Borderland Studies Meets Child Studies

A European Encounter

by Machteld Venken (Volume editor) Karol Pereplys (Drawings by)
©2017 Edited Collection 196 Pages
Open Access


This book provides a comparative analysis of the history of borderland children during the 20th century. More than their parents, children were envisioned to play a crucial role in bringing about a peaceful Europe. The contributions show the complexity of nationalisation within various spheres of borderland children’s lives and display the dichotomy between nationalist policies and manifest non-national practices of borderland children. Despite the different imaginations of East and West that had influenced peace negotiators after both World Wars, moreover, borderland children in Western and Central Europe invented practices that contributed to the creation of a socially cohesive Europe.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Table of Content
  • List of Figures, Illustrations and Maps
  • Introduction: Borderland Studies Meets Child Studies. A European Encounter (Machteld Venken)
  • Destitute Children in Alsace from the Beginning of the Twentieth Century to the End of the 1930s: Orphan Care in Strasbourg, in between France and Germany (Catherine Maurer / Gabrielle Ripplinger)
  • Childhood in the Memel Region (Ruth Leiserowitz)
  • Youth Movements in Alsace and the Issue of National Identity, 1918–1970 (Julien Fuchs)
  • The Everyday Life of Children in Polish-German Borderlands During the Early Postwar Period (Beata Halicka)
  • ‘We Remain What We Are’ ‘Wir bleiben was wir sind?’ North Schleswig German Identities in Children’s Education After 1945 (Tobias Haimin Wung-Sung)
  • Generational Conflicts, the Spirit of ‘68 and Cultural Emancipation in the German Speaking Community of Belgium. A Historical Essay About the ‘73 Generation (Andreas Fickers)
  • Deutsche Abstracts
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index of Places
  • Series Index

← 8 | 9 →

List of Figures, Illustrations and Maps

← 10 | 11 →

Machteld Venken

Introduction: Borderland Studies Meets Child Studies. A European Encounter1

Abstract: With the demise of four multinational empires at the end of the First World War (Russian, German, Habsburg and Ottoman), nationalist forces all over Europe claimed the right to a territory for what they considered to be their own people. The peace treaties resulting from the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 caused a major redrawing of the map of Europe. As a result of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany handed over a considerable amount of its territory at its Western, Northern and, most significantly, Eastern borders, to neighbouring states. This edited volume focuses on the regions lying in what one could call a ring around Germany lost by Germany after the First World War. The European border regions of annexation, as I call them, switched their sovereignty as follows: Alsace-Lorraine became French, Eupen-Malmedy Belgian, North Schleswig Danish, various former Prussian Eastern provinces became Polish, the Hlučin region Czechoslovakian, and the Memel region Lithuanian. By setting up a historical comparison of the living conditions of children in European borderlands of annexation throughout the 20th Century, this edited volume provided the context for an encounter of a new combination of categories from different disciplines: Borderland Studies meets Child Studies.

Although the 20th century experienced a significant number of border changes in Europe and saw European nation-states substantially increasing their interest in children, Europe’s borderland children remain under-researched. Starting from the research findings of borderland scholars, who found that borderlands were central sites of power struggle, and of childhood scholars, who delineated how precisely states expressed their plans in their programs for children, this edited volume provides a comparative analysis of the history of borderland children. The contributions revealed various new findings and a new hypothesis. More than their parents, it turned out, it was the children who were envisioned to play ← 11 | 12 → a crucial role in bringing about the peaceful Europe that representatives at international peace conferences had had in mind while changing the sovereignty of the borderlands these children inhabited. Each of the individual contributions showed the complexity of nationalisation within various, often previously undiscovered, spheres of borderland children’s lives. They also deepened our insights into the dichotomy between the nationalist policies executed towards borderland children and the manifest non-national practices of these children that had been investigated by historians for schooling during the interwar period. They shed light on other aspects of interwar children’s life-worlds, as well as on borderland nationalist education after the Second World War. Reading the contributions comparatively, one might hazard a new hypothesis. Despite the different imaginations of East and West that had influenced the decisions of peace negotiators after both World Wars, borderland children, in strikingly similar ways on the Eastern and Western halves of the European continent, came to invent creative practices that contributed to the creation of a much more socially cohesive Europe. This seems to indicate that a definition of Europeanisation should be sensitive to the specificity of various historical agents, including children, instead of simply being based on the discourse of those who held the reigns of power at a given time in the past.

Borderland Studies

Implying that history is national, historians for a long time regarded as axiomatic the homogeneity of nation-states. Studies in nationalisation, unravelling the intricacies of nation formation and stabilisation in core-areas of nation-states, have long been popular features of mainstream historiography. Nationalisation covers political and social attempts to get people to identify with the nation-state. In the case of affirmative articulation, the nation-state has been successful in forming its citizens.2 A nation-state offers an institutionalized set-up for people with shared values and ideas of order.3

Major border changes on the European continent (respectively the demise of the Cold War set-up following the collapse of communism, the Yugoslav wars, and the enlargement project of the European Union) have inspired historians to readdress or shift their lens of analysis to borders, the physical demarcation lines ← 12 | 13 → between nations.4 The recent strengthening of national borders as a response to wandering asylum seekers shows that the topic still lies at the heart of order and safety within Europe. National borders separate the territory of states, but also influence the lives of the people inhabiting borderlands.

Daphne Berdahl explained borders as ‘symbols through which states, nations, and localities define themselves. They define at once territorial limits and sociocultural space’.5 Whereas borders refer to lines of separations, borderlands encompass areas that come to be divided through the creation of borders.6 Peter Sahlins understood the French-Spanish border as a bridge between national and local ideologies. While appreciating the mutual influence the national and local ideologies had on each other, the author aimed to prove the ascendancy of national ideologies over local loyalties.7 Later work pointed to the limitations of nationalisation and the flexibility in identifications among borderland inhabitants.8 In what Philipp Ther has called Zwischenräume, i.e. linguistic, cultural, religious and/or ethic transition areas, historians have found much contesting going on between national movements, a fact which turned these regions, despite their peripheral location, into central sites of power struggle.9 ← 13 | 14 →

Under the influence of this cultural shift, scholars came to understand national appropriation as a construction, that is as experiencing the social world as differentiated between ‘us’ and ‘them’, in this way withdrawing from primordialist interpretations that claim identifications as innate characteristics.10 While researching ‘inventions of traditions’11 in borderlands, however, scholars often discovered inhabitants who at moments happened to have distanced themselves from any nation’s appeal, while at other moments moved back and forth (possibly multiple times) in their notions about their rights and duties towards their nation-state.12 Although it is the ambition of nation-states to hold a strong position in policy-making in borderlands, it is indeed social actors who make their own use of policies.

Historians used the methods of the Alltagsgeschichte (or everyday life history) in order to unravel how political ideas interact in the lives of non-hegemonic inhabitants of borderlands.13 Aiming to shed light on the way local people appropriated, changed or refuted such ideas in their daily life practices, authors are growing away from using a solely top-down approach, and now also approach their microstudies from a bottom-up perspective.14 Practices, i.e. repetitions in everyday routines, articulate the relationship between individuals and their environment, and provide experiences with one or multiple means of appropriation.15 ← 14 | 15 →

While investigating how inhabitants with different national and local identifications lived in each others’ vicinity and learned how to cooperate with each other,16 historians like Tara Zahra and Tomasz Kamusella noticed a major demarcation line not between two juxtaposed competing nationalisms, but between the national versus non-national attitude of borderland inhabitants. In an attempt to research historically those who would have been deaf to the appeals of nationalism, they came up with new concepts. Tara Zahra tested out national indifference as a category of analysis in her study on the Bohemian lands, while Tomasz Kamusella, in his work on the German-Polish borderlands of Upper Silesia, favoured the concept of ‘non-national groups’ because he considers its meaning deprived of a teleology.17 Notwithstanding his, by definition, dichotomous view of the past, Tomasz Kamusella indicated the flexibility of nationalist ideologies and non-national practices. While speaking about the early 19th Century in Central Europe, he came to conclude: ‘nationally teleological thinking was increasingly a part of the socio-political reality that the ‘nationally indifferent’ inhabited and that it gradually more forcefully structured their lives’.18 Anthropologists like Pamela Ballinger addressed ‘the intertwined history of purity and hybridity discourses’ earlier and encouraged an unravelling of ‘the historical dialogue and interpenetration of languages of purity/homogeneity and hybridity’.19

Such an approach also requires us to reflect on the relationship between nationalism and regionalism. As both are inherently modern phenomena, contrary to what one might think, they are not competing or mutually exclusive concepts.20 In the interwar period, for example, authorities throughout Europe saw in regionalism a ← 15 | 16 → force capable of buttressing their national policies.21 This was especially true in borderlands where national sovereignty had changed. In such cases, officials were well aware that regionalism, because inhabitants granted it cognitive affinity, enjoyed more claim than nations, which were imagined as bigger communities.22 An example of this would be Polish Upper Silesia, where the frequent border changes had undermined the stability of any sense of national belonging and opened the path to other orientations. The various regionalisms at work here, such as the Heimat movement and the fostering of what was seen as the Silesian language, were nevertheless supported by nationalist cultural claims, either from the Weimar Republic, or the Polish Republic. Notwithstanding the autonomous status the region enjoyed, political regionalist tendencies never operated outside of nationalist frameworks and did not aspire to take over sovereignty.23


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2018 (February)
Borderlands Children Europeanisation History 20th Century Nationalisation
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 196 pp., 7 coloured ill., 10 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Machteld Venken (Volume editor) Karol Pereplys (Drawings by)

Machteld Venken studied Slavic Studies at the Catholic University in Leuven and European Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. She holds a PhD in History from the Catholic University in Leuven. After holding postdoctoral fellowships in Warsaw, she is now an Elise Richter Fellow at the University of Vienna.


Title: Borderland Studies Meets Child Studies
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197 pages