Democracy in Troubled Times: The League of Nations Invents Childhood, 1924

By James Marten

This year’s Historians@Work will feature a number of blogs engaging the theme  “Democracy in Troubled Times.”  That is the focus of the 2018–2019 Marquette Forum, which, according to its website, will offer “events focusing on civic dialogue and the state of democracies across the world. The Forum will engage students, faculty, staff and the communities making up greater Milwaukee in conversations around crucial questions including: Is democracy in crisis? Who gets to participate in a democracy? What are the rights, responsibilities and privileges of citizenship? What does democracy demand of its citizens? What are the opportunities and responsibilities for non-citizens within a democratic system? How would the “Founding Fathers” have envisioned civic engagement in the 21st-century? How can Catholic social teachings contribute to democratic dialogues?”

 Our blogs will look at some of these questions in the contexts of specific moments in time, and suggest how those moments—some of which ended with the expansion of freedom, some of which did not—can help us understand the nature of Democracy through the ages and today.

The League of Nations invented childhood on September 26, 1924, when it adopted the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child.”  Of course, there have always been children, but in less than 200 words the Declaration laid out the principles of a modern childhood as a series of rights reminiscent of other declarations of rights that are often hallmarks of democratic societies.  It stated simply that “mankind owes to the Child the best that it has to give,” and listed five basic “rights” that civilized societies were obligated to provide for children (Eglantyne Jebb, the founder of Save the Children, provided much of the inspiration and rhetoric for the Declaration):

Article 1: The child must be given the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually.

Article 2: The child that is hungry must be fed; the child that is sick must be nursed; the child that is backward must be helped; the delinquent child must be reclaimed; and the orphan and the waif must be sheltered and succored.

Picture1Article 3: The child must be the first to receive relief in times of distress.

Article 4: The child must be put in a position to earn a livelihood, and must be protected against every form of exploitation.

Article 5: The child must be brought up in the consciousness that its talents must be devoted to the service of fellow men.

Reformers had been campaigning for the rights and welfare of children for several decades.  In addition to basic humanitarianism, reformers urgently believed that the future of democracy depended on the proper raising and education of children.  This had been a hallmark of childrearing theories in western Europe and the United States since the 1830s.

One of the remarkable things about the document—other than its extraordinary ambition—is that it was conceived during one of the most troubled times in modern world history. Even as Europe picked up the pieces after the Great War, many of the seeds of the Second World War were being sown. Fascism—with all it meant for children on both sides of the Aryan divide—had begun to sprout in Italy and Germany; China was descending into political chaos and violence with the collapse of the Qing dynasty; the Soviet Union had just come out of its civil war, which left millions dead and perhaps 7,000,000 homeless children. Hundreds of thousands of children had perished between 1914 and 1918, and millions more would die—as victims not only of bombings, starvation, and death camps, but also as soldiers and partisans—during the Second World War. Add to that the great influenza epidemic that had just ended and the worldwide depression that would descend within a few years, and it is hard to imagine a worse time in the modern era for the world’s children.

Yet that moment in the autumn of 1924 set a precedent that would become a beacon for future generations despite the grim decades that followed.  The League’s successor, the United Nations, would pass much-expanded statements on children’s rights in 1959 and again in 1989. And the assumptions that the Declaration articulated would shape the way childhood was “supposed” to be (although many states struggled to live up to them).

One of the first historians of childhood, Joe Hawes, declared some years ago that “Childhood is where you catch a culture in high relief.”  In other words, a society’s values and beliefs can and should be measured by how they affect children.  Similarly, the policy-makers and activists who composed the Declaration of the Rights of the Child believed that democracies had a responsibility not only to provide for the basic needs of their children, but also to nurture in them the principles and ideals that are the building blocks of democracy.

For further reading:

Sarah Fieldston, Raising the World: Child Welfare in the American Century (Harvard University Press, 2015).

Linda Mahood, Feminism and Voluntary Action: Eglantyne Jebb and Save the Children, 1876-1928 (Palgrave, 2009).

James Marten, ed., Children and War: A Historical Anthology (New York University Press, 2002).

Heidi Morrison, eds., The Global History of Childhood Reader (Routledge, 2012).

Nicholas Stargardt, Witnesses of War: Children’s Lives Under the Nazis (Knopf, 2005).

James Marten is professor and chair of the MU history department.  His most recent book is The History of Childhood: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2018).

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