The Battle of Vimy Ridge: History, Myth, Memorial and Remembrance

The Battle of Vimy Ridge was one of the costliest and most successful military engagements in Canadian history. Due to the extraordinary bravery of thousands of Canadians, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was hard-won against great odds. Today Vimy Ridge is commemorated in Canada as the defining moment when we shed the cloak of the British Empire and defined our own identity on the world stage as a victorious nation.

But.

History really is not the same as remembrance, as I discovered last June when I visited the battlefield. The Vimy Ridge memorial, built in 1936 on land donated by France to “all Canadian people,” has become enshrined in a national narrative honouring Canada’s “coming of age” and “birth” as a nation. With every new busload of Canadian tourists, British schoolchildren, curious Germans, this memorial perpetuates this narrative, while reminding us both the astounding scale of the First World War, and Canada’s role in that international conflict.

Once the feelings of overwhelming awe towards the immense bravery of all soldiers fighting in the First World War passes, and once you dig deeper into Canada’s exact reasons in 1917 for attacking this dreadful graveyard in France, and once you actually question what the hell so many young men were doing in such a devastating conflict, you begin to realise that the way we remember battles has become more important than the reality of what actually happened.

 The “Facts” that Fuel Canada’s National Narrative

Vimy Ridge was a heavily fortified seven-kilometre ridge in northern France that held a commanding view over the Allied lines. Previous attempts by the French to secure the ridge resulted in over 100,000 causalities, who lay in the open graveyard between the lines.

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Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917. Canadian troops seen here advancing over no man’s land and through the German barbed wire whilst under fire. (Photo: Huffington Post).

The Canadian Corps spent weeks practising the attack. After the disaster at the Somme, British tactics were forced to change. Instead of relying on officers for leadership and strategy (many of whom had been slaughtered at the Somme), regular soldiers were now equipped with enough tactical details to adequately survive if their leader was killed in action.  For the first time, regular infantrymen were briefed on the terrain and maps, and encouraged to think for themselves. They were also armed with machine guns, rifle-men and grenade throwers, giving them more versatile tools to overcome obstacles.

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Prior to the Canadian attack on April 9th, 1917, the Canadian Corps had around 1,000 men working on 12 underground passageways. Each of the tunnels housed soldiers, ammunition, water, and communication lines, and most were lit by electricity.  See Valour Canada website for more details.

Elaborate tunnels in the rear lines (the longest being 1.2km in length) allowed for quick communication between rear and front line trenches. This also allowed for critical supplies to reach all the troops in the weeks leading to the attack.

But the chief reason for success was the devastating artillery barrage that isolated German trenches and forced German machine gunners to stay in their deep dug outs. A week before the attack, more than a million shells were fired at the German lines, and even targeted at the villages in the rear. The Germans called this “the week of suffering.”

The new artillery fuse (called 106) meant that shells detonated upon impact, rather than burying themselves in the ground, which meant that hard defences could be more easily destroyed. One Canadian observer recorded that the shells poured “over our heads like water from a hose, thousands and thousands a day.”

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British General Sir Julian Byng and the commander of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, warned before the attack on Vimy Ridge, “Chaps, you shall go over exactly like a railroad train, on time, or you shall be annihilated.”

On the morning of Monday, 9 April 1917 at 5.30am, four Canadian divisions, attacking together for the first time, overran the German line. Over 15,000 Canadians accompanied by one British division captured the highest part of the ridge (Hill 145) and within three days, the Canadians and British had won the ridge.

But Vimy Ridge was only victorious at a great cost. Nearly 4,000 Canadians were killed and 7,000 were injured.

The Facts Excluded from the Canadian Narrative

The Canadian War Museum website, the Vimy Foundation website, and the Veterans Affairs website of the Canadian government fail to mention German casualties or prisoners, or even recognise Britain’s involvement as anything but ancillary.

Exact figures for German casualties are unknown due to the destruction of records in the Second World War. But we know that 4,000 Germans were taken prisoner, while the Canadian Encyclopaedia estimates that 20,000 Germans were killed or wounded at Vimy Ridge.

One of the reasons for German defeat was the German Commanders’ failure to adequately use a newly introduced defensive tactic called “defence in depth.” Rather than stubbornly defending every foot of captured ground, German armies would allow attacking troops to probe into their territory just far enough to be beyond their supply lines — and then destroy them in a counterattack. The strategy was very effective, but the German defenders of Vimy were given the traditional order to “hold the line” at all costs. The German commander, Ludwig von Falkenhausen, was promptly reassigned after the defeat.

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Captured German prisoners after the Battle of Vimy Ridge, 1917. Photo credit: the National Post and Library and Archives Canada.

In the aftermath of Vimy Ridge, German soldiers were photographed smiling after being taken prisoner. This, despite the fact that Canadians had earned a grim reputation for killing those who surrendered. (For an excellent article on this, see Tim Cook’s The Politics of Surrender).  But smiling for the camera was no coincidence. A year previously, Germany had suffered through the “turnip winter”, when adults were living on just 1,200 calories a day. So, becoming a POW often meant receiving better rations. Also, the Germans had just undergone weeks of night attacks and raids on their trenches. They were obviously exhausted and relieved to be no longer fighting.

Despite Canadian proclamations of victory, Germans viewed Vimy Ridge as a draw rather than an outright defeat. Historians, such as Andrew Godefroy, admit that due to a lack of sources, it is difficult to fully reconstruct events on the German side. But he revealed that although General von Falkenhausen was assigned most of the blame for losing the ridge, other commanders including General Georg Karl Wichura and Oberstluetnant Wilhelme von Goerne, received medals for their leadership. Also, because the Canadians took the ridge but failed to break the German line, the Germany army recognized, to some degree, that Vimy Ridge had not entirely been a defeat.

Most importantly, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was strategically insignificant to the outcome of the war. Other battles, such as Amiens and Cambrai had far greater impact. As historian Andrew Godefroy writes in Vimy Ridge, a Canadian Reassessment: “To the German army the loss of a few kilometres of vital ground meant little in the grand scheme of things.” After Vimy Ridge, the repute of Canadian troops was certainly increased, especially as elite shock troops in 1918, but Vimy Ridge itself was not strategically important.

Commemorating Vimy Ridge: Let’s Build a Memorial!

After the First World War, nations devastated by conflict erected thousands of monuments (both large and small) to acknowledge those who died. France and Belgium donated sections of land to its allies for the purposes of commemoration. And Vimy Ridge was one of eight battle sites (five in France and three in Belgium) awarded to Canada.

In 1920, the newly established Canadian Battlefields Memorial Commission organized a competition for a Canadian memorial to be erected on each site. Walter Allward, an experienced sculptor and a well-known designer of memorials, won the competition in 1921. Due to Vimy Ridge’s vantage point, accessibility and significance, the Canadian Battlefields Memorial Commission decided that Allward’s memorial would be built at Vimy Ridge (although it did take 2.5 years to clear the 100 hectare land of unexploded bombs, some of which still remain there today).

After ten years of construction (it took two years to find a suitable quarry for the limestone, which, ironically, was located in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia where the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife had started the First World War), the memorial was completed in July 1936. 6,000 Canadians were given “Special Vimy” passports by the Canadian government to make the “pilgrimage” to the unveiling.

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Over 100,000 spectators attended the unveiling. His Majesty King Edward VIII and various Canadian representatives met with mothers whose sons had died. One veteran remembers: “The service lasted only an hour but never had anyone experienced one more solemn or moving” (Saburo Shinobu, Japanese Branch of the Canadian Legion).

Adorned with twenty sculptures, Allward’s memorial is topped by figures representing the universal virtues of faith, justice, peace, honour, charity, truth, knowledge and hope. The Christian symbolism is obvious and clearly references “traditional images of the Mater Dolorosa (the Virgin Mary in mourning), while the figure spread-eagled on the altar below the two pylons resembles a Crucifixion scene.”

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“Between the pylons stands a figure holding a burning torch. Entitled ‘The Spirit of Sacrifice’, it is a reference to one of the most famous poems of the Great War, ‘In Flanders Fields,’ by the Canadian Army Medical Corps officer, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae.” (Canada War Museum)

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Although not a part of the original design, over 11,000 names of all the Canadians who had died with no known grave are etched into the base of the monument. (Photo from Amerique Francaise)

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A maternal figure at the base of the memorial. Note the engraved names around the base.

In 1940, as German armies swept through western Europe, destroying many of the First World War monuments in its wake, Vimy Ridge was exempted. In fact, Hitler visited the monument and was so impressed that he apparently assigned Waffen SS guards to protect it. This prevented regular soldiers of the German army from defacing the monument.  As most of the Australian WWI graves and memorials had been destroyed by advancing German troops, this likely saved Vimy Ridge from a similar fate.

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Although saving the memorial was also a propaganda stunt to demonstrate Hitler’s goodwill to the conquered French people, perhaps we should all be a little more in awe of a structure that even Hitler himself wouldn’t destroy.

Although the sculpted figures need repair throughout the years, and the monument undergoes regular cleaning, even today the Vimy Ridge memorial looks brand new. Its white stones contrast the blue skies and rolling hills in the large valley below. Just a kilometer away, a new visitor’s centre offers tours to over 700,000 people a year by real Canadian guides. They take groups through the trenches, preserved as they were a hundred years ago.

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After the war, the trenches were preserved by pouring concrete into the original sandbags.

Myth Making of a Nation

While I would never minimise the great cost of human life associated to any battle, Vimy Ridge, as a cornerstone of Canadian national identity, is perpetuated by this imposing memorial and its regular commemoration. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the choice to build this memorial at Vimy Ridge “was a less a result of the battle’s importance than of Vimy’s extraordinary geographic location – a high vantage point with a commanding view, visible from miles around.” And, to be fair to the Canadian Battlefields Memorial Commission in 1920, it really is a glorious view.

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Canadian historian, Tim Cook, claims that Vimy Ridge was elevated above other Canadian battles, at least partly, for political and national purposes. He addresses the divergence between history and mythmaking in his new book Vimy: the Battle and the Legend (2017):

“Canada is a country – like most – that places little stock in its history, teaching it badly, embracing it little, feeding it only episodically. As Canada developed over time, we cast aside much that grounded us in the past; yet there are some ideas, myths and icons that persistently carry the weight of nationhood. Vimy is one of them.”

The meaning behind Vimy Ridge – whether a bloody sacrifice of countless young men in a war forced upon them by an outmoded commitment to Empire, or perhaps a remarkable story of miraculous nation-forging against all odds – is evolving through a process of forgetting and remembering. With every new busload of Canadian tourists, British schoolchildren, curious Germans, and bewildered Americans, Vimy Ridge is reinterpreted and reconceptualised again and again to the waves of spectators in awe of its remarkable history.

But what I asked myself, one hundred years after the Canadians had won this beautiful vantage point in France, while standing under its majestic pillars on a sunny day in June 2017:

What would we remember of Vimy Ridge if it wasn’t for this impressive memorial?

Vimy Ridge is both a lesson in history and a lesson in remembrance. While Vimy Ridge might unify the two in one immaculate feat of human creation, they are not synonymous. The Battle of Vimy Ridge was an epic victory, where men from each corner of Canada joined together for the first time in a victorious campaign against their sworn enemy. But it wasn’t entirely Canadian – it was led by a British officer and supplied by British provisions. And it wasn’t entirely a victory – it had no decisive impact on the war and the German lines remained intact. Despite those important details, remembering Vimy Ridge at this grand memorial is a testament to a country mourning the great loss of its youngest citizens.

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Refugees, Labour and Violence: Rethinking “borders” while in the Scottish Borders

Last month, I holidayed in a region of southern Scotland called “The Borders.” As the boyfriend was raised in one of its charming towns, I had a built-in tour guide. He showed me all the fluffy sheep, the gorgeous green rolling hills and told me stories of the Borders’ sparkling history of violence and raiding.

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This vantage of the Tweed valley and Eildon Hills is called “Scott’s View,” as it is reputed as one of Sir Walter Scott’s favourite views.

This lush swath of land held a contentious political boundary that separated Scotland from England. Between the 13th and 17th centuries, this magnificent countryside became ground zero in the quest to define those two nationalities. Repetitive small conflicts and systematic raiding dominated the region due to a group of mercenaries called the Border Reivers. Equipped with bows and arrows and mounted on little ponies, they were notorious for stealing, raping and fighting for live stock and lands.

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Queen Elizabeth I was so impressed with the Border Reivers ruthless success, that she once said, “with ten thousand such men, James VI could shake any throne in Europe.”  (photo: wikipedia)

Today, traces of the intense violence are still present in the abandoned peel towers that dot the countryside, where residents would hide from invaders. One particular peel tower called Smailholm Tower was made popular by Scotland’s cherished author, Sir Walter Scott. As a child battling polio in the late 1700s, Scott stayed with his grandparents at Sandyknowes farm just beside Smailholm Tower and even played in its ruins.

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Smailholm Tower was one of hundreds of defensive fortifications that dotted the countryside. Inside was often a local laird and enough room to house the sheep and cattle, a major resource for the Border Reivers.

Due to the strong oral traditions among the local farmers and shepherds, Scott also learned about the Border Reivers’s raids through workers on the farm, including his auntie who would sing to him. Years later, Scott transcribed and modified some of these folk tales, popularising them through his writings and publications. In one fell swoop, Sir Walter Scott’s renditions of these stories soon came to define an entire portion of Scotland’s (heavily disputed) land and (blood-soaked) history into the romanticised nation we know today.

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Abbotsford, Sir Walter Scott’s family home, is now a B&B and museum.

While Scott’s impact upon Scotland is indisputable – he seemed to be a remarkable and eccentric man – the Scottish Borders as a specific region made me stop and think. Scotland and England would eventually find peace (to an extent) so that the violence would stop, but what do such borders achieve?

Are borders entirely arbitrary, or do they serve a useful purpose? What do borders accomplish? How do borders define a group? Do they cause more peace or more violence? Do we still need them? Or should we build more?   

I’m not the first to ask such questions, especially in recent history. Just last month, it was the 70th anniversary of India and Pakistan’s creation. Or, it was the 70th anniversary of one of the bloodiest legacies that ever came from drawing a border.

In the immediate post-war era, calls for Indian independence from British rule could no longer by ignored by Westminster. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Congress and Muslim League, demanded the creation of a Muslim state. With British PM Clement Atlee’s strong support, Lord Louis Mountbatten and Cyril Radcliffe were responsible for hastily drawing a boundary that essentially cut Punjab and Bengal almost in half.  But the problem was that millions of Muslims lived in what would become Hindu-majority India, while millions of Hindus and Sikhs lived in what would be Muslim-majority Pakistan.

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A photo from 19 September 1947 of an overcrowded train station by New Delhi (from an article by Dawn).

The “Mountabatten Plan” was submitted just five days before India and Pakistan were partitioned (14th and 15th August, respectively). Celebrations ensued, but so did mass migration. Over 15 million Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus essentially swapped countries, leading to over a million deaths in the violence that followed. Chaos reigned at train stations, looting and food shortages were commonplace. People apparently defended themselves from discriminate attacks with knives, guns, swords. Thousands sought shelter and refuge in sacred temples and tombs. Millions died because of this arbitrary, hastily drawn line in the earth. Millions died because of a border.

Borders, essentially, divide people.

Hundreds of years ago, physical features of the land would define a people, such as river or forest. But in more recent history, borders have been politically motivated rather than geographically defined. Or sometimes both. I remember being a young Canadian elementary student in Social Studies class and asking why the US-Canada border was straight on the left (west), but squiggly on the right (east). My teacher laughed and said the St. Lawrence River was the chosen boundary in the east, while the 49th latitude was the boundary in the west. The answer confused me, but then I was told that the US-Canada border is the longest undefended border in the world. “But we’ll be okay,” she reassured me. “Okay from what?” I remember thinking.

Borders “protect” people.

They keep foreigners out. They help us to define ourselves in relation to the “other” whatever we perceive it to be: barbarity, violence, backwardness, et cetera. By doing so, borders create a sense of homogeneity, safety and order for those inside, implying further that such civilised aspects of society only exist within that border. Borders thus legitimise our identities and strengthen our communities. Evidently, borders do accomplish a great deal.

Today’s borders allow free trade, the free movement of goods to be exchanged. This allows us to create links (sometimes exploitive) with our neighbours and is one of the best things to come out of colonisation and globalisation. And yet we do not afford that same freedom of movement to people, to labour.

As British journalist Giles Fraser says, “We are so hypocritical about our borders.” We will celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall, but we will fortify Calais and the UK against the waves of eastern refugees and migrants. We will condemn Trump’s proposed wall with Mexico, but continue the oppressive system of First Nations reservations in Canada and the US. We shake our heads at the illegal detainment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but we will applaud the commendable efforts of Médecins Sans Frontières (or, Doctors without Borders).

Why such hypocrisy? 

Professor Jonothan Moses claims in International Migration: Globalization’s Last Frontier (2006), that “as distance in the world recedes with technological, social, demographic and political advances, the demand for international migration will surely grow.” The only way to solve our multiple global problems, he claims, is through free migration. It is the last frontier to be conquered by the global community. Naturally, this sounds both radical and implausible, but he assures us that eventually we would become more just and happier, as the world’s economic and political bounty would be better distributed.

A world without borders? Is that possible?  

Just imagine a world where you could visit or permanently move anywhere you wanted without restrictions. Tropical islands everywhere would become overwhelmed with the world’s richest retirement-aged elites. Many long-distance relationships could be solved. Families separated by war or migration could be reunited.  Unmarried women could backpack through Saudi Arabia! And, importantly, the global divide between the rich underpopulated North and the poor overpopulated South would rebalance. Eventually.

But a world without borders is difficult to comprehend.  So if a borderless, free-moving, global population is one radical extreme, then at the other end of the spectrum is a world with well-defined “nations”. We know this world, because we are living in it. A world with borders, barriers and walls, such as those that currently in Israel/Palestine, or those proposed by Trump with Mexico, or those proposed by Brexit with Europe. No more EU Schengen plans. No more visa-free travel. Everyone restricted to their little nation. Everyone defined by their borders.

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The closing ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympics demonstrates just how much we are defined by our borders (Photo: Daily Mail).

But then, history. History tells us that borders aren’t necessarily the best invention since sliced bread. Borders cause war, then war happens, then borders are redrawn. Repeat. For example, one of the strongest underlying factors for the outbreak of the First World War was the fact that people were angry with their borders. And this anger took the form of nationalism. Pause here.

Nationalism (generally, a pride in one’s nation) is based upon a collective identity due to ethnic, religious, and/or political reasons. It’s a massive concept that historians debate endlessly (see Anthony Smith’s Theories of Nationalism (1971), Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism (1983), anything by Eric J. Hobsbaum). Because borders keep foreigners out, legitimise citizens within, and nurture collective pride and identity, nationalism is tied inextricably to borders – real or imagined. Nationalism does not always need to exist in a community, but it does exist because that community is legitimised by, or rebelling against, its borders. Correct? Yes.

So, in the early 1900s, multiple ethnic communities in the Balkans were formulating new identities that wanted autonomy from the Austria-Hungarian state and old Emperor Franz Joseph in Vienna. Two previous localised Balkan wars had proved just how forceful these groups were becoming. But the conflict escalated into the First World War when a member of one Serbian nationalist group assassinated the nephew of the Emperor. Nationalism, aggravated by borders (that these groups felt limited by), was thus a major component of the ongoing tensions that sparked and accelerated that conflict.

After the First World War, borders were redrawn: Poland, Finland and the Baltics were born. Austria-Hungary was split into Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Alsace-Lorraine was returned to the French. German colonies were transferred to the victors. The League of Nations was created to hopefully broker ongoing peace and stability after an estimated 25 million deaths.

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The German delegates at the Treaty of Versailles: Professor Walther Schücking, Reichspostminister Johannes Giesberts, Justice Minister Otto Landsberg, Foreign Minister Ulrich Graf von Brockdorff-Rantzau, Prussian State President Robert Leinert, and financial advisor Carl Melchior. (Photo from Wikipedia).

For a time, it seemed to work. But the League of Nations faltered. Nationalism grew. This time Germany and Russia became massive forces that spurned many citizens to believe that their nations had not only the means but the right to reclaim lost territories and even conquer new ones. Hitler and Stalin’s fierce ambitions, and weak Allied leadership in the late 1930s heightened tensions and nurtured opportunity for conflict. The Second World War resulted in an estimated 50 to 80 million deaths.

The United Nations attempted to succeed where the League of Nations failed. European Integration became central to rebuilding a world after total devastation. A common market was created among its first four members and the free movement of goods became a cornerstone of collective European prosperity. Go, Europe!

Simultaneously, the Cold War constructed “the Iron Curtain” and, again, divided Europe and the world. The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 and symbolised the cold, hard barrier between western capitalism and eastern communism. The last remaining right-wing dictatorships in Portugal and Spain soon dissolved. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and East and West Germany were finally reunited. Borders that had previously been so indestructible for decades seem to crumble in a few short months.

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Over 138 people died trying to escape through the Wall, and an estimated 5,000 were successful. The first to escape was East German border guard, Corporal Conrad Schumann, in August 1961 (Photo from here)

By 1993, the Schengen Agreements allowed for movement of “four freedoms”: goods, services, money and people. Millions of young people were able to study in other EU countries and the Euro currency was adopted by most EU nations. Remarkably, the EU eased gracefully into a period of prosperity and harmony. Goals to tackle climate change and terrorism unified these once national enemies. Germany, despite his historic territorial ambitions, became the world leader in accepting refugees and migrants. The EU won the Noble Peace Prize in 2012.

But then, Brexit. And Trump’s Mexico wall. It seems that some western leaders believe tightening borders, not eradicating them, is the best response to global migration.

So what’s the solution?

Rethink the nature of “borders.” Although totally removing borders is radical and implausible in the near future, global migration will only increase. As migrants move between countries, they often transition through multiple societies, adopting new identities in each and thus complicating the simple labels of “origin” and “destination.” Global migration is not only increasing, but becoming vastly more complex.

History proves that borders do not keep foreigners “out” nor keep citizens “in”. And why should they? The global economy is based upon free trade, the free movement of goods, so why shouldn’t that be extended to people, to labour? Meanwhile, current gaps between the rich and poor, the north and south, the citizens and refugees, are eroding due to instantaneous communications, faster transportation, and global infrastructures and this exact type of trade. Sorry, world, but refugees and migrants won’t just “go away,” no matter how high you build those walls.

According to the International Organisation of Migration, “Migration is an integral part of global transformation and development processes rather than a problem to be solved.” If true, then how do we improve this?

Of course, the best remedies lay in helping those on the other side of the border. Provide immediate aid to victims of war, hunger and disease. Allow those fleeing persecution and war to cross borders, with or without passports or visas. Commit to large-scale, international resettlement projects across borders. Do not underfund long-term peace projects that tackle the root causes of war, hunger and disease. Persecute human traffickers heavily. Combat all forms of racism and xenophobia at home and abroad.

The Scottish Borders unknowingly provides us a great deal of information about how this could work on a global scale. Although fighting over human and material resources could continue for centuries, strict borders will eventually disappear. People will eventually live without violence. And while pride for one’s nation is still very strong in this part of the world, and tensions between Scotland and English still certainly exist, the Borders is a serene and renowned land with its numerous peel towers and fluffy sheep.

Who wouldn’t be proud of that?  

“Yemenite Children Affair” and Children’s Homes in the 20th Century

Yesterday I read an article on the BBC about hundreds of missing babies who were secretly adopted by childless couples in the 1950s, shortly after the founding of the Israeli state.  One parent, Leah Aharoni, was a Yemeni refugee who had given birth to premature twins in central Israel. Shortly thereafter, she was told her twins were moved into special clinic in Tel Aviv. She then learned that one twin had died. Although she never saw a body or grave, Leah and her husband accepted this horrific news. Years later, her 18 year old daughter was called up for national military service. However, two letters arrived – one for her living daughter and the other for the deceased twin. Apparently, this type of bureaucratic error was experienced by numerous families whose children had supposedly “died” while in state care years previously.

Now called the Yemenite Children Affair, the state archives have been opened to reveal a large government cover up. Since the 1950s, over 1,000 families have claimed their children were systematically kidnapped and put up for adoption, often abroad. Wealthy American couples, some of whom had survived the Holocaust, wished to preserve the Jewish line by adopting Jewish children. Some children, sadly, were also the objects of medical experiments, whereby they were injected with proteins, had their healthy hearts removed for US doctors to dissect, and were even tested for “negro blood.”

Three committees investigated the Yemenite Children Affair, but all reached the same conclusion: most children died in the 1960s in hospitals and were buried without notifying their families. Although this would still be a harsh reality for grieving families, the deception goes deeper.  The recent approval by the Israeli government to open state archives now allows mothers, such as Leah Aharoni, to learn the fate of their kidnapped children. It is expected that the following months will uncover many unwelcomed truths…

At the crux of the Yemenite Children Affair is the fact that Israel was a new state. Why does this matter? Yemeni refugees flooding into Israel in the 1950s were considered eastern Mizrahi Jews and not nearly as desirable to the foundation of the new Israeli state as Ashkenazi Jews, from European descent. But, so what?

In the wake of both the First and Second World Wars, nations grappled with how to create homogenous nation-states. The wartime devastation forced communities to come together to rebuild their homes, governments and cultures. In the 1920s, the creation of passports, human rights laws, and international humanitarian organisations allowed nations the ability engage in discussion about policies on both international and national levels. The unprecedented suffering of children was brought to the fore by NGOs, such as Save the Children Fund, and the Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1924) helped to internationalise the value of children, and called for their protection.

It was during this tumultuous interwar period that children’s value became heightened. Although some would argue that children’s social value was already well defined within Western nations (especially through labour laws as a result of the Victorian Age), the interwar period was, I believe, the crucial moment when “children” and “transnationalism” merged. Children were no longer limited to just one national boundary. Within international humanitarian circles, children’s rights were finally extending beyond national laws.  And, due to the unimaginable devastation of the First World War, children’s survival now depended on their ability to adapt to new geographies, new cultures, new identities.

Naturally, governments decimated by war began to capitalise on the fluid identities of these migrant, displaced and orphaned children. By adopting, kidnapping, brainwashing, relocating children, a nation could bolster its national image and its biological stockpile. Children, it became clear, were the biological future of the state. (For more on this topic, please see Tara Zahra’s book “The Lost Children: Reconstructing Europe’s Families After World War II”).

Children were absolutely central to this power-struggle among nations.  Governments found unusual, discriminatory, and often macabre ways to fulfil their national agendas to adequately rebuild their countries. And one such method was exploited: Children’s Homes.

Children’s Homes, or long-term (usually) state-run institutions for children, fulfilled different roles and purposes in the last century. I have compiled some of these Children’s Homes into groups. There are certainly exceptions, and categories overlap, and it is by no means entirely comprehensive but….

A) Children’s Homes that forcibly cultivated a new national identity while remaining within the original political boundaries.

This was often achieved by simply invalidating their original cultural “backward” identity. Although parents may have been aware their children were being taken away, they did not always give their consent. Some examples:

Canadian Residential School System. In the 19th century, the Canadian government wished to quickly assimilate the First Nations communities. By removing 150,000 aboriginal children from their communities and forcing them to attend 80 Christian schools throughout the country, it led to widespread physical and sexual abuse. The last school was closed in 1996.

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Photo from CBC News

Swiss Red Cross Children’s Homes. During the Second World War, the Swiss Red Cross founded multiple Children’s Homes in German-occupied France and Belgium. Children were considered temporary residents (maximum three-month stays for Belgian children, for example), and parents had to give consent.  Many children survived as a result of the protection they received in these homes (at La Hille in France, the Swiss nurses secretly saved Jewish children by walking them over the Pyrenees into Spain). However, the Swiss curricula taught Swiss songs, history and culture, subsequently undermining the authentic nationality of the child.

Yemenite Children’s Affair. After their kidnap into state care, some Yemeni children were eventually adopted by other Israelis and absorbed into “western” Ashkenazi Jewish family structures while remaining within Israel’s state borders.

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Photo from +972 Mag Article of Israelis protesting the Yemenite children affair, Jerusalem, June 21, 2017

B) Children’s Homes that deceptively relocated children through bureaucratic channels to new nations.

This was accomplished often without parental knowledge and sought to improve the national collective identity (by either absorbing or expulsing children from the nation). Some examples:

Nazi Lebensborn Homes. These homes initially provided care for unmarried German women who had given birth to “racially pure” children by SS officers. After the outbreak of war, the drive for an Aryan state led to the kidnapping of thousands of Polish children (up to 100,000) deemed racially pure. Older children were led to believe they’d been abandoned by their biological parents. By 1946, it was estimated that 250,000 children had been forcibly removed from their parents.

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Photo from Daily Mail Article of an “Aryan” boy who’s identity (Folker Heinecke – or Aleksander Litau) was stolen when he was placed into a Lebensborn home.

Yemenite Children Affair. See above. Some Yemeni children were adopted by childless couples abroad without parental consent or knowledge.

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Photo from +972 Mag Article of Israelis protesting the Yemenite children affair, Jerusalem, June 21, 2017

British Child Migrants to Canada and Australia. From the mid-1800s until the 1970s, over 130,000 British children were sent to Canada, New Zealand, Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and Australia. These children were not necessarily orphaned, but generally from poor backgrounds and, it was believed, would lead happier lives due to their ability to adapt quickly. Some parents consented with full knowledge, others were unaware as to the fate of their child(ren) abroad. Children were often shipped to rural locations as farm labourers, or state-run orphanages, or religious institutions. This led to widespread physical and sexual abuse. The British government’s motivation was to ease the burden on UK orphanages while also increasing the populations in the colonies with “good, white British stock.” 

C) Children’s Homes for Medical Experimentation and Extermination.

These homes go hand-in-hand with the overall growth of eugenics in the early 20th century, but as the Yemenite Children Affair indicates, they were not just a product of the Nazi regime. Some examples:

Am Spiegelgrund Clinic in Steinhof, Vienna . This Nazi-run institution sought to experiment on its 7,500 patients, with one particular children’s ward called Am Spiegelgrund. Almost 800 children died as the result of medical experiments between 1940-1945. The survivors’ testimonies are harrowing.

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Doctors of Am Spiegelgrund. According to the Alliance for Human Research Protection (AHRP), Dr. Heinrich Gross is alleged to have selected children admitted to the hospital for deadly experiments. Like many physicians he saw the availability of children as a research opportunity available for exploitation. The experiments had no potential benefit for the child subjects. At lease half of the children who were killed at Spiegelgrund were from Dr. Gross’ infants’ ward.

Auschwitz “Kindergarten.” Approximately 232,000 children arrived at Auschwitz. Although many were shipped directly to the gas chambers, some were held in a family camp in 1943, whereby Dr. Joseph Mengele had easy access to children in the attached “Kindergarten.” No clear statistics exist to indicate how many children were victims of Mengele’s experiments. The family camp and “Kindergarten” were liquidated in May 1944.

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Children in Auschwitz after the liberation, 1945.

Yemenite Children Affair. As discussed earlier, Israeli doctors examined children’s blood in order to assess its negro qualities.

Velpke and Rühen Children’s Home. These homes were established in May 1944 to care for the infants of the Polish female forced laborers who worked on the farms near Wolfsburg and Helmstedt (100km east of Hannover, Germany). Conditions were atrocious and deaths of nearly 100 infants resulted from outright neglect and starvation. Importantly, these homes only existed as a way to placate the mothers and to increase their economic output.

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Only photo I could find of Velpke Children’s Home

Okay, but so what?

Remarkably, the Yemenite Children Affair could be placed in each and every category within my proposed list above. The goal of this discussion is to not just showcase the unusual qualities of such Children’s Homes, but to embed them within a broader history of the period. Some Children’s Homes existed to fulfil a racially-driven ideology, others to bolster a certain culture or language. Such Children’s Homes and migration projects were somehow fulfilling nationalist agendas, either by absorbing more children or by expulsing them from a country’s borders. And, especially after the devastation of the First and Second World Wars, governments wrestled with their own notions of nationhood, bringing children to the very fore of their post-war reconstruction.

Children’s Homes demonstrate that such governments and institutions believed fully that children’s identity was fluid and adaptable. Unlike adults, children’s nationality could be quickly (and even secretly) “switched” due to the innocence of youth and the lack of a familial structure. As long as a government got them at a young age, then their long-term economic, social and biological value in that community could be ensured. Now we can begin to understand why it’s so important that the children of Yemeni refugees were seen as undesirable “eastern” Mizrahi Jews, although it certainly does not justify their systematic murder.

As Tara Zahra states in The Lost Children (pp. 244), “The story of refugee children, in particular, demonstrates that the histories of humanitarianism and of ethnic cleansing in twentieth-century Europe are neither unrelated nor contradictory.”  Children’s Homes were one aspect of the child refugee narrative. Although these institutions were often cloaked in an altruistic declaration to “save the children,” they simultaneously served less than humane nationalist goals. We may begin to understand why institutions such as Children’s Homes were created, but their everlasting effects will continue to taint the history of nation-building in the 20th century.