I am really excited to share my review of Children to a Degree- Growing Up Under the Third Reich by Horst Christian. I do have a material connection because I edited the book and my mom designed the cover (and formatted it), but my opinions on the story are entirely my own. Children to a Degree is a prequel to Horst Christian’s popular Loyal to a Degree and it’s follow-up novel, Trust to a Degree. It is the story of Karl Veth, a young boy living during the time of Hitler’s reign in Germany. The book covers 4 years of Karl’s life, from age 10 to 14 (1940-44). World War II took place from 1939-1945.
You would think that a child so young would be exempt from worrying about war. My son, Jacob, is only 8 right now. Two years younger than Karl at the start of the book. I don’t even let him walk home from the bus stop yet! Unfortunately, during Nazi Germany, children were far from exempt. In fact, by age 14, they were required to join Hitler Youth. At age 10, they joined Jungvolk, the precursor to Hitler Youth. Basically, their training began the moment they turned double-digits. Can you imagine that?
Karl Veth is an incredibly intelligent young man. When he’s not buried deep in an educational tome, he and his friend Harold enjoy exploring the rail tunnels. Basically, things that many young boys like to do. Karl’s intelligence doesn’t get him into the Cadet school with Harold, though, so Karl is sent away to an evacuation camp as part of his Jungvolk duties. There, he does such a tremendous job of bringing order to the camp that he spends the next four years traveling to other camps to do the same.
Things change constantly in Nazi Germany. One moment the schools are segregated by sex and the next, girls and boys are sitting in the same classroom being taught by a woman with a “painted face!” First, the segregation alone was unusual in that time, and second, respectable women did not wear makeup. Karl ends up graduating early and spending the majority of his time at the camps as more and more children are evacuated.
Living life as Children to a Degree
The title, Children to a Degree, is incredibly fitting, as Karl, Harold and the other friends that he makes throughout his journeys are all very much children. At the same time, the circumstances they face remove quite a bit of their innocence, making them children…to a degree. Living in the time and place that I grew up in, it is difficult to imagine a life where doctors could be taken away for practicing without wearing a white coat, men were taken for wearing sandals and every word you said had the potential to end your life.
Karl grew up in that world. Yet he managed to maintain his own identity and sense of right and wrong. He did what he could to make life a little easier on the children in the camps. He spoke up to the parents and told them to write more. He spoke in front of crowds of parents and explained what it was like to be so far from home during such uncertain times. He is a strong character. The fact that the story is based true events makes it even more powerful.
A story of devastation and hope
In Children to a Degree, Horst Christian wanted to show readers the horrors of Nazi Germany from a child’s point of view. The scenes about air raids the devastation that followed are raw, jarring examples of what war is really like. Learning that people would vanish for simple things that we take for granted- a store staying open later than another, the “wrong” footwear, sharing an opinion- really disturbed me. I know without a doubt that if I was sent back in time to Hitler’s reign, I’d be dead within an hour, and not just because I wear makeup. I am not good with authority figures, especially when I don’t feel they’ve earned their position of authority or my respect.
Knowing you would have been killed for who you are makes you respect those who managed to survive ever-changing rules even more. I learned that many, many, many Germans did not share Hitler’s views. Those who spoke up, however, vanished without a trace. When you have children depending on you, you keep your mouth shut so you can live for them.
On the other hand, though, Children to a Degree is also a story of hope. It shows readers that despite trying times (which is a drastic understatement), kids still managed to maintain some of their innocence. People still spoke out when they could. Grandparents still tried to show their grandchildren the right path to take. That is the tone Christian set for Children to a Degree, and it is the true heart of the book.