Tanks and baby prams

My mother, who lived through the Second World War as a child, remembered that at about fifty meters from the train station of her native village of Westfalia, there was a placard hanging from a bridge in a very visible way. That placard read as follows:

Panzer rollen für den Sieg.
Kinderwagen für den nächsten Krieg!

The Tanks advance for the victory.
Baby prams for the next war!

Obviously, the English translation does not include the original rhyme, an extremely catchy couplet. If we ignore for a moment the content, we might even say that it is cheerful, like the chorus of a children’s song.

Photo: Daniela Häring

It is well known that the Nazi authorities did their best to promote the birth rate among the German population in order to promote the German breeding “of good blood” with racial eugenics purposes, but also to have a healthy and young population that could repopulate the new “living space” that had been forcibly wrenched from the occupied nations. Obviously, everyone whispered that there was at least a third reason: the mass production of meat to feed a war whose dimensions were topping the imaginable. But, could the Nazis be so cynical as to announce with fanfare on a placard this terrible purpose? And the Germans, were they already so indoctrinated to accept the mission of bringing children into this world with the sole purpose of sending them to the war?

I never believed it possible that the Nazi officialdom would dare to expose itself so ideologically in that way. I thought that my mother’s memory had conjured up a placard with a sentence full of black humor arising from the German civilians. I imagined them whispering this couplet secretly to each other in order to mock the pompous “Mother’s Day” that the Nazis had elevated to the category of a national holiday, endowing it with power speeches praising motherhood and brightening it up with Hitler Youth choirs. In one of these parties my grandmother was officially awarded the “Mother’s Cross”; in this case the bronze one, as she had given birth to only six children. In these curious Olympics, the silver medal was for the progenitor of 6-8 children, and the gold was for the ones that had achieved 8 or more. My mother says that my grandmother threw the cross away as soon as she received it. It is a Pity. I confess that I would have liked to examine it closely.

I kept wondering, then, about the truth of this statement, until I found the testimony of a man named August Justus, from a town in Lower Saxony called Wispenstein. Justus reminds us of the mobilization of 1939. The stations were full of family members saying goodbye with a handkerchief to the young soldiers departing to the war, and almost only military trains were on the move. Justus says that the locomotives and coal wagons had the slogan:

Räder müssen rollen für den Sieg.
Kinderwagen für den nächsten Krieg.

That means:

The wheels must roll for the victory.
The baby prams, for the next war.

As you can see, the version is somewhat different from what my mother remembers (the tanks disappear), but the second verse, the most terrifying, remains unchanged. With the aggravation that this witness places the statement as early as 1939, when the war had just begun.

But the baby prams sentence must have been added spontaneously, after all. In June 1942, when the supply to the Wehrmacht on the Eastern front had become a major problem, the state railway company of the Reich began an advertising campaign designed to avoid the use of the train by the civilians as much as possible. The main campaign slogan was Räder müssen rollen für den Sieg (‘The wheels must roll for the victory!’), and with it was the intention of raising awareness in the German population about the huge strategic importance the train had acquired.

Räder müssen rollen für den Sieg
Via www.geheugenvannederland.nl

The population promptly added cynically the second verse to this slogan that was affecting their mobility. Spurred by the consciousness of being used by Hitler for his imperialist ambitions, the most daring Germans secretly added it with paint to the placards which used to hang on the wagons or in the stations. Therefore, it was a popular graffiti at the time that the traffic of besmirched wagons helped to spread.

After all, in October 1944 when the Volkssturm was convened and the elderly and teenagers were recruited desperately to defend what remained of the Reich, there were jokes circulating like this one:

-Now they have confiscated all the baby prams.
-Why?
-Because they are going to call up those born in 1943!

(Translated from Spanish by Javier Senra)

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2 Responses to Tanks and baby prams

  1. Giora says:

    Interesting speculation about making babies for the sole purpose of being soldiers. You have an interesting site, Rosa. I wonder if you have plans to write a fiction that combines all your research with an exciting storyline. I didn’t know a lot about Germany before starting my novel last year, but now learned to appreciate the country and its people. Sadly, all the novels and movies we get in North America are about WW2 presenting the Germans as bad people, which fit with your research about Nazism. Best wishes from Canada.

    • Rosa Sala Rose says:

      Thank you very much for your comment, Giora! So far I have been a non-fiction writer, but I do have plans to write also fiction making use of former research. Actually I am in the process of writing a novel and your comment encourages me not to give up on it. It is tougher than I thought to jump from non-fiction to fiction. I will take a look at your novel, it may give me some ideas.
      About Germans: I have the impression that in Europe we tend to be even more critical towards German recent history than in America. Germans are wonderful people, but Nazis were not. The historical difficulty lies in establishing when somebody stopped to be “just” German and began to be a Nazi, and how many of them did, and why. This issues are a constant presence on my non fictions writings, probably because there is no clear answer.
      Anyway, I am glad that you like my blog. I use to write in Spanish. I started this blog in order to earn, bit by bit, an English speaking readership, since at least one of my essais has been translated into English and I hope that others will follow soon.
      Best wishes from Barcelona!

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