Images, Experiments and Policies: Childhood and Families in 20th Century Central and Eastern Europe

: Unter dem Roten Stern geboren. Sowjetische Kinder im Bild. Köln 2020 : Böhlau Verlag, ISBN 978-3-412-51453-2 280 S. € 37,99

: The Children’s Republic of Gaudiopolis. The History and Memory of a Children’s Home for Holocaust and War Orphans (1945–1950). Budapest 2022 : CEU Press, ISBN 978-963-386-443-2 248 S., 9 Abb. € 63,00

: Mothers, Families or Children?. Family Policy in Poland, Hungary, and Romania, 1945–2020. Pittsburgh 2022 : University of Pittsburgh Press, ISBN 9780822947035 470 S. $ 50.00

Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Friederike Kind-Kovács, Transformation Studies in International Comparative Perspective, Hannah Arendt Institute for Totalitarianism Studies at TU Dresden

The fate of children in recent wars brutally reminds us how little children can be protected when war breaks out. This not only points to the eternal instrumentalization of children for political and ideological purposes but also to the ignorance of children’s protection in times of conflict. At the same time, we can see how research on children and families has taken up an increasing place in recent historical scholarship. It has been well understood by now that childhood is a particular “sphere of life in which social change and upheavals are continuously inscribed” and which, as Monica Rüthers recently observed, can therefore be “regarded [and studied] as an indicator of the moral state of a society, but also as a system of ideas in its own right” (p. 11). She contends that the representation of children always “refer[s] to society as a whole” (p. 27). Furthermore, as we learn from Gergely Kunt, studying children and childhood, especially in periods of radical social transformation such as the post-WWII period, can serve to show how a vision of “a radically different social structure, one that would guarantee the avoidance of new catastrophes” (p. 11) was tested by educating children in a radically new way. Once a new state approach to children and their welfare is implemented, the study of family and welfare policies can tell us much about the state and its condition. For instance, in the case of Communist Romania, as Tomasz Inglot, Dorotthya Szikra, and Christina Rat demonstrate, the Romanian state “continued to affirm […] state responsibility for all children, while selecting providing parenting incentives only for certain social categories” (p. 146). Patterns of exclusion and marginalization, inscribed into welfare provisions, often reflect the core convictions of the respective states.

Throughout the 20th century, ideal notions of childhood and the family were core driving forces in shaping Central and Eastern European societies and states. It is in her German-language volume “Unter dem Roten Stern geboren: Sowjetische Kinder im Bild” in which Rüthers explores the visual representation of childhood and children in the Soviet Union. Similarly, the collective monograph “Mothers, Families, or Children?” by Inglot, Szikra, and Rat focuses on case studies from Central and Eastern Europe by studying “Family Policy in Poland, Hungary and Romania between 1945 and 2020.” Kunt’s study of “The Children’s Republic of Gaudiopolis”, by contrast, exclusively centers on one regional case study by examining “The History and Memory of Budapest’s Children’s Home for Holocaust and War Orphans.” All three publications, which are collectively discussed here, approach visions of childhood and family in the region; yet they pursue fundamentally different approaches. While the collective volume by Inglot et al. offers a broad, long durée, historical-sociological analysis of the politics of family policies and their transformation during the second half of the 20th century, Rüthers dives into a visual history of childhood throughout the entire 20th century, whereas Kunt undertakes an analysis of a few—yet very condensed—years, the years following the Holocaust, to scrutinize an educational experiment in children’s rehabilitation in Hungary.

The first volume, “Mothers, Families, or Children?” is the outcome of a decade-long interdisciplinary cooperation. It sets out to study “differences and similarities in timing, sequencing, duration, and the tempo (speed) of family policy development” and explain continuities and changes in family policies in Poland, Hungary, and Romania (p. 4). While the first part of the book offers a historical analysis of ideas and policy outputs between 1945 and 2000, in the second part, the authors shift to a study of the impact of European integration on family policies. Combining a macro-level approach with qualitative analysis, the book’s main interest lies in understanding why and how different family policy schemes developed in the three countries under investigation. The selection of cases for comparison is convincing since these formerly state-socialist countries developed and pursued individual paths, thus allowing the generation of larger theories on family policies in Europe. The authors demonstrate how all three countries developed specific patterns, according to which Poland “constructed mother-oriented welfare state institutions and laws,” while Hungary was/is driven by a family-oriented welfare state system and Romania follows a child-centered system (p. 4). Examining the historical roots of these welfare systems, the authors show that, while sharing common historical traits, the three countries increasingly pursued different welfare responses during the process of “modernization’” in the late 1960s and 1970s. The “mother orientation” in Poland, originally grounded in the conservative Catholic notion of the “sacred” mother in the interwar period, was taken to protect and secure the social rights of working mothers; the family orientation in Hungary was directed toward the promotion of “the family,” a normative construct of heterosexual couples with children; while child-centered activism in Romania was driven by the motivation to eliminate child poverty and secure children’s well-being. The authors then demonstrate how EU accession reinforced pre-existing differences in the various family policy trajectories of the three countries.

In the Polish case, they observe that welfare actors have “learned how to use the newly available European resources” to forward their anti-European agendas (p. 251). Conservative Polish actors can thus “easily connect with their allies across Europe to form increasingly stronger Eurosceptic alliances” (ibid.). Poland shares the aspect of selectively “using Europe” to reinforce the normative agenda of its deep-rooted conservative family policy with Hungary. In the case of Hungary, we learn that it maintained its “traditionalist/conservative path of development,” which was based on the firm conviction of family policy as a core element of the Hungarian welfare system (p. 257). The authors convincingly argue that Hungary has been “less receptive to EU-fostered change” than the other two countries, because of its “deeply rooted national institutions” (p. 285). Conservative Hungarian politicians used EU networks “to push for the traditional family model as opposed to the official EU agenda of gender mainstreaming” (p. 287). The Hungarian case thus confirms the authors’ initial assumption that utilizing Europe was—and still is—considered meaningful when it can be used to reinforce already existing tendencies. For instance, the main purpose of maternity leave in Hungary shifted from protecting the health of working mothers to supporting mothers in caring for their infants.

Romania’s family policy converged with the European agenda mostly in areas that “coincided with Romanian family policies’ historically embedded orientation toward children” and mothers’ employment (p. 290, 317). The authors identify both child orientation and mothers’ employment as the historical “leitmotifs of modernization” (p. 291) that shaped post-communist reforms of Romanian family policies. In contrast to those of Poland and Hungary, which were formed by strong ideological opposition to the EU agenda, Romanian family policies were visibly influenced by the EU, which resulted in “women’s labor market ‘activation’” (p. 317). Comparing, contrasting, and setting in relation these three case studies allows readers, especially those with an interest in past and present welfare policies, to better understand why and how conservative politicians like Viktor Orbán came to publicly demand in 2019: “Let’s make the family a national issue!” or to comprehend the historical driving forces that motivated Andrzej Duda in 2020 to remind Polish mothers of their right to “dream about” or “wait” for their own motherhood (p. 3). The potential of the volume lies particularly in its attempt to simultaneously study historical legacies and path dependencies, while also considering the underlying ideational orientation and the agency of key actors.

In contrast to this socio-historical work, the second volume, “Unter dem Roten Stern geboren,” engages with the visual heritage of the Soviet Union’s “pronounced cult of childhood” (p. 10) to understand how images of children made Soviet history. Its author, Monica Rüthers, argues that “the meaning of life and the happiness of the whole of Soviet life were concentrated in the children” (p. 7), which came to be mirrored in its visual heritage. She demonstrates that images of children can serve to “reconstruct[…] the collective imaginary of past times, as well as dreams and hopes” (p. 11). What is particularly striking is her observation that while Soviet history underwent various radical transformations, children, and their imagery, maintained a “stable value” (p. 243). Surveying seven decades of Soviet history, the monograph examines multiple constructions of Soviet children in official and family contexts. Analyzing the various ways of depiction in terms of posture and age, as well as gender and habitus, the book’s main concern lies in uncovering how topoi of Soviet childhood were made, how specific socialist image codes emerged, and what functions they had.

Rüthers seeks to trace cultures of seeing, perception, and the changing orders of visibility. Instead of presenting her findings in a diachronic way, she structured her book into eight thematic chapters that approach the image of the child in various contexts and from different theoretical angles, such as narratives of childhood, children in everyday imagery, the ethnic dimension of child images, taboos, counter-narratives, and the nostalgia of images. As the Soviet Union carried out its own visual turn in the 1920s and 30s, shifting increasing attention to the image and media propaganda, Rüthers seeks to understand the place children had and maintained in this emerging visual landscape and for the state. She explains that childhood was no longer limited to the private but became part of the public sphere. Images of children show how the child came to embody “the vision of the ‘new creation of man’, indeed of the whole of society and the world in general” (p. 9).

Depictions of children, Rüthers notes, were always adapted to the changing political environment; they stood “for the future and new beginnings after the revolution, for renewal in the thaw and for peace and a better world in late socialism” (p. 12). In the early Soviet Union, it was the transformation of the “street child,” who was rescued and “educated to become a fully-fledged, responsible Soviet citizen” (p. 24), whose imagery played a central role. In the 1920s and 1930s, the young Soviet state also invested in creating its own children’s culture, which was instrumental in involving its children in the nation-building process, and whose visual representation served contemporaneous identity politics.

An important element of the Soviet imperial project was the integration of non-Russian children into the Soviet people and empire. Rüthers explores here how images of a common Soviet childhood were used by the state to pursue and implement its nationality policies. Images of ethnically mixed groups of children not only represented the diversity of the peoples of the Soviet Union but also served as vehicles of integration. Representations of non-Russian children from the various Soviet republics mirror well how, through processes of social engineering, these ethnically diverse children were turned into real “Soviet children”. Apart from the homogenization of the Soviet people and its integrative visualization, the Soviet canon of socialistic-realist imagery was also aesthetically heavily controlled. It attempted to guide people’s individual and collective perception, it standardized and determined what was representable and what should be made visible, and it also defined what should remain taboo or invisible. While people’s everyday lives were shaped by experiences of violence, shortages, and fear, the staging and circulating of images of happy Soviet children and an ideal childhood offered the people an escape from their often harsh realities.

After the Second World War, images of healthy and happy children were instrumental in testifying to the strength of Soviet society and healing the trauma of war and the loss of fathers. As the war had brought so much destruction to the Soviet state, “physically and morally perfect children [were nowhere] as important for the national self-image as in the Soviet Union” (p. 82). Children thus served both as utopia bearers for the future of communism and as proof of the comprehensive care of the Soviet state. Yet, the author shows that even in authoritarian regimes like the Soviet Union, visual worlds did not simply follow the respective political guidelines but formed contested spaces. Rüthers tackles the different analytical questions through a great diversity of visual items, including drawings, posters, paintings, propaganda materials, private photographic albums, as well as little-researched everyday consumer goods such as stamps, banknotes, postcards, or cigarette packets. The book’s diverse body of visual sources is ambitious, and it also deserves recognition for its aspiration to shed light on the “unevenness, contradictions and ironic refractions that show up in the pictures” and to address the issue of the “bad,” “evil,” or unwanted children that were hidden or not depicted in the images (p. 198). It certainly succeeds in demonstrating why and how “the universe of Soviet children's images and their omnipresence” came to be “unique in international comparison” (p. 242). Scholars and students interested in the visual culture of childhood in Central and Eastern Europe will find this volume a valuable reading.

The third volume shifts our attention to orphaned children in postwar Hungary. Its author beautifully narrates the story of “The Children’s Republic of Gaudiopolis”, which was created after WWII to heal the wounds of wartime trauma while also exposing orphans to a firsthand experience of “living” democracy. Kunt reconstructs how the Lutheran minister Gábor Sztehlo, who rescued hundreds of Jewish children with the support of the International Committee of the Red Cross during the Hungarian Holocaust, established a so-called PAX (peace) orphanage in postwar Budapest in which the Children’s Republic of Gaudiopolis (city of joy) came to operate between 1945 and 1950. In this “entirely remarkable and unique institution,” Kunt explains, all children who needed shelter were welcome, and no difference was made regarding their political, religious, or social status (p. 62). The author’s exploration of this utterly fascinating pedagogical attempt to rehabilitate Hungary’s postwar child victims reveals what significant experiments were made with the process of democratization at a critical moment in Hungarian history.

While this book exclusively centers on one single Hungarian child relief initiative, its broader relevance lies in its ability to unveil how a society suffering from collective trauma attempted to rebuild itself, bridge differences, and create an integrative community. The author’s analysis of the corresponding film Somewhere in Europe from 1947, which aimed at visually capturing the children’s experiences at Gaudiopolis, demonstrates how this children’s city was deeply embedded in the communist vision of building a new society. Kunt meticulously illustrates how the children of Gaudiopolis were used to envision and bring about social change. In contrast to adults, Gaudiopolis’ orphaned children were believed to be an instrument to generate an unspoiled form of democracy that would rely on a “radically different social structure” (p. 11). Thus, Gaudiopolis was not only based on the vision of creating a children’s community that could and should govern itself, but its central focus was on children’s reeducation in terms of “trust in their community,” in which Jews and Christians, as well as people of different social backgrounds, could live together harmoniously.

While the book initially deals with the history of child rescue, Kunt shifts toward an in-depth analysis of the inner workings of the orphanage. We not only learn a lot about the social and gendered composition of the residents, but also about the psychological challenges faced by these “warstruck” children and the use of art therapy, poetry, and the nonsense language “halandzsa” to overcome wartime trauma. The author also tackles the issue of children’s ongoing democratization process, which Kunt argues could perfectly serve to teach people today “how tolerance can be learned through everyday practice and from a young age” (p. 125). Despite, or perhaps because of, the very heterogeneity of the orphanage’s residents, Kunt maintains, the children could experience their biographical differences and similarities. Having survived the war and/or the Holocaust, the jointly living Christian and Jewish children all shared the experience of having lost a parent and their homes. Thus, this book goes beyond a historical analysis of this extraordinary yet also “isolated and speedily liquidated” (p. 212) experiment and engages with broader problems such as the question of “how is it possible to rebuild society in the wake of a world war and genocide while living in the shadow of a newly emerging dictatorship?” (p. 140) It is Kunt’s careful analysis of the vision and the inner workings of this pedagogical experiment that turns this book into an outstanding and inspiring scholarly work.

All three volumes substantially add to our knowledge of childhood in Central and Eastern Europe in distinctive ways. While “Mothers, Families, or Children?” is instrumental in demonstrating the historical generation of policies that determine children’s place and treatment in today’s societies and states, the monograph “Unter dem Roten Stern geboren” exemplifies how visual heritage can reveal both children’s situatedness as well as their representation in authoritarian states. “The Children’s Republic of Gaudiopolis”, in turn, comes—out of the three reviewed volumes—the closest to capturing the social significance of children in modeling a new society and reconstructing the children’s actual experiences.

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