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Lynn H. Nicholas may have traveled the world for her research and testified before Congress concerning masterpieces plundered by sticky-fingered Nazis, but the soft-spoken historian is still shy about interviews.

“Did it go all right?” asks the electee to France’s Legion d’Honneur a bit nervously near the end of a conversation about her new book, the aptly titled Cruel World: The Children of Europe in the Nazi Web.

Nicholas easily could have made a cottage industry out of her first foray into the price of war: Her 1994 book The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War won the National Book Critics Circle Award and made her a sought-after consultant in international legal cases involving stolen art.

But the Georgetown resident had another story she wanted to tell: that of the children all over Europe who grew up in the shadow of the Third Reich.

“Lots of histories have been written about the political and military aspects of World War II,” she says. “I wanted to find out how it affected children. I have newish grandchildren—children just like the children whose stories I tell….It was my idea to do a horizontal story of children’s lives in Europe. I wanted to link these various stories together without losing sight of individual human beings.”

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Eight to nine years (“off and on”) in the making, Cruel World—an account of the suffering of the most innocent and powerless casualties of Europe’s mid-20th-century descent into ideology-fueled butchery—is as emotionally overwhelming as it is elaborately researched. But Nicholas doesn’t view it as just a history. She is also acutely aware of the parallels between the Nazi era and our own.

“I started [Cruel World] before the beginning of [recent] events, but I hope people will make the connection,” Nicholas says. “When I was doing research in Russia, an official there told me that Americans have no conception of the effects of war. I hope the book will make certain people think more deeply about the real costs of military conflict.”

For some, the distance between filched fine art and World War II’s countless child victims—whether they were Jewish or Dutch, Greek or Russian—may seem vast. But Nicholas sees both books as part of a continuum. “The basic theories were the same: to get rid of degenerate elements, whether they were art or people,” she says. “Both books are cautionary tales about the dangers of ideology.”

Not surprisingly, Nicholas says she never became immune to the horrors she uncovered. Her research, which involved scouring military and government archives and conducting interviews with survivors, left her “frequently outraged.” She remains, however, “an optimist at heart.” Indeed, Cruel World includes numerous tales of individuals who performed acts of kindness and bravery amid the ravages of war.

Nicholas points to Marla Ruzicka, the aid worker who died recently in Iraq while trying to document the human cost of that ongoing war, as a present-day example of an individual who made a difference. “We need more people to wake up the world about what it means to start wars,” says Nicholas. “Her bravery went to my heart.”

—Michael Little