First Seminar session: “The Partisans of Humanitarianism: The origins of the ‘Long’ Second World War” – 7 December 2021

On 7 December, 26 of us participated in the first session of our seminar series exploring new approaches to medical care, humanitarianism, and violence during the ‘Long’ Second World War (1931-1953). This first session focused on the origins of the Second World War as seen by partisans of humanitarianism. Thanks to our chair, Jean-François Fayet (University of Fribourg) and all the speakers, we had a fruitful discussion about issues of periodization, debating the different timeframes used by historians of humanitarianism and debate about the concept of “partisans”.

Jean François Fayet opened the discussion by drawing our attention to the rich history of the term “partisan”. In the context of the ‘long’ Second World War, Jean-François suggested that it could be understood in different ways. It could be used to talk about partisans of the humanitarian commitment, but also about “partisan humanitarian commitment”, in the sense of “not universal”. Above all, “partisan” can mean “non neutral” as in the case of the Canadian doctor Norman Bethune.

The issue of partisanship, as Jean-François pointed it out, seems particularly relevant to the period described as the “Long Second World War”. This expression, little used in the French speaking world, was used by the Australian historian R. J. Bosworth at the end of the 20th century to stress the importance of the Russian revolutions, the Marche on Rome or Hitler’s rise to power to understand the Second World War [Bosworth, R. J. B. “Nations Examine Their Past: A Comparative Analysis of the Historiography of the ‘Long’ Second World War.” The History Teacher 29, no. 4 (1996): 499–523. ]. The concept was also recently mobilized by Pascal Lottaz and Ingemar Ottoson in their recent book, Sweden, Japan, and the Long Second World War (Routledge, 2021). For Jean-François, this question of the ‘long’ Second World War must be placed within broader historiographical discussions about the end of the First World War and debates about how transnational humanitarianism confronted new political regimes and movements in the 1930s.

Screenshot of Elisabeth Piller’s presentation

Our invited speakers gave us much to think about. First, Elisabeth Piller (Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg) presented “GIs, Cousins and Correspondents: How Americans Learned of European Hunger in the Era of the World Wars” which is part of her new book project on US Aid after the Second World War. In this paper, she examined how Americans learnt about European needs and traced different channels of information: the news media correspondents; the network of ethnic and cultural connections that Americans had throughout Europe (what she called “cousins”); and the military, which, once in Europe, provided authentic eyewitness accounts. Although it was not her main point today, Elisabeth reminded us that churches also played a major part in the process. Starting from channels of information allowed Elisabeth to draw the resulting mental maps and mental gaps within American society – and to show that the way the US addressed humanitarian crises overseas was shaped by the information they received and how they received it. To conclude, Elisabeth underlined how important it is to place World War Two in a wider perspective – but questioned whether the 1931-1953 periodization is the most appropriate to her research. She suggested instead to think more broadly about the Era of the Two World Wars, i.e. the period from (maybe) 1912 to 1953. She also reminded the audience of the importance of sources of information and their influence on perceptions of humanitarian emergencies. For Elisabeth, we need to take into consideration ethnic channels and the ways in which affect, intimacy and partisanship helped construct notions of beneficiary need and deservingness. Crucially, she set an agenda for rethinking the role of donors at home and what it meant to them as Americans to give. We will draw on Elisabeth’s insights in our next session on ‘Hegemonic Humanitarian Aid? Rethinking American Humanitarianism’ on 22 February 2022 [link to the program].

Screenshot of Romain Fathi’s presentation

Romain Fathi (Flinders University) followed with a paper on “The League of Red Cross Societies in the aftermath of WWI: a new, revolutionary, and global approach to medical care and humanitarianism for the Red Cross world?”. The League is an international federation born in 1919, also known as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies – and distinct from the International Committee of the Red Cross. Looking at the Great War, Romain provided us with an archaeology of the themes explored in the upcoming sessions of this seminar series. This League, he argued, contributed to shift the prerogatives of the entire Red Cross Movement toward medical care and peacetime humanitarianism, setting up structures and programs of work that were of incredible relevance in the next world war. This shift was the result of both internal reflection within the movement and the First World War, which provided a “golden moment of opportunity” – to quote Melanie Oppenheimer – making the expansion of the movement’s prerogatives and scope possible. The League’s most important contribution to the Red Cross Movement as a whole has been to be a catalyst for the significant expansion of its activities, taking them toward public health, disaster relief, medical care, blood transfusion and providing an international framework for the circulation of medical knowledge. It encouraged both the expansion of the Red Cross movement and the diversification of its activity.  

Romain’s paper is part of a broader collaborative project on the history of this League called “Resilient Humanitarianism project”; those who want to learn more about it can visit this website here:

Screenshot of Xavier Crombé’s presentation

Xavier Crombé (Centre de Réflexion sur l’Action et les Savoirs Humanitaires, MSF France) concluded the session with a presentation entitled “From Madrid to Yan’an: Norman Bethune’s Long March (in)to the World War – 1936-1939”. Drawing on his forthcoming book on the history of medical neutrality, Xavier focused on a fascinating figure who is at first sight the exact opposite of the neutral medical worker and the symbol of ‘the partisan’. Bethune’s “Long Second World War” started in 1936-1937, when he provided medical help on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War; later, he joined Mao’s fighters in the Sino-Japanese War (1938-1939). Both wars were, to him, different stages in a world war opposing democracy and Fascism. While his story has given rise to many myths and sometimes monolithic interpretations, he was instead a complex, ambiguous, and changing character, which explains his various legacies: he has been celebrated as a revolutionary hero in China, a source of national pride in Canada and, more recently, as a transnational humanitarian hero in Spain. His trajectory and the many ways he has been remembered are an opportunity to rethink medical neutrality and partisanship, which are, Xavier said, “two sides of the same coin” and rather complementary than totally opposed. They can indeed be successively embraced, even by an individual in a course of a volunteer career or by collective memories celebrating these humanitarian figures. With all that in mind, Xavier’s point was to nuance the reading of Bethune as the quintessential partisan and to stress the need to inquire about the context and motivations that led him to become a partisan doctor abroad – a question asked by Hervé Mazurel about Philhellene (armed) volunteers in the early 19th century. Bethune’s trajectory led Xavier to broader conclusions on the role of supporting actors and institutions behind humanitarian heroes as well as on the meaning of transnational encounters in medical assistance.

All along with the opening remarks, these three papers led to many questions. Part of the discussion came back on the periodization of the “Long Second World War”. The questions also focused on the separation of peacetime and wartime humanitarian activities and whether this is – or not – a retrospective reconstruction. Medical neutrality, various memories of partisan activities and competition between organizations were also at stake. Many thanks to our chair and all speakers and participants, which made this first session enlightening!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: