The outbreak of the First World War represented a break with the past, the dominant politics and old monarchic, imperial order. Its evolution also marked a significant change in the European history of armed conflicts.

The targeting of the civilian population as a military objective caused the displacement of millions of European civilians, affecting children’s lives in a previously unknown manner.

The invasion and occupation of territories, bombardment of cities and deportation due to ethnic and religious questions caused the transfer of approximately ten million people in both internal and cross-border migration flows.

Postcard to help civilians affected by the war (1915). NWWIMM (2005.98.363)

The displaced persons were treated quite diversely in different countries: from obtaining disparate degrees of assistance to internment in concentration camps. In camps such as Holzminden, Rastatt and Havelberg, in Germany, or Gouda, Nunspeet and Bergen op Zoom, in the Netherlands, combatants were confined along with their families.

Armenians and Syrians who escaped or survived massacre by Turkish troops represent the most extreme case of civilian displacement during the war, as a result of which between 600,000 and a million people died.

Belgian refugees in the Bergen Op Zoom camp (1914–1915). LOC (LC-B2-3459-12 [P&P])

Polish children in the Holzminden camp (Germany). ACICR (V-P-HIST-03085-25

In contrast to soldiers, no international agreement existed to protect the civil population, particularly the children. Abandoned or unsupervised orphans filled the cities, more often than not with problems of malnutrition and diseases like typhus.

Humanitarian organisations like the Quaker group Friends War Victims Relief Committee became representatives of the innocent victims, of the non-combatants. So the humanitarian idea of saving the children spread to all sides of the conflict.

Fund-raising campaign of the America Committee for Relief in the Near East (Ethel Bettsbains, 1918). ©LOC (Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. LC-USZC4-1343)

The earliest aid actions to be undertaken, aimed at providing food and shelter, fell to the local authorities, central governments and non-governmental charity organisations like the Red Cross or the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief, created in 1915 to help Armenians who were victims of the Turks – renamed Near East Relief in 1919.

“In a bombed country. Mother and child wearing gas masks.” 1918. © BnF (département Estampes et photographie, EI-13 (585))

The occupation of countries like Belgium (1914), the British naval blockade (1914–1919), insufficiency in food production and food rationing strategies undertaken by diverse states caused a problem of famine that particularly affected children.

In Germany, public kitchens were set up as part of the wartime nutrition system, while in other regions, organisations such as the Commission for Relief in Belgium (1914–1919) presided over by Herbert Hoover, ran an international food programme aimed at Belgian and French people trapped in occupied German territory.

War orphans eating in the open air (1915). © BnF (département Estampes et photographie, EI-13 (471))

The scope of health problems caused by malnutrition took on the tenor of a political problem, generating protests and marches against famine and the blockade. Movements such as Fight the Famine transformed the fight against hunger into a cause for international aid.

Advertising from the Women´s International League against the naval blockade. © CRL (SCF/SC/DB/2).

Eglantyne Jebb protested against the British naval blockade in Central Europe, distributing pamphlets such as this one. In May 1919, she founded Save the Children Fund and promoted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child.


Children constituted one of the greatest problems in post-war societies as a result of geographical displacements and situations of malnutrition, orphanhood and abandonment that then hindered their access to suitable lodging, medical care and education.

In early 1919, children’s well-being gained priority on the international agenda: establish educational standards, define their rights, protect orphans and refugees, regulate child labour conditions and avoiding child trafficking. These were some of the key questions tackled.

“The health of the child is the power of the nation”. Children’s year (April 1918 – April 1919). © LOC (Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-9867)

The belief that international cooperation in the humanitarian field could help to prevent war provided, among other factors, the beginnings of the Society of Nations, an organisation that became a key element in the infrastructure of internationalism in the interwar period. Consisting of delegates from states and private humanitarian organisations, it enabled the latter to join the world of international relations.

American Society for Relief of French War Orphans propaganda aimed at promoting the sponsorship of children in France. © NWWIMM (1976.315.42)

Hunger and the bodies of abandoned children became the symbol of the negative repercussions of the war and post-war period. Photographs played a significant role in transnational mobilisation and the call to actions of solidarity. As well as making the suffering of children visible, photos enabled the rescue actions of the benefactors to be publicised.

Photograph taken by Fridtjof Nansen of refugee children following the Russian famine (1921-1923). © ACICR (V-P-HIST-02590-20A).

The images of naked children with visible signs of the effects of hunger on their bodies helped raise awareness and obtain resources to combat the humanitarian crisis.

A group of children dressed in clothes donated by the American Red Cross, in Magyarország, Hungary (c. 1920). HNM (2137/1954 fk)

The cause of children took on a new and symbolic meaning for the future of Western civilisation: they became the icon of innocent victims of the war and its consequences, but they also became a priority for the physical reconstruction of nations and for the process of reconciliation that was projected into educational initiatives for peace.

Children, don’t play at war. Parents … if you want your children to live, prepare for moral disarmament. Put away the military toys. © BnF (département Estampes et photographie, ENT QB-1 (1931-1939) -ROUL). Publicity campaign conducted by the International League of Peace Fighters.

In September 1924, the General Assembly of the League of Nations unanimously adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Children, known as the Geneva Declaration. The Child Welfare Committee was created with consultants such as the Save the Children International Union and the International Association for the Promotion of Child Welfare, marking the beginning of social work in aid of childhood as an official cause in international relations.

New ideas from America. “Alex”, a child working in St. Etienne, contemplates in fascination the model of the pleasure park at the exhibition. American Red Cross Child Welfare Exhibition in St. Étienne. (July 1918, Lewis Hine). © LOC (Prints and Photographs Division, LC-A6199- 3327).

Organisations like ARA, as well as providing aid for children, established the mission of instilling in children American values.



The Spanish Civil War was the main European conflict during the interwar period, a manifestation of the profound crisis in which the continent was immersed and a prelude to World War II.

An example of “total war”, both warring sides mobilised all of the material and human resources they had available to defeat the enemy and ensure victory on the front. This had serious consequences for civil society, especially collectives of women and children.

“I have drawn a bombing I saw one day in San Sebastian during the war”. Ángeles Benito (girl), 14, from San Sebastian. Children’s colony in Bayonne, France. © BNE (Dib/19/1/ 873)

Hardships from food shortages, diseases and poor hygiene conditions accompanied women and children right from the outbreak of the war. Furthermore, the bombardments and the advance of the rebels unleashed evacuations of minors towards the coasts of the Levante and Catalonia and abroad so as to protect them from the horrors of the war. More than 32,000 “war children” found refuge in countries such as France, Belgium, England, the USSR, Switzerland and Mexico.

After the Republic’s defeat some of these children were repatriated to Spain, while for others their stay in the host country dragged on, sometimes for life. This occurred above all with those who had been evacuated to Mexico (“Children of Morelia”) and the USSR (“Children of Russia”).

Evacuation of children to France. “This drawing shows our evacuation from Gijon to go to France”. Rosita Corral (girl), 12 years old, from Santander, Children’s colony in Bayonne, France. © BNE (Dib/19/1/ 844)

The Spanish Civil War was a conflict with huge international resonance and impact on public opinion. From its beginnings, the Spanish conflict produced reactions of solidarity, becoming the battleground between fascism and democracy. One of the most relevant expressions of that solidarity was the humanitarian aid provided by various organisations to the civil population, especially the children.

Quaker aid for children in southern Spain. © AFSC

The humanitarian action in Spain was developed by a multitude of organisations, some of which helped children on both sides: International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Save the Children Fund, Service Civil International and Union Internationale de Secours aux Enfants (UISE). Likewise, the British and American Quakers: Friends Service Committee and American Friends Service Committee.

International solidarity, awakening Spanish democracy, was transformed into extensive aid consisting of a wide web of organisations operating in Republican territory: International Red Aid, the populist front aid network of the Comité International de Coordination et Information pour l’Aide à l’Espagne Républicaine, which coordinated the work of organisations from 19 countries and founded two subsidiary organisations, the Centrale Sanitaire  Internationale and the Office Internationale pour l’Enfance. Likewise, the Swiss Aid, made up of philanthropic, religious and Helvetic pacifist associations.

Summer Children’s Colony of International Red Aid. © CDMH (PS-CARTELES,509)

The humanitarian aid from these organisations consisted of the sending and distribution of foodstuffs, pharmaceutical and hygiene products, medicines and clothes, but also health and other care, along with the children’s education. Other essential tasks focussed on evacuating children, establishing a network of summer colonies, homes and children’s dining rooms, and administrating hospitals.

In contrast to the conglomeration of organisations helped the Republic, in the nationalist zone there was Auxilio Social, a propaganda and aid organisation of the regime. Its aid for children materialised in the creation of recreation camps, fraternity kitchens, children’s dining rooms and food distribution. The Red Cross and the SCI also provided aid, among other organisations, though they were viewed with suspicion by the military and those supporting them.

Dining room of Auxilio Social. © BNE (GC-CAJA/60/14/3)

The imminent Republican defeat in early 1939 unleashed another humanitarian crisis with nearly 500,000 people fleeing to France. Organisations like the Quakers helped the exiles and offered them aid in the French internment camps, as did Swiss Aid and the Office Internationale pour l’Enfance with children, among others.

Women and children on the border with France, 1939. © Arch. CEGESSOMA (56035)


The Second World War that ravaged Europe was the greatest conflict in history, unprecedented in terms of horror and atrocities, leaving around 70 million dead, between civilians and combatants.

Children searching through bomb ruins in Poland (1939-1945). © ACICR (V-P-HIST-01351)

The combats, aerial bombardments and the advance of the fighting armies, led to the exodus of millions of people. They had to abandon their homes, facing hunger, fear, chaos, exhaustion, confusion, family separation or death. The advance of the fighting fronts unleashed a dramatic humanitarian situation, causing severe effects in children and adolescents.

The scarcity of products, requisitions by the occupier and the strict economic blockade imposed by the combatant forces, especially the British, often hindered the arrival of humanitarian aid.  Exceptionally, the blockade was raised to allow the passage of goods, for the civilians most affected, such as the Greek population and those interned in camps in southern France. 

Distributing food in a children’s canteen in Athens under the mission of the Swiss Red Cross in Greece (1942). ©ACICR (V-P-HIST-02514-02)

The humanitarian organisations tried to alleviate the children’s situation with intellectual and moral aid such as books and toys, as well as evacuations to areas far from the fighting front or to Switzerland, establishing maternities, children’s colonies and children’s homes, sponsorships and foster placements, along with supplying food, clothes, medicines and pharmaceutical products.

Children’s drawing expressing thanks to the Quakers for the assistance provided to children and refugees in the south of France (1942). ©AFSC

The destiny of children was marked by the evolution of the war, but also by the Holocaust – the murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime. Of these, approximately one million children were deported and died in the gas chambers of the Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and Chelmno death camps. Likewise, tens of thousands of Romany children were assassinated, between 5,000 and 7,000 German children with mental and physical disabilities, and Polish and Russian children, sometimes shot alongside their parents.

Women and children on the selection ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp (May 1944). Most of them were exterminated. © USHMM (77320)

They stamped Jew

In the centre, clearly.

They stamped Jew

On my seven-year-old heart.”


Albert Pesses, Le Badge

Some organisations developed rescue operations such as the Kindertransport – the transportation of around 10,000 children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland to Great Britain, between 1938 and 1939, under the auspices of the Movement for the Care of Children in Germany. Tens of thousands of Jews were helped by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Refugee Aid and American Friends Service Committee to leave Europe.

The Quakers also stood out for their aid operations in the south of France, where they established dining rooms and removed children to safety in their children’s homes. Likewise, other organisations such as Œuvre de Secours aux Enfants hid children in children’s homes in the free zone of France or in independent houses.

Inmates of the Rivesaltes camp, in front of the Children’s Aid barracks, waiting for lunch (1941-1942). ©USHMM (32285)

Solidarity and respect for human life led to individual rescue missions in diverse European countries. For example, in Hungary, tens of thousands of Jews obtained safe-conduct letters of protection to neutral countries thanks to foreign diplomats. They stopped deportations and created “safe” houses, placing them under diplomatic protection. Friedrich Born, an ICRC delegate, also contributed to this work, creating 60 children’s homes for almost 8,000 children.

The “Glass House”: Swiss Embassy in Budapest, where laissez-passers were issued (1944). © AfZ (105735)

In a world of silence with regard to the question of Jews in Europe, more than 17,000 politicians, diplomats, humanitarians, priests, partisans and other civilians tried to save as many lives as possible in extremely dangerous circumstances. Their values and their humanity earned them the honorific, Righteous Among the Nations; and the Quaker organisations were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for helping the children caught in wars.


The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA, 1943–1947) and its successor, the International Refugee Organization (IRO, 1947–1951) were the intergovernmental organisations charged with directing the aid operations, organising the refugee camps and the return of those displaced after the war. Under their supervision, the various private organisations were deployed, except for the Jewish organisations such as the American Joint Distribution Committee.

Once dressed and in good health, these children were transferred to another UNRRA camp (Italy, 1945–1946). © UN Archive (S-0800-0002-0018-00011)

UNRRA had to organise lodging, food, clothing and repatriation of approximately six million displaced persons in Europe. Among them, the children were divided among those who were reunited with a family member, interned in the Displaced Persons camps according to their nationality, and unaccompanied minors, numbering at least 22,000, housed in Children’s Centres. Furthermore, more than 343,000 children were lost. Identifying and repatriating them became an element of international diplomacy dispute.

Children seated in a Star of David shape in one of the children’s homes run by the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE) in France (Walter Limot/ Photo Limot, between 1945 and 1950) © USHMM (71198).

The OSE was the most important organisation to help Jewish children in France. It ran 25 homes for around 2,000 children and took in Jewish children from foster homes and Catholic institutions.


The first goal, after liberation, was repatriation of the children and their families to their original countries. The problem of the children became visible after this operation. Many minors had no documentation. Added to the group of unaccompanied minors were those integrated into foster families that only retained vague memories of their families and countries. They might not even know their natal language. Furthermore, from 20,000 to 50,000 children had been Germanised by the Nazi regime during the war. The children’s names had been changed and their birth certificates destroyed, making it difficult to recover their origins.

Who knows where? We are seeking 100,000 children of diverse nationalities who were kidnapped in France by the Nazis. ©Bundesarchiv (Plak 004-007-016 (1945–1949))

Added to the organisational difficulties was the children’s state – mental as well as physical. Social workers, mainly North American and British, who joined the rescue tasks indicated that many of these children had known no parental authority, living in groups, subject only to the laws of survival, named as “wolf children”.  

Inhabitants of the caves in Naples, Italy ©UN Archive (S-0800-0002-0015-00016).

The IRO set the category of “child” for children under 17 years old. The children who remained in Displaced Persons camps were mainly adolescent youths since the Nazis had killed those who were unable to work. Adolescents could lie about their age to avoid, for example, forced repatriation. The humanitarian organisations focussed on their moral and psychological rehabilitation since their age made their resettlement or adaptation difficult. Even host countries such as Switzerland and Sweden only offered temporary asylum to children under 12 years old.

  Cold and hunger. German children during the postwar period, Berlin, 1946. ©ACICR (V-P-HIST-02958-12A)

The UNRRA and the military authorities had taken responsibility for the so-called United Nations children. German children considered “national enemies”, remained outside their responsibility.

Internationalism during the post-war period experienced an explosion of new non-governmental organisations, many of them of a confessional nature, such as the organisations linked to the Protestants, Church World Service or Lutheran World Relief  which joined the established Catholic Relief Service, Unitarian Service Committee, American Friends Service Committee or American Joint Distribution Committee. In 1951, the United Nations recognised 188 international humanitarian organisations.

American farm school close to Salonica organised by the Friends Relief Service for girls from 14 to 16 years old (Greece, 1944–1948). ©UN Archives (UNRRA/3036, S-0800-0004-0004-00076)

The rehabilitation and care of the children were established around concepts such as the child’s psychological development in the context of their community. The child’s origins and family were established as sources of individual identity, while children’s needs were valued according to their age, nation, religion and gender.