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Culture

Germany's Forgotten Children

A controversial book, "Enfants Maudits" (cursed children), published both in France and Germany, explores the fate of children born in France to German soldiers during WWII. DW-WORLD spoke to author Jean-Paul Picaper.

The "blighted children" never knew their fathers

DW-WORLD: 60 years after the end of the Second World War, you've written a book about children born during the Nazi occupation in France who were fathered by German soldiers. What made you decide to tackle this topic?

Jean-Paul Picaper: I published an article in France about the son of a GI who wanted to track down his father. At the time, I was the Berlin correspondent for the newspaper Le Figaro. I subsequently received a reader's letter from a Frenchman who was born during WWII as the son of a German soldier, who wanted to know why I didn't write about the tens of thousands of children in France fathered by German soldiers. I told him that if there were really that many, the story was worth a book rather than just an article. Initially I couldn't find a publisher, because they all felt it was such a sensitive subject and would cause too many people too much embarrassment. Eventually I found a publisher who was interested in the issue because her aunt was the daughter of a German soldier.

How did you manage to track down these "cursed children?"

Henri Philippe Petain served as prime minister of the Nazi-supported Vichy government in occupied France

That was initially my biggest problem. But in 2002, I met Ludwig Norz, a historian at the Wehrmacht (German army) Archive in Berlin. He told me the archive had received many letters from people in France trying to locate their fathers. That's how he and I began working together. The archive then wrote to some 30 to 40 people asking them if they'd be willing to talk to me. Almost all of them agreed. So I went to France and interviewed 15 to 20 of them. Many of them didn't even know there were other people with similar backgrounds and were hugely relieved to find out they weren't alone.

Several people in the book remain anonymous. Why?

A German soldiers stands guard at his machine gun in a dugout at an unknown location along the English Channel coastline, in Nazi-occupied France, on June 25, 1942

Some of them didn't want to reveal their identity because they were worried about the publicity. There was one person whose mother had been sentenced to jail as a collaborator, and she didn't want her neighbors to find out. All she'd done was fall in love with a German soldier. But that's how French courts worked back in 1944-46 -- there was no trial, just martial law, without witnesses or evidence. Then there was the senior civil servant who'd got where he was because he was the son of a famous resistance fighter. He was worried his career would be over if it came to light that he was the son of a German soldier. Four of the 16 people featured in the book have therfore had their names changed.

These children often suffered terrible fates -- abandoned by their mothers, spurned by their families and ostracized by society. Was this the standard story?

Unfortunately, yes. There was some very anti-German feeling in France right up until the late 1950s. It wasn't until the Elysée Treaty was signed by de Gaulle and Adenauer in 1963 that the mood changed.

Does the book also serve as a reminder that resistance to the German occupation wasn't as widespread as believed?

French civilians with their hastily made American and French flags sing the "Star Spangled Banner" as they greet U.S. and Free French troops entering Paris, France, Aug. 25, 1944

Definitely. Barely two percent of the population belonged to the Resistance. Even in early 1945, Marshall Pétain (photo above), the head of France's pro-German Vichy government, was cheered by the public in Paris -- despite the occupation, mass shootings, and widespread suffering and hunger.

Was the way the children were treated a delayed reaction to the occupying forces?

Ultimately, the majority of the French population was completely passive. But history was rewritten in such a way that the French were turned into victims and heroes, with the children made the nation's scapegoats. It was hard enough to be a child born out of wedlock, let alone to be a child of the enemy. Some of the women known to have had affairs with Germans were chased through the streets after the war. Their heads were shaved, some were allegedly executed. There are 26,000 known cases of women being punished for having relationships with German soldiers, and according to our estimates, ten times as many relationships. We believe there were 200,000 children fathered by Germans. We'll never know why these women did what they did. Maybe some of them were seduced by the material benefits -- women with German boyfriends often had jobs with the Wehrmacht, in restaurants, casinos, hospitals and so on. The relationships tended to develop in the areas where the Germans were stationed for longer periods, on the Atlantic coast and on the Channel. The incidence of rape and harassment was no higher during the war than it was during peace time.

How was the book received in France?

The media were very enthusiastic, because the issue had never been addressed before. There had been books about the mothers, but never about the children. It was interesting to realize that these victims of the war weren't actually victims of violence. And our timing was perfect: The children were over 60, retired and with time to reflect on their lives. And France is beginning to think more deeply about its past. There's a growing interest in a version of history that's free of taboos.

Does Germany have a responsibility to these people?

Firefighters reenact the hoisting of the French flag after the liberation in 1944 atop the Eiffel Tower in 2004

First and foremost, France has a responsibility. But Germany is guilty too. By 1949 it should have realized that German soldiers didn't only perpetrate massacres in France, they also left behind children. It should have set up a fund for them. They should have been given help in finding their fathers. And we want these people to be awarded dual citizenship. The issue can be seen as one of the last unresolved problems between France and Germany. The fathers never acknowledged their children, because they weren't allowed to. Many of the soldiers were sent elsewhere and never even knew of the existence of their children. But Germany could acknowledge them now. It would one way of making amends.

Pascal Pfitzenmaier interviewed Jean-Paul Picaper (jp)

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