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.

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The Global Anti-Apartheid Movement, 1946-1994

Dr. Nicholas Grant, American Studies, University of East Anglia

Cross-posted from


Last month saw the publication of the Radical History Review’s special issue on ‘The Global Anti-Apartheid Movement’. Appearing on the 20th anniversary of South African democracy, the issue contains articles, roundtables and review pieces that explore a range of transnational connections that shaped political opposition to white supremacy in South Africa. As editors Lisa Brock, Alex Lichtenstein and Van Gosse comment in their introduction, “in seeking contributions to this issue, we made a deliberate effort to give the truly global nature of the movements in solidarity with southern Africa their due.”[1]

Radical History

The Radical History Review Special Issue on ‘The Global Antiapartheid Movement’ No. 119 (Spring, 2014)

Whilst activism in the US and Britain continues to dominate much of the scholarship on the international anti-apartheid movement, this special issue makes an important effort to move beyond this occasionally restricting narrative. The articles within the issue therefore address different forms of activism in a number of diverse geographical contexts. For example, Jerry Dávila examines how black civil rights activists in Brazil were influenced by and drew upon anti-apartheid agitation in South Africa; Alex Lichtenstein’s interview with Sietse Bosgra sheds light on the Dutch anti-apartheid movement and its links to anticolonial liberation movements throughout Africa; whilst Teresa Barnes broadens the definition of the global ‘anti-apartheid’ struggle in her gendered analysis of activist networks forged between American radicals involved in the women’s health movement and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). In addition to this, Scott Laderman adds a fascinating new perspective on the relationship between sport and the anti-apartheid movement by examining the responses of professional surfers from around the world to calls to boycott South African events on the world tour in the 1980s. Continue reading

“Boycotting Apartheid: the Global Politics of ‘Fair Trade’” by David Thackeray

David Thackeray

Senior Lecturer at the University of Exeter

Cross-posted from

As  a  child  there  were  few  experiences  I  looked  forward  to  more  than  a  trip  up  to  London  with  my  father  to  visit  Hamleys  toy  store  in  the  run-up  to  Christmas.  Rather  unusually  perhaps,  these  visits  to  the  capital  were  also  occasionally  marked  by  a  stop  at  South  Africa  House  to  see  the  Anti-Apartheid  picket  of  the  embassy,  organised  to  call  for  the  release  of  ANC  leader  Nelson  Mandela.  We  had  moved  to  the  UK  from  New  Zealand  a  few  years  beforehand,  and  Dad  would  always  use  such  occasions  to  regale  me  with  proud  memories  of  the  protests  which  greeted  South  Africa’s  notorious  rugby  tour  in  1981.  When  the  Springboks  came  to  our  home  city  of  Hamilton,  a  key  centre  of  Maori  culture,  crowd  protests  led  to  the  abandonment  of  a  test  against  the  All  Blacks.  Another  game  became  a  farce  when  flour  bombs  and  leaflets  were  scattered  over  the  pitch  from  a  light  aeroplane.

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