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Kidnapped Souls

National Indifference and the Battle for Children in the Bohemian Lands, 1900–1948

Throughout the nineteenth and into the early decades of the twentieth century, it was common for rural and working-class parents in the Czech-German borderlands to ensure that their children were bilingual by sending them to live with families who spoke the "other" language. As nationalism became a more potent force in Central Europe, however, such practices troubled pro-German and pro-Czech activists, who feared that the children born to their nation could literally be "lost" or "kidnapped" from the national community through such experiences and, more generally, by parents who were either flexible about national belonging or altogether indifferent to it.

Highlighting this indifference to nationalism—and concerns about such apathy among nationalists—Kidnapped Souls offers a surprising new perspective on Central European politics and society in the first half of the twentieth century. Drawing on Austrian, Czech, and German archives, Tara Zahra shows how nationalists in the Bohemian Lands worked to forge political cultures in which children belonged more rightfully to the national collective than to their parents. Through their educational and social activism to fix the boundaries of nation and family, Zahra finds, Czech and German nationalists reveal the set of beliefs they shared about children, family, democracy, minority rights, and the relationship between the individual and the collective. Zahra shows that by 1939 a vigorous tradition of Czech-German nationalist competition over children had created cultures that would shape the policies of the Nazi occupation and the Czech response to it.

The book's concluding chapter weighs the prehistory and consequences of the postwar expulsion of German families from the Bohemian Lands. Kidnapped Souls is a significant contribution to our understanding of the genealogy of modern nationalism in Central Europe and a groundbreaking exploration of the ways in which children have been the objects of political contestation when national communities have sought to shape, or to reshape, their futures.

Author Information


Tara E. Zahra is Professor of East European History at the University of Chicago. She is the author of Kidnapped Souls, The Lost Children, and The Great Departure.


"Tara Zahra captures and exhibits the elusive with remarkable documentation, impressive hard work, and exemplary historian's craft. Kidnapped Souls is not only an excellent book for providing the history of the essentially invisible actors (children), but, is also an exceptional achievement in writing the history of an absence (indifference to nationalism)."

H-German, H-Net Reviews, February 2009:

"Tara Zahra's finely researched, engagingly written book... makes two central points. First, exclusive national identification was neither a natural nor an inevitable development in multi-linguistic central Europe. And second, competing nationalists had to work hard to win the allegiance of 'nationally ambiguous' Bohemians and Moravians. The nationalists' persistent sense of failure motivated their nationalizing efforts as much as their successes. Zahra astutely focuses on nationalist campaigns for the 'souls' of school children in Bohemia and Moravia. Not only were schools a central battleground in conflicts between Czech and German nationalists over the control of public resources; they were also an active front in the struggles of both sides to eradicate national indifference.... Zahra's book makes many contributions to several different literatures, including comparative studies of nationalism, the history of the welfare state, and the history of pedagogy. Most striking for me, though, was her ability to write a truly Bohemian history, rather than a Czech or German one. Not only are Czech and German histories intimately intertwined in this book, they are in fact unthinkable without each other. Drawing on Rogers Brubaker's call to see nations as 'perspectives on the world' rather than 'things in the world' (p. 8), Zahra shows how Czech and German nationalist perspectives related directly to each other, finding meaning in their relationship to the other. The persistence of national indifference—the fuzzy margins between Czech and German national communities—maintained the salience of these national perspectives, while at the same time casting doubt on their substantive differences."

"This innovative, thoroughly researched, comprehensive book breaks with traditional scholarship in important respects and poses fresh new historical questions. It is sure to be mined by a generation of readers for its rich contextualization and thoughtful analyses."

Alison Frank, Harvard University:

"In Kidnapped Souls, Tara Zahra reveals an incredible talent for archival sleuthing. She masterfully accomplishes what many historians neglect to attempt by giving voice to those very anonymous historical actors whose opinions and perspectives nationalists have labored to silence. Far from being too simple to merit attention, these parents and children, students and citizens had a nuanced and contextualized conception of 'nation' that historians must, if not admire and emulate, then at least acknowledge and seek to understand."

John Connelly, University of California, Berkeley:

"Tara Zahra tells us that the nationality struggle in the Czech lands was fierce because people did not care about nationality. But everyone—nationalist or not—cared about children,though often in harshly conflicting ways. From these original insights Zahra takes us through a half century of Central Europe's history, discovering and illuminating unknown stretches of modern nationalism's most heavily explored terrain. But she not only remaps her subject: she reconstitutes it."

Larry Wolff, New York University, author of Inventing Eastern Europe:

"Tara Zahra has written a pioneering work that brings together the most complex issues of nations and nationalism with the history of the family and the history of childhood. Focusing on Bohemia from the late Habsburg monarchy through World War II, this brilliantly conceived book illuminates our historical understanding of nationhood and childhood, their relation to one another, and the crucial importance of that relation for modern European history."

"Solidly anchored in archival research, this book is situated squarely within the history of the European welfare state and helps blur the line between 'us' and 'them/the Other' that still exists between 'Eastern' and 'Western' European historiography. With her judicious use of comparative material, Zahra not only provides fascinating comparisons between Nazi treatment of children and families in the wartime Protectorate and occupied Poland during the war, but also with France. This volume is of interest to modern European historians in general and especially those interested in family history and nationalism studies. A tour de force, it is among the most innovative monographs on Habsburg Central European history to appear in recent years."

Chad Bryant, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:

"Kidnapped Souls brilliantly details how Czech and German nationalists attempted to claim, secure, and then mold children for their respective nations—often in the face of stiff resistance from nationally indifferent parents. Along the way, it offers thought-provoking analyses of the rise of the welfare state, interwar democracy, domestic life under Nazi rule, and the rise and fall of a forgotten political culture in the Bohemian Lands. Ambitious in its chronological breadth and supported by a dizzying array of archival sources, the book challenges historians of Europe to rethink many fundamental presumptions about the aims and successes of modern national movements."

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