Out of the Shadows: Family Life and Policy Making in Early Twentieth-Century Europe

Family Politics: Domestic Life, Devastation and Survival, 1900-1950

  • Paul Ginsborg
  • Yale University Press, 2014; 444 pages, $35.00

Narratives of modern Europe, argues history professor Paul Ginsborg of the University of Florence, have commonly left families “off stage,” “hidden from history.” In Family Politics, he seeks to insert the story of the European family during the tumultuous first half of the twentieth century “into a wider and deeper general history.” Using both biographi­cal sketches and statistical measures of social change, he focuses on the family life found in five nations especially torn by political and wartime traumas: Russia, Turkey, Italy, Germany, and Spain. All but the latter took part in the Great War of 1914 when, to borrow a phrase from Wilfred Owen, “half the seed of Europe” was wiped out. For its part, Spain expe­rienced the devastations of an unusually brutal civil war. In all five cases, the consequence of war, revolution, political unrest, and civil strife was the emergence of dictators: V.I. Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Kemal Atatürk, Benito Mussolini, Adolph Hitler, and Francisco Franco.

The result of Ginsborg’s efforts is an admirable, highly readable, and compelling, if sometimes flawed, volume. Using family life as his lens, the author describes in often vivid prose the distinctive tragedies found within his broad subject, including: the Armenian genocide of 1916, where parents were commonly forced to choose which of their children would die first; the Ukrainian famine of 1921, when virtually every child under the age of three perished; the burning of hundreds of churches and the murder of 10,000 Catholic priests, monks, and nuns by Spanish Republicans in 1936, coupled with the destruction of whole family villages by Franco’s vengeful Army of Africa. Ginsborg shows how such woeful incidents derived from “the poisoned chalice” of nineteenth-century European nationalism, what one of his characters called “that magnificent national madness.”

The author gives proper attention to the mostly sordid family lives of the dictators themselves. Two of them, Hitler and Atatürk, never mar­ried. Yet both kept mistresses: for the former his first cousin; for the latter his “adopted daughter.” Lenin had a formal wife and several mistresses, but the Revolution “was his only child.” Both Mussolini and Stalin had wives and legitimate children, yet they mostly ignored them, sometimes viciously so (Stalin also went out of his way to exterminate his in-laws). While otherwise despising the man, Ginsborg does admit that only Generalissimo Franco had a positive domestic life: a marriage lasting over 50 years, a daughter, and seven grandchildren.

The book has a coherent point of view. As the author acknowledges, his work “is full of feminists of one sort or another.” He clearly favors full gender equality, sexual liberty, and policies such as collective child care. Any advance toward these goals he directly or indirectly praises. Any attempt to defend full-time motherhood or the breadwinning father, he deplores (with the limited exception of Turkey in the mid-1920s, described later). This orientation allows him to raise up certain heroes. He particularly admires Alexandra Kollontai, the only female Kommisar in Lenin’s revolutionary government of 1917. The author of Red Love, she was the architect of the new Soviet Union’s Family Code of 1918, which introduced no-fault divorce and collectivized child care, while disman­tling marriage and the home economy. Although the real immediate results included millions of abandoned women and about seven million homeless children, and even though Kollontai wound up as a propagan­dist for the murderous Stalinist regime, Ginsborg keeps coming back to her “fascinating” and “striking” example. He gives similar attention to two other notable women: Halide Edib, who pushed for family reform within the new Republic of Turkey; and Margarita Nelken of Spain, a “home schooled” journalist and advocate of “free love,” a defender of the “Libertarian Communism” of the Anarchists, who sought to give coher­ence to the domestic policies of the embattled Republic.

Ginsborg’s family-centered point of view produces villains, as well. As noted above, the author holds Franco in historical contempt. He works to deconstruct the Generalissimo’s claim to be saving “religion, the fatherland, and the family,” arguing that the Republican Constitution of 1931 was actually pro-family and that Franco’s ruthlessness during the civil war had nothing “religious” about it. More broadly, Ginsborg dislikes the Roman Catholic Church of this era. He is skeptical of its attempts to reassert the “Social Kingdom of the Church,” finding here little more than patriarchal reaction. He criticizes in particular Pope Pius XI, for signing the Concordant with Mussolini which created Vatican City and for authoring the encyclical Casti Connubii (On Human Marriage), which Ginsborg deems proto-fascist. He even dismisses the great Catholic social encyclicals, Rerum Novarum (Leo XIII, 1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (Pius XI, 1931), because they endorsed full-time motherhood and family wages for fathers. The author holds the Russian Orthodox Church in even greater historical contempt, finding in its mys­ticism mere superstition and “magic” and in its ecclesiastical structure an oppressive patriarchalism.

The book does have objective flaws in interpretation. The author asserts that the philosophical architects of Communism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, were vague about the political future of the family. However, Engel’s 1884 volume The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State does lay out a clear policy agenda: free love; an end to traditional marriage; no-fault divorce; elimination of the distinctions between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” births; elimination of family-held property; and the collectivization of housing, child care, and meals. True, few details were given, but this is precisely the agenda that Kollontai and other Bolsheviks would pursue in 1918. Ginsborg also asserts that the protests by Italian peasants after the Great War, demanding social justice and land redistribution, represented a movement “larger than that of any other part of Europe except Russia.” He seems completely unaware of “the Green Revolution” that swept through Eastern Europe between Carlson, Out of the Shadows 1918 and 1932, where peasant-led governments actually came to power in Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Finland, with sweep­ing agendas of land reform, family policy, and rural social welfare.

All the same, there are many pleasant surprises in this book. For example, the author gives a fine, novel interpretation to the transforma­tion of the Turkish family during the early years of Atatürk’s Republic. Seeking to replace the old Islamic practices of polygamy, veiling, and the isolation of women (the primary activity for the Ottoman wife in Istanbul, circa 1900, had been “sitting”), writers such as Halide Edib and Ziya Gökalp built the case for a strengthened nuclear household as a center for “family morality,” “a small nest-like family” (as Ginsborg sum­marizes) that would become “the powerhouse of the nation.” To that end, Atatürk implemented perhaps the most remarkable act of “family policy” in modern history. In 1924, he declared that “[t]he direction to be fol­lowed in civil law and family law should be nothing but that of Western civilization.” Two years later, the new Turkish Republic adopted—with­out changing a single word—the Civil Code of Switzerland as its family law. This had the immediate effect of abolishing polygamy by default and granting a host of new rights to women, including equality in access to divorce and in property matters. (Ginsborg notes, correctly I think, that part of the appeal of the Swiss Code was its soft version of patriarchy, which did continue to view the husband and father as head of the family; indeed, Swiss women did not gain the vote until 1971!)

Another pleasant surprise is Ginsborg’s treatment of the Italian Communist, Antonio Gramsci. Unlike his fellow Marxists in Russia, Gramsci actually held a very positive view of the European Christian family. He stressed the power of virtuous family-centered schooling; as a necessary limit to collective life, the state could not be allowed to control the education of children. Where the Bolsheviks defined “morality” by the needs of “the Revolution,” Gramsci held that it was rather “an ‘infi­nite rosary’ of benign everyday initiatives.” Indeed, he gave the future Communist utopia a very different spin: “Only the abolition of private property and its conversion into collective property can ensure that the family will be able to fulfill its destiny: that of being an organ of moral life.” While Gramsci clearly misunderstood the role of certain kinds of private property (house, garden, etc.) in preserving family integrity, his example does underscore another of Ginsborg’s themes: not all totalitari­anisms—theoretically and practically—were the same.

In a similar way, Ginsborg ably dismantles the myth that Italian fascism was pro-family. As one of the precursors to the movement, the “Futurist” Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, wrote in 1919: “The family as it is constituted today by means of marriage and without divorce is absurd, harmful and prehistoric… The family dining room is the twice-daily dumping ground for bile, ill-humor, prejudice and gossip.” He added that while the idea of the Fatherland “was generous, heroic, dynamic, futurista,” that of the family was “narrow, fearful, static, conservative, passatista.” The leading philosopher of Fascism, Giovanni Gentile, con­curred: “the state cannot realize itself unless it absorbs the family and annuls it.” Mussolini praised the family, and seemed to support it, only when he needed more children who would become the soldiers behind his imperialist goals.

In short, I recommend this book—despite its shortcomings—to anyone interested in the formation of contemporary family policy. Even from the perspective of this journal, it highlights ways in which family policy has been done well. It provides warnings over how such policies can become harmful and destructive. And it raises up provocative sug­gestions about future policy options lying outside conventional ideologi­cal lines that could strengthen the Natural Family.

Dr. Allan C. Carlson is Editor of The Natural Family.