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Review August 2023

The politics of humanitarian aid and Budapest’s children after the Great War

Review by Sara Silverstein
Friederike Kind-Kovács, 2022
ISBN 9780253062154
358 Pages
Published by: Indiana University Press
Children and a number of adults sitting in the canteen of an orphanage in Hungary in 1926. The first two rows of the tables are empty. The left side of the room is divided off by a wall with two large doors open. The canteen of the MÁV orphanage. Kőszeg, Hungary, 1926. Fortepan/Baráth Endre

Hungarian nationalism and international collaboration both took shape through humanitarian work after the First World War. In Budapest’s Children: Humanitarian Relief in the Aftermath of the Great War, Friederike Kind-Kovács provides a new perspective on struggles over economic, scientific, and moral hegemony frequently implicit in humanitarian aid.

Hungarians felt the effects of war, defeat, revolution, counter-revolution, and imperial collapse long after the Paris Peace Conference formed the state via the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. As Hungary lost much of its prewar territory, local and foreign humanitarian aid agencies responded to population displacement, hunger, and illness. In this crisis, western humanitarians delivered assistance to the children of a defeated enemy. 

Budapest’s Children elucidates the ways in which memory of territorial loss was always part of the relationship between Hungarian and international relief efforts. Western humanitarians concentrated on children as symbols of non-political innocence. For Hungarians, child destitution represented the violence committed against their nation. The visibility of children’s physical degeneration figured in fundraising campaigns, evoking the consequences of dissolving the empire. Kind-Kovács expertly unravels these tangled threads of national and international interests and anxieties involved in delivering humanitarian aid to Budapest’s children.

The people who enforced a food blockade and who truncated the state now provided food to the children.

The people who enforced a food blockade and who truncated the state now provided food to the children. Personal stories of hardship resulting from the loss of territory enforced by Trianon accompanied requests for aid, which Kind-Kovács notes had the effect of strengthening an idea of Hungarian humiliation that contributed toward legitimating “revisionist nationalism” before foreign nations. Photos of relief centers even included explicit references to lost lands.

Case studies in Budapest’s Children depict revanchist politics incorporating humanitarian language and projects. Food aid was necessary, Hungarians claimed, because the loss of territories disrupted imperial infrastructure and agricultural production. Kind-Kovács notes that the state also struggled to govern the resources and the economy it controlled, so that locally produced foodstuffs spoiled rather than reaching starving children.

Refugees from formerly Hungarian provinces embodied the idea of an unjust peace in the eyes of Hungarians and the international community alike. Refugees from Transylvania lived for long periods of time in railway cars in Budapest. In humanitarian propaganda, they represented the disconcerting collapse of middle-class security, with a strong implication that this breakdown would provoke their children’s physical and moral degeneration. Their presence symbolized a humanitarian crisis provoked by Trianon, while the temporary and moveable character of their dwellings perpetually suggested they might still return home.

For the west, Kind-Kovács shows that offering aid to a former enemy was justified on the grounds of stabilizing the region, fending off communism, and shaping Hungary’s re-entry into the international order. Children represented an innocent non-political object for this aid. Humanitarian relief further asserted its depoliticization with a scientific language around nutrition, the body, and social work. Through this experience, relief work in Hungary shaped concepts and methods of modern international humanitarianism.

Kind-Kovács skillfully interconnects national and international concerns. Hungary had to portray itself as requiring assistance while also being capable of protecting its own people and possessing strong national merits. The act of needing aid, in the western imagination, created a hierarchical model that positioned beneficiaries as less capable than benefactors. Hungarians, like others in the post-imperial European space, emphasized that what they wanted was assistance in pursuing their own objectives, rather than foreigners coming in to manage their country.

When international aid arrived, it typically worked in conjunction with local legacy aid organizations. Implementation depended on local knowledge and participation. Still, western actors might resist equal partnership, while local relief workers insisted they could better run the projects on their own with foreign resources. 

Hungarian charitable relief agencies predated the arrival of western humanitarianism, and the war. Rather than taking at face value the notion that suffering was due only to war and defeat, Kind-Kovács considers the prewar socio-economic dynamics that contributed to childhood distress in the postwar state. She examines the longer history of factors in Hungarian society that shaped destitution and charitable responses. Earlier philanthropic efforts had been a common capitalist response to the suffering that industrialization engendered. These agencies likewise nurtured Hungarian national identity.

The familiar western and celebratory perspective of humanitarian history has left gaps in our understanding of the relationship between relief and welfare, which Budapest’s Children offers an opportunity to explore.

The question of what responsibility means and where it lies runs throughout this history of relief efforts. Before the First World War, childcare largely belonged to the family. Charitable organizations offered relief, while they avoided holding industrial capitalism accountable for brutalizing lives of industrial workers. The war enabled responsibility to shift away from the family without implicating capitalist systems. During and after the war, the state assumed more responsibility for child welfare. Still, the government continued to rely heavily on private institutions.

The familiar western and celebratory perspective of humanitarian history has left gaps in our understanding of the relationship between relief and welfare, which Budapest’s Children offers an opportunity to explore. Kind-Kovács shows how Hungary participated in the more general transition that occurred from relief to welfare after the First World War. She notes that this progression meant that “child protection” became “child welfare.” In considering this history, she might give more significance to the prevalence of philanthropic actors that she describes in a public-private partnership. Arguably, the persistence of private institutions contributed to preserving privileges associated with nation and class. In contrast, government institutions might enable a language and practice of welfare as a right.

In postwar Hungary, child protection was no longer seen principally as a charitable issue but as a national issue, Kind-Kovács argues. But what did “nation” mean in this transition from relief to welfare? Kind-Kovács’s meticulous analysis of an impressive collection of primary sources illustrates that responsibility for child welfare included the contributions of charitable agencies. The government often delegated to philanthropic institutions, to which they provided support. Expanding further on this evidence, we might draw an uncommon distinction by asking whether Hungary’s public-private partnership meant that the nation assumed the principal responsibility for child welfare in Hungary in place of the state. The alternate method – attempted to varying degrees in other post-imperial states, and potentially in other branches of welfare in Hungary – was to try separating charity from state welfare institutions.

Kind-Kovács’s case studies suggest that the choice in Hungary not to disentangle public and private welfare institutions made it more likely that relief and welfare would protect select groups.

The interaction of foreign and Hungarian humanitarianism reinforced the structure of privilege by supplying basic needs and welfare for select groups. Class emerges as a significant theme in national aid and welfare projects throughout these case studies. Foreign relief, such as the American Red Cross, favored egalitarian relief without class discrimination. Nevertheless, stories of middle-class destitution proved to be effective humanitarian propaganda and the board of charities in Hungary had established a hierarchical system of entitlement that favored members of the middle class. This method placed privilege over social justice, where the latter would have promoted the institutionalization of welfare for all Hungarian children. These decisions perhaps represented an overcorrection in distancing Hungarian national welfare from the communist regime that briefly held power in 1919. 

Through this history, we see the character of Hungarian national identity taking shape. The prominence of private institutions and the protection of class privilege implies that capitalism was closely integrated with ideas of the nation. Arguably, charity and class together positioned public responsibility for child welfare in Hungary more securely within the nation rather than the state. Kind-Kovács shows that private actors were often the ones responsible for greater government involvement and regulation. Ultimately, beyond nation or state, Hungarian activists also influenced the growth of an international responsibility for ensuring child welfare that led to codifying the rights of the child. Kind-Kovács has made an important contribution to understanding the dynamic of nation-states generally and Hungarian nationality specifically. This history will inform ongoing conversations about best practices for foreign humanitarian aid engaging local actors, and the politicization of humanitarian action.

Sara Silverstein is an Assistant Professor jointly appointed in the Department of History and the Human Rights Institute at the University of Connecticut, and is co-director of the Human Rights Institute’s Research Program in Humanitarianism. She is completing a book manuscript titled For Your Health and Ours: An East European History of a Universal Right and has published on the history of public health, rights, state-building, and internationalism.