51. Historikertag, Panel “Matters of Law or Religion? Human Rights, Ideology, and Religion in the Divided Germany and Europe after 1945”

Panel: “Matters of Law or Religion? Human Rights, Ideology, and Religion in the Divided Germany and Europe after 1945”

Organized by Dr. Sebastian Gehrig and Dr. Ned Richardson-Little

Human rights and international law garnered increasing popularity since the end of the Second World War. Since the end of the Cold War, the language of human rights has reached unprecedented social and political legitimacy. At the same time, however, the religious, legal, and ideological origins of competing ideas of human rights fell into oblivion. The secular and legal language of today’s human rights debates has helped obscuring their conflict-ridden history. Recent scholarship has thus emphasised the role of ideological conflicts, church and religious activism, and social movements in the emergence of human rights as a political language and part of international law. How did socialist human rights concepts develop alongside and in conflict with liberal-democratic ideas? What was the role of the churches, religious groups and activists in the negotiation of human rights language? How were human rights politically employed and by whom? Was the so-called human rights revolution of the 1970s much more triggered by Third World liberation ideology and decolonisation movements than Western governments? And finally: Did religious and ideological beliefs structure the evolution of human rights language and international law much more than legal thought? This section explores human rights concepts, their political language, and religious and ideological roots as an integral part of the Cold War in Germany and beyond.


PD Dr. Katharina Kunter (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen)

Säkularisierungskitt und Antikriegswaffe? Christentum und Menschenrechte nach 1945

Dr. Ned Richardson-Little (University of Exeter)

Das Scheitern der Sozialistischen Menschenrechte

Dr. Sebastian Gehrig (University of Oxford)

Der Kampf um das menschenfreundlichere System: Menschenrechte, das geteilte Deutschland und die Vereinten Nationen nach 1945

Dr. Fabian Klose (Leibniz Institut für Europäische Geschichte Mainz)

Zur Idee der Humanitären Intervention im Zeichen des Kalten Krieges, 1945-1989


PD Dr. Annette Weinke (Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena)

The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Impact of History

On Wednesday, 20th July, the fellows of the GHRA 2016 discussed topical issues as well as the role and impact of history with Charlotte Lindsey Curtet at the Humanitarium, the conference centre at the headquarters of the ICRC in Geneva. As Director of Communication and Information Management since 2010, Charlotte Lindsey is not only current in all present affairs but also responsible for the Archives of the ICRC.

GHRA 2016_002

Charlotte Lindsey Curtet with the fellows of the Global Humanitarianism Research Academy, Geneva 20 July 2016.

She herself has witnessed great changes since she joined the organisation in 1993 when she first went on missions to Bosnia and Ruanda. In 1999-2000 she conducted a major research on women and war resulting in the publication of Women Facing War (2001). The findings in some instances surprised her herself, she said. Looking at women not merely through the prism of sexual violence and as victims but as actors in their own right broadened the perspectives and made the ICRC more gender sensitive in terms of operational response as well as legal development. The “all victims approach” prevalent until then has since been abandoned in favour of a more nuanced notion without giving up the principle of impartiality. In more recent years, similar discussions are taking place in relation to the challenges of cultural and particularly religious differences. The aim always is to find communality in order to come to the aid of those who suffer across the divides of a conflict. Increasing Respect for International Humanitarian Law in non-International Armed Conflicts (2008) suggests in a chapter on “strategic argumentation” to appeal to core values as “the fundamental principles of humanitarian law are often mirrored in the values, ethics or morality of local cultures and traditions. Pointing out how certain rules or principles found in IHL also exist within the culture of a party to a conflict can help lead to increased compliance“ (p. 31).

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Conference Report “Humanity – A History of European Concepts in Practice” by Ceren Aygül

Report by Ceren Aygül, Leibniz Institute of European History, Mainz


This interdisciplinary conference, organized by Fabian Klose (Mainz) and Mirjam Thulin (Mainz) on behalf of the members of IEG research group “Coping with Difference – Concepts of Humanity and Humanitarian Practices”, was held at the Leibniz Institute of European History (Mainz) from 8 to 10 October 2015. Prioritizing a comparative approach and focusing on the intersection of religious studies, international law and philosophy as well as on the history of humanitarianism and human rights, this conference set out to analyse the varieties and shifting meanings of the term “humanity” within the European context as well as in the context of Europe’s relations to other world regions. Keeping religious, colonial, social and gender aspects of the issue in mind, theologians and historians discussed the topic of “humanity” by focusing on such key issues as morality and human dignity, violence and international law, philanthropy, charity and solidarity.

2015-10-08 -10  Poster Humanity

The conference opened with a keynote lecture in which FRANCISCO BETHENCOURT (London) offered a historical review of principal aspects and categories of the division of humankind supposedly based on ethnicity, religion, gender, wealth and social status. He marked economic and political interests as the key motivations behind discriminatory actions and put an emphasis on ideological justifications of those distinctions. Questioning the universality of these divisions, he highlighted power relations as the basis of the categories and divisions, most of which displayed unstable patterns changed or recreated over time.

The first panel of the conference, dealing with morality and human dignity in early modern concepts, opened with MIHAI-D. GRIGORE’s (Mainz) presentation. Grigore concentrated on a transition in early modern political anthropology from humanitas Christiana, which viewed humanity as depending on an external or transcendental factor, i.e. God or the Church, to humanitas politica, which understood humanity as being inherent to every human being. Grigore traced this transition in the writings of Erasmus, which emphasises human nature as the property of individuals, not the Church, and a mutual goodwill intensified by education. MARIANO DELGADO (Fribourg) then presented his paper on the reflections of Spanish Catholic thinkers about the “nature” of American Indians in the 16th century. After outlining the dual genealogy of these thinkers’ ideas – the humanistic, enlightened thread stemming from the Stoa, considering the human race as one family, on the one side and Christian theology stressing man in the image of God on the other – Delgado presented two very different Christian thinkers, Bartolomé de Las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, showing how Sepúlveda justified European expansion in the Americas with the Indians’ supposed inferiority, and how Las Casas fought for the recognition of the Indians’ status as human beings. Delgado’s contribution was a reminder both of the variety of Christian thinking in the early modern period and of the strength of humanistic ideas even before the Enlightenment.

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Humanitarianism & the Media


At St Antony’s College Oxford, the Richard von Weizsäcker fellow organizes a conference on humanitarianism and aid. The meeting takes place at the European Studies Centre, 70 Woodstock Road, on 19 -20 June 2015. It focuses on the media as an essential feature of the history of humanitarianism. Contributors discuss both the role of the media in humanitarian activities, and the imagery produced in print or on screen. Scholars from history, media studies, and anthropology present recent research with a view on the visual discourse, the meanings and materiality of the images since the beginning of the 20th century. Critically considering the medialisation of the humanitarian, they analyse the interaction between humanitarian agencies and media actors.

Speakers and topics:
(Detailed Programme Hum & Media 2015)

Johannes Paulmann (Oxford/ Mainz)

I Humanitarian Imagery

Katharina Stornig (Mainz)
Promoting Distant Children in Need: Christian Imagery in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

Rose Holmes (Sussex)
‘Make the situation real to us without stressing the horrors’: Children, photography and British humanitarianism in the Spanish Civil War

Daniel Palmieri (ICRC, Geneva)
Humanitarianism on the Screen: The ICRC Films from the 1920’s to the 1960’s

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Human Rights in the Romanian Orthodox Church After 2008

The human rights issue is meanwhile a familiar theme for the Western Christian Churches such as the Roman-Catholic and the Protestant Churches. After the problematic relation during the 18th and 19th century concerning the human rights affirmations of the American ‘Declaration of Independence’ (1776) and the French Revolution (1789 or 1791) the Roman Catholic Church succeeded to relax its attitude towards human rights and to assimilate the pattern in its own social ethics, of course underpinning it with theological and biblical argumentations in its attempt to de-secularize this discourse. The Protestant Churches demonstrate a broad and differential approach to the social, political and ethical function of human rights, despite their apparent congruity exhibited by the statements of the Lutheran or Reformed World Federations (1970) (as shown by Christopher Voigt-Goy in his previous post). Continue reading

Human Rights and Modern Christianity – Historical Perspectives

Christianity has its own rather difficult history in relation to modern human rights. While reluctance to the ideas of ‘human rights’ and ‘human dignity’ dominated the theology of the main church bodies well into the 20th century, the situation drastically changed after 1945. Since the 1970’s, then, the debate on ‘human rights’ and ‘human dignity’ is at the core of theological ethics. The conference  ‘Difficult Tolerance. The Dealings with Dissidents and Dissenters in the History of Christianity’ (‘Schwierige Toleranz. Der Umgang mit Andersdenkenden und Andersgläubigen in der Christentumsgeschichte’, held from 6th to 8th May 2010 in Fribourg/Switzerland) devoted a whole section to this significant shift. The attitudes to the notion of human rights and human dignity in Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism are presented in the section of the resulting edited volume:



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Research Topics, Part 2: Humanitarianism and Religion

Beside Humanitarianism and Intervention (see Fabian’s post on 18/04/2013), another central research topic is religion and humanitarianism. Among the different threads, which have made up modern humanitarianism since the eighteenth century, religion was and still is one of the strongest.

Although humanitarian reform entailed strong secular concerns, it was by no means a purely secular phenomenon but rather closely linked to and supplemented by religious developments.This argument has recently been made forcefully with regard to the genealogy of human rights by Hans Joas in The Sacredness of the Person. A New Genealogy of Human Rights (Engl. transl., Washington, DC, Georgetown University Press, 2013). Religious motivations also drove many if not most of the reformers who sought to make the world a better place and made many others turn toward worldly service in medical practice, child education, or other areas of philanthropy. Religious morality has left a strong imprint well beyond the nineteenth-century world.

Michael Barnett and Janice Gross Stein have recently edited a volume on Sacred Aid. Faith and Humanitarianims (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). They contend that during the twentieth century secular concens came to dominate so much so that by the 1970s religious inspiration had become marginal to humanitarian movements. However, since the 1980s religious humanitarianism saw a revival and seems today an equal to secular reformers and humaniarian practioners. This may seem true on the surface, but Jeffrey Cox has recently not only emphasized missionary organisations as the first and for a long time dominant actors of humanitarian engagement in early twentieth century Britain, but also differentiated their representation, by highlighting women as central actors and nominal Christians as an active group of humanitarians, who are often neglected in research (‘From the Empire of Christ to the Third World. Religion and the Experience of Empire in the Twentieth Century,’ in Britain’s Experience of Empire in the Twentieth Century, ed. Andrew Thompson, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). He concluded that Christian piety later in the century increasingly took a secular form and used a secular rhetoric but did not lose its religious core which only became invisible in a “religion of ethical practice” or the “religion of everyday life”.

So, the question of the longevity and impact of religion on humanitarianism still needs further discussion and research. Last year’s conference at the Leibniz Institute of European History in Mainz discussed the role of religion in humanitarianism by focusing on the dimensions of Empire. The conference was organised by Harald Fischer-Tiné, Johannes Paulmann and Alexandra Przyrembel. The goal of the international and interdisciplinary gathering was to discuss the globalisation of religious humanitarianism in the context of its entanglement with European colonial powers on the one hand and the colonies on the other. With its main focus on missionary societies, missionary orders and philanthropic organisations that pursued religious and more broadly humanitarian aims, the task was to analyse the longevity, ambiguity and malleability of religious arguments for state and non-state humanitarian assistance well into the twentieth century. For a more detailed account see Esther Möller‘s and my report on http://hsozkult.geschichte.hu-berlin.de/tagungsberichte/id=4794. One of the questions that came up in conclusion has been how apparently secularised European humanitarianism and relief was received by people in Africa, Asia and America who were adhering more stronly perhaps to religious values and thinking. Following Cox’s arguement, though, the clash may not have been so stark. It remains to be discussed, I think, how humanitarianism as a malleable mode of speaking presented ways of establishing linkages between the imperial, global post-colonial, and the local levels of interaction. Religious threads, visible or not, may well have provided an essential element.