V. Shmidt (Hrsg.): Politics of Disability

The Politics of Disability in Interwar and Socialist Czechoslovakia. Segregating in the Name of the Nation

Shmidt, Victoria
Heritage and Memory Studies
Anzahl Seiten
252 S.
€ 99,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Anaïs van Ertvelde, Historical Institute, Leiden University

Victoria Shmidt’s ambitions are lofty. Introducing her book The Politics of Disability in Interwar and Socialist Czechoslovakia she proclaims that it will „focus on the politics of disability as a pillar of Czechoslovak identity” and that it sets out to „[…] deconstruct the history of public health along two interrelated dimensions, by recognizing the impact of nation building on the politics of disability and by tracing the infiltration of Czechoslovak nationalism by the particular concepts of health and disability” (p. 24). These are admirable choices that set the stage for the further development of disability history as more than a niche field for researchers with an interest in the topic. If she succeeds in demonstrating how the study of disability politics can add to our understanding of broader historical evolutions, Shmidt’s set-up has the potential to draw attention from a wider audience of historians. However, the question arises as to whether this volume is indeed what it sets out to be.

Shmidt approaches her main point of connecting disability politics and conceptions of disability to the process of nation building by paying close attention to historical continuity. A red thread for Shmidt is that bringing together Czechs and Slovaks in one new nation needed considerable legitimization and identity construction from which certain groups were excluded. Among these groups were people with disabilities but especially Roma people who were increasingly targeted on the basis of expert discourses that argued for their physical and social disabledness. Where, according to Shmidt, disability scholars have emphasized the dramatic caesuras in twentieth-century Czechoslovak history, or the all-determining influence of particular political regimes, she wants to trace the roots of disability politics throughout. This explains the periodization of the volume: it includes chapters dealing with the interwar period, the period of German occupation, and Socialist Czechoslovakia.

A second point of departure for Shmidt is the intersection of disability and ethnicity. She conceptualises this intersection as an exploration of how both categories co-constitute each other and how disability plays a fundamental role in what disability historian Douglas Baynton has called the „justification of inequality”.1 This is a truly exciting route, and one that is unfortunately still not sufficiently covered by disability historians, although the overlapping discourses and practices of segregating disabled people and Roma, have not gone unnoticed by other scholars working on the Czechoslovak case, such as Herza and Kolářová.2

Just like Herza and Kolářová, Shmidt’s source material mainly gives us an insight into these matters by way of expert discourses. Without further elaboration, she cites in the introduction the lack of data and the earlier focus on „victims” to justify this choice. For those readers with more in-depth knowledge of Czechoslovak historiographical debates, further clarifications might not be needed here. For an international readership however, more attention to context could have been useful. It is the first of several instances in which the reader is presumed to have a generous background knowledge of Czechoslovak history and historical debate.

Perhaps a more careful follow-up by the series editors could have prevented this, as well as it could have improved the overall readability of the text. Here and there Shmidt’s sentences drift and wander to the point that it hinders the reader from following her arguments. These minor issues seem to be linked to a broader problem: The choice for an edited volume consisting solely of chapters written by the editor herself – in two cases, with a co-author, namely Frank Henschel and Karel Pančocha – feels slightly forced. Just like the lens of memory, historical justice and structural violence that is added to Shmidt’s ambitious research set-up by way of introduction and conclusion. This layer – urging Czechoslovak communities of experts to acknowledge the violence in their past and seek reconciliation and transitional justice, without exploring in-depth how this process could happen or what these concepts mean feels like an afterthought, only included to enable publication as part of the Heritage and Memory Series. In any case, it adds yet another element to Shmidt’s endeavour and forces her to keep many different plates spinning at the same time.

In the first part of the book the author addresses how and by whom the discourse of health was connected to the identity of the nation in the interwar period. This happened for example through attempts to replace religion by sacralising health. She elaborates on this in three chapters, the first of which is used to outline the establishment of national public health in Czechoslovakia. It also delves further into two attempts by eugenicists to secure laws concerning reproductive behaviour.

The second chapter – co-written with Pančocha – then focuses more narrowly on institutions and arrangements for disabled veterans and children. The authors argue for the emergence of a new concept in Czechoslovak disability discourse: functional health, i.e. the idea that health should not merely be achieved by curing individual bodily defects but by reinstalling the capability to work. In the last chapter of this part Shmidt takes a first look at attitudes towards Roma and how the concept of functional health was applied to this group as well. Campaigns against trachoma and venereal diseases among the Roma were used as a part of the internal colonisation of the Czechoslovak periphery, she argues.

The second part of the book deals with the period after 1939 and before 1989, and demonstrates how both national socialist and socialist regimes, in their own ways, added to an existing hierarchy of defectiveness in and through the interconnected realms of special education, physical anthropology and genetics. Shmidt deals with these realms in three chapters – the first, co-written with Henschel, focusses on rehabilitation and special care for disabled children, the second on expert discourses about the Roma, and the third on the forced sterilization of Roma women. This brings Shmidt to reach her conclusion that the interplay of these realms was a perequisite for the coalescing of disability and ethnicity that led to structural violence against Roma after 1945.

Referring back to my opening statements, it is not so much that Shmidt does not succeed in her ambition to show the reader that nation building and disability politics have more than a little to do with one another. She does so, interestingly and convincingly, across a considerable time period. It is rather the case that the title does not seem to completely grasp where Shmidt’s book is going. The simple fact that half of the chapters in the volume deal with Roma people – while only two chapters are designated to disability, and these are the chapters written with co-authors – and that Roma are not even mentioned in the title, is telling. In my reading The Politics of Disability in Interwar and Socialist Czechoslovakia is a book about how eugenics and health policies are intertwined with modern processes of nation building. This can be demonstrated using case studies on disability and Roma ethnicity as intersecting categories but in the end, disability politics are framed more as a means to an end; as an explanatory bedrock for the violent outbursts of race science and politics. It is, however, very clear from Shmidt’s research that the interacting categories of ethnicity and disability are marked as much by historical continuity as by the influence of distinct political regimes. This is a finding the reviewer had discovered in her own comparative research into disability in capitalist and socialist countries as well: 20th century European conceptions of disability are a product of industrialized modernity, much more than a product of any particular modern regime.

1 Douglas C. Baynton, Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History, in: Lennard J. Davis (ed.), The Disability Studies Reader, New York 2013, pp. 12–34.
2 Filip Herza / Kateřina Kolářová, Socialist humanism between a promise of social improvement and commitment to normative social order. Integration of Roma and people with disabilities in 1970s–1980s Czechoslovakia, in: Kateřina Kolářová / Martina Winkler (eds.), Disability in Socialist Countries, Cologne (in print).