It has been common in ethnic conflicts. In the genocide carried out against the Tutsi population in Rwanda (1994), rape was used systematically to destroy community ties by making girls and women pregnant. The mothers often rejected these children; others kept them and the children became integrated into the family. During the war in the ex-Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s there were cases of infanticide as the consequence of forced pregnancy, as well as testimonies about daughters who were raped in front of their fathers and mothers in front of their children. In the Renamo camps in Mozambique, young boys commited sexual violence on young girls.

The dehumanizing effects on a child who has been raped or has witnessed rape are well documented. It is an experience with long-term effects that carry into the child's adult life. Many women and girls have been forced to trade sex for food and shelter in tense conflicts or war situations. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS/HIV spread rapidly with sexual violence in wartime, making many children ORPHANS and increasing the number born with HIV.

In several wars and armed conflicts in the twentieth century, children were tortured as a punishment to the parents, as a way to force information about family members, or as part of a collective punishment of a whole community. In large-scale killing of populations and mass executions, children were not spared. In the 1904 uprising of the Hereros of Southwest Africa against the German colonial power, the violence ended with genocide; thousands of Hereros were killed, many of them children. In 1915–1916 the Turks massacred about 1.2 million Armenians, mostly women and children. Under the German military occupation of Poland, and as a part of the HOLOCAUST during World War II, raids on children took place systematically in an attempt to put an end to regeneration of the Jews. The children were killed or sent to concentration camps where they could be used as experimental subjects. Gypsy children and physically disabled children suffered pogroms and murder under the Nazis.

Unaccompanied Children

Large groups of refugees and uprooted peoples were characteristic of the twentieth century. That this was a new phenomenon and a mass movement became clear in the post-1918 period, and it became an increasing problem for the European continent and its children in the following decades. By the late 1990s the refugee problem was seen as a more or less constant global problem, and the greatest number of the world's refugee children were in Africa and Asia.

The general difference between a refugee child and a displaced child is that the former has crossed borders into neighboring countries and the latter has fled and moved elsewhere in the country. But the distinction is not always clear. Characteristic for modern refugee children is the long duration of their status as refugees, often due to the complex question of nationality. They often become isolated from civil society through years of wandering or long periods in camps.

Beginning in 1900 refugee camps sprang up in South Africa as a result of the Boer War. These developed into concentration camps for persons–mainly women and children–whom the British considered supporters of the Boers. Many of the children died as a consequence of poor sanitary conditions and starvation.

After World War I many children became refugees as a consequence of the crumbling of the Ottoman (Turkish), Romanov (Russian), Hapsburg (Austrian-Hungarian), and Wilhelminian (German) empires, and later as a result of civil war in Russia after the Russian Revolution and the persecutions and expulsions carried out by fascist rulers before and during World War II.

The question of citizenship was often a problem for uprooted children. After the breakdown of the Austrian-Hungarian Dual Monarchy in 1918, new states were created in Europe and borders were changed, with the result that the nationality and citizenship of many children remained unclear for years.

In the 1920s large numbers of children in the Soviet Union were without parents or a home as a result of revolution, civil war, famine, and disorder. The Soviet state could not solve the enormous problem of its uprooted children. Some of the orphans were placed in institutions, others in foster families or in labor communes. These children were regarded with suspicion and by the mid-1930s were seen not as victims of the civil war but as criminals.

Just before the end of World War II about 70,000 German refugee children (under the age of fifteen) were sent to Denmark. The children, with few exceptions, received inadequate medical care from Danish authorities. It is estimated that by the autumn of 1946 almost all the refugee children under the age of two had died. In all about 7,000 of the refugee children died in camps in Denmark through poor nutrition and lack of medical care.

Malnutrition and disease were great problems for refugee children throughout the twentieth century. Separation from parents in wartime often meant that children lost their protectors and their economic security and became homeless. If the whole family was dissolved, the children became totally exposed and dependent on others for food and shelter. UNICEF collected pictures and information about unaccompanied children and distributed them throughout refugee camps in an effort to find the children's families. Most of the separations were accidental, but in Haiti and Vietnam parents sometimes sent their children ahead in the hope that the whole family could get asylum in this way. During the civil war in southern Sudan about 20,000 boys between the ages of seven and seventeen fled the country and trekked enormous distances. Many died on the journey. In the last years of the twentieth century unaccompanied children accounted for approximately 5 percent of the refugee population, or about 53 million people.


Sending children away from their parents and home area was used as a solution for different kinds of problems throughout the twentieth century. For example, they were sent abroad or to another part of the country in order to protect them from enemy attacks. During the Munich crisis of 1938–1939, when it was suspected that England could be bombed, children were sent from England to Wales on private initiatives. From the start of World War II there were mass evacuations of British children from cities to the countryside to secure them from German bomb attacks. The evacuees were normally placed with host families in rural areas, and mothers and schoolteachers sometimes accompanied them. Some of the evacuees in Britain were Jewish refugee children from Nazi-controlled countries who now had become refugees for a second time. Children from London and other large cities were also sent abroad to Canada, the United States, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia. Just as British children were evacuated to protect them from German air attacks, German children in large cities were also evacuated en masse to the southern part of the country or to neighboring occupied countries to escape Allied bombing.

When war between Germany and the Soviet Union broke out in the summer of 1941, more than 264,000 children were evacuated from Leningrad and other areas and sent to other parts of the country to escape the invasion and siege by German forces. About 4,000 Finnish children were sent to Denmark in 1939–1940 and about 65,000 to Sweden in 1941–1945 to protect them from war hostilities and bombings. But this relocation action was also a gesture of solidarity from Sweden and a way for the Finnish government to solve social problems with food supplies. The Finnish government wanted the children back when the war was over, but a number of the children stayed in Sweden and Denmark as foster children, and some became adopted.

Outplacing children was also practiced as part of humanitarian aid actions. Between 1917 and 1925 about half a million German and Austrian children were sent to other countries in Europe, mainly Switzerland and the Netherlands, as a way to give them proper food and recreation. This was intended to last for just a short period, but some of the children stayed several years with host families. These schoolchildren were seen as war victims, but authorities also believed this program would help ensure that the children would not grow up to become a threat to the rebuilding of Europe. After World War II, German children and smaller groups of children from Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Czechoslovakia came to Sweden as part of an aid rescue program for the destitute in Europe. The aim was to give the children medical care, food, and clothes, but the purpose was also to democratize and rebuild Germany through the children.

Outplacing also took place during the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939. Spanish children were sent to England, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, France, and Belgium, both to remove them from the war zone and as part of a humanitarian aid effort. International aid organizations also arranged outplacing of Spanish children in homes and institutions in Spain.

During World War II, the U.S. government, claiming Japanese Americans were a potential threat to national security, forced some 110,000 persons of Japanese descent– most of them children, from infants to adolescents–into camps in the spring of 1942. After being gathered in "assembly centers," these families were then removed to "relocation centers," camps that were protected with armed soldiers and barbed wire, where they were held for the duration of the war.


When children are evacuated or schools closed or destroyed in war, children fail to get the education that is so important to their futures. They also lose contact with school friends and regularity in their everyday lives. Under the German occupation of the Ukraine in World War II, schools were destroyed and closed down. Partisans and underground resistance movements established secret networks for schooling, in spite of lack of facilities and teachers and problems with enrolling all children of school age.

During World War I, Belgian refugee children in Britain attended ordinary elementary schools until 1915–1916 when separate schools were established for them. Some, not all, of the German and Austrian children who came to Sweden after World War I went to local schools, but only for a short time. Wartime also provided opportunities for progressive elites to carry out educational and pedagogical experiments on refugee children, as Spanish children were subject to in Cambridge, England, in 1937–1938. Schools and education have been used as channels for both political measures and humanitarian aid programs. After the German occupation of Poland in 1939, young German teachers were sent to Poland to educate ethnic German children in German culture and Nazi ideology. Teachers in schools in Vienna after World War I were empowered to suggest which of the pupils should be sent abroad by some of the humanitarian aid organizations operating in the city. French schools were used as distribution centers for food coming from the United States and Switzerland during World War II.

Growing Up in War

The term home front, created during World War I, shows the close connection between the military front and the domestic front and the central role children, as part of the civilian population, have played in wars. Children have been prepared for war in different ways: through ideological propaganda in schools and movies and through militarized youth organizations. When World War II broke out, British children were taught how to build air raid shelters, how to use gas masks, and how to cope with fire. Special colored gas

A French woman and her children are directed to a refugee center as they cross the border at Bonfoi, Switzerland, during World War II. Massive displacement of peoples and long-term problems with refugees, including millions of children, were a characteristic of twentieth-century wars. .

masks were produced for children under the age of five. German children received similar training when the British army began to bomb German towns. Soviet schoolchildren learned how to take care of wounded soldiers, how to use guns, and how to defend themselves against enemy attacks.

Children saw soldiers on their way to the battlefields and prisoners of war who had been captured. They wrote letters to soldiers. Children met the enemy as soldiers of the occupying army, they saw refugees, and in World War II, non-Jewish children sometimes saw trainloads of Jews on their way to the camps. During this era children got information about the war by listening to RADIO news programs, the ofÆ-cial ones or those illegally transmitted from the enemy side. They heard the news of victories and defeats, of invading troops and occupation. In the last decades of the twentieth century children in industrialized countries constantly saw war pictures–often focusing on wounded children–on TELEVISION screens, pictures that affected their capacity for violence.

The family economy often changes because of war, with the result that children frequently need to contribute to the family's subsistence. In Vienna during World War I, one children's job was to stand in line, sometimes for hours, to buy bread or other necessities for the family. Children also went around railways and warehouses picking up chunks of coal for fuel. During both world wars European children experienced rationing, undernourishment or starvation, cold houses, and lack of clothes and medical care.

Children's family situations changed drastically with fathers, older brothers, or other relatives at the front during World War II. Further, the prisoner of war question was a real problem for many families and had a great impact on the lives of children, who had to live without knowing whether a parent would ever return. If the mothers were active participants in resistance movements or took paid work to support the family, the question of who should take care of the children became urgent. Many children had to cope with news about fathers who were lost, dead, or severely injured. In European and Japanese cities children were eyewitnesses to bombing raids and firestorms caused by both conventional weapons and the atomic bomb. Some survived, others did not.

In war and postwar periods lack of food and water supplies were a great threat against children's health and normal growth; these often killed more children than armaments. Sanctions, blockades, and economic warfare took a heavy toll on children, for example those in Berlin during World War I or in Iraq in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Between 1980 and 1988 approximately 330,000 children died of warrelated causes in Angola.

Long-lasting conflicts such as the struggle between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland or the Israeli- Palestinian conflict tend to politicize children to a high degree. The same phenomenon occurred in the wars in Vietnam, where more than one generation in the same family was involved in the struggle. Huge numbers of children never experienced any life but that of war.

After World War II daily life changed once more for children who had to cope with bombed-out houses, the black market, and streams of refugees. American soldiers in occupied Germany offered children sweets, fruits, and chewing gum. Children saw that the enemy could be helpful and kind, and for some German children it was the first time they had ever seen a black man. There were fathers who never returned or came home with psychological or physical wounds. Prewar family life could in many cases not be reestablished. The fall of the Nazi and fascist regimes in Germany and Italy in 1945 gave children new political positions depending on which side their parents had supported. The war had long-term effects on children depending on how traumatized they were by their family situations and experiences of the Holocaust. Because children undergo many changes, they are very vulnerable to war traumas–for example, a sense of hopelessness about the future–as well as malnutrition and warrelated diseases.

Increasingly as the century wore on, in areas where land-mines were used children continued to be hurt and killed long after the war in their region had ended. Hundreds of thousands of children have been killed and maimed by land- mines as they were playing, herding animals, or taking part in agricultural work. If they survive, they live with serious injuries ranging from blindness to loss of arms and legs or chronic pain. In the late twentieth century, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Angola were probably most devastated by land mines. Many of those children have ended up as beggars or criminals in their struggle to survive.

The War Child Problem

The term war child has been used for different types of children: for German orphans outplaced in Germany during World War I, for Viennese children in the 1920s, for children sent from Finland to Sweden and Denmark in 1939–1945, and for children born out of a relation between an occupation soldier or soldier from an allied country and a local woman. The father could also be a part of a peacekeeping force. Children born as a consequence of rape as warfare have also been called war children. A child whose parents are on different sides of the front line often has the same experience of being excluded or stigmatized because of the mother's status as a non-national.

Every country that has experienced war or armed conflict has produced war children. About 10,000 to 12,000 children were born of German soldiers and Norwegian women between 1940 and 1945. The largest group, approximately 100,000, was made up of the children of American soldiers in Vietnam and neighboring countries between 1965 and 1975. Some of the American soldiers in Britain during World War II were black Americans, and children born out of their relations with white Englishwomen were called Brown Babies. Many of those, 1,000 to 2,000 children, were placed in ORPHANAGES. In all there were about 20,000 children born with an American father and an English mother. Children were born out of relations between American soldiers and West German mothers (1945–1956), French soldiers and Algerian women (1954–1962), British soldiers and Soviet women (1941–1945), Japanese soldiers and Chinese women (1945–1950) or Korean women, many of whom were "comfort women" transported to the field (1940–1945). These are but a few examples.

Wars and Humanitarian Aid

During wartime, children have been the victims of medical experiments, such as those performed by the Nazis on twins and other children. They have been neglected medically for political reasons, such as German refugee children in Denmark in 1945. Or in some cases they have been taken care of in order to give doctors medical experience with rare diseases, such as war children in Sweden in the 1920s.

After World War I, children as war victims became an international issue on the American and European agenda, and as a consequence many relief actions came to focus on children. Individuals and organizations throughout the century worked–both legally and illegally–to rescue, protect, and give aid to children affected by wars. The Red Cross movement has been one of the main players on the field. Another is Save the Children, founded after World War I as an international humanitarian organization for child protection. Different religious organizations or groups without an ofÆ-cial or unofficial aid program have made great efforts, for example in the rescue of Jewish children during World War II.

In the 1980s the idea of creating a "conflict-free zone" around children emerged in UNICEF's aid work. Negotiations with warring factions worked out corridors of peace for longer or shorter periods, in which children in a war area could get aid and VACCINATIONS, as in El Salvador in 1985and Uganda in 1986.

In the twentieth century, civilian populations, and therefore children, were participants in war activities in greater numbers than ever before, both as victims and combatants. The century saw an increasing death toll among children, and millions suffered from wars in other ways. We may all believe that children should be above the political divide, but children have taken part in the whole range of military activities. While children are thought to be those who deserve the greatest protection, reality has shown us that they are often the most vulnerable and expendable in war.

See also: ; Children's Rights; International Organizations; ; Soldier Children.


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