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My 7-year old son asks many questions about World War II. I have the habit not to hide anything, but concepts such as Nazism or the Holocaust are so inherently dreadful that he sometimes seems to believe I exaggerate or even lie to him. His legitimate lack of knowledge of religious and political issues makes it even more difficult for him to get perspective on the stakes that were at hand at the time.

How can I explain World War II to him, without either giving too many details and leaving him confused, or being too vague about it and letting him think the whole humanity is a lost cause?

Thanks for your answers.

A bit of context: I live in Belgium, Europe, so World War II is a huge part of our history and has a very important place in our collective memory. I'm aware that American people may have been much more affected by the acts of terrorism of these past 10 years, and have a different perspective on World War II.

Note: I don't consider this question a duplicate of this one.

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6 Answers 6

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The nice thing about one on one discussions versus a classroom lecture setting is that kids that age are pretty good about letting you know they've heard enough. Start vague and answer his questions with more and more detail. At some point his attention will start to wander, so you give him time to process it and he will ask again another day.

I studied the holocaust extensively in extracurricular work when I was 13. Even at that age, I understood what happened, but not why it happened or how it could have been allowed to happen.

I think the best you can explain about the "why" and "how could it" is something like:

Hitler was a very bad man who thought of certain groups of people as no more than pesky bugs that needed to be squished. Just like you have trouble believing it because it is so horrible, people at the time had trouble too, and Hitler was very good at tricking people into thinking otherwise. Also, people tried a lot of diplomacy with Hitler at first because WWI was so bad they wanted to avoid another one if at all possible. By the time they decided to stop him with war, Hitler was already powerful enough that it was very difficult to make him stop hurting people, even though they wanted to.

Anything deeper than that I think you have to go with the lame parent excuse of, "You'll understand when you're older." There are adults today who can't wrap their heads around it.

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Sorry, but this is too close to revisionism for me. I am living in Germany, and my son is 7; it is only a matter of time until he starts asking me for details. And blaming everything on Hitler will quite rightly lead him to ask why (practically) everyone else went along with it. – Joel in Gö May 15 '11 at 19:59
...I think it will actually be far easier in our case, as he already knows about racism and xenophobia (though not in those words), having been on demos against deportation since he was tiny :) Explaining that "his country" was responsible for such horror will, nonetheless, be tough. – Joel in Gö May 15 '11 at 20:00
@Joel: In German, Die Welle (2008 film, rated 12) or in English The Wave (1981 film, presumably more permissively rated) may be an approach to explaining why (practically) everyone else went along with it. – Josh Nov 17 '12 at 16:39
At 36, I'm not sure why it was allowed to happen! I guess I'm one of "those adults." A part of me doesn't WANT to wrap my head around it. GREAT QUESTION! – balanced mama Nov 21 '12 at 1:00
@balancedmama If you want to know why everyone went along; ask yourself why everyone was following one Mr. Bush into Afghanistan, although the Russians already took a bloody nose home from there, so it was known as a war you can't win. It's because most humans, not just Germans, are susceptible for propaganda. – Alexander Nov 26 at 5:01

I'm going to disagree with the accepted answer as to what a seven year old needs to know or what is part of the understanding of WW2.

My issue is that while Hitler's fanatical racism was a part of the "why" and "what" of WW2, the answer glosses over the fact that he was an extreme German nationalist who wanted to rule the world. WW2 was a war of aggression: the Germans under Adolf Hitler invaded other countries, such as Belgium, because they wanted to control everything that happened in Belgium. Part of controlling everything was attempting to exterminate the Jews, yes, but that was a means to the end of creating the great Aryan Empire. And other countries such as the US and Britain didn't get involved because they wanted to save the Jews, they got involved because they or their allies were attacked. If Hitler had been satisfied with just Germany and Austria, there's no evidence to suggest that any country would have intervened in a mass murder of jews inside those borders.

It's insulting to history to say that Hitler was very good at tricking people into regarding jews (and other groups) as less than human. Hitler didn't have any trouble convincing the German people to hate the jews because there was a huge undercurrent of antisemitism already present in Germany and indeed in all of Western Europe. There is a long history of racism and exploitation of non-whites by various European nations. For example, half a century before Hitler, King Leopold of Belgium was decimating the Congo. To say that Hitler was good at tricking people is to misrepresent the truth about how people felt. Many people agreed with him, in Germany and in other nations.

So my suggestion, for a seven year old, would be a simpler truth: WW2 happened because the Germans tried to take over the world, and other countries didn't want to be taken over so they fought back and won. The Germans wanted to take over the world for several reasons. They had been beaten in WW1 and forced to sign a treaty that made life very hard for Germans. A man named Adolf Hitler became very powerful by making speeches about how the Germans could be a powerful state again. He told the German people that they were special and superior to all other peoples, and that they had a natural right to rule the world. Many people believed him, either because they already felt that way or because it made them feel good to think they were better than everyone else. So they started taking over other countries with their army and eventually other countries got together and stopped them.

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While I consider this to be a more focused question than the one you link to I think the same principles apply in answering a question like this. You should have a good understanding of what your child can, and probably should, grasp and give your answer accordingly. I don't go into great detail with my son when he asks questions with deep context, and I know I did not understand a lot of the complexities of World War II until almost college.

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I lost a grandparent and some great uncles in the war, and my kids know this, so it gave a great reference point. One of their great granddads also won a DFC in WWII and left us his flying logs from the war, which I read to them (a very good read, in a slightly Jeeves and Wooster type of way). We've always had a belief of not lying to the kids, within reason, and to answer any questions they have, to the best of our ability. The war has always been talked about, as has terrorism. I guess being English, we've always grown up with the threat of terrorism, so find it easier to discuss; it's always a thought of ours. The kids have seen news reports of cruelty to animals, and find this hard to digest as well, possibly more so than with humans being cruel to each other.

We have always found that talking openly with the kids about this, has enabled them to grow more aware of morality and the dilemmas they will come across. It also makes them aware of human frailties and the weaknesses of man.

We've talked about death, wars, terrorism, and the one that always gets asked is about cruelty to animals.

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Bearing in mind that you don't get to filter the information, if your child's English is strong enough, you could take the simple way out: - or if you're looking to filter, just read it to them (necessary if your child's English isn't strong enough).

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In the United States, there are clubs that "re-enact" Civil War battles. These are marvelous spectacles. They show the tools that were used, and that the soldiers involved were ordinary people. If there are any World War II "re-enactor" clubs near you, you could bring your son to an event, and introduce him to some of the members.

You are wise to truthfully answer his questions, and to not go out of your way to discuss topics that you do not think he is ready for.

When you think he is ready, you might want to introduce him to some good books on the topic:

  • The Diary of Anne Frank. I have not read this book, but I understand that many elementary schools have children read it.
  • The Encyclopædia Britannica article on the "World Wars" from the A-Anstey editions (circa 1970), plus the world and historical maps in the appendices. This article is book-length. It is comprehensive, but does not provide a feeling for what it was like to experience the war.
  • The Bridge at Remagen by Ken Hechler. This book emphasizes daring, heroism, and the roles of chance and logistics in the outcome of a single event on a single day.
  • Caged Dragons: An American P.O.W. in WWII Japan by Robert Haney. This book shows why so few war veterans are able to describe what they went through during the war. It is very clear. It tells just what Bob Haney saw, in very understated (but powerful) language.
  • The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek. This book provides economic background, and explains how people could become so dependent on governments that were willing to (and/or felt forced to) grind them to dust.

Belgium is within driving distance of where Anne Frank lived, and of Remagen. If your son wants to visit these places, you might be able to arrange it. Also, some people who lived through World War II are still alive; you might be able to introduce your son to some of them. Sadly, Bob Haney has died since this question was posted.

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Yes to Anne Frank, because this is a very human portrayal. But I do not think the military aspects are going to help a 7-year-old. He is not struggling with the concept of the war that was fought, but with the extremism of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust aspect. Japan may have to be tackled later on (Hiroshima/Nagasaki seem questions this kid may come up with...). – Layna yesterday
I think the recommendation to read (an abridged version of) The Diary of Anne Frank is a good one. Some of your recommendations, though, are much more appropriate for adults than the child in question (7 years old.) – anongoodnurse yesterday
@anongoodnurse -- I figure that "when you think he's ready" probably means "over the course of a few years". The child is now 11 or 12 years old, so most of these books are now age-appropriate for this child. The movie version of The Bridge at Remagen has a PG rating. If Caged Dragons were made into a movie, it would probably also get a PG or PG-13 rating. – Jasper 22 hours ago
Caged Dragons has a lot of similar themes to The Hobbit. I would suggest that if a child has read and understood The Hobbit, the child is probably ready for Caged Dragons. (It will also give the child an extra appreciation for what Bilbo and the Dwarves went through in Mirkwood.) – Jasper 22 hours ago
Availability of translations matters. I have read the latter four books in English, whereas this child is Belgian. The Diary of Anne Frank and The Road to Serfdom have been translated into many languages. I don't know if any of the other books have been translated, let alone into Belgian, Dutch, French, or German. – Jasper 22 hours ago

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