Understanding Childhood and Construction of National Identities in Central and Eastern Europe from the 18th century until the beginning of the Second World War

Understanding Childhood and Construction of National Identities in Central and Eastern Europe from the 18th century until the beginning of the Second World War

Gintarė Malinauskaitė, Branch Office Vilnius; German Historical Institute Warsaw
Fand statt
Vom - Bis
16.06.2022 - 17.06.2022
Halina Beresneviciute-Nosalova, Masaryk University, Brno

RUTH LEISEROWITZ (Warsaw), the keynote lecturer, raised the question of the specific features of East European childhood in the 19th century. By characterising the spaces of childhood according to the memoirs of the people born in the 19th century, she pointed to the heterogeneity of childhood experiences due to the region's great social and ethnic diversity. The absence of compulsory education was emphasised as a distinguishing feature of the region. Because of the latter factor, 19th-century Eastern European childhood mainly used to be organised outside the nuclear family by private social networks but by no means used to be isolated.

The first panel concentrated on 18th- and early 19th-century childhood in royal or aristocratic families in Russia and the Habsburg empire. All three panellists explicated the discernible duality in family strategies. On the one hand, the contemporary social elites treated their children pragmatically by using them and preparing them for their traditional roles as ruling elites. On the other hand, the awareness of the dynamic social and political change urged parents to readjust their goals, reconsider their educational plans, discover childhood as a particular phase of life, and acquire new parenting roles. KATHARINA KUCHER (Regensburg) pointed to the transnational experiences and bilingual education as normality among 19th-century Russian aristocratic families. The modernisation project of Russia, conceived as westernisation, confronted parents, tutors, and children intending to find the balance between Russian and French education but in no way treated it as an either/or question.

The next panel explored the roles of civic movements and the state when taking up modernisation projects in the field. The first two panellists pointed instead to the limits and shortcomings of the Russian empire in modernisation efforts. According to JOLITA MULEVIČIŪTĖ (Vilnius), the imperial attempts to promote professional education had to cope with the conservative attitudes of the traditional estate society and particularly with the prejudices of peasants, who constituted the vast majority of the Northwest region, towards crafts. The referent showed how this project was taken over by Polish and Lithuanian national movements and propagated new models of “industrial” patriotism in their educative efforts. The topic of the following paper, infant mortality, became the matter of agitating public discourse in Europe and the Russian press at the turn of the century. AELITA AMBRULEVIČŪTĖ (Vilnius) revealed the backwardness of Russian social and public health care. While exposing the mortality in the Russian empire as the worst in Europe, statistics also showed relatively better results in the western, Baltic and Polish-Lithuanian lands of the empire, which became the theme of national agitation. ÁGOSTON BERECZ (Budapest) demonstrated how kindergartens, originally an initiative of civic philanthropy intended to decrease infant mortality and prevent fire accidents, were gradually used by Dualist Hungary to nationalise children with a minority background.
The following panel touched upon how the expectations of various actors in the private sphere like church or family shaped the eastern European childhood. ANJA WILHELMI (Lüneburg) demonstrated the attempts of three generations of Lutheran pastor families to control the Estonian peasant families and the life paths of their children.

The focuses of the Jewish childhoods panellists were closely linked to the former panel in that respect, that social expectation was also discussed. In her paper on disciplining discourse on what Jewish boys in traditional society should not do in small towns of the Pale of settlement in the Russian Empire, EKATERINA OLESHKEVICH (Ramat Gan) disclosed the mental map of the Jewish and goy world. MARIA ANTOSIK-PIELA (Warsaw) explored what the new Jewish generation should become according to the wishes of the Jewish national press in interwar Poland.

The next panel focused on 20th-century interwar practices to impose ideologies on children to create obedient citizens for nationalist states. As the discussion at the end of the panel pointed out, the patterns concerned differed in urgency to obey. There was an example of how the National Socialists and the Communists promoted ideology through building toys, which can probably be seen as a milder indoctrination measure. Then participants discussed to what extent the nationalisation initiatives of the Lithuanian scout movement in the Polish-Lithuanian border area can be considered more as a state initiative and not as a predominantly bourgeois initiative. ANCA FILIPOVICI (Cluj-Napoca) discussed the cases of political disobedience and the disciplinary measures by the repressive state system. Remarkably, this paper was the one, which touched upon the agencies of adolescents themselves (discernible as disobedience), and not just the expectations of various adult actors.

The last panel focused on orphanages in emerging nation-states, such as Armenia and Lithuania. Both papers and discussions exposed the care in those parts of Europe as the arena for multiple civic, sometimes also foreign humanitarian agencies with no state dominance. Orphanages, nevertheless, became the places where conflicting national and ideological expectations used to be projected on the care. ANDREA GRIFFANTE (Vilnius) focused on the trend among leftist providers of care, which introduced the discourse and praxis of eugenics. In practice, the aim was to isolate the "abnormal" or "insane" and discursively eradicate them from the national body. Nevertheless, as the researcher pointed out, the trend was minor in the conservative, predominantly Catholic society, and the state was by no way active in this respect.

The closing discussion recapitulated the problems with historical childhood research, which repeatedly emerged in the panel discussions. First, as the key lecture had pointed out, there are no uniform opinions on when childhood ends among various segments of society and within the East-Central European region. Moreover, it was due to change throughout the 19th century. The age of adolescence was emerging as a concept but neither clear nor unified in the definition. Second, childhood appears to be a very lucrative focus to research the society as if "through childhood". Still, it is very problematic to grasp children's authentic voices and experiences as agencies. Ego documents should be approached critically in this respect because they may express the expectations of adults. Memoirs, which adults wrote, should be treated instead as documenting the time of their emergence and not the authentic childhood of their author. The key lecture and many conference papers clarified that Eastern European childhood was shaped by private networks and, later, by civic movements. The challenge here is to determine the limits of the acquirable knowledge. Then a distinction could be made between social expectations and the supportable reality. Another challenge is to estimate social conformism on the one hand and the social heterogeneity as well as modernising cultural transfers in dramatically changing eastern borderlands of East-Central Europe on the other, as possible factors that defined the trends in childhood in the region.

Conference overview:

Keynote Lecture

Ruth Leiserowitz (Warsaw): Eastern European Spaces of Childhood. Four Remarks

Transnational Childhoods and Imperial Identities

Chair and Commentator: Halina Beresnevičiūtė-Nosálová (Brno)

Jonathan Singerton (Innsbruck): Imperial Children in an Age of Revolutions: Habsburg Childhood at the Courts of Vienna and Naples-Sicily, 1790–1830

Katharina Kucher (Regensburg): Entangled Worlds of Russian Childhood

Hugo Tardy (Toulouse): Figured the Tsarevich in Marble: The Importance of the Bust of Pavel Petrovitch in the Construction of the Russian Imperial Identity

State, Children Education and Child Care

Chair and Commentator: Ruth Leiserowitz (Warsaw)

Jolita Mulevičiūtė (Vilnius): Educating New Workers: School Reform and Vocational Training in the Russian Empire’s Northwest Region, 1864–1914

Aelita Ambrulevičiūtė (Vilnius): Child Mortality in Late Imperial Russia

Ágoston Berecz (Budapest): Kindergartens as Intended Magyarizing Institutions in Dualist Hungary (1891–1914)

Childhood and Family

Chair and Commentator: Gintarė Malinauskaitė (Vilnius)

Anja Wilhelmi (Lüneburg): The Wittram Family: Educational Experiences of Three Generations in the Russian Empire

Uladzimir Karalenak (Nieborów): “I‘d Like Dad to Come. I Kiss Your Hands”. Letters of the Children of the Princely Radziwill Family to Their Parents in the Second Half of the 19th Century

Jewish Childhoods

Chair and Commentator: Jurgita Verbickienė (Vilnius)

Ekaterina Oleshkevich (Ramat Gan): “Jewish Boys Do Not Do That”: Shaping of Jewish Identity by Disciplining Children

Maria Antosik-Piela (Warsaw): Creating the New Jews. The Role of Children in the Jewish National Movement in Poland before 1939

Controlling and Shaping Childhood

Chair and Commentator: Vytautas Petronis (Vilnius)

Artemis Yagou (Munich): Politics Shaping Childhoods through Construction Toys

Anca Filipovici (Cluj-Napoca): Disobedient Bodies. Adolescents Contesting State’s Control in Interwar Romania

Leonas Nekrašas (Vilnius): Instrumentalisation of the Lithuanian Scout Movement to Nationalise the Lithuanian-Polish Borderland in Interwar Lithuania

Nation-Building and Orphanages

Chair and Commentator: Tomas Balkelis (Vilnius)

Elodie Gavrilof (Istanbul): Educating the Armenian Orphans: The Rebuilding of a Country in an Emergency, 1918-1923

Andrea Griffante (Vilnius): Searching for a Normal Child. Class, Body, Discipline and Orphanages in Interwar Lithuania