Understanding Childhood and Construction of National Identities

This article is part of the TRAFO series Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’. Today, we put the spotlight on the conference “Understanding Childhood and Construction of National Identities”, which will take place on 20-21 January 2021 in Vilnius. We talked to the convener Gintarė Malinauskaitė about the upcoming event. Find more information on the conference here.

At first glance, the histories of national identities and of childhood do not seem to be inherently connected. What was your original motivation to conduct research on that connection, and what led to organizing a conference about it?

Aleksander Władysław Strauss and Jarosław Brzozowski, Jenny Krüdner, Vilnius, around 1870, albumen print, LVIA, f. 439, ap. 1, l. 111.

Indeed, children and young people were instrumentalized and targeted by the architects of the emerging modern nation-states, as they had to be trained to be good future citizens of their respective countries. Thus, children were often deployed as symbols for larger national endeavors and embodied a brighter future of nations. To attain this aim, state policies and various institutions shaped the conception of childhood, influenced children, and the formation of their national consciousness. For instance, in many Central and Eastern European countries from the early 19th century until the beginning of the 20th century, orphanages had an ethno-national character and became important institutions for nation-building. Therefore, the rise of modern nation-states and the construction of national identities in this period were closely intertwined with the changing notion of childhood. Accordingly, both my research as well as this conference seek to investigate and discuss the role of children for the construction of national identities in this region. We seek not only to discuss the role of children and their instrumentalization in national movements but also the role of children’s literature, press, photography, and artworks in shaping and transmitting these nationalized and changing conceptions of childhood.

In your call for papers, you describe a predominant focus on Western European history of childhood and national identities. What are potential “new insights into different historical events and processes” of Eastern and Central European childhoods that the conference aims to explore? And what role could transnational approaches play in answering related questions?

Historical research on childhood for many years has been focused on Western Europe, and especially on North America, where children were inevitably connected with the project of colonization. Renowned German historian of childhood Martina Winkler notes an enormous asymmetry while comparing the vast amounts of books focusing on the history of childhood in Western Europe and North America to the scholarly publications that concentrate their narratives on other parts of the world, including Eastern and Central Europe. Hence, this conference seeks to problematize this regionally-based deficiency in the historical studies of childhood and invites scholars who are predominately occupied with the investigation of the notion of childhood in this region. During this conference, we also seek to gain some comparative knowledge on how childhood has functioned in different multinational empires, for instance, the Tsarist and Austro-Hungarian. In these multinational enterprises with large ethnic complexity, children not only often spoke several languages but also were the targets of both imperial and respective national identities. In this regard, transnational approaches also play an important role. The term transnational childhoods refers to childhoods that cross national borders, claiming that childhoods cannot be studied only within the “national container”. For instance, German historian Katharina Kucher argues that the history of childhood in the Russian Empire has to be approached from the transnational perspective, as one cannot ignore such issues as the transculturality and foreign influences, especially in the field of education of Russian aristocratic children.

The theme of your upcoming conference is clearly a transdisciplinary one: Which disciplines are you especially addressing and which ones actually need to get into a conversation to tackle the theme of the conference?

This conference aims to inspire debates about the history of childhood from various interdisciplinary perspectives, such as literary studies, art history, history of design and technology, and others. More specifically, children’s literature, the pictorial representation of children through paintings, photography, or sculpture as well as the production of toys, which served as a medium of political indoctrination of children—all of these research aspects address the phenomenon of childhood and allows us to explore how the notion of childhood was shaped and instrumentalized for political and national purposes.

Gintarė Malinauskaitė studied in Kaunas, Berlin and Budapest, and graduated with a PhD in 2017 from Humboldt University Berlin with a thesis on medial memory of the Holocaust in Lithuania after 1990. Since 2017 she is a researcher and the coordinator at the branch office of the German Historical Institute Warsaw in Vilnius.

Citation: “Understanding Childhood and Construction of National Identities”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 30.07.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/24643.

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