Childhood and Cultural Memory

By Debbie Pinfold, University of Bristol

The empirical state of childhood is obviously socially and culturally determined. Yet the heterogeneity of youthful experience is often obscured by the powerful constructions of childhood that underlie artistic representations of child figures. The most dominant of these in western cultures is the relatively recent myth of the child’s innocence (Bühler-Niederberger, 2015) which constructs the child as non-sexual, non-political, and often as the passive victim of the adult world (Hoyles, 1989: 10). It is this construction that underpins the attractiveness and importance of the child figure as a vehicle for cultural memory, but which also renders the use of the figure fraught with risks and likely to provoke controversy.

Memories of childhood itself may, of course, be as idyllic as suggested by the title of Richard N. Coe’s study When the Grass Was Taller: Autobiography and the Experience of Childhood, in which Coe quotes Konstantin Paustovsky’s description of the qualitatively different experience of childhood, the vividness and intensity of a world perceived from a different vantage point and in close-up. Yet it requires an assured poetic voice to avoid an evocation of the child’s small world seeming merely trivial (Coe, 1984: xii), and Coe’s allusion to Paustovsky neatly draws attention to both the subjective truth of the child’s experience and the limitations of its physical and (by implication) intellectual vantage point.

Such limitations have, however, been quite consciously embraced by authors and filmmakers who are less interested in memories of childhood for their own sake and more concerned with the insights the child’s perspective – whether autobiographical or fictional – can offer into the larger world. The post-2000 boom in autobiographical accounts of childhood in the former German Democratic Republic, for example, certainly suggested a need to overcome individual feelings of deracination as the authors attempted to (re)construct a ‘Heimat’ in writing; Katja Warchold equates their motivation with that of writers from migrant backgrounds (2016: 19).  But by focusing on the ostensibly trivial details of childhood experience and in some cases explicitly excluding retrospective knowledge, such texts also offered a powerful and necessary corrective to the dominant (western) discourse at the time, which presented the former GDR only as a totalitarian dictatorship. Jana Hensel, whose work Zonenkinder (2002) had initiated the trend, stated that her ambition was to ‘purge memory of ideology’ (Kraushaar, 2004: 95, translation DP). Hensel’s strategy did not, however, convince everyone: given that GDR pedagogues had rejected childhood as an ‘idealistic reactionary notion of “pedagogical liberalism”’ (Rodden, 2002: 84), some found the attempt to present a non-ideological image of GDR childhood utterly implausible. More broadly, Hensel’s work and its successors provoked accusations of idealising a failed state and trivialising its human rights abuses; nostalgia for the securities of childhood became equated with the politically much-decried ‘Ostalgie’ [= nostalgia for the East].

The possibility of representing a challenging past as the child’s lived normality is nonetheless arguably the most significant contribution of this perspective to cultural memory. In the context of the Third Reich and the Holocaust, for example, it allows readers and viewers to align themselves with the child’s viewpoint and thus experience a historical period that is ‘known’ to satiety in a vividly defamiliarizing light. The traditional binary between (innocent child) victim and perpetrator can also be broken down through alignment with the indoctrinated child, who has been born into the National Socialist context and accepts its parameters as the only normality it knows; precisely this acceptance of a ‘perverted conception of political normality’ (Pinfold, 2001: 67) has a defamiliarizing effect and encourages the active reader or viewer to fill the gaps in the child’s understanding. Yet there are also risks attendant on this strategy: our conviction that all children are ultimately the ‘perfect victims’ of war (Lury, 2010: 105), combined with the child’s obvious symbolic value as representing the ‘little people’ more broadly, may facilitate an over-identification with the child figure (understood as powerless and vulnerable) and thus serve to exculpate the author, the reader / viewer, or both. The use of such perspectives may also imply a (potentially dangerous) privileging of ‘emotional truth’ over historically verifiable facts, as, for example, in John Boyne’s highly successful fable The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006) (Maguire, 2014: 11).

Though childhood is socially and culturally determined it is also in one respect universal: to the extent that the child is still being socialised into its own specific context, this figure represents a means of reader / viewer identification that facilitates the movement and reception of cultural memory across national borders.  The use of the child figure and perspective, however, relies on an active reader or viewer who is prepared to accept the subjective truth of the child’s experience as a (potentially provocative) contribution to understanding, while filling in the gaps left by that limited viewpoint.


Boyne, John (2006) The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Oxford: David Fickling Books.

Bühler-Niederberger, Doris (2015) Innocence and Childhood. Oxford Bibliographies DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199791231-0161.

Coe, Richard N. (1984) When the Grass Was Taller: Autobiography and the Experience of Childhood. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Hensel, Jana (2002) Zonenkinder. Hamburg:  Rowohlt.

Hoyles, Martin (1989) The Politics of Childhood. London: Journeyman Press.

Kraushaar, Tom (2004) Die Zonenkinder und wir: Die Geschichte eines Phänomens. Hamburg: Rowohlt.

Lury, Karen (2010) The Child in Film: Tears, Fears and Fairy Tales. London and New York: Tauris.

Maguire, Nora (2014) Childness and the Writing of the German Past: Tropes of Childhood in Contemporary German Literature.  Oxford: Lang.

Pinfold, Debbie (2001) The Child’s View of the Third Reich in German Literature: The Eye Among the Blind. Oxford: Clarendon.

Rodden, John (2002) Repainting the Little Red Schoolhouse: A History of Eastern German Education 1945 – 1995. Oxford and New York: OUP.

Warchold, Katja (2016) Erschriebene Heimat: Erinnerungen an Kindheit und Jugend in der DDR in Autobiographien der Nachwendezeit. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann.

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