Humanitarianism in Historical Perspective

Workshop at the European University Institute, Florence
Report by Johannes Paulmann (IEG, Mainz)

Florenz 2015_21

The workshop participants at the terrace of Villa Schifanoia (from left to right): Alexandra Pfeiff, Simon Stevens, Fabian Klose, Johannes Paulmann, Emily Baughan, Semih Çelik, and Dirk Moses.

On 25th November 2015, scholars met at the EUI to discuss recent research on the history of humanitarianism. Dirk Moses (EUI), who convened the workshop, opened the day with remarks on the controversial nature of humanitarianism. What for some is a heroic movement that ended the slave trade is for others the rhetorical handmaiden of the European empires that partitioned Africa in the name of ending slavery and introducing civilization in the late nineteenth century. New research is historicizing these impressions, debates, and associated notions of humanity, humanitarian aid, humanitarian intervention, human rights and genocide prevention.

Johannes Paulmann (Leibniz Institute of European History, Mainz) started the proceedings with a paper on ‘The Humanitarian Narrative in Context: From Mission and Empire to Cold War and Decolonization’. Adapting Didier Fassin’s notion of ‘humanitarian reason’, he discussed the changing rhetoric and visual means which are employed to form a bond between those who are suffering and those who care to help. While contemporary scholarly critique of crisis relief questions the narrative which leads readers and spectators to assume that ameliorative action is possible, effective and therefore morally required, the ‘emergency imaginary’ (Craig Calhoun) has made responding to disasters by quickly delivering assistance worldwide one of the modalities of globalization carrying moral imperatives for immediate actions. Presenting two historical examples, with a focus on bodily images, Paulmann then analysed the display of mutilations during the Congo reform campaign in the context of missionaries’ drive for saving souls around 1900 and concluded with a documentary film on a West German civilian hospital ship during the Vietnam War. These images were embedded in a narrative of Red Cross neutral humanitarian action and the ambiguous attempts to keep one’s distance to bodily harm, the politics of war, and later also towards refugees. Late 1970s humanitarian reason appeared strikingly similar made up with regard to the politics of solidarity and inequality we presently witness in Europe.

Humanitarian military intervention was the topic Fabian Klose (Leibniz Institute of European History, Mainz) presented under the title ‘Enforcing Humanity: A Genealogy of Humanitarian Intervention’. He explored the history of intervention which, in contrast to claims by political scientist, reaches back to the early nineteenth century when a key transition unfolded from the protection of specific co-religious groups to protection ‘in the name of humanity’. Based on extensive archival research, he highlighted the centrality of the suppression of slave-trading for establishing the practice of humanitarian intervention before its inclusion in the body of international law towards the end of the nineteenth century. This has not been fully acknowledged in recent research. Klose also emphasized that the interventionist discourse was not a human rights discourse. ‘In the name of humanity’, at the time did not imply universal individual rights or even less so equality. Humanity as a legal norm to be enforced by states was limited to the notion of a common humanity which was open to numerous differentiations, categorizations, and hierarchies.

Continue reading