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When good neighbours pay for your medical bills (and so much more)

December 15, 2010

By Tudor Georgescu

Integrating ethnic minorities as actors, rather than mere bystanders or victims, into our exploration of interwar medicine can reveal a fascinating new dimension to how local communities engaged with the wider knowledge transfer markets of their time. Widening historiography’s current focus on nation-states would allow for a new, comparative perspective on how ethnic minorities not only contributed to pan-European debates on public health and hygiene but also adapted and tailored these to their local needs.

An intriguing case study of how international currents in thinking on social and race hygiene, amplified by the flurry of eugenic and fascist ideologies that swept across the continent and beyond, were appropriated by an ethnic minority to great effect is offered by the Transylvanian Saxons in interwar Romania. The Saxons had created substantial medical, political, economic and sociocultural structures whose surprisingly intact archives chronicle their development throughout the tumultuous interwar period they began as new citizens of ‘Greater Romania’. Reconstructing the history of interwar Saxon medicine can hence resort to individual archives of prominent physicians along with the vast archives of the Saxon Protestant Church and the Saxon political establishment.

While the Church was in many ways the minority’s primary healthcare provider – be that through its stewardship of schools or the extensive network of over 200 welfare facilities ranging from orphanages to spas to clinics to national health exhibits – my project focuses on the ‘National Neighbourhoods’ revived by the empowered fascist ‘Self-Help’ movement in the 1930s.

Saxon families received 'honorary gifts' for their fourth and subsequent children.

Saxon families received 'honorary gifts' for their fourth and subsequent children. From W Schunn and O Pastior, Die Ehrung des Kinderreichtums bei den Deutschen in Rumanien, 1940.

One of Saxon fascism’s most consequential innovations, Wilhelm Schunn’s 1933 reinvention of the historic ‘Neighbourhoods’ model of community support networks (which had been banned by Hungary in the late 19th century) embodied remarkable social and ethnic engineering projects. The flagship Neighbourhood network was set up in Sibiu/Hermannstadt, which for its part was divided into 39 individual neighbourhoods, each conferred with a distinct geographic and historic identity. These new, national Neighbourhoods oversaw a comprehensive community portfolio spanning financial aid with medical bills for individual members to the implementation of Saxon fascism’s flagship eugenic policy – the ‘Honorary Gifts’ awarded for a fourth or subsequent child.

The ‘honorary gifts’ offered a practical solution to both a perceptibly dwindling Saxon Lebensraum and the much-complained-about loss of racial substance, and came in the form of a one-off payment of a staggering 20 000 lei for the fourth child, and a further 10 000 lei for each subsequent one (the overwhelming majority of recipients had a monthly income around the 2–3000 lei mark). But this ‘holy money’ was conditional: first, upon the approval of a spending plan that, in most cases, revolved around building or improving the family home (reflecting the fascist movement’s founding goal of raising living and hygiene standards in poorer quarters, as well as, naturally, for propagandistic value). Second, and more contentiously, applicants had (at least in principle) to undergo a race-hygiene ‘hereditary fitness’ exam at the hands of an appointed Saxon medical professional in a bid to ensure this incentive for larger families only benefited those perceived as healthy and valuable. In other words, they amounted to a remarkable form of eugenic welfare. These honorary gifts blurred the boundaries between public and private, creating a new, sacred space in the form of strictly structured ceremonial conferrals extolling the customary virtues of blood and soil.

To underline their public accountability, the Neighbourhoods published monthly ‘donations lists’ detailing who received what for what purpose from their neighbours. These lists of recipients of ‘case-specific’ medical aid, of those conferred with honorary gifts or other forms of ‘neighbourly help’ are immeasurably valuable sources. More significantly still, the Romanian National Archive in Sibiu houses the vast but barely touched National Neighbourhoods archive, detailing the activities of the Central Office and its 22 individual departments as well as each of Sibiu’s 39 individual Neighbourhoods. Excavating this substantial resource will allow for the creation of detailed demographic, socioeconomic and medical profiles for these particular Neighbourhoods. This is a tantalising prospect that would allow for an in-depth investigation of the specific impact medical aid and eugenic welfare had on the lives of its recipients.

The history of Saxon medicine in Transylvania is itself a nascent and sparsely populated field, and offers substantial room for further research, far more so than the example offered here can fully explore. And while the Saxon Protestant Church’s own, and particularly active, welfare committee is itself in urgent need of further study, the particular historiographic importance of the Neighbourhoods also lies with the attempts undertaken to export this model to other German minorities in Romania and abroad, such as the Sudeten and Baltic Germans. The Neighbourhoods, therefore, constitute a valuable case study of the transfer and appropriation of eugenic theories on nation and race, of how they were subsequently legislated for through the reinvention of a historical means of local self-help, but also of attempts made to network and engage with other minorities.

Dr Tudor Georgescu is a postdoctoral research officer at Oxford Brookes University.

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