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Ukraine-Russia conflict has German teens terrified

March 9, 2022

War in Europe has become a reality for the first time in decades. German teens are concerned that Russia's aggression will spread beyond Ukraine.

peace demonstrators with banner showing a dove
Teenagers in Germany worry that war will spread beyond UkraineImage: Daniel Naupold/picture alliance/dpa

"I'm scared that there will be a nuclear war," said Henry, 13 in the town of Sarstedt in northern Germany.

He is not alone. Young Germans are increasingly worried about the war in Ukraine, specifically the idea that the conflict may spill into other countries, or that Russia might make use of its nuclear weapons. This is according to a survey of 206 13- to 17-year-olds polled on March 2 and 3 by theInternational Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television (IZI) in Munich, a think-tank funded by Bavarian public broadcaster BR.

"Nine out of ten teens are anxious and worried about the situation in Ukraine," the study found.

They have two specific concerns: First "that other countries will be attacked because one country is not enough for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin." This could specifically be a NATO or EU nation like Poland, thus bringing about "World War III."And secondly: "Russia will threaten us with nuclear bombs" and the German authorities wouldnˈt be able to warn people about an imminent attack in time to reach safety.

Berlin welcomes refugees from Ukraine

'Where should I flee to?'

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has made young Europeans think what only three weeks ago was unthinkable: that war could come to the European Union.

"The possibility of World War III, or even worse, nuclear war, terrifies me and many of my friends," said Gül, 17, who lives in Rheinfelden, near Germany's border with Switzerland. "My parents came to Germany from Turkey in search of a better life. And now I ask myself what we will do if there really is a world war. Where should I flee to? What will my life look like? Will I even get out of this country alive?"

children sit wrapped in blankets upon arrival at Berlin's train station
Half of all refugees from Ukraine are childrenImage: Paul Zinken/dpa/picture alliance

German teenagers were born after the wars in the Balkans that saw NATO involvement and German participation in the late 1990s. Fears of Russian aggression are even more a thing of the past — not only for the youngest in society.

"For my parentsˈ generation, growing up during the Cold War, nuclear conflict felt like a real possibility," said Julia, a 35-year-old high school teacher in southern Germany.

"And even after the fall of the Soviet Union, they continued to be skeptical of Russia and didn't see it as changing very much. They say they feel prepared for this moment, though the large scope of the attack surprised them. But for my generation and the generation I teach, war, especially nuclear war, in Europe felt like the most remote thing imaginable … until three weeks ago."

German TikTok and Instagram are flooded with videos about how to prepare emergency rations, as well as speculation on how likely an attack on Germany may be. They are attracting hundreds of thousands of likes.

Google searches for potassium iodide tablets, which help prevent radiation poisoning, have skyrocketed across Germany following reports of an attack on Ukraine's largest nuclear power station.

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Depressing and difficult

"It is difficult listening to the news because what is happening right now in Ukraine is scary, even for us German teens," said Erin, 17, in Frankfurt.

"It is depressing because we have sympathy with the teenagers in Ukraine. Seeing daughters and fathers having to say goodbye and not knowing when they will see each other again is very hard for me," she said. She added that the subject was barely discussed in school, but she was divided on whether or not it should be, since the topic weighed so heavily on her.

The IZI study found that despite what adults might assume, most German teens were still getting the bulk of their information about the war from their parents, public television, and the website of mainstream news services — sources they considered more likely to be accurate.

Traumatized children flee war in Ukraine

13-year-old Henry said that he was "worried about the people in Ukraine" and that students in his class quickly began collecting donations for refugees.

According to IZI, after news on the ground, the thing teens most wanted most was to know how to assist people their own age who had to flee their homes.

Not only was social media filled with "how you can help" posts, but interest groups like sports clubs and the environmentalist movement Fridays for Future have temporarily shifted focus to collecting donations and organizing solidarity marches in support of Ukraine.

Sociologist Klaus Hurrelmann with the Hertie School in Berlin believes this might turn out to be part of a real shift in young Germans' priorities: "Fear of war could replace concerns about climate and the environment, which have always been ahead in surveys over the past ten years," he told the daily Die Welt.

IZI study leader Maya Göth calls on parents and teachers to allow teens to "express their thoughts and concerns," in a constructive way, instead of downplaying them.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

Elizabeth Schumacher
Elizabeth Schumacher Elizabeth Schumacher reports on gender equity, immigration, poverty and education in Germany.
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