Wars have been tearing families apart throughout history. But never were people’s lives so heavily impacted as during the 20th century’s two World Wars, which was deadlier than any other conflict.
As conscription laws affected men between 18 and 50 years old and sometimes young, single women as well, these groups were the most directly affected by war. Older, married women mostly stayed at home, trying to keep households afloat during the absence of their husbands, fathers and brothers.
The decomposition of the family is reflected in wartime movies: men are absent, women are portrayed as having ‘male occupations’ and children are left to fend for themselves.
A remarkable visual translation of the societal devastation caused by war is Frederick Cayley Robinson’s masterpiece, Acts of Mercy (1916–20): a series of large-scale pictures of which two show orphans in a refectory - caught in time, space and an almost deafening silence.
Children were indeed among the most harshly affected by the wars. After ‘the Great War’ an unprecedented number of orphans were left. World War II went on to cause even worse carnage, as more civilians were killed. Children were therefore more likely to not only lose their father at the front but also their mother at home. Although exact numbers are difficult to assess, an estimated 13 million children were orphaned across Europe. With their parents and often also their homes, villages or cities destroyed, the war wiped out a large part of these children’s family history.
During and after the war, many families emigrated seeking refuge. After the Second World War, in particular, millions of Europeans were on the move and unable to return to their homes. The late 1940s and 1950s therefore turned out to be the roots of many internationally dispersed family trees, as new generations grew up in a homeland different from that of their parents.
After WWII, wives, sisters, mothers and children fruitlessly awaiting the return of their loved ones, could instigate a search via aid agencies such as the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).
Tasked with finding missing persons, the UNRRA collected information on cards and manually cross-referenced them to try and unravel the stories of shattered families.
But even with men returning from the battlefield and families getting reunited, the aftermath of war was seldom free of stress and strain.
Veterans were often left disabled or traumatised, and many of their children and grandchildren have testified that the war was a topic never talked about in the family circle.
The lasting trauma was reflected in many post-war films. A typical example is Sa propre loi - ‘His own law’: a war melodrama in which an American marries the widow of one of his French army friends who went missing in combat. Yet the presumed-lost soldier eventually returns home to find his family dissolved.
Sa propre loi, 1920, J. Parker Read Jr., Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique, Public Domain.
The movie’s sentimental and feel-good ending, in which the original couple is reunited and the selfless act of the American praised, shows how real war wounds quickly entered the realm of entertainment.
World War II didn’t put a stop to conflicts shattering families across Europe. Subsequent civil wars and uprisings against communism intensified the wave of migration. In Greece, thousands were evacuated following the Civil War of 1946-1949, while between 1944 and 1950 millions of Germans were expelled from Eastern European countries and in Hungary, over 200.000 people fled after the 1956 revolt.
The end of the century, the dissolution of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall would close another tragic chapter in the history of Europe, but by no means the final one. The last ten years of the century saw an eruption of ethnic conflicts and wars of independence in the former Yugoslavia. Possibly Europe's deadliest conflict since World War II, the Yugoslav wars were marked by genocide and ethnic cleansing: crimes that would leave over 130.000 people dead, more than 4 million displaced or on the run, and innumerable families irreparably damaged.