This panel examines the importance of children and youth to state-building projects in four distinct national contexts in the twentieth century. Each paper considers how political actors viewed and used the political power of youth to legitimate different types of governance: from the nationalist project in the irredentist regions of northern Italy and the calls of Progressives for a strong federal government in the United States, to the rival regimes of the Nationalists and Communists in China and challenges to colonial rule in Bengal, India. Each state sought to inculcate nationalist ideas and legitimate its own power through the education and regulation of youth. Eden McLean highlights how, after the Italian annexation of South Tyrol, the Fascist regime used Italian-language education as a primary instrument to nationalize the region and define its Italian character. Just as children could be used to enforce an ethnic vision of a nation, they were also frequently imagined as the first victims of racial and ethnic degradation. Julia Bowes explores how the influx of white industrial child laborers at the turn of the century served as a fulcrum for nationalist concerns about “race suicide” in the United States, creating a moral imperative for increasing the powers of the federal government. Of course, the role that children played in legitimating governmental power was complex, particularly when competing regimes sought to lay claim to the youth. The “semi-colonial” International Settlement of Shanghai provided Anglo-American missionaries and Chinese converts with fraught opportunities to protect and shape Chinese children during World War II. Margaret Tillman analyzes the competing interests of evangelical Christians, Chinese nationalists and Japanese forces in shaping the character of Chinese youth in this protected zone. Finally, states also occasionally saw youth as a threat to political hegemony. Looking at the Indian nationalist movement in Bengal in the early twentieth century, Sudipa Topdar examines the anxieties of British colonial administrators about the anti-British political activism of schoolboys, and the possible treachery of teachers as agents of the colonial state.
In the Tyrol region, American cities, Bengali classrooms, and the Shanghai treaty-port, social anxiety pushed adults to protect children as the first victims in racial annihilation due to war, industry, or invasion. Thus, this panel explores a variety of the ways in which twentieth-century governments employed the widespread belief in the essential role children played in the construction of their power. Despite the particularities of each case study, each paper explores the important and complex relationships between ideas of youth, race, ethnicity and nationalism, across the globe in the twentieth century.