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.

Semih Çelik (EUI) explored humanitarian ideas and practices in the Ottoman Empire ‘Before the Crescent and the Cross, c. 1800 – 1860’. Drawing on his dissertation project on the effects of climate change and famines on the socio-political transformation of the Empire in the first half of the nineteenth century, he first explained the Ottoman humanitarian discourse, which had its own terms for humanity, human rights and humanitarian international law and included debates on the abolition of slavery. Against this background, Çelik described the Ottoman aid for famine victims in Ireland during the 1840s. His analysis was based on the humanitarian sentiments expressed in Constantinople newspapers. A second instance of relief for distant strangers were aid collections, not just in the capital, for victims of severe flooding in France in 1856. The paper illustrated that humanitarianism in the Ottoman Empire was by no means a blank: existing concepts and practices need to be considered when historians investigate the later foundation of the Red Crescent in 1868.

With regard to China, the history of the Red Cross movement also needs to be reconsidered. Alexandra Pfeiff (EUI) presented results from her almost completed dissertation on the work of Chinese humanitarian societies during the Republican era. She focused her talk on ‘The Red Swastika Society and its Transnational Humanitarian Activism for the World’. This faith- based society was one of several Chinese organisations which never became part of the international network of Red Cross societies although it displayed equivalent organisational forms and introduced the Geneva principles to its practice during the 1920s. In contrast to the modernising stance of the Chinese Red Cross Society founded in 1911, the Red Swastika Society sought to combine what were considered Chinese spiritual traditions with charitable institutions, hospitals and other relief works. Based on the old elite rather than young Han Chinese members, it fostered international relations with other societies in Asia. Finally banned in China in 1953, it still exists outside the country. Pfeiff urges to broaden the history of the Red Cross movement by including the story of organisations like the Red Swastika although it has never been registered at the Geneva institutions.

Emily Baughan (University of Bristol / EUI Max Weber Fellow) presented a paper based on her 2014 doctoral dissertation ‘Saving the Children: British Humanitarianism in Europe and Africa, 1915-1945’ which she is expanding up to 1970 for publication as a monograph. Her talk focused on the transformation of the British NGO Save the Children from the First World War to Decolonization. She emphasized that liberal imperialism did not die out in the interwar period. Dorothy Buxton, one of the founders of Save the Children, was inspired by the idea that not government policy but efforts to connect people across borders will bring lasting peace and that care for the bodies of children will turn them into healthy adults with benefits for work and trade between peoples. For her the International Save the Children Union, founded in Geneva in 1920, was the ultimate form of internationalism, in contrast to the League of Nations. Practical application of these international principles was managed strongly by her sister Eglantyne Jebb who brought more conservative ideas with her from the Charity Organisation Society and took over the organisation after Buxton’s breakdown in 1922. The latter’s leftist politics disappeared, politics were hidden beneath an outwardly apolitical image. During the interwar period the connection with British Empire work was forged so much so that after the Second World War Save the Children was closely linked with colonial administrations and took a stance against decolonization because it feared the decline of order and the end of the civilizing mission. Baughan argued for interpreting the development of this kind of British humanitarian activities as a form of imperial internationalism.

The final paper on ‘Humanitarianism, Anti-Capitalism, and Anti-Apartheid Activism’ was given by Simon Stevens (EUI Max Weber Fellow). It presented some results from his 2015 PhD dissertation, which examines the strategy and tactics of the global anti-apartheid movement including various campaigns for consumer, sports, and cultural boycotts, governmental trade sanctions, and corporate disinvestment. Drawing on multi-archival research, he explained why campaigns against big companies became such a prominent feature in 1968 – 1970. The choice of this form of pressure resulted from the failed attempts to achieve UN sanctions against South Africa. As the ANC turned to armed struggle, the anti-apartheid movement in Britain and elsewhere believed it could best contribute to the end of the regime by turning against big companies like Barclays Bank and pressure them disinvest. The different activist groups assembled amongst others a number of disillusioned members of humanitarian organizations who recognized structural reasons for the division between poor and rich in the world which charity aid would not be able to abolish. By its inclusion of the view from and on the Global South, Stevens also illustrated that self-determination was not replaced in the 1970s by human rights discourse.

In concluding this report, appreciation needs to be expressed that the workshop allowed generous time for intensive and lively discussion among the participants and other scholars from the European University Institute. It successfully continued the critical project of contextualizing the many dimensions of humanitarianism by debating genealogies, invoking various national, international and global frames, and presenting dense empirical reconstructions.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Johannes Paulmann (December 3, 2015). Humanitarianism in Historical Perspective. Humanitarianism & Human Rights. Retrieved July 22, 2024 from

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