It’s a common question that teachers of global history face. We belong to one of the most quickly-moving, contested, and changing subfields within the historical profession, and the travel schedules on many of our dockets—Istanbul one week, Tokyo the next—make our colleagues who slave away in the same provincial state archive blush. The years spent learning foreign languages begin to pay off, as one can not only read the newspaper but also foreign colleagues’ peer review comments on an article scheduled for publication in this or that journal. Life, it seems, is good.
But when it comes time to teach global history as a field, one hesitates. For audiences of graduate students, of course, it’s possible to follow the tactic of assigning a pile of monographs bringing global history perspectives to different regions of the planet: China the one week, the Gambia the next. But how to put it all together into one common language that speaks to the Americanists and the East Asianists in one seminar? Worse yet: how to teach this all to undergraduate audiences for whom the monograph approach would incite revolt?
Fortunately, as we’ve noted in earlier installments of the Global History Forum, scholars of global history who formerly had to throw their hands up in response to this dilemma increasingly have at their disposal an array of good introductory works to the field. One might only think of the work of Diego Olstein, for a recent work in just this niche in English, or, for German-speaking audiences, a 2011 book that fills the same need by Austrian economic historian (and former TPF interviewee) Andrea Komlosy. At the field grows and becomes more sophisticated, though, so, too, are the options for introductory texts expanding. One of such works constitutes the focus of this installment of the Global History Forum, namely the aptly-titled What Is Global History? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016) by Professor Sebastian Conrad, the Chair in Modern History at the Free University of Berlin.
Billed as a “problem-oriented” approach to global history that provides much-needed criticism and pauses alongside enthusiasm, Conrad’s What Is Global History? appears at just the right time for a field in much need of explaining itself to students—and to critically interrogating its own limits. Recently, Toynbee Prize Foundation Executive Director Timothy Nunan had the chance to speak with Professor Conrad to discuss his recent book and what he sees as the biggest challenges facing the field as it matures and grows in years ahead. Continue reading →
When did slavery end? For American or British readers of the Global History Forum, the answer to this question, at least answered within the framework of their respective countries, is easy. Human chattel slavery ended in the United States, we are told, in 1865 with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, while the more enlightened British abolished slavery within the British Empire in 1833.
Yet globally, the phenomenon of chattel slavery (humans-as-property) and related forms of exploitation, like sex trafficking or the trafficking of children of course persisted long after slavery was abolished in Britain and the United States. Slavery is today illegal in every country in the world, but modern anti-slavery organizations reckon that there are still at least 10 to 30 million people in the world who are owned by other humans, to say nothing of much larger numbers of persons de facto enslaved through some form of debt bondage (itself legally abolished in much of the world, but still present). We may regard slavery through black and white images of plantation labor, in short, but slavery remains a big business today, with estimated global activity amounting to $35 billion, more wealth than half of all countries existent today.
Slavery must end—try finding someone who disagrees with this. But as Amalia Ribi Forclaz shows in her new book, Humanitarian Imperialism: The Politics of Anti-Slavery Activism 1880-1940, the distance between ambition and reality, not to mention the thorny political questions that the move to eliminate slavery everywhere in the planet raises, is not new. As Ribi shows in her book, late 19th and early 20th century activists were united, too, on the need to eliminate slavery in the world, especially in the African continent for which so many Europeans were scrambling at the time. By the 1920s and 1930s, the campaign against slavery in Africa brought together Catholics and Protestants, Britons and Italians, liberals and fascists, and many others, and found serious institutional backing both through the League of Nations and European states committed to the cause.
By the late 1930s, however, the international movement had fractured over the Italian invasion of Ethiopia—remembered in retrospect as a breakdown of the League’s collective security function, but justified by both Italian Duce Benito Mussolini and many an anti-slavery activist in terms of eliminating slavery in that independent African kingdom. The dream of a world without slaves captured the imagination of many, but, as Ribi shows, it raised intractable questions about the place of European humanitarian action in a world that would be not only post-slavery, but also post-colonial.
We were pleased to connect with Ribi, who is an Assistant Professor of International History at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, over the phone recently to discuss her new book, its lessons, and its relevance to a world in which slavery remains—as an economic phenomenon and moral outrage, if not to the same mobilizing extent it did during the years that Ribi’s research focuses on. How did this waxing and waning take place, and what might it tell us about the history of humanitarianism? These and other questions were on our mind as we spoke with Amalia for this installment of the Global History Forum.Continue reading →
Fiona Paisley was born in Scotland, but she received her university training in Australia. Based in Brisbane, Australia, she is currently a Professor in the History Program at Griffith University. Our latest guest to the Global History Forum, Fiona Paisley, specializes in international history. Her work is about internationalism, settler colonialism, gender and race in the first half of the twentieth century, from an Australian perspective. Professor Paisley won a Magarey Medal for her biography of Anthony Martin Fernando, an Aboriginal protestor who lived for the second half of his life outside of Australia. The book is called The Lone Protestor: AM Fernando in Australia and London. Professor Paisley and Tiger Li, an Editor-at-Large at the Toynbee Prize Foundation, discuss that book in the second half of our interview.
Tiger Li (TL): Professor Paisley, when did you get interested in history?
Fiona Paisley (FP): Looking back gives me the opportunity to think about why I was interested in history from childhood. I spent my first school years in England, and I do remember as a child feeling that history was all around me. Coming to Australia made me realise that “deep time history” is everywhere about us as well, even if the traces are harder to see. The relationship between the distant and more recent pasts of occupation dawned slowly for me as a young adolescent in a settler society like Australia. By the time I was working on my PhD, I started to see more clearly the connections between British colonialism and settler societies and I used my interest in history to try to understand better what it means to be a settler colonial and thus implicated in that ongoing process.
TL: Did you have a transnational perspective from a very young age?
FP: For a long time, global or imperial history positioned Australia at the margins. Transnational history has allowed us to put the margin into the centre. Being new to Australia as a young person gave me an outsider’s perspective; I found that studying transnational or world history from Australian perspective is a good way to reframe my approach to global history. Moreover, thinking about perspective and location through your own biography can help reveal connections between places and times otherwise overlooked, veiled, or forgotten. I guess it can be helpful if you move around a lot as you grow up. You feel you are not so much a member of one particular nation or national story but find yourself affiliated with many different places.
TL: I think it is something that I really understand, because I do not feel I belong to anywhere, either. I sometimes feel I am a global citizen. Maybe you can belong to more than one place.
FP: There are many ways to reframe what we mean by history through the transnational approach. On the other hand, simply moving around is not in itself an enlightening experience. In the end, you have to take responsibilities for where you are. And for the historian, that means working in the archives. Continue reading →
Paris, nous t’aimons! For centuries, foreigners have come to Paris with the expectation of reinventing themselves, finding inspiration on the Left Bank, or simply being bowled over by what was–once if not now–the European cultural capital par excellence. For decades after American writer Ernest Hemingway spent a much-mythologized few years in the French capital, wannabe writers would frequently waste a few years moving from café to café along the Seine in hopes of making their prose more like that of Hemingway’s, or indeed other writers from the Lost Generation. Today, as a burgeoning East Asian middle class seeks to explore the City of Lights, the institution of the stay in Paris has taken on new dimensions, as Japanese and Chinese tourists reportedly suffer from “Paris Syndrome,” whereby an exaggerated, romanticized view of the French metropole quickly gives way to the reality of cigarette butts, push Parisiens on the Metro, and–in lieu of Maxim’s–the encroachment of le Big Mac onto the French diet, if not also waistline.
Paris, in short, defiantly challenges the stereotypes that both travelers East and West so readily project upon it. But as the work of Michael Goebel, Professor of Global and Latin American History at the Freie Universität Berlin and the latest guest to the Global History Forum, shows, scraping off the romantic stereotypes attached like barnacles to the banks of the Seine might make not only for a more realistic engagement with what remains a great city, but also with the history of the emergence of the “Third World.” For as Goebel shows in his new book, Anti-Imperial Metropolis: Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism, Paris has long played host to a rather different cast of characters than the romantic writers of the 1920s, or the stick-figure models imagined to inhabit the city by so many Asian tourists. More compellingly, during the 1920s and 1930s, Paris played host to an astounding array of intellectuals who would go on to lead national liberation and Communist movements around the Global South in the decades to come. Some of them, like Ho Chi Minh, Zhou Enlai, and Deng Xiaoping, are familiar to almost everyone; others, like George Padmore, César Vallejo, and Messali Hadj, perhaps less so, even if they, too, played a fundamental role in the making of African, Peruvian, and Algerian history. During the interwar years, Goebel shows in his tightly argued book, published by the Global and International History Series of Cambridge University Press this fall, Paris became a crucial incubator for different models of anti-colonial confrontation that would reshape the world in decades to come.
Recently, Goebel made a visit to Harvard University to present his work at the Harvard International and Global History Seminar. Before the talk, Toynbee Prize Foundation Executive Director (and fellow author in the International and Global History Series that Anti-Imperial Metropolis appears in) Timothy Nunan sat down with him to discuss the making of the book and his future plans as he seeks to integrate not only the history of metropole and colony, but also–as we find out in the conversation–of social and intellectual history. Continue reading →
The Republican Period (1911-1949) was an extremely important period for modern China. During this time, China was often politically divided, while there was no strong central government. Meanwhile, however, people in China enjoyed relative cultural, social, and religious freedom. Some people became Communists, while others converted into Christianity. Although China was generally seen as a weak and poor country by people in the West in the first half of twentieth century, some ordinary Chinese people grew increasingly aware of China’s position in the world. Among them, Chinese Christians played important roles as they could act as bridges between people in China and the outside world. Chinese Christians became more aware of the global situation, since they often enjoyed international networks.
Scholars often study Chinese church leaders, and their institutional structure, but we know little about Chinese Christians’ life experience at an everyday level. That’s where the research of our latest featured scholar on the Global History Forum comes in. Based at the University of Auckland, Dr. Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye seeks to enhance our understanding of social and cultural histories of China by studying Chinese ordinary people and in particular Chinese Christians in the first half of the twentieth century. Her research suggests that many Chinese Christians were increasingly aware of the global affairs and China’s position in the world during this early twentieth century conjuncture. How, then, did Chinese converts view the place of the Chinese nation in the world? How did they perceive events like the Great War? Like the partial disintegration of European empires following that conflict? And how were the egalitarian ideals of Christianity reconcilable with a world that still spoke the language of “yellow perils” and which often limited the circulation of Chinese into the “white man’s world” of European, North American, and Oceanian spaces?
These are some of the questions that Toynbee Prize Foundation Editor-at-Large Tiger Li discusses with Inouye in the interview that follows. In it, he discusses Inouye’s initial road from her upbringing in Costa Mesa, California to her undergraduate education at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as well as her graduate studies at Harvard University, where she completed her dissertation in 2011, writing about the history of the True Jesus Church and the history of charismatic Christian modes in China in the twentieth century. You might not be familiar with the True Jesus Church, but as one of the largest Christian denominations in the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan today (1.5 million members), it merits attention both as a matter of current affairs and intellectual history. Inspired by Pentecostalism, the True Jesus Church is also of interest for scholars of Christianity insofar as it forms the largest branch of Oneness Pentecostalism in the world. (In contrast to mainstream Christian doctrine, which stresses the trinitarian nature of Jesus Christ, God, and the Holy Spirit, churches like the True Jesus Church stress the indivisible nature of God and the idea that Jesus Christ is the sole manifestation of God’s personhood.) Lest we move too far away from history to theology, however, let us jump into the conversation between Inouye and Li to learn how this movement fits into an emerging wave of scholarship on China in the world and transnational religious movements.
India, or so the geopolitical soothsayers tell us these days, is on the rise. Soon to be the world’s most populous country, since liberalization in the early 1990s, the South Asian giant has seen rates of economic growth that approach China’s. And while regional frozen conflicts like Kashmir, internal guerilla movements, and the decades-long rivalry with nuclear Pakistan do not leave New Delhi with a no-problems neighborhood, India has mostly managed to avoid troubling its neighbors too much. With an aggressively re-assured nationalist Prime Minister in Narendra Modi and with aspirations of, someday, becoming a upper-income country, seeming less far fetched than in a long time, India appears to have escaped the centuries-long reputation of being a place of hunger and famine.
For those days are not far removed. As scholars have shown, not only was the late British period marked by deadly combinations of market forces and climatic event that devastated Indian farmers; as late as 1943, the Bengal Famine wiped out three million people in eastern India. After independence from the British in 1947, independent India’s leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru made it a point to turn the agrarian nation into an industrial country, turning to outside powers like the United States, the Soviet Union, West Germany, and others, to build turnkey steel plants. At the same time, as we have seen in early Toynbee Prize Foundation interviews, agriculture and the transformation of Indian communities formed a crucial arena of developmental politicking, too. India had global significance, too, for not only was it seen as a crucial “swing player” in a Cold War world seen as threatened by a massive Communist Bloc; more than that, the sheer size and scale of the place made it a gigantic laboratory for various models of economic development often first pioneered in the Global North.
Still, as Cold War diplomatic archives have opened their doors only recently–and as historians have also only relatively recently recognized the quest for socioeconomic development as a legitimate object of study–our knowledge of how undeveloped nations became “developed,” or “developed” themselves remains clouded. Until, that is, a book like Corinna Unger’s Entwicklungspfade in Indien. Eine internationale Geschichte (Developmental Paths in India: An International History) appears. In her book, published this year with the Wallstein Verlag, Unger, a Professor of History at the Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany, explores India’s engagement of foreign expertise (especially that of the United States and West Germany) from 1947 to 1980.
More than diving further chronologically into the history of development than many works, Unger’s work sets itself apart from much of the historiography by showing how many macro-narratives of development, like the Green Revolution or the perception of urban slums as spaces of rural-to-urban economic transition, emerged during the years after the romance of steel plants and hydroelectric dams lost its luster. Based on exhaustive research across multiple continents, Unger’s work sheds a light into the international history of development–and into the biography of an Indian state and economy that now looks, less nervously in the past but still not without anxiety, towards “growth,” “modernization,” and “development” as key markers of the nation’s progress. We had the chance recently to sit down with Professor Unger to discuss some of the themes in her recent work–and how she came to it in the first place. Continue reading →
Travel to the shores of Lake Geneva, disembark from your ferry or catamaran onto the narrow streets of bourgeois Geneva, and take one of the Swiss city’s speedy trams up the hill to your north, and you won’t be able to miss it: there, at the end of one of the tram lines, sits the massive compound of the United Nations Office in Geneva (UNOG), housed in the majestic Palais des Nations (Palace of Nations), one of the largest buildings in Europe. Fluttering in front of it (next to the gate for UN employees passing into the complex) are the 193 flags of all members of the United Nations, from founding members like the United States, Great Britain, or France, to newer member-states like South Sudan or Kosovo–all flying at equal heights and equally spaced out along four grand rows.
And yet this current arrangement of things in Geneva–and international order writ large–is quite new. The Palais des Nations, today home to meetings for UN organizations, was originally built as the headquarters for the now-defunct League of Nations, the interwar system of international governance that today (where it is remembered) is probably most associated with failing to keep the peace of Versailles and not having the United States of America as a member. Had one flown the flags of the nation-states of the day in front of the Palais following its opening, however, the number of flags would have been much, much smaller, with Africa and Asia barely represented. And as the maps that hang in the elegant Reading Room of the League’s Archives (themselves in a wing of the Palais) remind us, most of the world’s population then who was not Chinese lived not in nation-states, but in empires–in the British and French Empires, to be specific.
During our brief stroll around Geneva and the Palais des Nations, in short, we find traces of two very different international systems of statehood–empires and nation-states–that nonetheless intersect at this particular piece of very pricey real estate above the waves of Lake Geneva. But how could one tell this story in a more specific way? What was the processual glue between the world of empires that the League of Nations belonged to, and the world of normative statehood, political decolonization, and nation-states that we inhabit today? More than that, to what extent was the League of Nations not only captive to, or affected by these shifts in international order, but actually facilitative of those shifts themselves?
These are just some of the questions treated in Susan Pedersen‘s recent book, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). In it, Pedersen, the James B. Shenton Professor of the Core Curriculum at Columbia University, explores the history of the League of Nation’s Permanent Mandates Commission, the body assigned to oversee and monitor territories from Burundi to Baghdad and from Tanganyika to Togo.
While most readers’ perceptions of the League of Nations may still center around the presumptive “failure” of that international organization to prevent war in Europe, Pedersen takes a different tack in The Guardians, focusing on the League of Nations mandates system and its effects on international order during the interwar period. As she shows, following the First World War, new international norms of Wilsonian self-determination–and the Bolsheviks’ critique of capitalist war–made it difficult for the victorious British and French Empires simply to swallow territories like ex-Ottoman Iraq, Syria or Palestine, or ex-German territories in Africa or Oceania. Given “the strenuous conditions of the modern world,” as Article 22 of the League of Nations’ Covenant explained, less developed peoples needed tutelage from the more advanced European powers. Captured German or Ottoman territories would have to be governed according to international and humanitarian norms: managed by the powers that were occupying them at the end of the War, but subject to international oversight in the form of a Permanent Mandates Commission in Geneva (itself staffed mostly by white men from imperialist powers).Mandated territories could be treated as provisionally independent nations (Class A–the Middle Eastern territories), in need of more tutelage but not to be administered as part of the Mandating Powers’ colonial territories (Class B–German Africa, other than South West Africa), and territories “best administered under the laws of the Mandatory as integral portions of its territory” (Class C–South West Africa, plus postcolonial Oceania).
Yet the question of what, exactly the difference was between a mandated territory and a colony would haunt the system throughout the interwar period. If the Mandates were explicitly something other than colonies, when, exactly, would they be ready for independent statehood, or at the very least open to international competition for goods and services? As the British and French violently suppressed revolts in the Middle East, and the South Africans treated South West Africa more or less like a colony, the legitimacy of the system grew shakier. And when Germany was admitted into the League of Nations in 1926, Berlin joined a chorus of protestors and petitioners from around the world who claimed self-government as preferable to trusteeship. In some cases, like that of Iraq, the Mandating Powers found that the “internationalization” of their administration of these post-colonial territories so burdensome that declaring them fit for statehood (as happened to Iraq in 1932) and “merely” contenting oneself with economic and military hegemony over a pliant client state was preferable to facing nagging charges in Geneva.
Decolonization avant la lettre it was not: the French and British Empires remained in control of their colonial holdings, and the entrance of states like Iraq into the League of Nations on British terms was an affair quite different from the mass entry of former British and French colonies into the UN’s General Assembly decades later. But the mandates system–designed as an alternative to cutthroat imperialistic competition and expansion–had ironically opened up new concepts of normative statehood that would take on a life of their own. A system originally designed to help colonial empire collaborate over the spoils of war became the site of new kinds of claims for government after empire. Replete with both conservative defenders of norms of civilization and tutelage, like Frederick Lugard, and the thousands of petitioners from Samoa to Palestine who sought to claim some version of self-government for themselves, The Guardians presents not only a rich tableau of the new kinds of international actors that sprung up during the interwar years; more than that, it uncovers a hitherto-hidden story of the battle over international norms about sovereignty and statehood that continue, from South Sudan to Kosovo to Ukraine, to play a fundamental role in international politics today.
The Toynbee Prize Foundation’s Executive Director, Timothy Nunan, was fortunate to have the chance to sit down with Professor Pedersen during a very hot summer day in Berlin and to discuss her path to writing The Guardians, some of the key findings of her work, and her intellectual plans for the near future.
As you read this post in the summer of 2015, the discipline of history is decades into a global turn. Rare is the historian whose work does not aim, or at least claim, to transcend boundaries national, regional, or linguistic. The days of “methodological nationalism” appear to be behind us, then, but the specifics of how we do what comes next are not always clear. True, a booming literature guides us through the ins and outs of different approaches: world, global, trans-national histories; histories of familiar nationally-defined units as a “nation among nations,” or histories that go beyond the chronological boundaries within which nations or linguistic communities have historically existed. But where is the professional historian–or, more commonly, the student–to go if she wants to grasp the full “menu”of possibilities that the global turn brings to historians as a whole? Until recently, teachers had few such resources.
“Thinking History Globally,” the most recent book by recent TPF Global History Forum guest Diego Olstein (University of Pittsburgh)
Until recently, that is, thanks to a welcome recent book by the University of Pittsburgh’s Diego Olstein, an Associate Professor in the Department since 2011 and the author of Thinking History Globally, published this spring by Palgrave MacMillan. In the book, Olstein, a specialist on medieval Spain and world history, outlines the many ways in which historians today compare, connect, conceptualize and contextualize their subjects beyond pre-existing boundaries of national communities, linguistic boundaries, or pre-defined regions. No mere encyclopedia of global history approaches–Olstein limits his bestiary to twelve kinds–Thinking History Globally also provides readers with applied examples of how these approaches and cognitive patterns might actually be applied to different subjects. More than an entertaining read, the book is thus of great use for the professor or TA confronted with the question of, for example, what it actually means to write the First World War “in a global context.”
No mere bookworm, however, Olstein and his journey to the field at all remind us of the ways in which historians’ lives and careers today are themselves the product of global networks and the trans-national receptions of historical experiences. In Olstein’s case in particular, this means a journey through the worlds of the Jewish diaspora in authoritarian Argentina, the intellectual horizons offered by Israeli academia, the experiences of researching medieval Spain, and, finally, Olstein’s current home, Pittsburgh. Let us follow Olstein’s own global intellectual journey before diving into his most useful recent work, Thinking History Globally. Continue reading →
If you can read this, you read English. That might not seem like such a big accomplishment–perhaps English is your mother tongue, or maybe as a consumer of historical scholarship you merely took it for granted that developing an excellent level of English comprehension was a requirement for the job. Seen in historical perspective, however, the linguistic landscape that makes it common sense for you to read this blog post–and not, say, one in Portuguese or Persian–is quite unusual. We live in a monoglot world of science and scholarship today, but for much of the historical record, the case was the opposite, as Russians struggled to learn French and Englishmen apologized for their poor German, even as a functional command of three or four languages was necessary merely to access everything published.
Making things more bewildering, however, we have lived in a monoglot world before–one, however, dominated by Latin and not the West Germanic language so many of us now call our own. Not only that, the English that has succeeded as the uniform standard has, as any non-native speaker can tell you, plenty of confusing features: phonemic polyvocality (“stiff,” “stuff,” and “staff” denote very different things), and plenty of irregular verbs (“freeze” in the past is “froze,” not “freezed,” for example). So why didn’t something more logical and, perhaps more importantly, not ethnic–something not already spoken by the English–win out? Why didn’t a more accessible constructed language, like Esperanto, succeed? How did this tectonic shift happen? How did we move from linguistic chaos to seemingly greater uniformity?
When, this past summer, the Russian Federation began sending so-called “humanitarian convoys” into the militarily occupied People’s Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, it was not clear whether the gesture marked the ultimate success or failure of humanitarianism and human rights as an international discourse. Half a century prior to the conflict, activists around the world despaired that both decolonization and East-West détente had created a world in which states, whether capitalist or socialist, colonial or post-, were free to abuse or murder their citizens at will without international protests.
Over the next three decades, however, the concept of human rights–long present but often impotent–enjoyed a soaring takeoff in prestige, and by the mid-1990s governments were quick to speak of “humanitarian interventions” or humanitarian bombing campaigns. Most spectacularly, the concept of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has been bandied about as an international norm (if one rejected by China and Russia) to justify potential incursions into Libya or what remains of the Syrian state. In a world in which everything from familiar realpolitik clashes to debates over immigration policy (as many Kosovars seek asylum in Germany) expresses itself in a language of human rights, have only the costumes changed while the actors stay the same?
These are some of the questions that the work of our latest guest to the Global History Forum, Jan Eckel, addresses head-on in his weighty (936 page) tome, Die Ambivalenz des Guten: Menschenrechte in der internationalen Politik seit den 1940ern(English: The Ambivalence of Good: Human Rights in International Politics Since the 1940s), published this winter by German publishing house Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht. The work of Eckel, a Privatdozent at the University of Freiburg in southwestern Germany, represents a major contribution to what has been a real growth area in the historical profession in the last decade or so, namely the historiography of human rights.
Thanks to the work of Eckel and other colleagues, scholars have turned from seeing human rights as an unproblematic outgrowth of a Western tradition (whether one starting in Athens or the Bastille) to a complex ideological phenomenon whose career takes off (but does not necessarily start) in the twentieth century. Whether the subject is campaigns against apartheid to protests against the Shah’s secret police, human rights played an intense role in international politics of the 20th century, but to understand how precisely, it’s also essential to situate them along other, often since-forgotten ideological visions, like anti-colonialism or anti-imperialist socialism. Eckel’s book does that and more, which is why we were delighted to attend both a lecture of his at Berlin’s Literaturforum im Brecht-Haus, and to sit down for a more in-depth one-on-one interview about his work.
Sitting down with Eckel for coffee and breakfast, we discuss his path to the discipline. Born in Hannover in 1973, Eckel was raised in a family where people were interested in history and read historical works, but no one in the family had pursued a scholarly career. For Eckel, the choice to do history was more “out of reason (aus Vernunftsgründen)” than thanks to some long-held childhood passion. Studying Germanistik (German Studies) in Passau and Freiburg, Eckel discovered that he needed to add, in effect, a second major in order to graduate and decided, for strategic reasons, to pick history. Yet once in history seminars in Freiburg, Eckel notes, “I had my ‘a-ha’ moment and thought that this was actually pretty interesting.” Eckel had already felt a certain desire to turn away from “fiction” and towards “real life” (if in the past), and history seemed like the perfect discipline through which to do so.
“That,” jokes Eckel, “was the moment when I got on the history train.” Eckel’s earlier historical work, which focused on the in the intellectual biography of Hans Rothfels (a prominent historian who helped to establish Zeitgeschichte as a sub-discipline after the Second World War while he held a chair at Tübingen) was more obviously grounded in his background in specifically German topics, but when he decided to pursue a Habilitation (a second, more rigorous dissertation required for appointment as a full professor in German academia), he was forced to pick something totally different–something he views as a plus of the system.
Fortunately, when the time came to choose a topic, he caught wind of shifting tides in the historiography of human rights. Eckel had the good fortune to begin his Habilitation at precisely the time (2006) when human rights went from being a marginal research topic to one of the most lively subfields in the discipline–thanks in large part to Eckel’s contributions themselves. The field, however, attracted him not just for its novelty but also because it broadly seemed to deal with the question of how people imagine violence, and possible ways to overcome it. (Rothfels, the subject of some of Eckel’s earlier work, had at once fled Germany because of his Jewish origins, yet remained essentially committed to a conservative idea of German nationalism nonetheless freed of biological racism.) If Eckel’s earlier work had engaged more closely with “the dark side” of the twentieth century–catastrophe, war, and mass violence–studying human rights could give him an opportunity to engage with the other side of the century, namely “the many efforts that organizations, individuals, and states undertook to help ‘distant others’ and to stem violence.” The point, of course, was not just to lionize such actors as heroes of the twentieth century, but rather to underline “the ambivalence of good” that often characterized the human rights movement.
Soon, Eckel–along with a growing circle of scholars around the world interested in the topic–were tying a necessarily global and multifaceted story together. In 2010, Eckel and Samuel Moyn, then at Columbia University, organized a major conference in Freiburg, the results of which were later published as The Breakthrough: Human Rights in the 1970s. (Readers interested in a brief English-language introduction to Eckel’s work will note that The Breakthrough recently appeared in paperback.) The publication of Moyn’s The Last Utopia in the same year also helped to put the field on the map, but it still remained less than clear how one would actually “do” a history of human rights as an international history, employing archives from around the world and using sources in multiple languages. Indeed, participants at the conference had shown how human rights found expression everywhere from the anti-apartheid movement, to the opposition to the Pinochet regime, to East German state-sponsored attempts to portray the SED as a champion of human rights. Not only that, in many cases both well-known and lesser-known (the embrace of human rights as a cause by European governments, for example), there was a minimal existent secondary literature to guide Eckel ahead of his trips to the archives. How to tie this all together?
One place to start, in spite of the subject of the Freiburg conference, was the 1940s. Indeed, when we caught up with Eckel, it was the 66th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (December 10)–an anniversary that is not remembered with nearly the same intensity that, say, even the Frankfurt Trials or the liberation of Auschwitz are today in Germany. This fact partly formed the background for Eckel’s intervention–even as human rights were on the global menu in 1948, their instantiation through the UDHR was “a promise that could not be kept.” Indeed, noted Eckel, they belong more to an age in which the nation-state or the nation was seen as a prime bearer of rights, anachronistic if not overly chronologically distant from our present day. One option, therefore, for a history of human rights was to track the the way in which a “political field” created by 1948 seemed to, but then did not, create a global space for the discussion of human rights, only to seemingly deliver (or be supplanted by) an international human rights movement in the 1970s. Not only that, by the 1970s, Western governments, most famously under U.S. President Jimmy Carter, even made human rights a stated core part of their foreign policies.
This, naturally, raises the question of why the 1970s were such a crucial turning point. Indeed, to a large extent, and since the publication of Moyn’s The Last Utopia, much of the debate in the human rights historiography hinges around this question of to what extent that decade did indeed mark a major turning point for human rights. While stressing his agreement with Moyn on many matters, Eckel puts the rise of human rights in a longer context that sees the 1970s as nonetheless unusual. Most important, says Eckel, was the rise of global threats like the oil crisis and environmental problems–or, more precisely, the perception that such threats really were global and interconnected in nature, rather than being confined to the Persian Gulf or Three-Mile Island, say. One reason why this new global consciousness was possible was the extraordinary rise of global trade during the period. Not only businessmen but also ordinary people began to perceive international affairs in, say, Argentina, as linked with those in Japan, in a way that would have seemed quixotic as recently as the 1950s. For such a framework of thinking, “local” crises did not exist, since any notion of international order had assumed interconnection or globality.
That said, it is important not to project an image of four decades of moral progress back onto the 1970s. The ideologies of then were not those of today. The Chilean coup d’état of 1973 led to international protests around the world, but, stresses Eckel, many of the protests were as much for ideological reasons–murdered Salvador Allende as a socialist overthrown by supposed fascists–as they were specifically for “human rights.” Many saw in Allende hope for removing basic injustices in the world economic system, a hope that Wall Street, the City of London, and CIA goons brutally snuffed out. The global campaign against the Pinochet regime may have later assumed a specifically human rights tenor, but its genesis was marked more by distrust towards the international capitalist economy than hatred of torture, for example.
Similar things could be said for the other usual turning point cited in accounts of the 1970s, namely the 1975 Helsinki Accords. In the deal, Soviet representatives acceded to a “third basket” of human rights monitoring arrangements in exchange for Western acceptance of their post-1945 European empire – i.e. total acceptance of Eastern European borders and the Warsaw Pact’s states’ territorial integrity. At the time, all sides saw the Accords’ recognition of postwar borders as the crucial piece to the agreement; for parties like East Germany, the Accords were crucial for its relationship with West Germany. At the time, not only the Soviets but also Henry Kissinger regarded Moscow as the clear victor of the arrangement. But over time, some have cited the emergence of Eastern European dissident movements and their ties with Western Helsinki Watch groups as an important factor in the decay of the Soviet Union and Soviet control over Eastern Europe. Here again, notes Eckel, it was the new interconnectedness of the “the 1970s” that came to matter. While the KGB exploited the territoriality of Helsinki and dismantled dissident groups inside of the USSR itself, it was the life of works like The Gulag Archipelago in a space outside the Soviet Union that helped to delegitimize Soviet socialism.
Indeed, it was in part due to this new media space that movements that seemed so impotent in the 1940s gained steam in the 1970s. Now forgotten or at best integrated into high-tech office copiers, the humble fax machine (patented by Xerox in 1964) allowed reporters in Argentina, Ethiopia, or Iran to transmit reports of brutalized protesters to wire offices in London, New York, or Frankfurt much more quickly than was possible before. Obviously, movements–often with their own quixotic and not infrequently post-colonial interests–played a big role, too. But once again, inevitable hierarchies and limited resources meant–and mean–that the human rights story is as much about the ambivalence of good as the triumph of morality. Amnesty International groups was more concerned with the abuses of a Western ally in the form of the Shah of Iran than it was later with the plight of hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing former Soviet republics for the Russian Federation in 1991-2, for example, exhibiting how dependent the “emergency-ness” of such crises can be dependent on visa access, fax machines, and imagined solidarities with far away peoples of whom we know little–think of Muslims in Burma, Uyghurs in China, or Dagestanis and Chechens in Russia’s North Caucasus.
This mention of travel and connectivity ought to remind the reader of the sheer amount of work and travel that went into The Ambivalence of Good. Far more than simply surveying the debate on human rights through printed materials, Eckel traveled far and wide, working with materials from the files of the Pinochet regime, to discussions within the Carter Administration, to Dutch national archives. This breadth of material thus allows Eckel to piece out the nuances between, say, the human rights turn of the Dutch government under Joop den Uyl (1973-1977) and of the United Kingdom during the Foreign Ministership of David Owen (1977-1979). The reader is able to see, thanks to Eckel’s spread, the perplexed reaction of the Pinochet regime towards international human rights campaigns during the late 1970s, when economic growth (if at the cost of massive inequality) served as legitimation for the dictatorship. In short, while readers might first feel intimidated at the length of the book, it will reward the patient–particularly those interested in international history–insofar as many of its chapters in effect constitute original studies of major episodes in European and Cold War history, based on archival research in multiple countries and in multiple languages. The Chilean material reaches well into the late 1980s, perhaps making it of especial interest for researchers of Latin American history interested in extending the horizon of today’s international history literature beyond the late 1970s.
This concern itself gets back to a major question about periodization. Back in the flow of discussion, Eckel and I soon move beyond these debates about the centrality of “the 1970s”–a naming convention that reflects our base-ten numbering system and a default paradigm for asking historiographical questions–to get to broader questions of historiography. Was, I ask, the rise of human rights thinkable without their entanglement in the dual processes of the Cold War between the USSR and the United States, and the decolonization of European empires? And what is the place of these processes in a narrative centered around human rights?
Eckel stresses the entanglement of all of these factors. He notes that the Soviet-American conflict of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s was one major reason why efforts to turn the United Nations into a discussion forum for human rights abuses (however then conceived) remained half-baked. Not only did neither Washington nor Moscow want United Nations committees sending fact-finding missions to the American South or the internally exiled Chechen or Crimean Tatar nations. More than that, with relatively few member states at the United Nations, influential delegations like the Americans, Soviets, and others could simply deprive UN bodies of funding or authority to do anything substantial on the occasions when they did receive complaints. This was, Eckel stresses, not the only reason that the human rights cause stalled in the 1950s and 1960s, but it was one of them.
Granted, one has to be cautious when speaking of “the” human rights movement or projecting post-1970s concepts back upon the past: as Eckel notes, one of the causes that the American UN delegation did support, namely for a global right to information, was conceived of under the heading of “human rights.” Predictably, however, UN conferences directed towards freedom of information dissolved as parties from Stalin’s USSR to Mexico demanded qualifications to such a right, ranging from “public order” to the prevention of the dissemination of “fascist” propaganda.” One of the strengths of The Ambivalence of Good is that it has the patience to explore episodes like the abortive–yet today highly relevant–struggle for a right to the freedom of information, treating it as part of rather than separate from the ideological journey of “human rights.”
And what a journey it was. By the 1970s, however, not only had the number of nation-states represented at the United Nations increased significantly, but burnout with the causes of reform socialism, the New Left, or freedom and democracy (American-style) often led both post-colonial and Global North activists to embrace human rights causes. Détente was one way out of the classic Cold War, but a turn away from politics per se to anti-torture (to name one cause) was another, more decisive way, to reject the moral gulf dividing the capitalist world from the socialist world. The truth born by the human body locked in prison, thrown into a psychiatry clinic, or beaten by a jailer offered an alternative to the ideologies of Left and Right. If the search for certainty in political ideologies had led to broken friendships and broken hearts for intellectuals in search of global justice, human rights offered an alternative to defending the disgraces of Prague or South Vietnam.
But, stresses Eckel, this turn towards the language of human rights had ambiguous consequences. Given the rise in the number of post-colonial countries at the United Nations, “human rights” on the East River came to take on meanings that activists at organizations like Amnesty International would hesitate to endorse. Few and far between were the post-colonial leaders, like the little-known but fascinating Nnamdi Azikiwe, who propagated a vision of a parliamentary, democratic, post-colonial Nigeria that would, he hoped, participate in a post-colonial African federation defined by respect for human rights (which, then, meant something more along the lines of sovereignty than opposition to torture or state-conducted murder).
More often, as noted above, nationalists like Idi Amin or Muammar Gaddafi wrapped themselves in the language of “human rights” (meaning post-colonial sovereignty, decolonization, and economic rights) as a discourse to promote an agenda of anti-Westernism, anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism. From 1989-2010, for example, Colonel Gaddafi endowed an International Prize for Human Rights awarded to (among others) the children of Palestine, Native Americans, and Louis Farrakhan. “Human rights” was supposed to provide an escape hatch from the bitterness of Left and Right, but, so Western defenders would argue, it was all too quickly embraced by tin pot dictators who swaddled themselves in an arguable perversion of the concept. Wasn’t the escape from politics precisely what the point of the turn towards human rights had been about in the first place?
Rather than engage in such narratives of a noble cause hijacked, however, The Ambivalence of Good shows how different visions of human rights–anti-colonial, state-centric, or individualistic–emerged together. Different readings of the same crisis could provoke very different interpretations of the concept, which is why ambivalence remains such a key word. Consider the case of Nigeria, where the aforementioned Azikiwe reigned. Azikiwe was overthrown by a military coup in 1966, which itself spawned the Biafra War, a galvanizing point for many Western activists. As neither the United States nor the Soviet Union helped Azikiwe’s secessionist Igbo people from attack by the Nigerian state, it became clear that neither the cynical counter-balancing of Moscow and Washington, nor the once-hailed post-colonial state, could guarantee the protection of human lives. The French group Médecins sans Frontières was one of many humanitarian organizations founded in the aftermath of the war, and later earned a Nobel Prize for its activity in running medical emergency missions everywhere from Afghanistan to Bosnia. The concept of human rights it came to champion is much more similar to our own that the alternatives (human rights as post-colonial sovereignty or part of “socialist rights”), and that may be why the triumphal narrative is so attractive.
But far from signifying the replacement of a state-centric, decolonization-focused concept of human rights by a “really” moral one centered around individuals and human pain, however, this evolution of a concept came with new ambiguities. This may be the point in Eckel’s monograph–human rights as ambiguous or even counterproductive–that causes the most consternation among readers. It’s also perhaps the most important. The point is not, as MSF’s Greek chapter made when MSF conducted operations in Kosovo in the late 1990s, that a sincere desire to help the wounded can bleed all too easily into complicity with NATO “humanitarian bombing” campaigns. Readers in Beijing or Moscow looking for a slam of MSF for their violation of state sovereignty should look elsewhere. The real point that Eckel is making is more subtle, namely that new concepts of subjectivity–the ways we think about our own consciousness and personhood–played an important but often ambiguous role in the human rights turn of the last third of the twentieth century. Looking over publications by Amnesty and other groups, stresses Eckel, it’s remarkable how great a role torture came to play in human rights campaigns. The core evil, as it were, of regimes in Uganda, Iran, Afghanistan, and Cambodia was that they tortured the human body, often to a point where even brave dissidents lost control of their physical functions, or were forced to admit to fake confessions. Such varieties of humanitarian protest, in short, focused less on political despotism, the lack of what were once called “bourgeois rights”, or the bankruptcy of Marxist-Leninist ideology, and more on violations of the somatic self as the key evil committed by regimes. For some disillusioned ex-Leftists, this turn to the body may have been just the point: bodily wounds were “objective” in a way ideological disagreement was not.
But, stressed Eckel, this turn towards torture as the key evil has had some ambiguous results. Arguably, the international public appetite whetted by anti-torture campaigns was one trained to see torture and state violence as a phenomenon independent of state ideology. “People could get the impression of an all-present violence,” says Eckel,” that is constantly expanding everywhere.” To take Amnesty International’s most recent advertising campaign as an example, the organizations posters stress extreme bodily duress: “Two electrodes. One on the finger, the other on the genitals. The voltage is increased. The voltage is increased. The voltage is increased. Until you do something.” Or: “Barefoot on concrete. Standing. Without sleep. Standing. Without a toilet. Standing. Without End. Standing. Standing. Standing.”
Both of these posters are for Amnesty’s international campaign against torture, no doubt a worthy cause, but they make little reference to the political ideologies that fueled such activity. Deng Xiaoping, F.W. DeKlerk and Leonid Brezhnev all managed regimes that practiced torture, but China, apartheid-era South Africa, and the Soviet Union presented challenges of mis-governance and maltreatment of their citizens that went beyond just torture. Moving beyond anti-Communism or anti-racism per se promised a wider audience to humanitarian activists exhausted with Cold War politics, but this move also threatened to dilute the specific nature of the moral bankruptcy of the regimes in question. Not only that, while torture may be despicable, in other words, there are also plenty of regimes that do not torture their citizens, but still lack decent judiciaries, protection of private property, independent media, and a professional civil service. Does a focus on the body, rather than a bigger “package” focused on civic self-government, distract from the broader ideological and institutional woes under which so much of the planet’s population still lives? The ambivalence of good, highlighted brilliantly here in its historical context by Jan Eckel, abides.
We’ve traveled a long way in our conversation with Eckel. We’ve moved from the earlier debates about “human rights,” animated by concerns over decolonization and the sovereignty of post-colonial nation-states, to today’s more familiar world of concerns about the rights of individuals living in war zones or fleeing them, whether by land or by boat. Yet passionate as such debates–R2P, asylum, Frontex–can become, it’s an essential task of the historian to provide context to the very terms and concepts that guide these debates. In spite of the temptation that writing about the subject sometimes brings out, the story of human rights is something less than a story of continual moral progress, if also something more than a cynical attempt to change the discursive object of “rights talk” from states in the Global South to individuals threatened by said states.
For all of these reasons, we’re glad that Eckel’s book has seen the light of day, and hope that it finds a wide readership not only in the original German, but also in translation as soon as possible, too. We thank Dr. Eckel for his participation in the interview, and look forward to following his future scholarly trajectory.