- The Lost Children: Reconstructing Europe’s Families after World War II
The rise of international humanitarianism directed at children is one of the most striking developments of the twentieth century. It remains understudied by historians, however, in part because of the tremendous demands entailed in its research. Just as aid workers traversed the borders of nation and culture to save hungry, diseased, or orphaned children, so too must historians follow their tracks in archives scattered around the world. Tara Zahra—whose first book, Kidnapped Souls: National Indifference and the Battle for Children in the Bohemian Lands, 1900–1948 (Ithaca, NY, 2008), used childhood as a lens to illuminate the complexities of national indifference in the Czech- and German-speaking borderlands of Bohemia—pursues the archival trail of humanitarian workers, policymakers, parents, and children across seven countries, and in original sources written in five languages. The result is a captivating and meticulously researched study of the pan-European effort to rehabilitate displaced children in the wake of the two world wars. By illustrating the centrality of the figure of the “lost child” to the project of reconstruction in both East and West, Zahra reveals how interwar racial and nationalist ideals not only survived World War II, but also proved foundational to the emerging concepts of human rights and democratization in the postwar era.
While most of the book focuses on the humanitarian and political response to the problem of displacement during the later 1940s, Zahra begins by tracing the origins of this activism to the flourishing of international aid for children that followed World War I. It was then that young people first emerged as the “quintessential victims of war” (24), whose vulnerable yet malleable bodies were keenly sought after by nationalists hoping to regenerate their war-ravaged populations. Many of the trends that dominated the relief agenda in the interwar years, such as a concern to reunite divided families, as well as a tendency to prioritize the welfare of “assimilable” children over that of adults, carried over into the postwar years. Yet, as Zahra argues, World War II decisively reshaped humanitarian understandings of children’s “best interests.” On the one hand, a new psychoanalytic model of childhood trauma, which considered any separation of children from their parents as inherently scarring, was taken up and championed by the British and American activists who headed the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association (UNRRA) and the [End Page 702] International Refugee Organization. On the other hand, the widespread horror at the Nazi practice of “Germanization” across Eastern Europe, whereby children deemed racially valuable were forcibly removed and adopted by German families, spurred a push to “renationalize” displaced children. The combined effect of these influences was to present a secure family life and a firm sense of nationhood as the keys to both children’s psychological rehabilitation and the stabilization of Europe. At a time when United Nations officials were thus trumpeting the demise of Nazi-style racism and the birth of abstract human rights, they were simultaneously working with policymakers throughout the continent to categorize children by nationality and to forge ethnically homogeneous nation-states.
Zahra’s comparative and transnational approach allows her to move beyond the typical East-West divide. She shows that while relief workers and politicians in these regions may have disagreed about the relative merits of collective forms of welfare, they shared a common drive to uphold the sanctity of the family and strengthen the power of the nation. In practice, these emphases were frequently at cross purposes, particularly when transnational or “mixed” families were involved. Two of the book’s strongest chapters detail the parallel French and Czechoslovak responses to the problem of children born of mixed German parentage. While French occupation authorities in Germany created an elaborate two-tiered relief system designed to impel German mothers to hand over their “half-French” babies for adoption in France, further to the east, amid the forced deportation of millions of Czechoslovak Germans, local officials encouraged any...