Close-to-home book explores fate of children born of conflict
Personal history led Gerlinda Swillen to carry out the first in-depth study of Belgian children born to parents on either side of the conflict during the Second World War. De wieg van WO II (The Cradle of WWII) sheds new light on their stories and calls for legal protections
Born of war
“Until now there has been very little research on war children, and then the focus has generally been on the mothers and not the children,” she explains. It’s an imbalance she set out to address in her research.
Her interest in the subject is a personal one. She was born in 1942 to a Flemish mother and a German father, a soldier in the Wehrmacht. When he knew there was a child on the way, he asked for her mother’s hand in marriage but was refused. Posted to France, he married there and after the war returned to Germany.
Initially, the young Gerlinda was raised in Ostend by her grandparents while her mother worked out the war years in Ghent and Brussels. After the war, her mother married a widower with a child of his own, and together they formed a family.
In a sense, Swillen’s research dates back to this early period of her life. “The adults would start whispering when we were nearby, so that became interesting! That’s when you have to listen closely,” she recalls.
Notes in the margin
It was clear that something was amiss, so she set out to investigate. “When I was six or seven I looked through all my parents’ papers. I even climbed up an old wardrobe to get to the suitcase where they kept their documents.”
In the margins of birth and marriage certificates were notes that indicated an unconventional family history, but the details remained a mystery. “My mother never wanted to talk about it – like the majority of mothers – and the family closed ranks.”
The children really have this desire to have been wanted, to have been loved from the very first moment
After going to university in the 1960s, Swillen became a teacher. This was her dream, she says, and she spent nearly 40 years mainly teaching Dutch in Brussels’ secondary schools. Though she remained curious about her biological father, there was nothing she could do without knowing his name.
Finally, in 2007, she provoked her mother into revealing this crucial fact. “We were discussing the war, and I said to her: ‘It would be better if you didn’t talk about it, since you don’t even know my father’s name.’ My children were there, and my grandchildren as well. And at that moment she said: ‘But I do know his name!’ ‘Well, tell me then!’”
Once she had the name, and a few additional details, Swillen could start her research in earnest. Through the Deutsche Dienststelle in Berlin, which keeps the records of the Wehrmacht, she learned that she had a half-brother and sister in Germany, and that their father had died in 1958.
But while doing further research in the archives at Cegesoma – the Centre for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Society in Brussels – she was persuaded to broaden her inquiry beyond her personal history. She updated her degree with courses in research methodology, historiography and law and began a doctorate at the Free University of Brussels (VUB).
Seeking a love story
In the course of her research she interviewed more than 120 people who were war children, many of whom came forward after hearing Swillen tell her own story on TV and in the papers. Most had been born outside marriage and shared Swillen’s desire to know more about their biological fathers.
“Rediscovering these biological links liberates us,” she says. “Even if we cannot say that this was someone who loved us, or who should have done something for us. Simply knowing helps us understand.”
Yet most also wanted their secret history to involve a love story. “The children really have this desire to have been wanted, to have been loved from the very first moment.”
One of the merits of the research is that she focuses on the everyday life of ordinary people during the Occupation
This first moment was a particular focus of Swillen’s research. “I tried to get as close as possible to the moment the child was conceived. I couldn’t get into the bed itself, but it was nearly that.”
She was curious why these children were born at all, given the intense social disapproval attached to illegitimacy in Belgium at that time, and the additional stigma of consorting with the occupying forces. Meanwhile, army records showed that German soldiers were issued with the best quality condoms.
The testimony of the children provided some pieces of the jigsaw, while court and hospital records shed light on contemporary mores and the circumstances of some births.
Swillen’s research – and the resulting book – stands apart from most studies of the Occupation in Belgium, which tend to deal with topics such as collaboration and resistance, or the role of institutions such as trade unions.
“One of the merits of Gerlinda Swillen’s research is that she focuses on the everyday life of ordinary people during the Occupation, and more particularly on the sexual and emotional context between the occupied people and the occupier,” says Guy Vanthemsche, a professor of contemporary history at VUB, who oversaw her doctorate.
Talking in confidence
It’s unusual for a researcher to be part of the group being studied, and Vanthemsche admits having initial concerns that this might compromise her judgement. “But she succeeded in giving a really distanced and objective analysis of the problem,” he says.
In the end, her past turned out to be an asset. “Her background opened many doors and encouraged many people to talk to her in confidence.”
Among the cases Swillen investigated were love stories and relationships that could have resulted in marriage. Often the problem was German bureaucracy, which demanded a racial pedigree before unions between its soldiers and local women could be approved.
“I found cases where requests had been sent to Berlin, but before authorisation came back, the child was already born and often the father was dead, fallen on the Eastern Front or elsewhere.”
We do not want to be victims, but we would like something to be learned from our stories
Letters in the archives also show a desire to maintain contact. “There were fathers who were concerned, who asked: ‘How is my little one doing?’ or ‘Wouldn’t it be better to come and give birth in Germany?’”
This option was supported by the German authorities, who were keen to keep the home population up, although there would also be racial checks down the line.
Other children, however, were born from casual affairs, with both sides seeking distraction from the conflict. And there were more practical relationships, with sex traded for favours and gifts, or in the depths of the conflict for food or other essentials. The fathers in these cases may never have known of the pregnancy.
Both in the archives and among her interviewees there were cases of rape that produced children, but these were relatively rare.
The subsequent fate of the children also varied. Some had relatively happy childhoods, particularly when the family rallied round and subsequent marriages provided stability and a secure legal status. Equally, however, stepfathers or even the mothers themselves sometimes mistreated their children, while those put up for adoption or into homes sometimes suffered abuse.
One of the conclusions of Swillen’s research is that a secure legal status is very important to war children, both to protect them when they are young and vulnerable and to allow them to trace their origins when they are grown. It is hard, for example, for war children to access archives with information about them unless they are accredited researchers.
Swillen and many of her interviewees would like to see this situation addressed, not so much for themselves as for present-day war children, such as those conceived in conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, who arrive in Europe as refugees.
“We do not want to be victims, but we would like something to be learned from our stories,” she says. “Our aim is to realise a legal status for war children, which is not something provided up to now in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.”
The ideal, she says, would be a European Union directive, which would both strengthen protection for children and oblige states to implement it as law.
But at the same time as campaigning for this legal change, Swillen has other research leads to follow up. “I’m torn, because I love the research, but at the same time we really need this status, so there are two things that I have to do,” she says. “But basically it’s a good thing, because if you stay in the archives you moulder a bit and finally you become an archive!”
De wieg van WO II is published in Dutch by ASP Edition, €37.95
Photo: Nellie L and Bruno L, twins born to a Belgian mother and German father, with their Belgian grandfather