Tracing the Twentieth Century through Maps

europe_from_space_640The 20th century was a period of extremes, of contrasts and contradictions. It witnessed destructive wars, and yet periods of unprecedented peace. Increasing wealth was joined by higher levels of poverty. There was scientific and technological progress, but also inhumanity and repression. The map was one of the century’s principal objects. Thanks to developments in geography education, cheaper and quicker mapmaking processes, and increasing travel and migration, maps became common, trusted and powerful things in western society. Yet maps were not passive or neutral objects. They were agents of change, presenting only versions of reality, not the reality itself. They were capable of informing, but also misleading. They were tools of control and of protest, and even changed the world.

With these advances and the changing role of maps in mind, on Monday 5th December Dr Jessica Reinisch will deliver a keynote lecture addressing ‘What Matters Most about the Twentieth Century?’ as part of a one day CPD course for secondary school teachers. The course, ‘Tracing the Twentieth Century through Maps‘, is hosted by the Historical Association in partnership with the British Library and is designed to aid those teaching 20th century units at GCSE or A-Level, with the day based around the British Library’s forthcoming exhibition Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line.

The course will comprise of keynotes from Jessica Reinisch and Tom Harper, lead curator of the exhibition, followed by a series of workshops to develop subject knowledge and support best practice teaching. These workshops will feature Ben Walsh, associate vice president of the Historical Association, on the Cold War and Alf Wilkinson, educational consultant and textbook author, on the First World War.

Booking is open now through Eventbrite here. Further information and the full programme for the day is available to consult on the Historical Association’s website here.

Writing ‘Outsiders’ into the History of International Public Health: A Working Symposium

League of NationsHistories of the development of international public health in the twentieth century tend to be celebrations of achievements – whether the enrolling of an ever-widening number of nations in programs to improve health and prevent disease, the adoption of shared standards and measurements to track health status, or the circulation of health researchers and statesmen across national frontiers. Justified though it often was, the repeated sounding of trumpets may have relegated to the background “outsiders” in the international health arena.

What impact, we wonder, would factoring in “outsiders” make to the way we write the history of international public health? What can close study of “outsiders” tell us about the international system of public health – its rules (written and unwritten), its reach, and its commitment to inclusiveness.

These questions will form the basis for discussion in a working symposium on ‘Writing “Outsiders” into the History of International Public Health.’ The workshop will be held on Thursday 27th and Friday 28th October at Birkbeck, University of London.

The workshop is free and open to all. A limited number of spaces are available for both days of the workshop. To book a place, please email Full details of the workshop programme are outlined below.


Introductions 09.30 – 10.00am

Panel 1: Giving and Taking 10.00 – 11.30am

ŸJessica Reinisch, The ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’: the political geography of UNRRA’s donating and receiving countries

Lion Murard, Ironies of Technical Assistance: Greece, Eastern Europe and Health Internationalism in the interwar period

Davide Rodogno & Thomas David, Fellows and Fellowships in Public Health: an overview and a focus on the case of China


Panel 2: Neither Centre nor Periphery: Soviet Russia in the inter-war years 12.00 – 1.30pm

Susan Gross Solomon, Making the case: the USSR in Geneva and New York

Johanna Conterio, Socialist Design around the Black Sea

Sarah Marks, Czechoslovakia as insider and outsider in early Cold War era


Panel 3: Public Health in ‘Outsider’ States 2.30 – 4.00pm

ŸDavid Brydan, Franco Spain as outsider and insider

ŸPaul Weindling, Germany as an outsider in international health under Nazism

ŸMaria Zarifi, Public health and the construction of Greece



Panel 4: Inclusion and Exclusion in International Health Networks 10.30am – 12.00pm

ŸJessica Pearson-Patel, Colonial Politics of Global Public Health

ŸDora Vargha, Insiders and outsiders in the WHO

ŸAna Antic, Communist medicine and psychiatry and its links to the global South


Final Roundtable: Internationalism and Public Health 12.00 – 1.30pm

What difference does adding outsiders make to the way we write the history of public health? How does it change the writing of international history?

ŸPatricia Clavin

ŸPeter Jackson

ŸPaul Weindling

ŸPatrick Zylberman

Hard Right, Soft Power: fascist regimes and the battle for hearts and minds

A new global “soft power” ranking recently reported that the democratic states of North America and Western Europe were the most successful at achieving their diplomatic objectives “through attraction and persuasion”.

Countries such as the US, the UK, Germany and Canada, the report claimed, are able to promote their influence through language, education, culture and the media, rather than having to rely on traditional forms of military or diplomatic “hard power”.

The notion of soft power has also returned to prominence in Britain since the Brexit vote, with competing claims that leaving Europe will either damage Britain’s reputation abroad or increase the importance of soft power to British diplomacy.

Although the term “soft power” was popularised by the political scientist Joseph Nye in the 1980s, the practice of states attempting to exert influence through their values and culture goes back much further. Despite what the current soft power list would suggest, it has never been solely the preserve of liberal or democratic states. The Soviet Union, for example, went to great efforts to promote its image to intellectuals and elites abroad through organisations such as VOKS (All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries).

Perhaps more surprisingly, right-wing authoritarian and fascist states also used soft power strategies to spread their power and influence abroad during the first half of the 20th century. Alongside their aggressive and expansionist foreign policies, Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and other authoritarian states used the arts, science, and culture to further their diplomatic goals.

‘New Europe’

Prior to World War II, these efforts were primarily focused on strengthening ties between the fascist powers. The 1930s, for example, witnessed intensive cultural exchanges between fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Although these efforts were shaped by the ideology of their respective regimes, they also built on pre-fascist traditions of cultural diplomacy. In the aftermath of World War I, Weimar Germany had become adept at promoting its influence through cultural exchanges in order to counter its diplomatic isolation. After 1933, the Nazi regime was able to shape Weimar-era cultural organisations and relationships to its own purpose.

Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s film-maker.
Bundesarchiv Bild, CC BY

This authoritarian cultural diplomacy reached its peak during World War II, when Nazi Germany attempted to apply a veneer of legitimacy to its military conquests by promoting the idea of a “New Europe” or “New European Order”. Although Hitler was personally sceptical about such efforts, Joseph Goebbels and others within the Nazi regime saw the “New Europe” as a way to gain support. Nazi propaganda promoted the idea of “European civilization” united against the threat of “Asiatic bolshevism” posed by the Soviet Union and its allies.

As seen in Poland: a BNazi anti-Bolshvik poster.

Given the lack of genuine political cooperation within Nazi-occupied Europe, these efforts relied heavily on cultural exchange. The period from the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 until the latter stages of 1943 witnessed an explosion of “European” and “international” events organised under Nazi auspices. They brought together right-wing elites from across the continent – from women’s groups, social policy experts and scientists to singers, dancers and fashion designers.

All of these initiatives, however, faced a common set of problems. Chief among them was the challenge of formulating a model of international cultural collaboration which was distinct from the kind of pre-war liberal internationalism which the fascist states had so violently rejected. The Nazi-dominated European Writers’ Union, for example, attempted to promote a vision of “völkisch” European literature rooted in national, agrarian cultures which it contrasted to the modernist cosmopolitanism of its Parisian-led liberal predecessors. But as a result, complained one Italian participant, the union’s events became “a little world of the literary village, of country poets and provincial writers, a fair for the benefit of obscure men, or a festival of the ‘unknown writer’”.

Deutschland über alles

Despite the language of European cooperation and solidarity which surrounded these organisations, they were ultimately based on Nazi military supremacy. The Nazis’ hierarchical view of European races and cultures prompted resentment even among their closest foreign allies.

Jesse Owens after disproving Nazi race theory at the Berlin Olympics, 1936.
Bundesarchiv, Bild, CC BY-SA

These tensions, combined with the practical constraints on wartime travel and the rapid deterioration of Axis military fortunes from 1943 onwards, meant that most of these new organisations were both ineffective and short-lived. But for a brief period they succeeded in bringing together a surprisingly wide range of individuals committed to the idea of a new, authoritarian era of European unity.

Echoes of the cultural “New Europe” lived on after 1945. The Franco regime, for example, relied on cultural diplomacy to overcome the international isolation it faced. The Women’s section of the Spanish fascist party, the Falange, organised “choir and dance” groups which toured the world during the 1940s and 1950s, travelling from Wales to West Africa to promote an unthreatening image of Franco’s Spain through regional folk dances and songs.

But the far-right’s golden age of authoritarian soft power ended with the defeat of the Axis powers. The appeal of fascist culture was fundamentally undermined by post-war revelations about Nazi genocide, death camps and war crimes. At the other end of the political spectrum, continued Soviet efforts to attract support from abroad were hampered by the invasion of Hungary in 1956 and the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968.

This does not mean that authoritarian soft power has been consigned to history. Both Russia and China made the top 30 of the most recent global ranking, with Russia in particular leading the way in promoting its agenda abroad through both mainstream and social media.

The new wave of populist movements sweeping Europe and the United States often also put the promotion of national cultures at the core of their programmes. France’s Front National, for example, advocates the increased promotion of the French language abroad on the grounds that “language and power go hand-in-hand”. We may well see the emergence of authoritarian soft power re-imagined in the 21st century.

The Conversation

David Brydan, Postdoctoral Researcher, Birkbeck, University of London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Conference Report – Crossing Borders: The Spanish Civil War and Transnational Mobilisation

Conference Report – Crossing Borders: The Spanish Civil War and Transnational Mobilisation, Birkbeck, 30 June-1 July 2016

civil-war-imageEarlier this summer, Birkbeck played host to a two-day conference on the international history of the Spanish Civil War. Crossing Borders: The Spanish Civil War and Transnational Mobilisation was funded by The Reluctant Internationalists research group, Birkbeck, Queen Mary, the University of Kent and the Royal Historical Society, and was organised in collaboration with the Cañada Blanch Centre for Contemporary Spanish Studies at the LSE. Bringing together over thirty scholars from the UK, Europe, the US and further afield, it set out to explore the origins and experiences of transnational mobilisation during the conflict and the immediate post-war period.

The first day began with a panel on the wide range of transnational actors involved in the war, from the Republican politicians who helped to establish the Popular Front movement whilst in exile in Paris in 1934 and 1935, to the international peace activists whose campaigns against aerial warfare encompassed both the Spanish and Chinese civil wars. Complicating the traditional focus on transnational mobilisation in favour of the Republican cause, the panel also discussed the involvement of fascist-dominated veterans’ networks in debates about international intervention, and the international left-wing mobilisation in favour of POUM activists imprisoned by the Republican regime.

The remainder of the day focused on the humanitarian and medical dimensions of transnational mobilisation during the Civil War. A number of papers focused on the thousands of Spanish refugees who were evacuated from Republican zones during the conflict, or who fled to France in 1939. Wartime evacuations were organised both by the Republican government and its allies, and by international humanitarian groups, but were hampered by the political tensions surrounding the conflict. The huge numbers of refugees stranded in France at the end of the war were housed in overcrowded and insanitary camps, with care provided by exiled Spanish medical professionals and by humanitarian organisations. For the international humanitarian community, the Spanish Civil War represented both an intense political, financial and logistical challenge, and a crucial step in the development of new models of humanitarian activity. The conflict itself left thousands of people exiled, bereaved or permanently disabled, with its legacies living on both inside and outside Spain through such individuals well beyond 1939.

The second day shifted focus towards the military dimension of transnational mobilisation. The first panel on propaganda highlighted the ways in which the thousands of Moroccan troops who fought with rebel forces were portrayed and instrumentalised in propaganda on both the Republican and rebel sides. It also demonstrated how the Spanish Civil War came to play a central role in the anti-Bolshevik cultural activities of Nazi Germany. This was followed by two panels which focused on the experiences of the transnational military volunteers who took part in the conflict. The first focussed on the International Brigades, providing a new perspective on this oft-studied topic by highlighting the relations between volunteers of different nationalities within individual battalions, and on the experiences of international volunteers after their return home. It also featured a fascinating presentation on SIDBRINT, a new digital archive on the International Brigades hosted by the University of Barcelona which provides an invaluable resource for scholars interested in the transnational history of the Spanish Civil War. The second panel took a global perspective on transnational military mobilisation, examining the experiences of Arab and Jewish volunteers who fought with Republican forces, and the experience and memory of a Basque town which played host to both German and Italian troops during the conflict.

The final panel of the conference focused in on the transnational lives and experiences of individuals involved in the Spanish Civil War.  Artists such as the Hungarian photographer Kati Horna drew on their experiences of the war to explore the importance of internal and external borders for those who had lived through it. The lives of other individuals and groups continued to be affected by the Spanish Civil War long after formal hostilities had ended, including the Spanish and Catalan women imprisoned by the Nazis at Ravensbrück during the Second World War, and the Czech and Slovak communist volunteers whose post-war political and emotional lives were shaped by their experiences in Spain.

The theme of transnational lives also lay at the heart of the conference’s keynote delivered by Helen Graham (Royal Holloway). A well-attended public lecture hosted by the Institute of Historical Research and introduced by Paul Preston (LSE), this fascinating lecture used the lives of five individuals to explore the significance of the Spanish Republic cause to the continental wars of social change which took place between 1936 and 1948. A podcast of the lecture is available online, and you can find abstracts for all of the conference papers and information about individual speakers here.