From philanthropy to the welfare system in Central and South-Eastern Europe. Imperial experiences at the turn of the century

Report on the workshop organized by the CRH-EHESS in Paris, February 16, 2017

by Mátyás Erdélyi (CEFRES / CEU)

This workshop is part of a series of four seminars organized by the Centre de recherches historiques (CRH-EHESS) entitled “From philanthropy to the welfare system in Central and South-Eastern Europe – Imperial experiences at the turn of the century” [De la philanthropie à la protection sociale en Europe centrale et du sud-est. Expériences impériales au tournant du XXe siècle]. They focus on the historical connections between philanthropic activities, social reform, and their legacy in the welfare systems of successor states in Central- and South-Eastern Europe.

In line with the new tendencies in historiography, the basic conceptual frame of the workshop is to separate the birth of welfare systems from the advent of nation states in the aftermath of the Great War. It argues that the fundamental premises of social welfare can be found in connection to philanthropic activities and reform initiatives already embedded in imperial contexts. Research on social reform before the Great War thus provides a plethora of networks, institutions, and milieus that constitute a framework for further global and transnational interpretations. This approach also puts emphasis on the capacity of empires (Habsburg, Ottoman, Romanov) to bring about institutional innovations and new practices that were hitherto only attributed to nation states, thus questioning the direct link between social welfare and the nation state.

The first session of the series dealt with the diversity of philanthropic practices and institutions in the imperial context and with the various forms of their institutionalization preceding the advent of welfare systems.

The second session (in which I presented a paper on the mortality debates in Prague and Budapest between the 1880s and the 1900s) was devoted to the study of surveys, methods, and empirical knowledge in welfare initiatives. It stressed the diversity of expertise, processes, and practices connected to philanthropic activities.

The third session is to be held on March 31 (“From the philanthropist to the public servant: circulations and transnational trajectories”) and will focus on the challenges of nation states in the aftermath of the Great War with regard to the philanthropic nature of welfare initiatives. The last one will be centered on the connection between social welfare and migration (“Migration and social welfare: what welfare for the migrants?”, to be held on May 12).

Image d’en-tête:
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “New York City — A Scene In The New York Eye And Ear Infirmary, Second Avenue And Thirteenth Street, During The Hours For The Reception Of Patients.”The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1875.