By: Friederike Kind-Kovács
Friederike Kind-Kovács discusses her book, Budapest’s Children: Humanitarian Relief in the Aftermath of the Great War, with Bengt Sandin. Listen here. You can listen to other episodes of the SHCY podcast by visiting our podcast website, or you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Friederike Kind-Kovács is a senior researcher at the Hannah Arendt Institute for Totalitarianism Studies at TU Dresden and a lecturer at Regensburg University. Bengt Sandin is Professor of Childhood Studies at Tema Barn Linköping University.
This review was originally published in H-Soz-Kult on January 12, 2023:
Budapest’s Children. Humanitarian Relief in the Aftermath of the Great War.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2022.
Friederike Kind-Kovács puts children both on the cover of her book and at the center of her narrative. Her study examines the dire situation of many children in Hungary, particularly in the city of Budapest, in the aftermath of World War I. Kind-Kovács discusses the many local, national, (post-)imperial and global connections emerging from this humanitarian crisis. In several chapters – laconically, and fittingly, titled "Migration“, "Hunger“, "Degeneration“, "Institutions“, "Infrastructures“, "Bodies“, “(Inter)Nationalism“, "Displacement“ and "Education“ – the author unfolds a complex story.
Budapest in 1922, according to the compelling testimony of a nine-year-old, was a "hell hole“ where famine, epidemics, appalling poverty and homelessness took its toll, particularly among the very young. Crop failure, mass migration and the influx of great numbers of refugees from the peripheries of a radically downsized empire created deplorable conditions for life. Kind-Kovács considers the various forms of national and international relief organisations and their focus on children. In her narrative, Budapest emerges not only as an extreme case of post-war hardship but also as a mirror of, and a laboratory for, European and global childhood politics, knowledge production, humanitarian assistance and social change.
Budapest, Kind-Kovács writes, had had quite a robust system of child protection before the war, organised and supported mostly by wealthy middle-class or noble women. After 1918, the exploding demand for help, combined with a general decline in wealth on a national scale, necessitated fresh forms of welfare. The newly built institutions and structures fed from various sources: There was the general interest in "the child“ as a national resource and responsibility that had developed around the turn of the century in many European countries and North America. Connected to this interest was the enthusiastic commitment of scientists from various disciplines to produce and collect knowledge on children in systematic ways. And, of course, there were the emerging international humanitarian relief structures that focused so much on children.
Kind-Kovács ́s narrative supports, complements and illustrates research on the history of childhood in this era that has demonstrated the comprehensive ways in which the idea of childhood had changed. At times, the author focuses on small moments in history to narrate developments of a larger scale – a charming and effective technique. The description of children and their families living in railcars under dire circumstances leads her to an account of the refugee crisis (being the prehistory of this precarious situation) and a discussion of humanitarian photography (providing sources for both contemporary outrage and the historian ́s analysis). An infant bed facilitates not only the story of how practical, material help for poor mothers was provided but also a discussion of the professionalisation of child welfare.
Throughout the book, it becomes evident how much the war and in particular its aftershocks worked as a catalyst in child welfare. The interest in children as a projection screen and a crucial human resource for a greater national future had been around before 1914. Now the ubiquitous images of famished and sick children added new emotional pressure and put the child as the most innocent and most vulnerable victim of the circumstances at the center of attention. Knowledge production on children and childhood had flourished ever since the mid-nineteenth century, and the concept of a systematic and decidedly scientific approach to growth and development had found its way into laboratories, hospitals and even middle-class nurseries. Now, the necessity to assess the condition of thousands of children, to feed and cure them quickly and efficiently, confirmed the significance of the approach. For instance, the possibility to calculate a child ́s calorie requirements instead of having to listen to individual wishes was crucial for large-scale welfare projects.
The book is especially interesting (and here, I would have loved to see the author ́s ideas explored even further, in greater detail) where it points out the paradoxes the war brought about. The first paradox consists, of course, in the very fact that World War I created unprecedented death and misery while, at the same time, it became the basis for countless humanitarian projects. The second big oddity provides for the most important thread in Kind-Kovács ́s book: Around 1918, children were, more than ever, considered a national treasure – Tara Zahra has demonstrated this in her writings on lost, kidnapped and (re-)claimed children.1 The concept of childhood had proven (and would continue to do so throughout the twentieth century) a valuable tool in national and ideological disputes. Yet exactly in this situation, the supposed political neutrality of children prevailed. "The child“, regardless of its national affiliation, lost its potential to be an enemy as it came to be considered an innocent victim of the war. This very concept of children being innocent, a treasure, vulnerable and, above all, extremely loveable turned them into a valuable asset for internationalist ventures: children were (and are) the one thing we all seem to be able to relate to and cooperate on. Kind- Kovács book also shows how children were ideologically excluded from social, national and certainly political groups, while their actual fate depended very much on the place and class they were born into.
Another connection described by Kind- Kovács is not a paradox at all – but no less complex: the narrative enlightens us about the links between local conditions and global interactions, then circles back by way of detailing the repercussions of the latter for the for- mer. On an international level, the postwar situation in Budapest was noticed by politicians and activists, who got involved quickly, resulting in a fast process of professionalisation and a general turn to the concept of public responsibility for children ́s well-being in Hungary. In a sort of feedback loop, international interest in children, children ́s welfare and children ́s rights kept growing while structures on the ground in Budapest (and Hungary at large) kept changing. Apart from the field of childhood politics, Hungary also came into the spotlight in new ways: the country turned from an enemy to a place that fought hunger and suffering and was thus worthy of support. Even if this changed perception did not result in tangible territorial gains (which would have soothed the national soul after its losses at Trianon), it strengthened Hungary ́s role in the emerging international community.
Historians of childhood will benefit from this book just as much as scholars interested in the history of humanitarianism. On a more general level, it provides valuable insights into a European region otherwise neglected: Hungary.
Martina Winkler, Historisches Seminar, Abteilung Osteuropäische Geschichte, Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel
About Friederike Kind-Kovács
Friederike Kind-Kovács is a senior researcher at the Hannah Arendt Institute for Totalitarianism Studies at TU Dresden and a lecturer at Regensburg University. She is a 20th century historian with a special interest in the transnational and transatlantic history of Central Europe. In 2022 she published with IUP Budapest’s Children: Humanitarian Relief in the Aftermath of the Great War, for whose original research she won in 2019 the “Regensburg Prize for Women in Academia and the Arts.” In 2022 she also published a collective monograph The Wireless World: Global Histories of International Radio Broadcasting with OUP. In the past she held the Senior Botstiber Fellowship in Transatlantic Austrian and Central European Relationships at the Institute for Advanced Study Budapest and a Fellowship at the Imre Kertész Kolleg in Jena. She is the author of Written Here, Published There: How Underground Literature Crossed the Iron Curtain (CEU, 2014), a monograph for which she won the University of Southern California Book Prize in Cultural and Literary Studies in 2015. She also co-edited From the Midwife’s Bag to the Patient’s File: Public Health in Eastern Europe (CEU, 2017) and Samizdat, Tamizdat and Beyond. Transnational media during and after socialism (Berghahn Books, 2013).
This post is part of the SHCY Featured Books series, in which SHCY members provide written contributions on various academic topics pertaining to the history of childhood and youth.