Blog Archive

Agents of Internationalism special issue

We’re delighted that our ‘Agents of Internationalism’ special issue of Contemporary European History has just been published online, see here.

You can read Jessica Reinisch’s introduction here. The concluding essay by Ana Antic, Johanna Conterio and Dora Vargha is here.

Contemporary European History
Vol. 25 Part 2 May 2016


Reinisch, Agents of internationalism
Jessica Reinisch

From Transnationalism to Olympic Internationalism: Polish Medical Experts and International Scientific Exchange, 1885–1939
Katharina Kreuder-Sonnen

Managing an ‘Army of Peoples’: Identity, Command and Performance in the Habsburg Officer Corps, 1914–1918
Alexander Watson

The Dangers of ‘Going Native’: George Montandon in Siberia and the International Committee of the Red Cross, 1919–1922
Francesca Piana

Whose World? Internationalism, Nationalism and the Struggle over the ‘Language Question’ in the International Federation of University Women, 1919–1932
Christine von Oertzen

Axis Internationalism: Spanish Health Experts and the Nazi ‘New Europe’, 1939–1945
David Brydan

From Communist Internationalism to Human Rights: Gender, Violence and International Law in the Women’s International Democratic Federation Mission to North Korea, 1951
Celia Donert

The Cradle of the New Humanitarian System? International Work and European Volunteers at the Cambodian Border Camps, 1979–1993
Bertrand Taithe

Conclusion: Beyond Liberal Internationalism
Ana Antic, Johanna Conterio, Dora Vargha

Review Articles
Cultural Diplomacy and International Cultural Relations in Twentieth-Century Europe
Charlotte Faucher

New Directions in the History of Medicine in European, Colonial and Transimperial Contexts
Jennifer Johnson

Notes on Contributors



Ana Antic’s Fraenkel Prize lecture

Wounded minds: Experiencing the violence of the Nazi New Order in Yugoslavia

Ana Antic will present her Fraenkel Prize lecture at the Wiener Library on Wednesday, 27 April, 6.30-8pm.

In WWII, death and violence permeated all aspects of everyday lives of ordinary people in Eastern Europe. Moreover, almost entire populations were drawn into fierce and uncompromising political and ideological conflicts, and many ended up being more than mere victims or observers: they themselves became perpetrators or facilitators of violence, often to protect their own lives but also to gain various benefits. Yugoslavia in particular saw a gradual culmination of a complex and brutal civil war, which ultimately killed more civilians than did the foreign occupying armies. This lecture will tell a story of the tremendous impact of such pervasive and multi-layered political violence, and will look at ordinary citizens’ attempts to negotiate these extraordinary wartime political pressures. It proposes to use Yugoslav psychiatric case files as unique windows into this harrowing history in order to gain an original perspective on the effects of wartime violence and occupation through the history of psychiatry, mental illness and personal experience. By looking at patient files as historical sources, it explores the socio-cultural history of wartime through the eyes of (mostly lower-class) psychiatric patients. Moreover, the experiences of observing, suffering and committing political violence critically affected the understanding of human psychology, pathology and normality in WWII and post-war Balkans and Europe. The lecture traces the formation and re-definition of psychiatric concepts, categories and practices in the context of extreme violence, Nazi occupation and post-war socialist revolution. It shows how such brutal external conditions and unprecedented anti-civilian violence transformed psychiatric and scientific paradigms, and changed psychiatric and broader public evaluations of the human psyche.

Please reserve your place here.

We’re launching the Centre for the Study of Internationalism

The Reluctant Internationalists research group is excited to launch a new Centre at Birkbeck, the Centre for the Study of Internationalism. The Centre gives a presence to a significant field of research at Birkbeck: internationalism in its various guises, in the past and present. It provides an intellectual home for researchers at all stages in their careers who are interested in the social, cultural, political, economic, intellectual and legal fabric of our world of nation-states and international or global institutions. It unites scholars from different academic fields and departments, including history, the political, legal and social sciences, economics, languages, philosophy, and other disciplines. The Centre will organise reading groups, seminars and workshops, and host an annual lecture and visiting fellow.

The launch event will take place on Monday, 23 May, 6-8pm at Birkbeck. Jessica Reinisch will introduce the Centre, followed by a lecture by our visiting fellow, Prof Holly Case, on ‘The Age of Questions’, which looks at a period in modern history – roughly 1810 to 1950 – when ‘questions’ reigned. The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy wrote his views on the ‘Eastern question’ through the character in Anna Karenina, the future president of Czechoslovakia penned over 700 pages on the ‘social question’, and a German novelist expressed his immoderate views on the ‘oyster question’. When and why did people start thinking in terms of ‘questions’ and what did it mean?

The talk and discussion will be followed by a drinks reception.

Places are free but need to be reserved, here.

'The labour question'. 'Lord Salisbury's policy'. "We cannot look abroad into the territories ... On this matter I can only say that I believe the Government may give useful assistance ... when it finds that men are willing to co-operate with them." Lord Salisbury is shown holding a piece of paper titled 'Arbitration'. To his left are workers on strike and to his right a female figure with 'trade' written on her walks to the sea. In the distance and across the sea are the named countries, German.,57 x 90 cm.

Holly Case is a historian of Europe specializing in modern East-Central and Southeastern Europe. Her work focuses on the relationship between foreign policy, social policy, science and literature as manifest in the European state system of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her book, Between States: The Transylvanian Question and the European Idea during WWII, was published in 2009.

Conference Report: “Debating the Cold War” 

February 5, 2016 at Birkbeck College, University of London

Report by David Bryan and Francesca Piana 

Debating the Cold War

The Debating the Cold War workshop took place at Birkbeck College, University of London, on Friday, 5 February 2016. It involved around 35 scholars from Europe, the United States, and Asia, who took part in a day of lively debates about some of the ‘myths’ of the Cold War, reflecting on current developments and future directions in the historiography, and their implications for research and teaching.

The first panel discussed the global nature of the Cold War. Although the Cold War is still commonly understood in terms of a US-Soviet binary, the impact of the conflict was felt in all corners of the globe. Anne Deighton (Oxford) argued, however, that there was not a single global Cold War and that we needed to think about the multiple ‘global histories’ of the conflict. The challenge for historians was to both tease out these histories and integrate overlapping developments which took place during the period, from the Sino-Soviet split to decolonisation and changes to the global economy. Many participants argued that these overlapping histories called into question traditional periodisations of the Cold War. The relationship, for example, between communism, decolonisation and development both began before and continued after the Cold War era. Much of the discussion focussed on the idea of the Cold War as a conflict between multiple competing models of modernisation or development, taking place within a post-war global economy in which western capitalism both adopted ‘socialist’ practices, and exerted increasing influence over the internal dynamics of communist states.

The second panel examined the role of ideology in the Cold War, and in particular the traditional binary between the ‘ideological’ East and the ‘non-ideological’ West. Most of the speakers focussed on the complex role of ideology in everyday life in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Ideology, whether defined in terms of ideas, language or everyday practices, was a transformative force which helped to shape socialist societies and individuals within them. Its impact varied over time and place, but did play an important role in the construction of communist societies in post-war Eastern Europe, re-mobilising Soviet citizens during the 1960s and 1970s, and shaping educational practices during the apparently ’apathetic’ period of late socialism. Despite the unwillingness of historians of Western Europe and the West to engage with ‘ideology’ as a category of analysis, some of the speakers aregued that such ideas and practices shaped life on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Dina Fainberg (Amsterdam) showed how journalists from the United States and the Soviet Union who covered the two systems were both producers and products of ideology, engaging in forms of comparative writing which invited readers to contrast the Cold War ‘other’ with an idealised version of their own country. Anatoly Pinsky (St Petersburg/Helsinki) argued that the 1950s and 1960s witnessed a turn towards a romantic interpretation of Marxism in the Soviet Union which drew on shared intellectual traditions between Russia and the West.

The third panel addressed the role of the state through the lens of welfare in the Cold War, and how citizens both in the East and in the West understood, appropriated, and reshaped questions of national security, education, welfare, social mobility, and consumption. Sandrine Kott (Geneva) argued that, in order to understand the socialist bloc we should use the language of the ‘social state’ in which social expenditure was higher than in the West. Dean Vuletic (EUI) argued that it was more productive to think in terms of national frameworks in the Eastern Bloc rather than generalisations about the region as a whole. On this, Vuletic was joined by Peter Romijn (Amsterdam), who reflected on the national reconstruction projects in Europe after WWII and on the different ways societies returned to ‘normality’, through humanitarian programmes, and economic and political recovery. The discussions that followed focused on exchanges between the two blocs, often through the circulation of expertise, and interest in ‘models’ which at times cut across the Iron Curtain.

The forth panel reflected on science during the Cold War, and particularly on the idea of a fundamental difference between scientific practices in the two blocs. Moving away from the highly researched issues of nuclear power and the atomic bomb, the panelists brought a set of different sciences into the discussion, from mathematics to social sciences, medicine, psychiatry and technology. Some of the speakers focussed on the role of ‘pure’ science in shaping the Cold War. Alma Steingart (Harvard) discussed the role of mathematics and of scientific rationality in the battle of the Cold War, reflecting on how science influenced the Cold War and vice versa. Waqar Zaidi (Lums) stressed the importance of the Cold War in encouraging ‘big science’, such as electronics, satellites, computers, and internet, through the examination, scrutiny, collection and dissemination of data, often connected to state-driven and military efforts. Much of the discussion focussed on the connections among scientists, the circulation of expert knowledge and data, the ‘language’ of sciences, and the role of translation in enabling scientists to access foreign-language research from both sides of the Iron Curtain.

The workshop ended by addressing the legacies of the Cold War, and asking how we understand and communicate its history to younger generations who did not directly experience it. Elidor Mehilli (Hunter College) highlighted the violent legacy of the Cold War in 1990s Yugoslavia, the way it has shaped current ideas about the efficacy of ‘peoples’-led’ revolutions such as the Arab Spring, and its effect on current notions of freedom and the promotion of democracy. Angela Neilson-Nagy (Blackheath High School / Birkbeck MA student) provided a fascinating insight into the extent to which new historiographical approaches have informed, or, more frequently, failed to inform, current teaching materials and curricula in UK secondary schools. The challenge, panellists agreed, was to integrate the complex, heterogeneous and multi-centred historiography of the Cold War, showcased during the workshop, into a narrative which remained comprehensible and engaging for students and the general public.



Launching the Centre for the Study of Internationalism

We are delighted to launch a new Centre at Birkbeck. The Centre for the Study of Internationalism’s inaugural lecture, entitled “The Age of Questions”, will be given by Prof Holly Case (Cornell University) on Monday, 23 May at 6pm, followed by a drinks reception.

The lecture is free and open to all, please reserve your place here.

Announcing 2016 Visiting Fellows

We are very excited to welcome two visiting fellows in May, Holly Case and Heidi Tworek.

Holly Case is Associate Professor of History at Cornell University. She is a historian of Europe, specializing in modern East-Central and Southeastern Europe. Her work focuses on the relationship between foreign policy, social policy, science and literature as manifest in the European state system of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her book, Between States: The Transylvanian Question and the European Idea during WWII, was published in May 2009. She is currently working on a history of the emergence of ‘questions’ (the Eastern question, Jewish question, Polish question, woman question, worker question) in the nineteenth century, as well as a history of the role played by consuls and consular reform in transforming the international system over the course of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century.

Heidi Tworek is Assistant Professor of International History at the University of British Columbia and a Visiting Fellow at the Center for History and Economics at Harvard University. She is a historian of communications and international organizations. Her current projects include the history of health communications, the history of news agencies, and the role of women in founding the United Nations. Tworek’s work has appeared in numerous journals including Journal of Global History, Business History Review, German History.

We look forward to welcoming the fellows to London, and to spending a productive summer of discussions and collaborations with them. Our new round of visiting fellowship applications will open in the autumn.

Podcast: ‘Debating the Cold War’

We are happy to share with you the podcast of the Debating the Cold War workshop, which took place at Birkbeck College, University of London, on 5 February 2016. (The recordings can also be found, complete with panel descriptions, via the workshop webpage).

Friday, 5 February 2016

Birkbeck, University of London

9.30am                Introductions

For podcast click here

10 – 11.30am      1. How global was the Cold War?

For podcast click here

Research on the Cold War as a global phenomenon has been growing, but the majority of narratives and frameworks are still focused on the relationship of the United States and the Soviet Union. The aim of this panel is to take stock of the contributions of global history to Cold War historiography. What conventional Cold War concepts does a global approach reinforce, which ones does it contest? What are the conceptual and methodological challenges of constructing a global history of the Cold War? How does shifting perspectives away from the US-Soviet binary change our understanding of the Cold War, its stakes and the relationship of the two superpowers? To what extent can we leave the binary behind at all?

Julia Lovell (Birkbeck)

Anne Deighton (Oxford)

Jussi Hanhimaki (Geneva)

Oscar Sanchez-Sibony (Macau)

Jessica Reinisch (Birkbeck), chair

11.45am – 1pm  2. Did ideology matter?

For podcast click here

This panel explores the common juxtaposition between the supposed waning significance of ‘ideology’ in the West with the overly rigid ideological regimentation of the East; the notion that while ideology permeated every aspect of private and public lives in the East, the Western private self was shielded from ideological influences, or that there was no dominant political ideology in the West. It also revisits other, partially contradictory themes from established Cold War narratives: the rejection of Marxism in Eastern Europe (esp. among intellectuals) after the major disappointments of 1956 or 1968; the idea that Marxism was never genuinely adopted except by a small number of brainwashed party cadres. It probes into the roles played by dissidents to maintain and amplify this binary.

Polly Jones (Oxford)

Anita Prazmowska (LSE)

Diana Goegescu (SSEES)

Dina Fainberg (Amsterdam)

Anatoly Pinsky (St Petersburg/ Helsinki)

Ana Antic (Birkbeck), chair

2 – 3.30pm         3. Was there a Welfare State in the East as well as the West?

For podcast click here

This panel explores the thesis, proposed by Jan Gross, Timothy Garton Ash and others, that Communism was based predominantly on repression, the abuse of political power, and a lack of popular legitimacy and ‘freedom’. The panel examines potential points of comparisons between Western and Eastern states and their responsibilities for their citizens, including interpretations of social security, education, welfare, health care, social mobility, and taxation, and asks about effects and consequences of similarities and differences. As part of this comparative perspective, the panel looks at how Communism was experienced and lived in Eastern Europe, and asks questions about legitimacy and dissent in both East and West.

Sandrine Kott (Geneva)

Dean Vuletic (EUI)

Kristy Ironside (Manchester)

Bela Tomka (Szeged)

Peter Romijn (Amsterdam)

Johanna Conterio (Birkbeck), chair

3.45 – 5.15pm    4. What was Cold War Science?

For podcast click here

Histories of Cold War science and medicine have focused on Big Science, nuclear and atomic science, and space exploration. But science in the two blocks has featured in the historiography in very different terms: on one side stand accounts of Western science funding, the relationships of science and the military, and health effects of nuclear programmes and accidents; on the other, studies of a terrain where science was led astray and corrupted by politics, and marked by crippling shortages of materials and expertise. A “declensionist narrative” of decline, desiccation and degradation (borrowing a term from the environmental historian Diana K. Davis) can be found in accounts of Eastern, but rarely of Western, approaches to knowledge and science. This panel will seek to identify possible ways of comparison, and consider the significance of collaborative projects, shared research agendas and other contact points between scientists from both sides of the Iron Curtain. Can we talk about ‘Cold War science’?

Alma Steingart (Harvard)

Jonathan Oldfield (Birmingham)

Jon Agar (UCL)

Iris Borowy (Shanghai)

Sarah Marks (Cambridge)

Lukasz Stanek (Manchester)

Waqar Zaidi (Lums)

Dora Vargha (Birkbeck), chair

5.15 – 7pm          5. The Cold War that never ended, and the Cold War in the

For podcast click here

Piers Ludlow (LSE)

Elidor Mehilli (Hunter College, NY)

Angela Neilson-Nagy (Blackheath High School/ Birkbeck)

Jessica Reinisch (Birkbeck), chair

The bombing of Kunduz and the crisis of international humanitarian law

Is international humanitarian law in crisis? In this post, Eleanor Davey reflects on the recent history of attempts to amend and enforce the Geneva Conventions.


‘Power of Humanity’: this was the slogan of the 32nd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, which took place in Geneva from 8-10 December 2015. The conference brought the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the National Societies, and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC) together with governments from the world. These discussions in December demonstrated that ultimately the power of humanity proved less compelling than the autonomy of states. One of the proposals that did not receive endorsement was to create a new platform to improve compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL). It called for ‘a non-binding voluntary mechanism which would bring states together to: 1) exchange information and best practices on key thematic and technical issues, and 2) participate in a voluntary self-reporting process on IHL compliance.’ The ICRC and the Swiss government had been working towards this proposal for several years. While states were keen to express their commitment to the law, they baulked at the idea of a new mechanism to encourage respect for its rules (though ICRC work in this field will continue). After the conference, ICRC President Peter Maurer spoke with frustration about the message that ‘despite the rhetorical recognition that this is a problem, there is no real political will to engage substantively to make things better.’

On the eve of the conference, an IRIN article on the proposed platform offered its final word to Dr Joanne Liu, President of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International: ‘The [Geneva] Conventions were written to mitigate the impact of war on civilians… and that is what we will fight for, to keep that humanitarian space in war zones.’ As head of an organisation that had lost dozens of staff members, patients, and other civilians in the targeted bombing of their hospital in Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan, Liu held a place of sorry privilege in these debates.

The choice of Liu and MSF’s incinerated hospital to embody the ‘last patch of humanity in a war zone’ was not random; violations of IHL could have been represented by, for example, the barrel bombing of civilians in Syria. Instead Kunduz figures as the most egregious violation in a mass of unacceptable violations, taken as evidence that the lack of respect for international humanitarian law is both long-standing and ever worsening. As Liu declared in a speech shortly after the bombing, ‘This was not just an attack on our hospital – it was an attack on the Geneva Conventions.’

Picture 2

A hole in a wall from a shell at the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, 15 October 2015. Photo by Victor J. Blue for NBC News,

It is striking that the attack on the Kunduz hospital is used to make the case for a more effective mechanism for compliance with international humanitarian law, even as the core of MSF’s response to the attack – a call for the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC) to investigate the incident – appeals to a platform previously created for just this purpose. The IHFFC, established in the late 1970s, was intended to examine alleged violations of the law. However, it has not even once been used. When its creation was being debated, the American jurist Richard Baxter commented that ‘it was somewhat paradoxical to be drafting new law when the old law was not fully implemented and the principal instrument for neutral supervision was moribund.’[1] His words, from 1975, would not be out of place today. The power of humanity has given way to states before.

Moreover, claims currently being made about a ‘crisis’ of international humanitarian law strongly echo those made in the 1960s and 1970s, when another so-called ‘crisis’, again brought about by widespread disregard for existing laws of war, led to the writing of Protocols I and II additional to the Geneva Conventions (it was Additional Protocol I that provided for the creation of the IHFFC). Highly destructive wars proliferated nonetheless – in Vietnam, in Pakistan, in Nigeria, in Southern Africa, in the Middle East. But jurists’ and aid workers’ call of ‘crisis’ did not mean humanitarian and human rights norms were afforded a neutral or apolitical space. In the field, humanitarian action was always caught up in political agendas and conflict economies. In the law, a comparable dynamic applied: the Protocols were proposed, drafted and passed in a profoundly political and at times polemical environment, as international humanitarian law became implicated in the international campaign against colonialism (a condemnation of Portugal’s continued hold on its territories in Africa), foreign occupation (a move against Israel after its gains in the 1967 Six-Day War), and racist regimes (attacking South Africa’s apartheid system and minority rule in Rhodesia).

The writing of the Additional Protocols is thus remembered by legal scholars and historians alike as an ideological struggle, at least in its early phases. The 1974 session of the Diplomatic Conference that drafted the Protocols – the first out of an eventual four – was an angry and, in the minds of some of its participants, unproductive encounter in which international humanitarian law was forced into the service of political goals. The decision to include ‘wars of national liberation’ in the category of international conflicts was emblematic. Neither the ICRC nor the Swiss government had wished to reopen the Geneva Conventions, fearing that political antagonisms would diminish rather than improve the protections they provided. Nonetheless, like the IHFFC, several of the key protections for medical facilities, transports, and workers are to be found in the Additional Protocols. Amidst the many disagreements aired during consultations, there was a near consensus on the importance of improving protections for medical missions, and government experts were able to make significant headway in agreeing on key provisions.[2] And while certain areas of the law were more likely to be subject to agreement, the discussions as a whole became less inflammatory over time.

What does this earlier example tell us? For one thing, it suggests that the idea of a crisis of international humanitarian law is neither new nor sufficient as a motivator for change. Decolonisation was a crucial factor in debates about updating the law in the 1960s and 1970s. There was widespread recognition then that the large majority of ‘third-world’ countries had not been independent when the Geneva Conventions were written. Since that time, the presence of developing countries in international forums had increased markedly. The desire of some of these states to assert an anti-colonial agenda, including through the use of human rights and humanitarianism, profoundly marked debates about international humanitarian law. This political goal combined with the sense of urgency to strengthen the case for change. In other words, it was the wish to see law take account of the struggle for decolonisation and against racial discrimination – what contemporaries and commentators since have described as a distortion of the law’s impartiality – that created conditions for the law’s ‘reaffirmation and development’.

Of course, this did not lead to perfect law for the regulation of armed conflict. Nor did it guarantee respect for that law in the future. But it reminds us that a diagnosis of crisis, no matter how starkly (or frequently) presented, is not enough to effect change. Less pure motivations for considering humanitarian protections, such as institutional rivalry and political point-scoring, have also played a part in creating sufficient conditions for action. The history of international humanitarian law shows us this, notwithstanding the fact that even the ICRC, with its long experience of brokering agreements on the law, has today resorted to a public discourse of newly pressing crisis. The Kunduz attack may well be used as a symbol of crisis, but crying crisis alone is not enough.

[1] Richard Baxter, Humanizing the Laws of War: Selected Writings of Richard Baxter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 292. Originally published as ‘Humanitarian Law or Humanitarian Politics? The 1974 Diplomatic Conference on Humanitarian Law’, Harvard International Law Journal 16 (1975): 1-26.

[2] Frits Kalshoven, Reflections on the Law of War: Collected Essays (Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff, 2007), 39-40, 61-65. Originally published in Netherlands Yearbook of International Law 2 (1971) and 3 (1972).

Dr Eleanor Davey is Lecturer in History of Humanitarianism and British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute, University of Manchester, and author of Idealism beyond Borders: The French Revolutionary Left and the Rise of Humanitarianism, 1954-1988 (CUP, 2015)

The State of Europe

In our first post of 2016, Martin Conway thinks about the past and future of European nation-states.


When will the historians of twentieth-century Europe accept that their century has ended? The violent attacks in Paris on the night of 13 November serve to confirm what we should already have known: that the populations of Europe have moved on from the politics of the twentieth century, and it is time for the historians to do so too.

Of course, in the aftermath of traumatic events, historians delve rapidly into their store-cupboard of analogies and precedents. And there are many which can be drawn upon for such purposes. Violence by small militant groups composed predominantly of immigrants from specific ethnic backgrounds has, after all, a considerable lineage in twentieth-century Europe. The various revolutionary and counter-revolutionary movements that proliferated in the former territories of the Habsburg and Tsarist empires at the end of the First World War, the militant Jewish Communist groups who played such a role in the anti-fascist movements and the wartime Resistance groups in the 1930s and 1940s, and the FLN militants of Algerian origin who were active in France in the 1950s and 1960s, are all examples of how political violence has often been generated in Europe by marginalized ethnic and religious minorities, who derived their legitimation from the perceived repression by state authorities. And yet none of these models really has much purchase for understanding the various incidents which, from the train bombings of Madrid in 2004 to the events in Paris, have become part of Europe’s contemporary present. In part, of course, this is because European history is no longer, if it ever was, self-contained: this violence draws its inspiration from elsewhere, and from different histories. But there is also a broader and more disconcerting reality. The radicalized militants who have generated this violence feel no affinity with these precedents. Indeed, one suspects that they know little or nothing (and care even less) about Europe’s past history.

This is a cause for some modesty on the part of historians. We inhabit a present which owes little to “our” past. The twentieth-century history of Europe has come to an end. Everybody can choose their terminus date of preference, be it the reunification of Europe after 1989, the impact of the neo-liberal reforms of the 1990s, or the attacks on the Twin Towers on 9/11 and their subsequent imitators in Europe. But, wherever you choose to stick the frontier post between past and present, it is impossible to ignore the sense that European history has not so much ended as turned into a new configuration. For contemporary historians, to misquote J.P. Hartley, the present is another country, and they do things differently there.

Quite why that should be so is a question which probably demands an answer on a rather grand scale. But the more immediate challenge for historians of Europe is to develop frameworks for understanding the evolutions of the present, which are more relevant than reworkings of our all-too-familiar stories of the crises of the 1930s and 1940s. The history of the twenty-first century has to start somewhere, and the events of the last year have given us plenty of raw material to work from. War in Ukraine, the rise of new populist forces of right and left (or both), the demands for revision of national sovereignty, the arrival of large numbers of migrants fleeing war and economic deprivation, and the impact of new forms of political violence constitute a formidable agenda which demands a response more substantial than the overused language of crisis.


27 October 2015, Migrants are led by German Fedeal Police to an emergency accommodation centre in Wegscheid, southern Germany (Armin Weigel/ dpa via AP)

Crisis is of course a term that historians conventionally deploy to describe the demise of the old and the difficult birth of the new. The first is certainly highly visible in present events, as manifested by the collapse of a certain way of managing Europe, as well as the retreat of pre-existing political elites in the face of economic pressures and the demands of angry and exasperated voters. Of course, they will not go quietly. The logics of austerity economics and of national security justified by the supposed internal and external threats to European populations provide plenty of means for state authorities to seek to impose their discipline on their populations. But state authority is not what it used to be. One of the more tangible consequences of the last twenty years has been the hollowing out of much of the former trappings of state power and of national politics. In an era when communication has become primarily electronic, and national borders have become largely notional, state authority no longer has the same centrality in the history of twenty-first century Europe.

Part of the challenge of a history of the present is therefore to appreciate, if not fully to understand, the fluidity of boundaries of any kind. We inhabit a new cosmopolitanism, as reflected in the global character of many of Europe’s major cities, but also in the flexibility of identities, be they national, political, ethnic, or indeed religious. Journalists investigating the backgrounds of the authors of the Paris attacks have appeared surprised to discover that they were products of the banlieux of Paris and of Strasbourg, who amidst the chaotic years of their early adulthood travelled without any great sense of purpose to Syria, from where they returned equipped with a cocktail of animus, bravado and perhaps a superficial understanding of some elements of Islam. And yet that surely is what one would expect: militants are made not born, and the manner of their making well illustrates the fluidity of identities among those many Europeans whose lives have been rendered fragile by economic changes, the dislocation of social structures, and the retreat of structures of state provision.

In order to understand this, the most appropriate template is not the twentieth century, with its explosion in state power and totalizing ideological visions, but its predecessor. Looking at Europe’s present-day cities, one cannot but be reminded of the chaotic immigrant cities of Europe in the nineteenth century, and their worlds of neighbourhoods, ethnic self-help structures, and an almost total absence of state authority. Zola, it seems, has never been so topical; but other aspects of Europe’s present-day history seem also to recall the Europe of the mid-nineteenth century. The impact of vast economic forces beyond the control of any public authority, the pressure of migrant masses on a pre-existing population, and sudden surges of political support for charismatic individuals or for rhetorics of national liberation (and of xenophobia) smells much more akin to the Europe of the 1840s and the 1850s, than it does to the Europe of Adenauer, de Gaulle, Thatcher, Kohl and Mitterrand.

However, to replace one set of analogies with another borrowed from the previous century is not sufficient. A history of Europe’s twenty-first century has to identify the building blocks of the new. Some elements of this are incontrovertible: the new precariousness of living standards caused by economic change and untrammelled market forces, and the consequent replacement of the disciplined interaction of socio-economic interest groups by a new and much more volatile politics of economic opportunity and grievance. But other elements appear much less clear-cut. Is Europe moving left or right? Will the migrants of 2015 be integrated into a new and more multi-cultural Central Europe, or will they provoke a descent into forms of ethnic essentialism?

Above all, where, in the end, will state authority be discovered to reside? One of the most striking features of Europe since the final decades of the twentieth century has been the demise of those hierarchical organizational charts of government which used to characterise political-science textbooks. Power is now more dispersed and also more opaque, shared between a plethora of regional, national and supra-national institutions, but also secreted away in institutions such as central banks and security structures that are impervious to democratic control or even public scrutiny. None of that means that we are about to experience new forms of authoritarianism; the populations of Europe have, one suspects, moved beyond the stage when they would submit to the disciplines of states of emergency and military coups. Moreover, for all of the seriousness with which leaders have gathered to consider Europe’s overlapping current crises, one of the most striking features of their discussions has been the relative absence of effective tools of power. Military force – other than the spectacular acts of aerial bombing in Libya, Iraq and Syria – has almost disappeared; national economic policy-making has been transferred to central banks and the power of the markets; and even the routine ability to keep track of the movements of populations appears to have been largely eroded. From the streets of Molenbeek to the beaches of Lesbos, it is the limits of the capacity of the state which has been more apparent than its strength. Perhaps that presages a new 1848, but more significant is the way that the state has lost, or surrendered, its twentieth-century role as the grand manager of European life. What will replace it forms part of the still uncertain nature of the history of the European present.

Martin Conway is Professor of Contemporary European History at Balliol College, Oxford.

The Dangers of Sympathy

In our last post of 2015, Becky Taylor ponders charity, public sympathy and ‘deserving’ refugees. Merry Christmas!


How fickle we are. Back in September the drowning of three-year old Aylan Kurdi made even The Mail take a step back from its habitual anti-immigration vitriol and consider the human costs of the ongoing refugee crisis. Then it appeared that perhaps we were on the cusp of a more compassionate response to those displaced by war and civil chaos. How long ago that now seems. After the attacks on Paris, the vote allowing RAF bombing of Syria and Donald Trump leading the charge of hysterical kneejerk rhetoric tying Syrian refugees to IS, we are back on more familiar territory; a territory where refugees are vilified, mistrusted and left to take their chances with human traffickers, byzantine asylum systems or the ever growing shanty towns on what is effectively Britain’s border, in Calais. Often lost in the swirl of emotive commentary is the simple fact that under international law those fleeing the complex conflicts of the Middle East are refugees, and as refugees have certain rights above and beyond how the public opinion might be being swayed on any given day.

Jessica Reinisch rightly suggested in her Europe in Crisis blog piece that the current refugee crisis is complex and refuses easy parallels such as the one I had constructed in relation to the 1956 Hungarian refugees. In it I had argued that this historical moment saw an unprecedented coming together of public empathy with international action. In reflecting on this I proposed that we might use 1956 as an example to remind ourselves that mechanisms could be put in place to solve crises where there was the political will to do so. In my defence I would say that this article stems from a sustained and more nuanced piece of research exploring the British response to refugees across the twentieth century. The arrival of Hungarians after they fled the Soviet invasion is in fact both part of a longer story of ambivalent reception of refugees to Britain, and in itself encapsulated much of that ambivalence. When I wrote of the welcome given to Hungarian refugees entering Britain what I did not do, in that first piece, was to write of the next phase of that history. I had hoped it would not be necessary. Even academic historians sometimes give way to hope. Now seems an appropriate moment to move beyond hope and explore what happened when 21,000 Hungarian refugees arrived in Britain in a matter of weeks over the winter of 1956/7. As with the Syrians currently arriving in Canada, behind the novelty of the reception programme and welcoming words lurked attitudes with a far longer history: a history of charity engrained with expectations over proper expressions of gratitude and the behaviour of the deserving poor.

Bruno Grgurević, one of the Red Cross volunteers arranging for food packs to be distributed to arriving refugees at the Slavonski Brod temporary transit centre. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian.

Reading contemporary newspaper reports what is immediately striking is how the refugees were portrayed. For, although the international effort was being coordinated under the newly created UNHCR, the discourse in Britain did not centre around the Hungarians’ rights under the 1951 Convention. The language used by the press, the government and reception workers was not one of obligation under international law, but rather of welcome based on an understanding of the refugees as anti-Soviet and vulnerable. Despite approximately two thirds of Hungarian refugees being young men, it was ‘bewildered’, ‘small’ or ‘sick’ women, children and the elderly who were most often depicted.

This narrative of the welcoming of vulnerable or deserving refugees from Communism was reinforced by the ways in which the British constructed their own role in the process. For every mention of how these ‘welcome guests’ were ‘heroic freedom fighters’, there was another situating Britain as a moral leader on the international stage rescuing the Hungarians as part of its ‘tradition’ of welcoming ‘fighters for liberty’. First-hand accounts from Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) volunteers universally depicted them as ‘cheerful’ and ‘stalwart’, ever ‘working tirelessly’ and ‘creating order out of chaos’ while ‘taking things in their stride’. Where there were ‘difficulties’, they were brushed over. ‘Disgruntled’ refugees might sometimes have been ‘trying’, but with patience any ‘misunderstanding’ was surmounted by the redoubtable WVS worker and a cup of tea. Overall, the conventional expectation of the volunteer-refugee interaction was of beneficent giving on the part of the British and gratifying appreciation on the part of the refugees. One volunteer at the end of the process reflected how her group had received a number of letters ‘expressing grateful thanks for our help’, and how ‘women have broken down, and… men have kissed our hands’. While admitting that there were ‘a number who have shown no gratitude at all’, fortunately these were ‘in the minority’, and overall, the volunteer declared, her experience was ‘very well worthwhile’. This was not in a discourse of refugee rights under international law and within the newly constructed welfare state.

The positioning of refugees as charitable subjects by WVS volunteers sits within what Tony Kushner has termed a habit of ‘national self-congratulation’. If the British were disposed to see themselves as cheerful dispensers of practical charity and common sense, then this was viewed as an extension of the nation’s tradition of tolerance and welcoming refugees. Newspaper accounts, statements in the House of Commons and the comments of voluntary organisations and individuals all emphasised British ‘tolerance’, ‘welcome’ and ‘fair play’ where the government, police force, rule of law and everyday society operated on the basis of trust and openness. Such self-congratulation was visible at all levels of the reception effort. Colonel Pennyman, who had opened one wing of his house, Ormesby Hall near Stockton-on-Tees, for refugees was thanked by the local branch of the Red Cross for ‘the laudable way in which you have so worthily upheld the tradition of British hospitality’. At the household level and nationally the advice and media coverage aimed at the Hungarians was couched in the language of ‘host’ and ‘guest’, glossing over how ‘hosts’ might be paid board and lodging at standard National Assistance Board rates. Beneath expressions of welcome we can see certain processes at work which located the position of both Britain as the host nation and the new arrivals around discourses of behaviour rather than rights.

How did this discourse of conditional welcome and the climate of high expectations translate into everyday experience in the reception and resettlement process? Overall the language of reception centred around the promotion of a spectrum of expected behaviour which began with picking up social cues and learning English and moved on to finding employment, ‘settling down happily’, and assimilating. The official report evaluating the resettlement programme placed the weight of responsibility firmly on refugees themselves: ‘It might have been expected that the Hungarians would be particularly amenable, being filled with gratitude for the help and generosity of the British people’. However, the report went on to observe how, having been feted as heroes, they ‘came to Britain expecting far too much’ and indeed exhibited a range of unattractive behaviours. For, fuelled by fears of being infiltrated by Hungarian government spies, many hostels operated with an atmosphere of mutual mistrust. And in sharp distinction to the enthusiasm of the British volunteers, often the refugees ‘would not help with the running of the camp, even for their own benefit’ unless they were paid. Within weeks of the first Hungarians being housed stories circulated in newspapers and hostel managers’ reports of bad behaviour normally involving young men, drunkenness, theft of bicycles and motor bikes, fights and downing tools at work. Chiming with contemporary anxieties over juvenile delinquents and youth culture, the ‘romantic heroes’ and ‘indomitable giants’ were rapidly transformed in the press into ‘loud mouthed ruffians, a bunch of lazy, grabbing, Central European teddy boys’.

Colonel Pennyman soon found that the families he had welcomed were ‘difficult’ rather than ‘heroes’. His accounts record the ‘plain thievery’ of fifty blankets, an ‘extravagant’ use of gas, the loss of fifty teacups and of over £16 worth of cutlery. Possibly more damningly as far as he was concerned, the refugees he was housing were not interested in finding work, learning English, or ‘settling down’. Instead, they wanted to re-emigrate to the US, Australia, or South Africa where they already had relatives. We can locate Ormesby Hall’s experience as a microcosm of a far larger phenomenon. British public opinion was ‘surprised and disappointed’ to find that most of the Hungarian refugees ‘who had been welcomed with so much love’ did not wish to stay in Britain. As early as December 1956 it became clear that many of the first batch of Hungarians had thought that Britain was simply a step on the way to emigration to America or Canada. Often identified as ‘restlessness’ by those working with them, the legitimate desire of the refugees to join the large Hungarian communities in North America was typically interpreted as a slight to the generosity of the British government and people. One WVS volunteer reported that she found the refugees ‘on the whole very impatient’, expecting all ‘their requests to be granted at once’, including the desire to be transferred to America. East Riding’s County Welfare Officer spoke for many when he admitted that he was looking forward to their departure, reflecting how ‘my experience so far has rather hardened my heart a little’.

A problem with constructing a discourse of refugee reception around enthusiastic welcome rather than around rights was, therefore, how to deal with a rejection of that welcome. Public enthusiasm and voluntary effort could only be sustained within an atmosphere of gratitude, and without it the welcome easily turned sour. For those sent to live in the hostel at Haverton Hill in County Durham gained this sourness was expressed through a full-scale riot in June 1957 which saw serious and sustained disturbances over a succession of nights. Hostel residents armed with fence posts – ‘some bearing four inch nails’ – defended themselves against crowds of up to three hundred locals who had surrounded the hostel. The events were sparked by anti-social behaviour on the part of the Hungarians but also by fears of locals that ‘their’ women were socialising with them, and ‘their’ jobs were being taken by them.

The reality is that refugees, however feted in the media, are always simply human beings trying to reconstruct their lives against overwhelming odds. The realistic chances of them immediately understanding the social rules of the country where they find refuge, of quietly settling down and assimilating, and never transgressing their new society’s boundaries are vanishingly small. As one WVS volunteer reflected: ‘When we began this work, we prepared to receive twenty thousand heroes, but we soon discovered that we had to deal with ordinary human beings, made up of all types, good, bad and indifferent’. To deal with the awkward fact that refugees are not heroes or villains but are simply human beings, we consequently need to protect them from the enthusiastic generosity of the public just as much as from its untrammelled hatred. Simon Behrman in particular has argued that enshrining refugee rights in international law is not without its dangers, not least through entangling asylum seekers in labyrinthine and hostile bureaucracies. But relying on the vagaries of public sympathy is, I would argue, far more dangerous. Being generous feels nice, it makes us believe that we are good human beings, but true generosity implies giving with no expectation of return. Charity however, remains all too often steeped in assumptions over the appropriate behaviour of the recipient. This can be no basis on which to build the well-being, safety and futures of hundreds of thousands of people. People in need of protection, shelter and a new country should have access to this as a right, not because they smile. If we can take anything from history to inform the present refugee crisis it is to demonstrate the urgency of constructing a clear international structure of rights based on need rather than the short-term memories and shifting whims of a capricious public.

Dr Becky Taylor is Reader in Modern History at the University of East Anglia.

Conference Report: ‘Thinking about Health and Welfare in (Eastern) Europe and Beyond’ – by Tamara Scheer

Report by Tamara Scheer (Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Social Science History/Institute for East European History/University of Vienna)

Thinking about Health and Welfare in (Eastern) Europe and Beyond

July 1-3, 2015 at Birkbeck College, University of London

Co-organised by the German Research Foundation Network ‘Social Welfare and Health Care in Eastern and Southeastern Europe during the Long 20th Century’ (Regensburg University, Germany) and ‘The Reluctant Internationalists’ (Birkbeck, University of London)

Our joint network meeting aimed to discuss the current research of our members, with a special emphasis on sources related to health and welfare. Although the geographical focus was on Eastern, South Eastern and Central Europe, most of the 19 papers drew attention to global transfers and networks by discussing a period stretching from the 19th century up to recent contemporary history. The workshop included two key notes, one by Paul Lerner on “War Trauma and the Historiography of Psychiatry”, the other by Marius Turda on “Health and Social Welfare in Southeastern-and Eastern Europe: A Troubled Relationship”.

The Regional and Transnational Character of Health and Welfare

All papers drew attention to the importance of the state and region in which the research topics are placed but at the same time pointed to the impact of global trends and the inter- and transnational character of debates and ideas. Marius Turda emphasized: “A regional focus is by is nature comparative, while at the same time placing emphasis on trans-national and global interconnections, a regional approach encourages us to historize different aspects of the pasts and revisit existing paradigms and chronologies.” He added that even dealing with a certain state is always somehow comparative as states consist of different parts shaped by nature, different historical background, social structures as well as ethnicity and religion. Therefore it was of importance if an illness or a social issue appeared only in some regions and affected only parts of the population or was a widespread phenomenon.

Throughout the 19th century until the 20th century a growing internationalization and mutual influence was also inherent in all papers discussed. Sometimes going international was state driven but sometimes it was driven by private associations or personal (academic) relationships. Maria Zarifi highlighted for Greece the knowledge transfer with Germany between 1870s up to 1945. Germany was codified as being modern. More and more people studied abroad and brought ideas back to their home countries. David Bryan described the example of establishing a health insurance system in Franco Spain. Commissions were sent to Europe (he emphasized Slovakia, Romania, and links with Nazi Germany and  fascist Italy). Germany was seens as the home of social insurance. Ana Antic presented “cold war exchange”. The countries behind the iron curtain were influenced by changes in  child education in Europe and the United States. In Yugoslavia state efforts were not only directed against traditional patriochal structures but also against Sovjet Russia.

After the First World War Polish scientists from Austria-Hungary and Russia settled in Warsaw. Different cultures merged aiming to create a “Polish health” which met political interests to build up a Polish nation, as Katrin Steffen argued. Dora Vargha pointed to the virologist Albert Sabin’s international network skills, which influenced his career positively. Nevertheless, although ideas were transferred to another country and discussed they needed a certain starting point where they fitted into state policy to become reality. Even when a state closed ist borders for foreign ideas transfer took place. Johanna Conterio shows that in Soviet Russia, journals from Germany and the UK dealing with natural healing were available in institute libraries. Fanny Le Bonhomme described psychatry in the GDR. Even in the 1960s, the director of the Charité came from the West and was not a party member. She also pointed to the fact that the sources show that discussions in the GDR did not differ much from contemporary discussions in France.

The Variety of Agents involved in Health and Social Welfare           

All papers draw attention to the importance of the specific actor or agent who or which dealt with questions of health and social welfare. An agent doesn’t necessarily have to be a certain person but can also mean institutions or even objects.

Jessica Reinisch showed through the example of UNRRA relief work how individuals shaped humanitarian work in the field. She started by explaining how field workers were recruited and how their personal and political interests influenced their work. She also asked which role the receiving countries played. This additional focus on the state’s interest was also part of Friederike Kind-Kovacs paper on the example of post World War I Hungary, when international relief was gained for malnourished children. Andre Thiemann questioned the role of personality in assessments of a family’s social status and therefore their need for help among Serbian social workers.

Francesca Piana works on Dr. Ruth Azniv Parmelee, who came to central Turkey with the Hoover organisation and was there when the Armenian genocide took place. Women’s work was in the margins, and Parmelee was critized for her lack of own experience with children as she was single. In Jessica Reinisch’s case the motivation for women to apply as UNRRA relief workers was a great chance for women to be professionally engaged in a foreign country, in contrast to their career chances in their own country. War often implied the opportunity for women to engage in official positions (doctors and nurses). On the other hand Paul Lerner stated that war was not necessarily a motor for severe changes in the way of thinking as in his case World War I did not really change (academic) conceptions in German psychiatry

Under the zeitgeist keyword of “modernism” new international and national institutions popped up throughout the late 19th century. Johanna Conterio showed that in a short period of time in the 1930s eleven institutes for natural healing were founded in the Soviet Union. Whole new groups of agents were created. On the example of Russian railway workers Angelika Strobl showed that they became a “railway population” inside the Russian empire. The railway company  started a process of statistification as an overall health care had become necessary to guarantee the physical condition of specialized professionals. Modernization therefore was characterized by efforts to bring health and welfare efforts to the masses, including mass injections aimed to regulate and control the people’s bodies. Through exhibitions, posters and booklets, the state expected the enlightenment of the massess. Justyna Turkowska presented exhibitions in Poznań (today in Western Poland) where the contact zone of Russia and Germany created an additional kind of racial propaganda. Poles were mentioned in a way that they more tended to alcohol abuse in contrary to Germans.

When health and welfare measures were discussed by states and scientists this always implied that certain groups were left out. This marginalization played an important role, regardless of whether these people were part of an ethnic minority or a distinct group apart from the majority. Eszter Varsa pointed to the selective nature of pronatalism. Hungary legalized abortion already in the 1950s. Physicians argued that abortion would harm the Hungarian nation, as only the wrong women would make use of it, that is, upper class women, rather than Roma. Educating the population was not only directed to adults but also to children. Ana Antic described in the example of Yugoslavia in the 1960s that children were seen as key figures for the long-term transformation of society. They would later become the agents for the Yugoslav version of socialism.  Indira Durakovic focused on the role of marginalization in late 19th century Serbian public health. The newly independent state aimed to have a healthy population not only to have wealthy tax payers but also to marginalize all groups which did not meet the aim of an ethnic, homogenous society, such as female prostitutes and homosexual men.

In Sara Bernasconi’s case the “agent” had been the midwives’ cases in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The so called kofer was interpreted as a symbol for modernization and state’s control by the Austro-Hungarian occupation administration in Bosnia-Herzegovina and therefore as an imperial tool. On the other hand it supported the professionalization of a woman’s job and it had an afterlife as it was used even after the dissolution of the Habsburg monarchy.

Critical Assessment of Health and Social Welfare Terminology and Visualization

Friederike Kind-Kovacs argued for tracing the “origin of terminology”. When were terms first used and in which context, but by taking into account that even in the same time people or state’s used them differently. Heike Karge argued for a normalization of several terms such as  “East” and “Balkans” which were often used by contemporaries to draw a distinctive line between themselves (modern) and the others (backward). She showed through the example of post World War II Yugoslavia that these parts of Europe went congruent to discourses in the so called West. Socialism meant something different in Yugoslavia than in Romania. A distinction should also be made between early and late socialism. Esther Wahlen compared measures directed to alcoholics in Romania and Chechoslovakia. She  described the change from early socialist interpretation about the reasons for alcoholism (poverty) to the late socialism where it was seen as the problem of an indivuum. The term modernization played a key role. All actors – regardless of the country – understood the 19th century as a period of modernism. But we have to ask what this term meant for whom and when and why the usage ended after 1945? In the 20th century modernization was enriched by nationalist prospects of a healthy nation.

Another periodization was connected to science. The period until the First World War was called by scientists as a “nervous era“ (Paul Lerner). In the late 19th century until 1945, as Maria Zarifi argued, among Greek officials modernization implied an effort to step away from any Ottoman tradition, by tracing back to ancient times, and to Europeanize. Modernization was synonomous with Westernization.

Also terms related to health and welfare have to be taken critically into question such as “backward”, “poor”, “educated”, “ill,” “healthy,” or even “failure”. Failure of a relief mission, as Jessica Reinisch argued, is always declared by individuals, often linked to political changes.

Health and Welfare are usually not only written words in political or scientific papers but often materialized in exhibitions or pictures. Pictures of childrens‘ coffins were used for public exhibitions (Turkowska) or to gain international attention on malnourished children (Kind-Kovacs).  Dora Vargha presented a post card where a child was dressed up as a syringe or a picture where children thanked Albert Sabin for rescuing them from polio. The late 19th century was also a time of increasing publishing of educational booklets for the masses and public lectures. Indira Durakovic pointed to booklets which aimed to fight venereal diseases. In the case of the Austro-Hungarian army these booklets were printed in the languages of all nationalities living in the monarchy with the same content (Tamara Scheer).


For this workshop researchers gathered who are only on the first sight dealing with different topics. What quickly became obvious was to what extent to which we are all challenged by the same questions. One is that even when states close their borders, agents of health and welfare, ideas and debates are crossing borders. A mutual influence was even traceable for restricted countries such as Soviet Russia and the GDR. In each case we have to ask to what extent the regional (not state) social and cultural situation influenced ideas and debates. The other challenge is how to use terms such as Western, Eastern, Europeanization or modern. For each case researchers have to ask if and how these terms were used by historical actors, in different languages and countries, in the same period. The importance of tracing ideas and debates back to single personalities was also highlighted. Often actors brought in personal interests and prejudices, which influenced the outcomes of their activities. The theme of engaging the masses or directing health and welfare measures toward the masses also appeared repeatedly in our discussions. This engagement shaped thinking about health and welfare in Europe in the 19th century up to contemporary history.

The Paris Climate Agreement and the Year 1965: How Much Can We Achieve in 50 Years (Or Less)?

In this post, Hiroki Shin considers the agreement reached at the Paris climate conference earlier this week, and points to a longer history of tensions between international and national attempts to control energy.


After intensive and tough negotiations, the COP 21 climate conference in Paris finally reached an agreement on 12 December 2015. Political leaders hailed the agreement as a historic turning point, an agreement in which the global community now shares the recognition that climate change is a threat to human existence, an enormous challenge that has to be tackled with an internationally coordinated system. The Paris pact aims to keep global temperature rise well below 2.0C, while officially acknowledging the more ambitious target of 1.5C. It also envisions the world with zero carbon emissions in the latter half of this century. The new global climate deal is to be implemented through reviews of individual countries’ performance every five years – measured against their voluntary pledges (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs) – and by intensifying efforts to mitigate climate change over the coming years. As much as it is a landmark event in terms of the world coming to embrace a common goal, we need to see the Paris agreement as a headlight illuminating a rough road ahead of us. Furthermore, the agreement’s reference to the latter part of this century might make it sound as though we have plenty of time, but this is not the case. Looking at how things have changed in the past shows that, when dealing with a global problem, decades are a very short unit of time.


Picture 3

Half a century ago, in 1965, energy was already an international topic, though not for its environmental implications. The world was only beginning to realise, mostly at the national level, the environmental harm caused by human activity. It was still a burgeoning recognition expressed, for example, in the US President’s Science Advisory Committee report Restoring the Quality of Our Environment (1965). The report opened with the statement, ‘Ours is a nation of affluence’, but 1965 was a year when affluence and scarcity formed a curious mix. One of its manifestations was the American Northeast blackout in November 1965, evidence that energy affluence came with disruptions, shortages and the fear of losing power. The blackout, which lasted for more than ten hours on a Tuesday evening, affected over thirty million people in a country that had come to depend for the major part of its normal life on electrical power. What is interesting is not just how Americans experienced and responded to the sudden deprivation of electricity, but also how outsiders saw the event. On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, in Japan, which still regarded the USA as the model for its economic development and standard of living, news of the Northeast blackout was received with a mixture of surprise and admiration. An article described it as an event caused by ‘a blind spot of the hypermodern city’.[i] The mechanised cities that came to a halt during the power outage were seen as proof of the extent to which energy-using technology penetrated into American life. The blackout was therefore seen as a sign of affluence, the level of energy civilisation the Japanese aspired to achieve.


Picture 2

The British, less impressed by the American hypermodern, asked themselves the question: ‘Could it happen here?’ The answer of the UK Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) was that, thanks to Britain’s integrated power supply system, it was ‘impossible to visualise a similar situation arising in this country’.[ii] Despite the CEGB’s confident claim, there were a number of blackouts in the UK at the time. Less than a week after the American blackout, on 15 November 1965, a power outage occurred, affecting London, the Home Counties, Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby, Chesterfield and most of East Anglia. The CEGB blamed the exceptionally cold weather that coincided with the operation to overhaul much of its equipment.[iii] The Guardian’s chief editor, Mark Arnold-Forster, exonerated the CEGB by pointing out that the real culprits were ‘millions of customers [who] felt cold at once and switched on direct-acting electric fires’.[iv] Indeed, a sudden imbalance of supply and demand had been the cause of a number of blackouts since the 1940s, including a power outage on the Christmas Day in 1962.[v]

Picture 4
The Guardian, 27 December 1962.

Energy experts in 1960s Europe were well aware that demand was not the obedient follower of supply. In the spring of 1965, the Committee on Electric Power of the UN Economic Commission for Europe held a symposium in Istanbul to consider the challenge of meeting the rapidly growing electricity demand.[vi] The attendance of 215 representatives from twenty-one countries demonstrated that those countries were facing a similar problem. However, although the problem was shared, their approaches differed. While the USSR delegate referred to a central committee to allocate power to different classes of consumer in times of emergency, the UK delegate – ever so inclined to soft persuasion – presented a paper on how to control load growth using consumer advisory services. While the problem was discussed at an international forum, the solution was sought at the national level. What could be described as the common recognition then was that the problem caused by power demand ‘does not arise only today, but exists at all times’, as expressed by the Turkish chairman.[vii] This amounted to an admission that there would be no future in which everyone’s need for power is fully satisfied at all times.

In July the same year, in Bangkok, another international meeting was held by the UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE, later to become ESCAP). The focus of ECAFE’s working group meeting was the development of energy resources – particularly electric power – and how to exploit them for industrialising the ECAFE region that included major developing countries such as China, India, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam and Iran.[viii] Some of the ECAFE countries were already experiencing the demand problem discussed by European countries in Istanbul. The demand for power was constantly outstripping supply in developing countries too, but it was simply taken as insufficient capacity building. What is striking about the Bangkok conference is how easily the longing for more energy could overshadow other important issues such as balancing the supply capacity and demand. Another topic that received only a passing reference was the depletion of fossil fuels, even though the Asian energy experts must have been familiar with King Hubbert’s ‘peak oil’ theory, first presented in 1956, which warned that US oil production would reach its peak around 1965–1970.


Picture 5

ECAFE Electric Power Experts’ Tour in India, 1956. United Nations Photo

The two meetings in Istanbul and Bangkok demonstrate that the different priorities had a profound effect on how some problems were selected while other issues were obscured. Fifty years on from the two UN meetings, the environmental issues are now centre stage at international forums where developed and developing countries participate equally in negotiations. In this way, there have been major changes. Nevertheless, there are uncanny parallels between the situation today and that of 1965. Energy disruption still haunts developed and developing countries; power outages arising from technical problems, human errors and natural disasters abound, and the renewable transition has now been added to the list of disruption causes. For instance, the UK’s attempt to abandon all of its coal-fired plants has narrowed the electricity supply margin to satisfy the nation’s demand. In early November 2015, the National Grid had to appeal to business users to reduce energy consumption to avert a wide-scale disconnection. In Germany, a record number of consumers were disconnected because they could not pay their electricity bills, which had been inflated due to added subsidies for renewable energy. Blackouts have yet to be eliminated in developed countries; they are still alive and kicking. In developing countries, including those that have already achieved significant levels of development, the appetite for energy is unabated. More than anything, the belief that greater energy use leads to greater economic growth remains so strong that it is obscuring other important issues and sacrificing the global environment for future generations.

A brief look at the events of 1965 and 2015 tells us that the length of fifty years has turned out to be far from sufficient in balancing our needs and desires for energy with the resources and capacity we have. During the same period, we have failed to manage our power demands, which has led to severe damage to the global environment. With the coming of a more rigorous emissions control regime, the problem of managing energy demands will become more acute. In addition, as the Paris meeting highlighted, the fundamental divide between energy haves and have-nots has changed very little in the past fifty years, and this is the situation we have to deal with in the coming decades. Aligning our goals is one thing, aligning our acts and deeds is another, and the latter is usually more difficult. To meet the numerous challenges, several decades are equivalent to but a short space of time. This means that we must equip ourselves with ever-increasing determination and will in order to sprint through the long and rough terrain in the decades to come.

[i] Asahi Journal, 9 January 1966, p.88.

[ii] The Guardian, 11 November 1965.

[iii] The Guardian, 16 November 1965.

[iv] The Guardian, 18 November 1965.

[v] The Guardian, 27 December 1962.

[vi] Economic Commission for Europe, Symposium on Special Problems in Meeting Rapidly-Growing Requirements for Electric Power (UN, 1966).

[vii] Ibid, p. 23.

[viii] Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East, The Role and Application of Electric Power in the Industrialization of Asia and the Far East (UN, 1965). A recent review of the ECAFE’s early history is Ikuto Yamaguchi, ‘The Development and Activities of the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE), 1947–65’, in S. Akita, G. Krozewski and S. Watanabe (eds.), The Transformation of the International Order of Asia (Routledge, 2014).


Dr Hiroki Shin is Co-Investigator of the AHRC-funded ‘Material Cultures of Energy’ project (PI: Prof Frank Trentmann), based at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Teaching the history of internationalism in schools, by David Bryan

Woodlands pupils at the graduation ceremony at King's

Woodlands pupils at the graduation ceremony at King’s College London

In the summer of 2015, the Reluctant Internationalist group’s David Bryan teamed up with the educational charity The Brilliant Club and Woodlands School in Basildon to design and run a course on the history of internationalism for a group of twelve GCSE pupils. In September the pupils, who are just beginning year 10, attended a graduation ceremony at King’s College London after completing a course of university-style tutorials and producing a final assignment aimed at A-level standards.

The Brilliant Club places doctoral and postdoctoral researchers in non-selective state schools to deliver university-style tutorials based on their own research. The organisation aims to help pupils develop the knowledge, skills and ambition to secure places at top universities. Their focus is on those groups most underrepresented at such institutions, particularly pupils with no family history of higher education and those eligible for free school meals.

The course at Woodlands comprised six tutorials spread over the summer and autumn terms. The first tutorial formed part of a visit to Newnham College, Cambridge where pupils met with university students and widening participation staff to discuss university life, study skills and the benefits of pursuing higher education. The course ended with the graduation ceremony at King’s attended by pupils, teachers and family members. In between pupils were required to attend five tutorials in school and to complete a 2000 word assignment which was given a university-style grade.

The twelve Woodlands pupils followed a bespoke course on the history of internationalism and international organisations since the First World War. Covering the emergence and development of internationalist ideas and practices through the prism of the League of Nations, the United Nations and the European Union, the course aimed to prepare pupils for the demands of the new GCSE curriculum with its requirements for thematic, longer-term studies of European and world history. It also provided an opportunity for pupils to discuss current debates around the EU, global migration and the refugee crisis in their historical context, and to engage with some of the ideas covered in the Citizenship curriculum.

All of the Woodlands pupils performed extremely well on the course, achieving a 100% pass rate and engaging enthusiastically with some very challenging ideas and material. Special congratulations to Rose and Isobelle who received distinctions for, respectively, their outstanding final assignments and contribution to tutorials.

We hope this will be the first of a number of activities aimed at making the research produced by the Reluctant Internationalists group accessible to secondary school pupils and teachers.

One of Us? Dealing with Difference Among People on the Move

In this essay, Jim Bjork looks at Poland’s recent history of assimilating culturally distinctive newcomers.


On 12 September 2015, people in the Polish city of Wrocław engaged on each side of the debate over policy toward the growing number of refugees coming to Europe from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The issue was, by then, a familiar and thoroughly pan-European one. But the language deployed at these demonstrations reflected some distinctively Polish points of reference. At a football match, supporters of the local team unfurled a banner declaring ‘We want the repatriate, not the immigrant.’ Popularized by right-wing groups such as the Pan-Polish Youth, the slogan combined a rhetorical welcome to so-called ‘repatriates’—residents of current-day Ukraine or Central Asian republics who could claim Polish descent—with rejection of ‘immigrants’, ostensibly unassimilable foreigners, who had been primarily characterized as ‘African’ in earlier demonstrations but who now figured as agents of ‘Islamization’.


Banner at football match in Wrocław on 12 September: “We want the repatriate, not the immigrant.”

The use of the word ‘repatriates’ was an especially evocative rhetorical move in western Poland. This not only referred to the potential immigration of a relatively small number of ethnic Poles currently living outside of Poland’s borders. It also touched on the life stories and family histories of hundreds of thousands of current residents of Wrocław and the surrounding region of Lower Silesia. ‘Repatriate’ was the term applied to roughly 1.5 million people who were compelled to leave territory that had constituted the eastern half of Poland before the Second World War but that became a part of the USSR after the war and that now make up the western portions of Belarus and Ukraine and parts of Lithuania. The thrust of the Polish Right’s symbolic embrace of this group was clear enough: both the post-war repatriates and current/future migrants using the same term had to be understood as automatic insiders within the Polish community, and their proprietary claim to the rights and benefits offered by the Polish state (and by extension the European Union) needed to be asserted against ‘real’ foreigners (‘immigrants’). Although the specific demonstrations cited here were spearheaded by a relatively marginal far-right group, this view of migration was broadly shared by much of the Polish electorate, as shown by the triumph of the Law and Justice Party and strong performance of other right-wing parties in the most recent parliamentary elections.

On the same day, in the market square in the centre of Wrocław, a very different demonstration was invoking the history or post-war ‘repatriation’ in a very different way. A number of placards at this rally explicitly rejected the ostensible contrast between ‘repatriates’ and ‘migrants’, redefining both as ‘refugees’. Some signs noted that ‘Wrocław was rebuilt by refugees’, a reference to the city’s wholesale re-population and partial reconstruction after the Second World War, as almost all of its previous German inhabitants fled or were expelled, and hundreds of thousands of in-migrants—many from the former Polish East, though also many form central Poland—took their place. Describing as ‘refugees’ people who had been forced to leave their homes and move to an area most had never seen before, let alone inhabited, seemed a much more honest use of language than the euphemistic ‘repatriates’, which suggested the soothing fiction that they had all simply ‘come home’. Other demonstrators held up signs saying that ‘Kargul and Pawlak [were] also refugees’. As almost all Poles (but few non-Poles) would know, this referred to the popular film Sami Swoi (1967), a title that can be translated as ‘just folks’ but that conjures a stronger sense of in-group intimacy, along the lines of ‘just among ourselves’. Kargul and Pawlak were the film’s main characters, members of families that had been feuding neighbours in the old homes in rural eastern Poland before both ended up in Lower Silesia after the war. Jan Pawlak moves to the United States for a time, but when he returns he discovers that the two families had now reconciled and, indeed, intermarried in their new common homeland.


Demonstration in support of refugees in the Market Square in Wrocław on 12 September: Sign on the left reads ‘Kargul I Pawlak [were] also refugees’; sign on the right reads (in German) ‘Refugees welcome’. An image of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Poland’s most famous icon, can be partially seen in the centre.

These duelling deployments of Poland’s post-war migration history show that recent debates about refugees from outside Europe are not only about Poles’ or Europeans’ understandings of those migrants. They are also about Poles’ view of Poles and Europeans’ views of Europeans. These debates are, in other words, about an ostensible contrast between mass movement that is deemed normal and unremarkable, the circulation of like among like, and mass movement that is deemed pathological (sometimes quite literally). This contrast was, for example, central to Viktor Orban’s notorious remarks portraying the recent influx of refugees as a threat to ‘European identity’ while simultaneously celebrating migration within the EU as the ‘experience [of] freedom itself’. It is unsurprising, then, that advocates of a more welcoming stance toward current refugees have critiqued this contrast from both sides: not only making the strange familiar (humanizing current refugees) but also making the familiar strange (revealing the extent of cultural difference within putative ‘homogeneous’ communities).

The placards just discussed, especially the reference to Kargul and Pawlak, might seem to be playful gestures, gently tweaking pop cultural memories. But they were also, for those thinking them through carefully, genuinely provocative, tugging at strings connected to some of the most painful and divisive events in modern European history. They invited observers to recall the suffering not only of hundreds of thousands of Polish refugees from the East, but also of millions of German refugees who fled from the territories that the descendants of ‘repatriates’ now called home. Perhaps even more provocatively—and so beyond what Sami Swoi was willing to engage, even in the context of comedy—the invocation of post-war migration could trigger reflection on relations between, on the one hand, the hundreds of thousands of natives of Poland’s western territories who were deemed Polish and so remained in the region (so-called ‘autochtones’) and, on the other, the hundreds of thousands of newcomers to the region, both ‘repatriates’ from the lost eastern territories and ‘newcomers’ from central Poland. The nationalist view, shared by leaders in both Eastern and Western Europe at the time, that this kind of post-war migration had involved an un-mixing of people, resulting in cosily homogeneous local communities, failed to correspond to realities on the ground. Many ‘autochtones’ viewed in-migrants as foreigners–indeed, often as ‘Ukrainians’ rather than genuine Poles—bringing an ‘Asiatic’ civilization into their ‘European’ communities. Many ‘repatriates’ and ‘newcomers’ returned the favour, characterizing the local population as ‘Germans’ posing as ‘Poles’ and accusing them of hiding Nazi pasts and sympathies. Even the clergy of the Roman Catholic church, the one important cultural institution shared by the vast majority of both indigenous and in-migrant residents, readily characterized their parishes as ‘mosaics’, made up of distinct communities with different geographic origins and different cultures who largely kept to themselves and only very gradually began socializing and eventually inter-marrying across what were essentially ‘ethnic’ lines.

In her introductory post to this blog, Jessica Reinisch rightly strikes a note of caution about the uses of history and the invocation of historical ‘lessons’. No historical example is exactly like any contemporary phenomenon, just as no historical example is exactly any other historical example. Perhaps more important, even if we accept that an episode from the past is strikingly similar to a current development, we are still left to unpack the meaning and implications of the past episode. Poland’s migration history after the Second World War is no exception. To begin with, should we look back at this history as a success story or as a cautionary tale? If our criteria are the achievement of geopolitical stability, the avoidance of violence, and the long-term integration of newly resettled populations, then the post-war era featured some impressive elements of success. Even if people thrown together by the demographic upheaval of the 1940s did not originally see themselves as part of a shared national community, most seemed to develop such an identification over time. But there are caveats to such a verdict. Already in the first several years after the war, many Jewish Holocaust survivors who had initially resettled in Poland’s new western territories now emigrated from Poland altogether. Antisemitic sentiment, sometimes escalating into physical violence, often played a decisive role in this additional round of uprooting. Over subsequent decades, hundreds of thousands of people who initially had been deemed ‘ethnic Poles’ after 1945 have decided that they had been miscategorised and have migrated west as ‘ethnic Germans’. Again, non-Catholics, including Protestant Slavic-speaking residents of Masuria, were especially likely to feel that their initial welcome into the Polish national community was ineffective and unconvincing. Even many of those who have remained in Poland up until today have recently re-identified as ‘German’ and/or as members of newly recognized ‘Kashubian’ or ‘Silesian’ nationalities.

If we view post-war integration of intra-European migrants as a qualified success, the natural follow-up question is: which policies worked, and which did not? Proponents of a ‘strong’ integration model (French republicanism is the most familiar example, though structurally similar models can have different ideological content) could plausibly point to the integrative power of Poland’s normative national mythology (a literary canon; sense of historical mission; pantheon of heroes). People now defined categorically as ‘ethnic Poles’ may have had little in the way of genealogical connection to this narrative, but they nonetheless came to embrace it as ‘theirs’. As just noted, however, for large numbers of ‘Poles’, this embrace turned out to be temporary acquiescence; they eventually came to conclude, in varying ways and for various reasons, that Poland’s hegemonic culture was not ‘theirs’ after all.

In my own recent research on approaches to cultural integration within Poland’s Roman Catholic church after the Second World War, I have found that the most fruitful approaches—those that seemed to foster durable institutional connections—involved important qualifications to a straightforward assimilationist model. Local priests and bishops were sensitive to concerns about who was assimilating whom, and many sought to foster a sense that a shared Polish culture would be built on genuine, on-going negotiation rather than mandated as a set ‘heritage’ defined by other people’s ancestors. Within parishes in the western territories, for example, different groups had opportunities to set the tone of local communal life, framing their own local customs, traditions, and historical memories as normatively ‘Polish’. It was certainly not full-blown multiculturalism, but it was a kind of pluralism, clearly recognizing both the existence and the ongoing value of difference.

It is useful to keep in mind these experiences from an earlier wave of mass dislocation in considering approaches to current migration challenges. Just as can be seen in discussions today about the ‘assimilability’ of refugees, a common religion was often viewed as a prerequisite for integration in post-war Poland. But religious homogeneity was never a matter of protecting a cosy pre-existing uniformity against incursions. Its achievement in the years after 1945 required the purging of longstanding religious minorities, often through outright violence, though sometimes through subtler forms of ‘un-welcoming’. Current warnings that ‘Christian Europe’ is unable to absorb Muslim immigrants have similarly troubling implications for millions of Muslim Europeans.

As we recall the violent exclusions that marked post-war migration, however, it is also important to remember the ways in which these mass movements created diversity in local communities. Although the overwhelming majority of post-war Polish citizens shared a Roman Catholic affiliation, differences in customs, traditions, and language meant that they often perceived one another as coming from different civilizations. They also brought wildly divergent wartime experiences to their new communities, some having fought for various Polish resistance groups, some in the German army, some in the Soviet army, many in several of these in succession. The frequent characterization of Poland (or Eastern Europe more generally) as having no experience of dealing with culturally distinctive in-migrants is, then, quite misleading. Earlier mass migration by some current residents initially felt quite threatening and overwhelming to other current residents, and yet they have, on the whole, managed to find common ground. The problems, needs, and potential contributions of current refugees from Syria or Eritrea will, to be sure, be different from those of post-1945 migrants from what is now southeastern Lithuania or western Ukraine. Encountering flesh-and-blood migrants has always involved negotiation of diverse pasts as well as recognition of current and, even more important, future similarities. The perennial challenge is to move past caricatures of absolute sameness or irreducible difference and think through carefully what exactly people need to have in common in order to live together and how a sense of shared fate can be cultivated.

Dr James Bjork is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History and Liberal Arts at King’s College London.