At the end of May, Birkbeck hosted the ‘Languages of Internationalism’ conference, the last major event of the Reluctant Internationalists project. Co-organised with our former Visiting Fellow Brigid O’Keeffe (Brooklyn College, CUNY), the conference aimed to shed light on the centrality of language to people’s pursuit and experiences of internationalism. The full programme from the conference can be viewed here, and all of the papers are available to listen to as podcasts via SoundCloud or through the central Birkbeck College iTunes channel.
Language is at the heart of every international enterprise, but as the conference showed, it presents obstacles and dilemmas, as well as opportunities. Many of the papers emphasised frictions and tensions which emerged over the use of languages in international settings. In socialist youth camps during the Cold War, for example, Eastern European delegates displayed resentment towards Soviet translators and Russian speakers as symbols of Soviet cultural imperialism (Diana Georgescu, UCL). In international Jewish congresses during the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries, fierce debates broke out over the role of German, Yiddish and Hebrew as languages of transnational Jewish communication (Marc Volovici, Princeton). Many of these tensions stemmed from attempts to deploy language as tools of national or imperial dominance.
As other speakers argued, ideologies could act as languages through which adherence could build transnational solidarities. The language of socialism was explored by a number of speakers. Although Russian was promoted as the common language of the socialist world by the Soviet Union, particularly in Cold War Eastern Europe, socialists from different parts of the world could also find ways of communicating through the language of socialist solidarity without using Russian (Elidor Mëhilli, Hunter College, CUNY). The language of feminism also served to build ties between women from very different cultures and backgrounds, although language difficulties were one of the factors hindering understanding at international events such as the 1975 International Women’s Year conference in Mexico (Jocelyn Olcott, Duke).
The problems of translation and miscommunication have driven many attempts to construct new international forms of communication, most famously in the case of international languages such as Esperanto. The growth of international organisations over the course of the twentieth-century, as well as the expansion of global communication technologies such as the telegraph, encouraged the use of statistics as a tool of international communication, particularly in technical fields such as health (Heidi Tworek, British Columbia). In the cultural field, writers and publishers saw the ‘language of action’ and simplified writing styles of children’s books such as the Curious George series as a medium which could be easily translated across borders, although cultural, political and national differences still continued to pose problems (Yuliya Komska, Dartmouth College).
The conference showed how language could be a tool of communication, solidarity and unity, as well as a force of division and alienation. But it also made clear the centrality of language in the performance, experience, and pursuit of internationalism.
On February 3rd over twenty researchers gathered at Birkbeck to discuss the history of socialist internationalism during the Cold War, a field which has seen increasing scholarly interest over recent years and which has been of particular interest to the Reluctant Internationalists project.
As Johanna Conterio (Birkbeck) explained in the introduction to the conference, recent historiography has complicated traditional images of the Cold War as a period of blocked mobility, revealing the extent of cooperation and exchange both behind and beyond the Iron Curtain. The conference aimed to discuss these patterns of mobility, promote dialogue between Soviet and East European historiographies, and explore the global dimensions of socialist exchange.
The first panel focused on culture within and beyond the socialist world. Kristin Roth-Ey (SSEES) questioned the traditional focus on the exchange of high culture in the socialist world, arguing that it was less important than the objects of mass culture – Bollywood musicals, Latin American melodramas, radio broadcasts and the press – which circulated between the Soviet Union and the Third World. Soviet cultural production, like its technology and industry, was dominated by the ‘aesthetic of the big’, and it was through this mass culture that ideas about the Second and Third Worlds were exchanged. Paul Betts (Oxford) introduced material from a forthcoming photo exhibition organised by the Socialism Goes Global project on Tito’s diplomatic missions to Africa. Official images of Tito on safari, signing trade deals, watching traditional dancers and opening new hospitals presented an aesthetics of equality, highlighting the fraternal mixing which supposedly characterised relations between Yugoslavia and socialist-leaning Africa, in contrast to the racial hierarchies of the former imperial powers. Simon Huxtable (Loughborough) discussed Cold War television as a transnational phenomenon. Intervision, the Eastern Bloc’s broadcasting organisation, was designed as a vehicle for socialist internationalism, promoting programmes such as the Intervision song contest. But while viewers in Eastern Europe were exposed to programmes from the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, they also had access to western programming, in some cases broadcast directly from the West, in others cases purchased or copied by socialist broadcasters. Intervision thus created a broader space of socialist identity, while at the same time introducing Polish viewers to Sesame Street. Katarina Lichvarova (Courtauld Institute) discussed Soviet avant garde art movements, using the Dvizhenie group to explore the circulation of ideas and exhibitions both within the Eastern Bloc and across the Iron Curtain. Dina Fainberg (City University) concluded the panel by showing how Soviet journalists presented the US counter-culture protests of 1968 as evidence of the growing hold of socialist values. Appearing alongside reports of the Soviet intervention in Prague, however, these accounts lent themselves to subversive readings and risked undermining the notions of socialist international community they were intended to promote.
The second panel shifted focus to trade and exchange. Alessandro Iandolo (Oxford) used relations between the Soviet Union and Ghana in the early 1960s to explore the role of development cooperation in Cold War socialist internationalism. Soviet attempts to promote a model of economic development based on industrialisation and mechanised agriculture appealed to the Ghanaian government, which was keen to gain support for its hydroelectric and infrastructure projects, but were met with suspicion from the former imperial powers in West Africa. Kristy Ironside (Manchester) discussed the difficulties in comparing money and prices in the communist and capitalist worlds. Soviet officials systematically drove down prices for everyday goods from the early 1950s, but were frustrated by their inability to promote these achievements to the rest of the world because of the difficulty of translating socialist economic indicators to western price models. Katarzyna Jezowska (Oxford) showed how the Polish pavilion at the 1956 Damascus trade fair was designed to convey a specific sense of socialist modernity, using modernist aesthetics and technological innovation to promote the achievements of Polish reformers. Yakov Feygin (Pennsylvania) examined the history of ‘mathematical internationalism’ – economic experts in both socialist and capitalist economies united by a belief in the power of maths and computing to secure economic development. The diplomatic thaw of 1967 created a space for Soviet experts to participate in international exchanges on economic reform and development, but their attempts to introduce markets and elements of supply and demand into the Soviet economy broke down in the early 1980s.
The third panel explored models of socialist development, focusing particularly but not exclusively on medicine, urban planning and the environment. Kate Lebow (Oxford) presented her research on the memoir-writing competitions organized by Polish sociologists among workers and peasants in the interwar period, which unveiled, among other things, a number of assumptions about the place of home and homeland in global networks, and about rights and justice, in personal narratives. Timothy Nunan (Freie U, Berlin) used the case of the Afghan regime of the 1980s to explore the overlap between socialist and Islamist internationalisms. Rather than making a distinction between the two, Afghan socialists argued that they were also Islamists. Although socialist internationalism was important to them, it also acted as a bridge to wider debates about anti-imperialism and pan-Islamism. Robert Balogh (Budapest) explored Hungarian forestry research into Scots pine, showing how experiments into agricultural, industrial and environmental aspects of pine cultivation circulated between Eastern Europe, Western Europe and international organisations such as the FAO. Jo Laycock (Sheffield Hallam) examined the complex network of non-governmental actors, governmental administrators and recipients of relief and their interactions in post-genocide Armenia. Dora Vargha (Exeter) concluded the panel with a discussion of the polio vaccination campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s, which developed at the intersection of liberal internationalism, international scientific networks, and socialist internationalism. The socialist world was seen as the perfect place to carry out global vaccination trials because of the nature of socialist health system, while international experts argued at the same time that there was ‘no Cold War’ in the fight against disease.
The fourth panel continued discussions about the global spread and reach of socialist projects. James Mark (Exeter) discussed changing representation of Cubans in Hungary through photographs and photo journalism, where he detected a shift from Cubans being portrayed as heroes to featuring as poor workers on the periphery. Tobias Rupprecht (Exeter) explored the East European fascination with global forms of free-market authoritarianism in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For many reformers across the region, he argued, ‘the West’ was not the only source of inspiration; economically successful dictatorships as Chile, South Korea and Singapore also provided crucial lessons. Ana Antic (Exeter) talked about Yugoslav psychiatrists’ technical aid missions to Guinea in the 1960s, and considered the extent to which they contributed a Marxist perspective to transcultural psychiatry. Psychiatrists’ discussion of African ‘primitivism’, she pointed out, mirrored their perceptions of ‘primitive’ patients in Yugoslavia itself.
In January the Reluctant Internationalists hosted a residential course for the Historical Association’s 2017 The Cold War in the Classroom Teaching Fellowship. Ten secondary school teachers from across the country have been appointed as this year’s Fellows following an extremely competitive application process. The fellowship is being co-taught by leading textbook author, trainer and examiner, Ben Walsh and Birkbeck historians.
The two-day residential course marked the first stage of the fellowship. It was designed to provide an overview of some of the most up-to-date academic research in the field, and a forum to discuss key issues around teaching the Cold War in the classroom.
The course began with sessions from Ben Walsh on the challenges the Cold War presents for both teachers and students, and the different pedagogical approaches that
can be taken towards it. Jessica Reinisch then provided an overview of the period and discussed some of the key historiographical developments over recent decades. Despite the challenges of incorporating competing interpretations into tight teaching schedules, many of the Fellows felt that the Cold War provided the ideal opportunity to introduce students to complex historiographical concepts.
David Brydan followed this up with a session on Cold War geographies, using a series of maps to explore the different ways we can think about the geography of the Cold War, and discussing how historians have shifted perspective in recent years away from simple models of bi-polar conflict towards a more complex, global understanding of the Cold War. Johanna Conterio’s session explored the question in everyday life in the Cold War, using examples from housing, agriculture and environment in the Soviet Union to illustrate recent debates about consumption, welfare and living standards. Jessica Reinisch and Johanna Conterio then combined to lead a discussion on the legacies of the Cold War, a theme which offers a lot of potential to engage students with a topic already regarded by many as ancient history.
The course ended with two final sessions from Ben Walsh on the potential of technology in teaching the Cold War, particularly given the vast range of sources and materials available online, and on creating resources. As part of the assessment for the Fellowship, participants will be required to create classroom resources on the Cold War which can be used by other teachers. These resources will draw on both the content of the residential course, and on the online course which the Fellows are currently completing, which explores some of the key topics of Cold War history in more depth. Details about how the online course has developed and the lessons Fellows have drawn from it are available in the series of blog posts recently published on our website and on the Historical Association website.
The Cold War in the Classroom Teaching Fellowship forms part of a series of public engagement activities the Reluctant Internationalists project has been undertaking this year, and has been funded by our recent Wellcome Trust public engagement grant.
As part of the Reluctant Internationalists project’s efforts to engage with non-academic audiences, we are now seeking to commission a freelance children’s author or illustrator to create an original, historically-informed work of children’s literature based on a theme of the Reluctant Internationalists project.
Applicants are invited to submit ideas for a book proposal, with entries welcome from all fields of children’s literature and illustration. Collaborations are also very welcome. If you are interested, please explain your idea on no more than one page of A4 and highlight particularly the themes, topics and intended target age range of your proposed book idea. Applicants must be willing to work with historians and academics in order to produce a work of historical relevance and resonance. Possible themes that the work may seek to cover could include a history of migration, refugees, health, international cooperation or international organisations.
The successful applicant will be expected to work alongside the project team for an agreed period, usually a minimum of three months, to draft a children’s book with a view to submitting the proposal for publication during 2017. The successful applicant will receive a fee of £6,500 for their work. Alongside submissions, please include contact information and a short (c.100 word) biography including information of any previous publications or works.
A new global “soft power” ranking recently reported that the democratic states of North America and Western Europe were the most successful at achieving their diplomatic objectives “through attraction and persuasion”.
Countries such as the US, the UK, Germany and Canada, the report claimed, are able to promote their influence through language, education, culture and the media, rather than having to rely on traditional forms of military or diplomatic “hard power”.
Although the term “soft power” was popularised by the political scientist Joseph Nye in the 1980s, the practice of states attempting to exert influence through their values and culture goes back much further. Despite what the current soft power list would suggest, it has never been solely the preserve of liberal or democratic states. The Soviet Union, for example, went to great efforts to promote its image to intellectuals and elites abroad through organisations such as VOKS (All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries).
Perhaps more surprisingly, right-wing authoritarian and fascist states also used soft power strategies to spread their power and influence abroad during the first half of the 20th century. Alongside their aggressive and expansionist foreign policies, Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and other authoritarian states used the arts, science, and culture to further their diplomatic goals.
Prior to World War II, these efforts were primarily focused on strengthening ties between the fascist powers. The 1930s, for example, witnessed intensive cultural exchanges between fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Although these efforts were shaped by the ideology of their respective regimes, they also built on pre-fascist traditions of cultural diplomacy. In the aftermath of World War I, Weimar Germany had become adept at promoting its influence through cultural exchanges in order to counter its diplomatic isolation. After 1933, the Nazi regime was able to shape Weimar-era cultural organisations and relationships to its own purpose.
This authoritarian cultural diplomacy reached its peak during World War II, when Nazi Germany attempted to apply a veneer of legitimacy to its military conquests by promoting the idea of a “New Europe” or “New European Order”. Although Hitler was personally sceptical about such efforts, Joseph Goebbels and others within the Nazi regime saw the “New Europe” as a way to gain support. Nazi propaganda promoted the idea of “European civilization” united against the threat of “Asiatic bolshevism” posed by the Soviet Union and its allies.
Given the lack of genuine political cooperation within Nazi-occupied Europe, these efforts relied heavily on cultural exchange. The period from the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 until the latter stages of 1943 witnessed an explosion of “European” and “international” events organised under Nazi auspices. They brought together right-wing elites from across the continent – from women’s groups, social policy experts and scientists to singers, dancers and fashion designers.
All of these initiatives, however, faced a common set of problems. Chief among them was the challenge of formulating a model of international cultural collaboration which was distinct from the kind of pre-war liberal internationalism which the fascist states had so violently rejected. The Nazi-dominated European Writers’ Union, for example, attempted to promote a vision of “völkisch” European literature rooted in national, agrarian cultures which it contrasted to the modernist cosmopolitanism of its Parisian-led liberal predecessors. But as a result, complained one Italian participant, the union’s events became “a little world of the literary village, of country poets and provincial writers, a fair for the benefit of obscure men, or a festival of the ‘unknown writer’”.
Deutschland über alles
Despite the language of European cooperation and solidarity which surrounded these organisations, they were ultimately based on Nazi military supremacy. The Nazis’ hierarchical view of European races and cultures prompted resentment even among their closest foreign allies.
These tensions, combined with the practical constraints on wartime travel and the rapid deterioration of Axis military fortunes from 1943 onwards, meant that most of these new organisations were both ineffective and short-lived. But for a brief period they succeeded in bringing together a surprisingly wide range of individuals committed to the idea of a new, authoritarian era of European unity.
Echoes of the cultural “New Europe” lived on after 1945. The Franco regime, for example, relied on cultural diplomacy to overcome the international isolation it faced. The Women’s section of the Spanish fascist party, the Falange, organised “choir and dance” groups which toured the world during the 1940s and 1950s, travelling from Wales to West Africa to promote an unthreatening image of Franco’s Spain through regional folk dances and songs.
But the far-right’s golden age of authoritarian soft power ended with the defeat of the Axis powers. The appeal of fascist culture was fundamentally undermined by post-war revelations about Nazi genocide, death camps and war crimes. At the other end of the political spectrum, continued Soviet efforts to attract support from abroad were hampered by the invasion of Hungary in 1956 and the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968.
This does not mean that authoritarian soft power has been consigned to history. Both Russia and China made the top 30 of the most recent global ranking, with Russia in particular leading the way in promoting its agenda abroad through both mainstream and social media.
The new wave of populist movements sweeping Europe and the United States often also put the promotion of national cultures at the core of their programmes. France’s Front National, for example, advocates the increased promotion of the French language abroad on the grounds that “language and power go hand-in-hand”. We may well see the emergence of authoritarian soft power re-imagined in the 21st century.
The first day began with a panel on the wide range of transnational actors involved in the war, from the Republican politicians who helped to establish the Popular Front movement whilst in exile in Paris in 1934 and 1935, to the international peace activists whose campaigns against aerial warfare encompassed both the Spanish and Chinese civil wars. Complicating the traditional focus on transnational mobilisation in favour of the Republican cause, the panel also discussed the involvement of fascist-dominated veterans’ networks in debates about international intervention, and the international left-wing mobilisation in favour of POUM activists imprisoned by the Republican regime.
The remainder of the day focused on the humanitarian and medical dimensions of transnational mobilisation during the Civil War. A number of papers focused on the thousands of Spanish refugees who were evacuated from Republican zones during the conflict, or who fled to France in 1939. Wartime evacuations were organised both by the Republican government and its allies, and by international humanitarian groups, but were hampered by the political tensions surrounding the conflict. The huge numbers of refugees stranded in France at the end of the war were housed in overcrowded and insanitary camps, with care provided by exiled Spanish medical professionals and by humanitarian organisations. For the international humanitarian community, the Spanish Civil War represented both an intense political, financial and logistical challenge, and a crucial step in the development of new models of humanitarian activity. The conflict itself left thousands of people exiled, bereaved or permanently disabled, with its legacies living on both inside and outside Spain through such individuals well beyond 1939.
The second day shifted focus towards the military dimension of transnational mobilisation. The first panel on propaganda highlighted the ways in which the thousands of Moroccan troops who fought with rebel forces were portrayed and instrumentalised in propaganda on both the Republican and rebel sides. It also demonstrated how the Spanish Civil War came to play a central role in the anti-Bolshevik cultural activities of Nazi Germany. This was followed by two panels which focused on the experiences of the transnational military volunteers who took part in the conflict. The first focussed on the International Brigades, providing a new perspective on this oft-studied topic by highlighting the relations between volunteers of different nationalities within individual battalions, and on the experiences of international volunteers after their return home. It also featured a fascinating presentation on SIDBRINT, a new digital archive on the International Brigades hosted by the University of Barcelona which provides an invaluable resource for scholars interested in the transnational history of the Spanish Civil War. The second panel took a global perspective on transnational military mobilisation, examining the experiences of Arab and Jewish volunteers who fought with Republican forces, and the experience and memory of a Basque town which played host to both German and Italian troops during the conflict.
The final panel of the conference focused in on the transnational lives and experiences of individuals involved in the Spanish Civil War. Artists such as the Hungarian photographer Kati Horna drew on their experiences of the war to explore the importance of internal and external borders for those who had lived through it. The lives of other individuals and groups continued to be affected by the Spanish Civil War long after formal hostilities had ended, including the Spanish and Catalan women imprisoned by the Nazis at Ravensbrück during the Second World War, and the Czech and Slovak communist volunteers whose post-war political and emotional lives were shaped by their experiences in Spain.
The theme of transnational lives also lay at the heart of the conference’s keynote delivered by Helen Graham (Royal Holloway). A well-attended public lecture hosted by the Institute of Historical Research and introduced by Paul Preston (LSE), this fascinating lecture used the lives of five individuals to explore the significance of the Spanish Republic cause to the continental wars of social change which took place between 1936 and 1948. A podcast of the lecture is available online, and you can find abstracts for all of the conference papers and information about individual speakers here.
Dora Vargha’s forthcoming talk, ‘After the End of Polio: Local and Global Consequences of Disease Elimination’, is open for scholars anywhere to participate online. The talk will take place at the next meeting of the Medicine and Health Working Group of the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine on Friday, April 15, at 3.30 ET. Daniel Wilson (Mulhenberg College) will provide commentary.
Scholars anywhere can participate online. There are two opportunities to participate face-to-face. At the Consortium offices in Philadelphia, 431 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106, and at the New York Academy of Medicine, 1216 Fifth Avenue (@ 103rd Street), New York, NY 10029. The Philadelphia and New York meetings are patched in by teleconference, as are singleton scholars.
In this post, David Bryan thinks about the uses of ‘internationalism’ in Wednesday’s House of Commons debate about United Nations Security Council Resolution 2249.
During his much-praised speech in the House of Commons on Wednesday night, Britain’s shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn urged his colleagues to support the bombing of ISIS/Daesh in Syria by appealing to the Labour Party’s ‘internationalism’. Reaching back into the party’s history, he cited the examples of the British socialists who fought with the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War and the struggle against Nazi Germany to argue that Labour MPs had a duty not to ‘walk by on the other side’ and to oppose the ‘fascism’ of ISIS.
Despite near-universal praise for its rhetorical power, Benn’s speech has drawn criticism both from those who reject the historical parallels between Syrian intervention and the fight against fascism, and those who feel that the bombing of Syria has no place within the internationalist traditions of the British left. Writing on the LRB blog, Michael Chessum rejected Benn’s appeal to socialist internationalism, arguing that he ‘colonised language that rightly belongs to his radical political rivals, and, in distorting it, made it meaningless.’
Was Benn’s use of history and his appeal to the language of internationalism somehow meaningless or illegitimate? From an historian’s point of view, his attempts to draw parallels between the fight against ISIS and previous struggles against Franco and Hitler are obviously problematic. ISIS’s theocratic fundamentalism is clearly far-removed from the ideological traditions of twentieth-century fascism (although it is arguably just as problematic to ascribe the same label to the Assad regime, as Chessum attempts to do). Benn is not the first person to draw parallels between the Syrian conflict and the Spanish Civil War, and there are clear echoes of the Spanish conflict in the current mobilization of international volunteers, the international debate over intervention, and the refugee crisis. Despite this, the state-led bombing of Syria has little in common with the voluntary mobilization of the communists, socialists and trade unionists from around the world who fought in the International Brigades.
Benn is not, of course, the first politician to make use of dubious historical parallels, and the oversimplification of history is a common feature of current debates about the crises in Europe and the Middle East. However, I would argue that he is on much firmer ground in his recourse to the language of internationalism. One of the aims of the Reluctant Internationalists project is to highlight the political, social and geographical diversity of the history of internationalism. As Chessum himself points out, internationalism is not confined to the liberal left, and over the last century has been evoked by states both large and small, by communists and fascists, by Catholics, Jews and atheists, by pacifists and militarists, and by big business and radical social movements.
Benn’s speech appealed specifically to the traditions of internationalism within the Labour Party and the British left. These traditions are, again, diverse ones, encompassing the international working class solidarity of the early socialist and trade union movement, the left-wing pacifism of the interwar period and the post-war anti-nuclear campaigns, and the anti-fascist activism which underpinned the International Brigades. Benn, however, was keen to stress another strand of this tradition, epitomised by Labour’s role in the foundation of the United Nations and its history of working together with other nations to ‘deal with threats to international peace and security.’ This muscular, multilateral, Bevinite tradition has arguably played a much more central role in the history of the Labour Party than the forms of pacifist internationalism which have only sporadically taken root there.
Whether or not we agree with Benn’s arguments over Syria and the historical parallels he used to justify them, its seems difficult to argue that his views or the language he used to express them are incompatible either with the history of internationalism in general, or with the internationalist traditions of the British Labour Party.
David Bryan is a member of the Reluctant Internationalists project at Birkbeck, and works on the history of modern Spain.
In June 2014 we welcomed Elidor Mehilli to Birkbeck as the Reluctant Internationalists’ first Visiting Research Fellow. Elidor’s work focuses on Albania and its place in the socialist world of the 1950s and 1960s. In the video below you can see Elidor discussing his work with Jessica Reinisch, including his interest in socialist internationalism, the changing relationship between Albania and Mao’s China, and the role of experts in the Cold War world.
If you’re interested in applying for our 2015 Visiting Fellow position, please see the call for applications in the post below.
The 65th annual celebration of World Health Day took place last week on 7th April, with a global launch of the Small Bite: Big Threatcampaign against vector-borne diseases at the WHO’s Geneva headquarters. Over half of the global population is at risk of diseases such as malaria, dengue and yellow fever, all of which are preventable but which but have the biggest impact on some of the world’s poorest people. To highlight the risks to travellers, WHO staff installed a 3-D illustration of a giant mosquito at Heathrow Airport and distributed World Health Day boarding passes to passengers, drawing attention to the danger of vector-borne diseases and the simple measures they can take to protect themselves.
‘World Health Days’, the WHO’s Director-General Margaret Chan told visitors to the launch event in Geneva, ‘provide an opportunity to focus world attention on a health problem or issue that deserves special attention.’ Celebrations over recent years have focussed on antimicrobial resistance, climate change and road safety among other issues.
The first World Health Day took place in 1949, not on 7th April but instead on 22nd July, the date that 61 nations had signed the charter of the World Health Organization at New York in 1946. Documents in the WHO archives suggest that the goal of these early events was less to raise awareness of specific health issues, and more, in the words of the first Director-General Brock Chisholm, ‘to encourage public interest in and support of the aims of the Organization.’
In 1949, individual governments were charged with organising events in their own countries and they took up the challenge with varying degrees of zeal. New Zealand led the way with a range of national and local events organized by branches of its United Nations Association. Ireland, Turkey, Austria, Italy and South Africa also responded, organising radio and cinema broadcasts, concerts, press releases and government-directed bible readings amongst other activities. The WHO headquarters in Geneva provided information about the organisation’s early success in combatting malaria in Italy and Greece, providing tuberculosis vaccines in India and responding to a typhus epidemic in Afghanistan. It also distributed a range of publicity materials and suggestions to national government, including a call to issue commemorative postage stamps (a perennial favourite of international organisations at the time).
Not everyone greeted the event with such enthusiasm however. Some countries felt they hadn’t had enough time to prepare suitable activities, whilst others sensibly pointed out that holding such a celebration when most children were on school holidays would severely blunt its impact. The WHO agreed, and the Second World Health Assembly decided that from 1950 World Health Day would be celebrated on April 7th, to commemorate the date in 1948 when the WHO constitution had officially come in to force.
The decision to link World Health Day to the foundation of the WHO highlights some interesting tensions in the early history of the organisation. In 1949 the US and Venezuela protested that they had been successfully celebrating Pan-American Health Day on 2nd December ever since the foundation of the Pan-American Sanitary Bureau (PASB) in 1902, both suggesting that World Health Day should share the same date. The relationship between the PASB and the WHO was one of the biggest areas of debate at the 1946 New York conference that drew up the WHO constitution. Whilst many delegates, particularly from Europe, emphasised the importance of having a single global health organisation, American states were keen to see the work of the PASB continue. The debate around the issue created significant divisions within the conference, including between Britain and the US. Eventually it was agreed that the PASB would continue as the WHO’s regional office for the American continent, although the exact timescale for its incorporation was left deliberately vague.
Implicit in the connection between World Health Day and the foundation of the WHO was the idea that action in the realm of global health somehow began when the organisation was founded, potentially underestimating the legacy of the various international health bodies such as the PASB which had preceded it. To mark this year’s World Health Day, the in-house magazine for the WHO and the UN in Geneva, UN Special, published an article on the birth of the WHO. It focusses on the meeting between three medical men, Szeming Sze, Geraldo de Paula Souza and Karl Evang, at the United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco in 1945. It quotes Szeming Sze’s memoirs as saying the formation of the WHO “all came about quite accidently”, with the first mention of a new health organisation at the conference coming from Dr. Evang at a lunch meeting between the three men, and that it was their efforts to persuade other delegates that led to the decision to create a world health body.
Whilst this account is perfectly accurate, it somewhat downplays the extensive debates that had been taking place for at least the previous three years about the design and role of a future international health body, both within Allied governments and international organisations such as UNRRA. Central to these debates was the example of the League of Nations Health Organization, a body which had made significant contributions to the field of international health in the interwar period and which ultimately provided much of the template for the design of the WHO. It had continued to function in a much reduced form throughout the Second World War and its leading members were active participants in the debate about the shape of a post-war world health body. When the WHO Interim Commission began its work in 1947, it based itself in the same building as the League’s health section, employed many of the same personnel, and as we can see from the document above, even used the same stationery.
Indeed the same vector-borne diseases that the WHO was and is working to combat were also a key focus for the League, which established its own malaria commission in the 1920s. The fact that after nearly a century of international activity these diseases remain such a problem highlights the relevance of this year’s World Health Day campaign.
Yves Beigbeder et al., The World Health Organization (Dordrecht: Nijhoff, 1998)
Iris Borowy, Coming to Terms with World Health: The League of Nations Health Organisation 1921-1946 (Berlin: Peter Lang, 2009)
Neville Goodman, International Organizations and Their Work (Edinburgh: Churchill Livingston, 1952)
Szeming Sze, The Origins of the World Health Organization: A Personal Memoir 1945-1948 (Boca Raton: L.I.S.Z. Publications, 1982)
Paul Weindling (ed.), International Health Organisations and Movements, 1918-1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)
 Documents relating to the history of World Health Day can be found in the WHO archives, Centralized Files First Generation, section 400-1-2. All unattributed material from this post comes from these files.
Dora Vargha’s blog post on November 25th discussed the current financial difficulties faced by the Peto Institute in Budapest in the context of historical approaches to disability in Hungary. The Institute may be familiar to British readers who remember its rise to prominence in the late 1980s and its role in the debate around conductive education in the treatment of children with neurological disorders. The links between the UK and the Peto Institute provide a fascinating example of patient-led transnational history in Cold War Europe.
The Institute first came to public attention following the broadcast of the BBC documentary Standing up for Joe in April 1986. The documentary followed the story of the Hadley family who had taken their severely disabled son to Budapest for treatment. The Institute pioneered the system of conductive education developed by its founder, Andras Peto, in the aftermath of the Second World War, which involved an intensive programme of physical and speech therapy under the supervision of “conductors” combined with very high expectations of the progress children could achieve.
The documentary, broadcast at prime time on BBC1 and watched by over five million people, caused a national stir. The BBC received 11,000 letters of enquiry, questions were asked in parliament, and a lobby group, the Foundation for Conductive Education, was set up to promote its use in the UK. The system was presented in the media as more holistic than the medicalised approach to treatment in the UK, and many parents were attracted by the positive expectations it had of potential progress against a perceived negativity and conservatism amongst UK medical staff. Over the following years UK families flocked to Budapest, often supported by national and local campaigns to raise funds for treatment. The Times estimated that over 600 UK children had visited the centre by 1990.
However, the treatment was not without controversy. Many within the British medical establishment felt that the claims for its success were overblown, and that the appearance of progress owed much to the fact that the Institute was selective in the cases it accepted. The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy published a report in 1988 questioning many of the Institute’s claims, whilst the Spastics Society, initially wary of the programme, was picketed by the Foundation for Conductive Education over claims that its own conductive education schemes weren’t the real thing.
One of the most interesting features of the coverage of the Institute is its presentation in the context of the Cold War. Andrew Sutton, the Director for the Foundation for Conductive Education, described it as a ‘Len Deighton Cold War story, coming from a street near you’, with the media frequently describing families moving “beyond the iron curtain”. It certainly represents one of the most widespread and high profile instances of UK residents experiencing life in the Eastern Bloc prior to the end of communism. The BBC’s follow-up documentary to Standing up for Joe broadcast in 1987, which tracked the story of the British families who had followed in the Hadley’s footsteps, was entitled To Hungary with Love.
The Peto Institute also played a role in Anglo-Hungarian relations during the transition to democracy. In December 1989 the UK government announced £5 million of funding for the Institute’s new international centre to guarantee places for British children and pay for training of a group of British conductors. This funding was discussed as part of a wider package of support when Hungarian Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth visited Margaret Thatcher on December 14th. In an article on the 6th January, The Times presented the funding as part of a range of government measures to form closer medical and scientific links with the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries. Following the first free elections in March 1990, Princess Diana made a high profile visit to the Institute as part of a four-day tour of Hungary where she presented an honorary OBE to its director, Dr Maria Hari.
The controversy around conductive education has never entirely gone away. In 1993 the government-commissioned Birmingham Project indicated that it was no more effective than comparable UK treatments, a claim that continues to be challenged by its adherents, whilst in 2003 Peter Randall from Kent attempted to sell his kidney on ebay to fund conductive education for his daughter. Although conductive education is now more widely available in the UK, British children continue to visit to Peto Institute for treatment.
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