The nationalisation of children in European border regions in the aftermath of the two World Wars is now being investigated in detail.
The aim of the research project, which is financed by the Austrian Science Fund FWF, is to analyse the upbringing of children in annexed border regions of Europe, and the intention to shape them into full members of the nation through nationalisation campaigns. The study will also record and analyse the reactions of those affected by this phenomenon. Two case studies in Belgium and Poland will provide the main focus of the investigation.
Patriot, European or both? A sense of attachment to political-geographical entities is aroused at a young age through numerous possible identification processes. The sense of national belonging can shift, however, particularly in border regions and, as a result, is often the focus of nationalisation attempts. Such attempts are based on political and social activities intended to prompt individuals to identify and bond culturally with a given nation state. However, little research has been carried out up to now on the forms taken by such nationalisation attempts and their scope - particularly in periods and regions characterised by "flexible" borders. Dr. Machteld Venken from the Institute of East-European History at the University of Vienna and Elise Richter* Fellow of the Austrian Science Fund FWF is focussing on this topic as part of a socio-historical study on European borderlands in the aftermath of the First and Second World Wars.
Spotlight on Borders and Children
The spotlight of the four-year project, which began recently, is on two regions that border Germany: Eupen-St. Vith-Malmedy (Belgium) and Upper Silesia (Poland). The populations in these two locations were particularly exposed to shifting nationalisation interests and measures in the aftermath of both World Wars. An especially challenging aspect of the project is the way in which it combines previously separate areas of historical research on Eastern and Western Europe: "I asked myself whether it is possible to observe similar measures and developments, despite the presence of different state systems. In the aftermath of the World Wars, children, in particular, were viewed as beacons of hope and desirable resources, as the backbone of the nation, and as an ideal focus for the stabilisation and homogenisation of the regions with their new borders. My aim is to examine whether the measures deployed for the mobilisation of nationalisation present similarities, regardless of whether a democratic, autocratic or communist state system was involved", explains Dr. Venken.
The project will examine wide-ranging areas of childhood lifeworlds, such as education, organisations and family. It will approach this task through detailed analyses of language use, elite formation, social advancement, leisure activities and family life. Archive material from schools in both regions will enable the study of nationalisation measures in the context of educational institutions: "For example, attempts were made at exercising control through the specification of the language of instruction and the selection of teaching staff. Moreover, elite schools were established in both regions to enable selected young people to embody the values of the nation state", says Dr. Venken. The archival material of youth organisations relating to leisure time activities, for example the scouts, is also expected to provide valuable insights in the course of the study.
Nationalisation - Success or Failure?
The study design will also enable Dr. Venken to ascertain the success of nationalisation measures, particularly in border regions with their multiple overlaps in terms of regional and ethnic identities, and to establish how such measures were experienced by the populations. The combination of top-down and bottom-up analysis methods is a fundamental element of the adopted approach. Therefore, in addition to the study of literature and archival sources on nationalisation policies, the project will also make use of autobiographical documents and interviews with surviving inhabitants of the border regions. This will provide insight into the ways in which affirmation towards nationalisation was practised and distance expressed. With reference to the further dimension of the project, Dr. Venken explains: "My approach unites two perspectives. It enables the reconstruction of nationalisation processes as structures and as social practices." The FWF project will thus provide the first comprehensive scientific analysis of the nationalisation, national identification and social life worlds of children who grew up in annexed border regions in the 20th century.
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* The Elise Richter Programme for senior post-docs of the Austrian Science Fund FWF supports the academic career of highly qualified female scientists. It aims at providing the necessary qualifications to apply for full professorial positions in Austria or abroad once the project will have been carried out. In 1905 Elise Richter was the first female scientist who obtained a habilitation in all of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She became the first female assistant professor in 1907, and was appointed an "Extra-Ordinary Professor" in 1921, although she never received an Ordinary Professorship.
Dr. Machteld Venken, MA
University of Vienna
Institut für Osteuropäische Geschichte
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1090 Vienna, Austria
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