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The Childhood, Law & Policy Network (CLPN)

Interview with Friederike Kind-Kovács about her book, Budapest's Children: Humanitarian Relief in the Aftermath of the Great War

Our member, Dr Friederike Kind-Kovács (Dresden University of Technology, Germany), talks about her book, Budapest's Children: Humanitarian Relief in the Aftermath of the Great War (Indiana University Press, 2022).



Q: What is this book about?

Budapest’s Children reconstructs how Hungary’s capital city, Budapest, turned into a laboratory of transnational humanitarian intervention in post-WWI Europe. In the first chapters I deal with the causes of the post-imperial food crisis, migration and displacement, the spreading of diseases, and children’s physical destitution. The book then explores how these factors affected children’s lives, casting light on children’s particular vulnerability in times of distress, and then shifts to various local and transnational humanitarian initiatives that sought to relieve children’s suffering.

Drawing on extensive archival research from various countries, the monograph examines how Budapest’s children, as iconic victims of the war’s aftermath, were used to mobilize humanitarian sentiments and practices throughout Europe and the United States. I argue that the city of Budapest became a social melting pot in the post-war period which ideally mirrors the larger reconfigurations at the time. While the war’s aftermath was a condensed period of historical change, Budapest turned into a condensed space of historical and social transformations.

To carve out the transnational dimension of children’s relief in this capital city, Budapest’s Children investigates the dynamic interplay between local Hungarian organizations, international humanitarian donors, and the child relief recipients. I look at various attempts at improving children’s lives, such as food relief, children’s trains to better-off countries after the war, children’s holiday programs, children’s work-rooms, and the making of children’s welfare. I was particularly concerned with everyday practices of transatlantic and transnational relief, meaning relief provided by the United States, Britain, and international relief organizations. In tracing these transnational relief encounters, Budapest’s Children reveals how intertwined postwar internationalism and nationalism were and how child relief reinforced revisionist claims and global inequalities that still reverberate today.

Q: What made you write this book?

As my first book had dealt with the Cold War period, I wanted my second book project to shift to the early 20th century. After the birth of my first daughter, I thought it would be fascinating to write a book about children’s experiences in the past. 

In 2011, while browsing through Hungarian newspapers of the post-WWI period in the Széchényi Library in Budapest, I encountered many visuals of Budapest’s children receiving American food relief. It amazed me to see the massive presence of humanitarians in Budapest.  I wondered: what motivated so many American, Swiss, and British relief workers to feed the children of Hungary’s capital? And why did they subsequently send so many children to foreign countries? This story, I felt, was worth being told. 

When I reflect today on why I chose this topic, it is always important for me to be able to personally relate to the topics I work on. First, being married to a Hungarian academic and spending a lot of time in Budapest drove me to finally conduct archival research in Hungary. Second, when I started the project I very much disliked how disconnected research on Central/Eastern and West European history still were. Therefore, this topic seemed to be a perfect way to illustrate how entangled both histories actually were and still are. Lastly, my interest in transatlantic topics may be related to my family’s temporary migration to California in the 19th century.

An excerpt from the sub-chapter “Childhood Innocence and Social Fears” (pages 110–111 and 113–114):

In contemporary sources, the capital city’s frail children were presented as victims of the war and of the postwar turmoil – especially the loss of Hungary’s former territories and the massive migration that followed. Appeals on their behalf reflected a new and outspoken criticism of the impact of the violent conflict and postwar turmoil on vulnerable subjects in affected societies. In Hungary, it was not solely the war but also its afterlife that “marked the moment when children became an object of international relations.”

 The fate of innocent children had a particular appeal at the time. As Michael Barnett has argued, “While children are always in need of constant care and protection the children of the post war period required another – very physical – type of support and protection that would secure their very survival.” Descriptions and depictions of suffering European children played on both sympathetic emotions toward innocence and warnings based in fear, representing both optimists like [US president] Herbert Hoover and humanitarians of a more pessimistic or cautionary bent. Children’s innocence animated Hoover’s and others’ efforts to treat them as blameless victims, not enemies.

Fears, on the other hand, were based on foundational questions: What kind of adults will these children grow up to be if they are deprived of nutrition, a proper upbringing, and education? What might be the longer-term outlook for Europe and European society if these children were to become its future leaders? Famine and poverty were seen as the catalysts for children’s irreversible degeneration.

Throughout Europe, the move towards “helping children was synonymous with reconstructing damaged nations and ensuring a successful biological and political future.” Positive emotional appeals focused on rescuing the children; negative emotional appeals focused on sparing the children from degenerating into the next generation of European social danger. …

Political figures such as Herbert Hoover and other leaders sensed that childhood was a politically neutral topic on which most nations and people cooperate. Hoover used children to convey his own convictions about the legacy of the war, proclaiming that children were “the real optimists of the world, those who have known sorrow and suffering, yet who still hope.” He saw children as better than adults, capable of forgetting and forgiving and of creating a different future.

Hoover drummed up solidarity among Americans by equating the starving children of the former enemies with children in the United States. “These children are no more my children than they are your children,” he argued, but “the obligation of every man and every woman in the United States after he has cared for his own children or his neighbors’ children.” Regardless of the children’s origins, he urged, they should be rescued.

In a similar vein, [the British founder of Save the Children,] Eglantyne Jebb pursued her vision of internationalism, which was for her “a project of feeling.” She was driven by her conviction that by means of children’s relief, future “peace would be built upon the friendships forged between people from across Europe,” while international humanitarians would be “guiding the general public toward greater sympathy for people of different nationalities.”

 Dr. Armstrong Smith, the European relief director of the Save the Children Fund, expressed hope that Hungarian children could turn into cultural mediators. After the children had stayed for a whole year in Britain, he trusted that they could serve as a means of “drawing closer together the peoples of Britain and Hungary,” between whom there had always existed close cultural ties. Smith also hoped that children’s relief would result in an after-care scheme, so that Hungarian children could continue enjoying English games, dance, literature, and drama. Children and their relief would reestablish peaceful international relations.

In postwar Central Europe, children’s physical and mental suffering from the war’s side effects confronted the victorious nations with the question of what peace had done to Europe. Citing the eyewitness observations of [the novelist and soldier] Coningsby Dawson, Hoover acknowledged that most of the victimized children were “not born when the war was started.” They had been born into a world where “many of them have never known what it is to be warm and not to be hungry,” in which “‘joy’ is a word utterly meaningless.”

Hoover confronted Americans with the fact that “two years after our madness has ended,” Europe’s children were “still paying the price of the adult world’s folly.” Hoover emphasized his belief in the power of child relief as one key “way of wiping out animosities."” The “culture of sensibility steadily broadened the arena within which humanitarian feeling was encouraged to operate, extending compassion to ... previously despised types of persons,” such as the children of the enemy. Seeing children’s bodies suffer from hunger and malnutrition, Hoover felt obliged to protect the “biological immaturity of children,” because, as “growing creatures, they suffered more lastingly from malnutrition than adults.”



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