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Lecture. “Children as Spoils of War: Displaced Children, Ethnic Cleansing, and International Humanitarianism in Twentieth-Century Europe.”

Tuesday, December 14, 2010
12:00 AM
2022 Thayer Building.

Tara Zahra (PhD history '05), assistant professor of history, University of Chicago. Sponsor: Institute for the Humanities.

In the twentieth century, the loss and recovery of children was central to the experiences of war and postwar reconstruction. This talk will examine how and why children became a "spoil of war" during the Armenian genocide, the Spanish Civil War, and the Second World War and Holocaust. In each case, the transfer of children to a “foreign” nation or religion was presented not only as a humanitarian offense against individuals, but as a wartime assault against entire nations. After both World Wars, the recovery of lost children was tightly linked to national regeneration by communities decimated by war, displacement, and genocide. Zahra suggests that the rise of new forms of humanitarian and human rights activism around children and of ethnic cleansing were flip sides of the same coin. Children were not only privileged over adults by humanitarian activists because they were seen as more vulnerable or innocent than their parents. They were favored because they were seen as more assimilable to homogenous nation-states. Children were therefore perceived to be more valuable immigrants, workers, and future citizens than their elders. These "lost children" were both victims and beneficiaries of the drive to create nationally homogenous states in Europe. The perceived ability of children to learn new languages, religions, and identities saved many of their lives. But this ability to assimilate was a double-edged sword. In a world of warring nationalist movements and population politics, it also transformed children into a form of wartime plunder, to be captured and remolded by nations looking to expand their ranks.

Tara Zahra is an assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago. She received her PhD from the University of Michigan in 2005. Her research focuses on the social and cultural history of Eastern and Western Europe in the twentieth century, particularly the history of nationalism, migration, the family, and humanitarianism. Her first book Kidnapped Souls: National Indifference and the Battle for Children in the Bohemian Lands, 1900-48 (Ithaca, 2008) was awarded the Barbara Jelavich Prize of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, the Czechoslovak Studies Association Book Prize, and the Hans Rosenberg Prize of the Conference Group for Central European History. She is currently working on a history of displacement and the family in postwar Europe. Her book The Lost Children: Reconstructing Europe's Families after World War II will be published by Harvard University Press in 2011.