Forging and Fracturing a Transnational Community: Human Rights Networks in the Twentieth Century

AHA Session 44
Friday, January 6, 2012: 9:30 AM-11:30 AM
Los Angeles Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Elizabeth Borgwardt, Washington University in St. Louis
Elizabeth Borgwardt, Washington University in St. Louis

Session Abstract

In his influential article, "Culture and Power," former AHA president Akira Iriye argued in 1979 that "international relations are also intercultural relations." Domestic culture, politics, and organizations, he added, are important considerations for historians of international relations in the twentieth century. Writing twenty-five years later in Global Community, Iriye noted that, though international organizations have increased in number, scope, and influence, "most writings on modern world affairs, especially by historians, have nevertheless almost entirely ignored this fact. This scholarly void must be filled." This panel takes on Iriye's challenge and helps fill the "void" by building on the works of historians who have examined the diverse activities of trade organizations, pacifists, missionaries, health professionals, feminists, and environmentalists, to name a few.

The panelists examine the activities of private individuals—American Jews, scientists, and intellectuals—who were motivated to help victims of repression around the world. These voluntary, non-profit-seeking associations worked outside official political, military, and legal institutions. Each panelist explores how a community of activists constructed a transnational humanitarian network, going beyond borders to participate at international forums, to establish relief centers, to free political prisoners, and to support resettlement plans in distant lands.

The individuals that inhabited these communities and created these networks forged ties that transcended traditional diplomacy, geopolitics, and the nation-state system. As Andrew Falk shows, with many governments paralyzed by the Depression and fearful of advancing militarism and fascism, members of the Jewish diaspora crossed borders as informal diplomats to advance their humanitarian agendas, thereby foreshadowing the postwar civil society. Yana Skorobogatov uncovers the emergence of a transnational human rights network composed not of grassroots protesters but of Western intellectuals. Faced with the repression of their peers in the Soviet Union, these activists relied on their own social and cultural capital rather than on state power to pierce the Iron Curtain. Finally, Paul Rubinson describes how scientists came to see scientific and academic freedoms in terms of international human rights and began to agitate on behalf of dissident scientists around the world. Yet, scientists eventually lost interest in human rights, demonstrating the fragility of these transnational bonds.

In her landmark book, A New Deal for the World, Elizabeth Borgwardt describes the rise of human rights regimes grounded in Western values of political and civil rights, transnationalism, economic justice, and individualism. Embodied in the Atlantic Charter agreement between the United States and Britain, these values underscored human rights efforts for decades. The papers of this panel extend Borgwardt's work into different contexts, further revealing the role of the United States and its people in defining, pursuing, and sometimes undermining, human rights.   

By addressing provocative ideas about human rights, "Forging and Fracturing a Transnational Community" will appeal to the diverse membership of the AHA. The papers will interest scholars of international relations and the United States in the world, but the subject also intersects with many other subdisciplines: the history of religious and ethnic groups, the role of science in society, political and intellectual history.

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