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Dec 2000 Journal

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Childrens’ Crusades

Inhabitants of medieval Europe were accustomed to seeing vast throngs of people move across the countryside. By and large these tended to be pilgrims bound for Canterbury or Santiago de Compostella. Very intermittently they were Crusaders heading towards Palestine. In the year 1212 religious fervour produced a strange hybrid halfway between a crusade and a pilgrimage. This was the Childrens’ Crusade in which fifty thousand hymn-singing children set off from Northern Europe for the Holy Land. They were never seen again: the fortunate ones who survived the rigours of the journey got sold into slavery once they reached the Mediterranean coast. This was the first recorded instance in history of masses of children being used in the service of a particular ideology.

The phenomenon was sufficiently unusual not to recur till the mid-twentieth century – when, however, it became almost commonplace. In 1944/45 the Nazis conscripted thousands of schoolboys into the Volkssturm, the auxiliary units mustered to beef up the depleted Wehrmacht. By the time of their call-up these fourteen-year-olds, having undergone lengthy brainwashing in the Hitler Youth, were quite disposed to throw their lives away for the Führer. The self-sacrificial mindset engendered among Hitler Youths was neatly encapsulated in this verse: Wir steigen auf zu Kampfgewittern/ Der Heldentod ist unser Recht/ Der Erdball soll im Kern erzittern/ Wenn fällt sein edelstes Geschlecht. (We ascend to storms of battle/ A hero’s death is our right/ The earth will be shaken to its core/ When its noblest race perishes).

A key point about Nazism was that it projected itself as a movement of the young. The brownshirted Hitler – forty-four when appointed Chancellor – cut a much more youthful figure than his Weimar predecessors in their stiff collars, starched shirt-fronts and tails. In the China of Mao’s cultural revolution, the conflict between generations took on a more convoluted form. The ‘supreme helmsman’ acted out the role of the malign grandfather who incited the rising generation to revolt against their fathers (i.e. the bureaucrats). When students, instead of pursuing knowledge, literally pursued their teachers, academic standards inevitably plummeted and this had deleterious consequences for the country as a whole.

Right now, though, the most blatant manipulation of the impressionable young occurs daily in the West Bank and Gaza. The PLO has set in motion a childrens’ crusade in which twelve-year olds get themselves killed to provide emotive footage for worldwide transmission by the media. Their deaths – on camera – not only provide attention-grabbing footage for NBC, CNN and the BBC, but also invaluable publicity for the would-be instigators of all-out war against Israel. Is it not time that UNESCO reminded the Palestinian Authority of the conventional wisdom that in lesson time school children should be in the classroom and not a battle zone? As the toll of under-age Palestinian martyrs continues to mount it seems that Yasser Arafat is about to add another title to the whole string – Chairman, commander-in-chief, ‘Father of the Struggle’ etc. – he already has, the new title will be Kindertoten leader.
Richard Grunberger

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