Socialist Childhoods? Concepts of Childhood in Czechoslovakia 1948–1989

Research project at the University of Kiel by Frank Henschel and Martina Winkler


“Childhood” is one of the key social categories of modernity. Few other concepts display such ambivalence, tensions and dynamics; few have been as emotionally charged: childhood is considered a natural, ineluctable anthropological constant, while at the same time it is also a highly effective legal construct whose basic tenet – the demarcation from adulthood and in some cases from adolescence – is quite arbitrarily determined by a certain date in one’s life. Childhood is frequently understood as an explicitly unpolitical phase in one’s life, as a “moratorium”, and yet it forms one of the most powerful political arguments in modern societies (“For the good and future of our children”).

Bullerby versus tiger moms, freedom of consumption versus targeted advertising: by investigating these and many other tensions of modern childhood – in connection with the economy, sexuality, the enjoyment of rights etc. – and thereby rendering the ubiquitous explanans (“But they are children”) a multilayered explanandum, modern childhood research (inter alia Qvortrup 2009, Kassem 2010) has defined and problematised its object of study. However, it has yet to historicise it in sufficient depth, and compared to pedagogues and sociologists, historians are only very rarely encountered in the field.


Interestingly, it is the 20th century, the so-called “century of the child” (Key 1909) that displays an especially large number of research desiderata. The varied, contradictory and protean nature of concepts of childhood in modern societies calls for more detailed and comparative study. Our project at the University of Kiel responds to this challenge, analysing childhood in socialist Czechoslovakia. Conceptionally and methodically, the emphasis is not primarily on children as actors and everyday life or historical realities of childhood, but on concepts of childhood. Unlike sociological studies with a historical orientation, we do not seek to study children, but examine “childhood”. Our leitmotiv here is the concept of a “social history of discourses about childhood and adolescence” (inter alia Krüger 2010). Unlike the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia experienced the first half of the “century of the child” in a European context determined by bourgeois and social democratic plans. In contrast, the second half of the century, which followed the new definition of the child proposed by Tara Zahra around 1945 (Zahra 2011), was determined by the state’s socialist, collectivist concepts of education. 


Unlike concepts of childhood, educational establishments and family everyday life in the GDR however, for Czechoslovakia these questions have hardly been the focus of research hitherto – as remains the case for other Central Eastern European countries, incidentally. The Czech Republic’s self-understanding as a “modern” society thus represents an excellent prerequisite for breaking with the monolithic approach to the “Eastern Bloc” so often practised in the literature, and forms the background for a plethora of questions, problematisations and comparative analyses. What was the role played – in comparison to Poland, for instance – by “traditional” educational authorities such as the family and the Church? What traditions were there that were continued by developments in the First Czechoslovak Republic (the Junák movement, classics of children’s literature, developments in progressive education etc.), and which were broken with? What transnational connections can be made, which traditions and authorities did educationalists and child psychologists in Czechoslovakia draw on? What was the importance of the nation and “national” education, and what tensions arose from the relationship with Slovakia ethnic minorities such as the Roma? How did actors deal with the traditional concept of childhood as a moratorium, how was it defined temporally and shaped spatially? Did “childhood spaces” function as spheres for condensed ideology and planning or did there rather emerge spaces of freedom and accepted – since not temporally limited – subversion? What concepts of “normality” can be recognised in the ideal, and what role was played by deviations from that normality?

All these tensions are examined as elements of a socialist society, but not as specific to socialism. Rather, the project of socialism is understood as a special form of modernity. The project employs approaches such as analysis of social engineering and social disciplining, deviance research and the method of asymmetric comparison, embedding the problems, dynamics and developments in Czechoslovakia in the history of childhood in the 20th century as a whole.

Individual projects

  • Children’s Homes and Adoption Practices in Czechoslovakia (Frank Henschel, post-doc project)
  • Concepts of Childhood, Pedagogy and Families in Socialist Czechoslovakia (Martina Winkler)


Own publications:

  • Henschel, Frank: ""All Children Are Ours" - Children´s Homes in Socialist Czechoslovakia as Laboratories of Social Engineering", in: Bohemia 56 (2016), Nr. 1, S. 122-144.
  • Henschel, Frank: "A project of social engineering: Childhood-experts and the ´child-question´ in socialist Czechoslovakia", in: Acta historica Universitatis Silesianae Opaviensis 9 (2016), S. 143-158.
  • Winkler, Martina: "Kolektivní versus rodinná výchova v socialistickém Československu? Rozbor českých filmů a knih pro děti", in: Acta historica Universitatis Silesianae Opaviensis 8 (2015), S. 175-192.
  • Winkler, Martina: "Kindheitsgeschichte", in: , Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte. Begriffe, Methoden und Debatten der zeithistorischen Forschung.
  • Winkler, Martina: "Children, Childhood, and Stalinism ", in: Kritika. Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 18 (2017), Nr. 3, S. 628-637.
  • Winkler, Martina: Kindheitsgeschichte. Eine Einführung, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2017.


Literature cited: 

  • Derek Kassem (Hg.): Key issues in childhood and youth studies, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY: Routledge 2010.
  • Ellen Key: The Century of the child, New York and London, G. P. Putnam’s sons, 1909: G. P. Putnam’s sons 1909.
  • Heinz-Hermann Krüger: „Methoden und Ergebnisse der historischen Kindheits- und Jugendforschung“, in: Cathleen Grunert, Krüger, Heinz-Hermann, Kindheit und Kindheitsforschung in Deutschland: Forschungszugänge und Lebenslagen, Opladen: Budrich 2006, S. 309-331.
  • Jens Qvortrup, William A. Corsaro and Michael-Sebastian Honig (Hg.):The Palgrave handbook of childhood studies, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan 2009.
  • Tara Zahra: The lost children : reconstructing Europe’s families after World War II, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press 2011.

We consciously seek to expand the research project – please feel free to express your interest and offers of cooperation!


Contact: Prof. Dr. Martina Winkler,