A Brief Reflection on Researching Children and Postwar Humanitarianism

By Lorraine McEvoy

If you ever find yourself wandering around the southwestern corner of St Stephen’s Green, you are likely to stumble upon a statue called the Three Fates. Unveiled in 1956, it was a gift of gratitude from West Germany to the Irish people for humanitarian aid they provided after the Second World War. This aid included Operation Shamrock, a scheme in which nearly five hundred children (mostly Germans) from mainland Europe were brought to Ireland for recuperation in the immediate aftermath of the war. This temporary hospitality initiative was one of many similar schemes that took place between various countries in the wake of the war. For example, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and Spain also welcomed needy children from abroad on recuperative stays. My current research project, ‘Little Guests’: Recuperating Europe’s Children in the Aftermath of WWII, is an international history of these schemes, on a broad scale, which traces how such initiatives developed and differed throughout Europe. I also consider this very specific form of humanitarian aid in terms of broader developments in the history of international child welfare.

Three Fates Statue in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin. Photo by Shelby Zimmerman

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Swedish feminist Ellen Key published her popular book The Century of the Child, in which she argued that if the nineteenth century had been that of the woman, the twentieth would belong to the child. This captured the idea, which had gained ground since the late 1800s, that children were key to the future of civilization and that saving children would determine the future not only of individual youths but of the whole of humanity. However, the ‘century of the child’ is better remembered as one of war. The responses to these wars and postwar reconstruction directly resulted in developments in international children’s aid, welfare, and rights. Two of the most well-known children’s organisations today, Save the Children (established in 1919)and UNICEF(established in 1946), grew out of the efforts to help children in the aftermath of war.

One of the most interesting questions in the history of humanitarianism is that of motive. What makes people want to help distant others and their children? Oftentimes, the answer includes feelings of sympathy or pity for the suffering of children. Many humanitarian initiatives for children were at least partly inspired by an awareness that the children of today are the adults of tomorrow. Not only could aid programs save the children, but the children would become grateful adults. Humanitarianism was therefore, in a sense, also an opportunity to shape children’s minds and influence the future. Motivations and rationalizations differ at each level from the individual to the international. For example, for some people in Britain who wanted to take in German children, their reason was rooted in an anxiety that treating them badly could result in a vengeful generation. For others, their motivation might have been a sense of Christian or moral duty. Indeed, people were usually influenced by a combination of factors.

There is an imagery and language of humanitarianism, especially as it concerns children, which can be traced back to developments in the era of the two world wars. At the time the Save the Children Fund and other charities promoted the idea of the innocent, apolitical child victim of adult wars. Appeals and posters focused on photographic representations of suffering children and tugged at both the conscience and the heartstrings. This was a particularly important feature of appeals which sought to help the children of once enemy nations.

While researching humanitarian aid for children, it is important to listen for children’s voices among the chorus that vies for the historian’s attention. It is necessary to challenge the idea that all humanitarianism was in the so-called “best interests” of the child and to ask how children themselves perceived and experienced these initiatives. Were they excited, frightened, or sad at the prospect of a temporary stay abroad to recuperate? That said, it is difficult to locate children’s own experiences and perspectives in archival documents that are almost overwhelmingly of a political and bureaucratic nature. In these documents children are spoken for and about, but their own voices are seldom apparent. This begs the question: how do you listen to a voice that does not seem to be speaking to you?

One option is to conduct or consult oral history interviews. These can be an invaluable resource when the period you are studying is in the lived past, as is the case with the post-Second World War period. For example, interviews carried out with some of the children of Operation Shamrock at an event organised for The Gathering (2013) are a wonderful and insightful source. Unfortunately, speaking to the inhabitants of the past is not always an option.

Another way that we can listen to the voices of the children is by reading documents generated by governments and organizations with an open and imaginative mind. For example, in the British National Archives, there is a large file regarding a group of British children who were sent to Switzerland to recuperate in 1946. Among the documents are letters enquiring about items lost by children during their journeys. One is from the mother of a child, recently returned home, who had misplaced some chocolate and a Swiss army knife. The child’s upset about the loss of his knife, a “treasured” present from a Swiss friend, is vividly imaginable through his mother’s letter and thus the individual realities of this humanitarian action manage to get a little whisper in.

The German designer of the Three Fates statue, Josef Wackerle, evoked in this piece the Norse figures of the past, present, and future. According to the plaque that accompanies the statue it “portrays the three legendary fates spinning and measuring the thread of man’s destiny”. To the thoughtful observer, this statue can stand as more than a message of thanks or a memorial. It can serve as an invitation to consider the meaning and significance of postwar humanitarian initiatives more broadly. This is because many who engaged in postwar children’s humanitarianism were themselves sensitive to the connections between what they were doing and the looming figures of the past, present and future. At the end of the day, humanitarian initiatives in all of their variety sought to achieve one or a combination of the following: to save children from the traumatic experiences of their pasts, to protect them in their present or, in some way, to shape their futures and therefore the future of civilization.

Sources and Further Reading

Cabanes, Bruno. The Great War and the Origins of Humanitarianism: 1918 – 1924. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Marshall, Dominique. “Humanitarian Sympathy for Children in Times of War and the History of Children’s Rights, 1919-1959” in James Alan Marten, ed. Children and War: A Historical Anthology. New York: New York University Press, 2002.

Molohan, Cathy. Germany and Ireland, 1945 – 1955: Two Nation’s Friendship. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1999.

Molohan, Cathy. “Humanitarian Aid or Politics?: The Case of the Save the German Children Society.” History Ireland 5, no. 3 (1997): 7–9.

“Operation Shamrock”- The Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. https://vimeo.com/90743570.

Zahra, Tara. The Lost Children: Reconstructing Europe’s Families after World War II. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2011.