Intellectual history

In Theory: Disha Karnad Jani interviews Jessica Whyte about Human Rights and Neoliberalism

In Theory co-host Disha Karnad Jani interviews Jessica Whyte, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of New South Whales, about her new book, Morals of the Market: Human Rights and the Rise of Neoliberalism (Verso: 2019).

In Theory: The JHI Blog Podcast · Human Rights and Neoliberalism: Disha Karnad Jani interviews Jessica Whyte

Think Piece

Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Decolonization in Solidarity: Rethinking Categories for Post-1945 History

By Ariel Mond

In April 1959, in the midst of the Algerian War, the French humanitarian organization Secours populaire français (SPF) compiled a rather atypical document for its annual meeting. Under the banner of its motto, “tout ce qui est humain est nôtre” (“all that is human is ours”), the communist- and anticolonialist-aligned organization presented a few short pages on one strain of its wartime activity: aiding Algerians imprisoned or interned in the French metropole, many of whom had been arrested for their actions in support of the Algerian nationalist cause. In this document, the SPF printed letters it had received at the beginning of 1959 from three imprisoned Algerian women who wrote to thank the organization for sending Christmas packages, well wishes for the new year, and “gifts of friendship.” In each of their letters, Mériem B., Safia B., and Mesli F.—partially anonymized in this document—evoked the profound emotional difficulty of their imprisonment. Moreover, each letter writer expressed her commitment to Algerian self-determination and solidarity with the French humanitarians in the same breath: “this friendship,” Mériem B. wrote, is “the true image of the face of France,” a France that “has no fear of openly proclaiming its solidarity with oppressed peoples.”

“Quand en prison, pénètrent de tels souffles,” published by Secours populaire français [French Popular Relief], (Paris: 1959). Scan courtesy of Gallica.

While readers of this SPF document would have been left to speculate over the specifics of these women’s lives, imprisonment, and political affiliations, another contemporary organization rendered them more explicitly. In a published pamphlet entitled “Respect of the International Geneva Conventions for Algerian Women Prisoners,” a Tunis-based organization called the Comité des étudiantes d’Algérie, Tunisie, Maroc (“Committee of Women Students of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco”) identified these same three Algerians—Fadila Mesli, Safia Bazi, and Mériem Belmihoub—as women in their early twenties who had volunteered as nurses for the National Liberation Front (FLN). Arrested and transferred to penitentiaries in metropolitan France for providing medical care to Algerian soldiers, these women proudly testified that they had “accomplished their duties as Algerian women and nurses,” and that their only crime was “to have wanted to live free” (11-12). Filled with images and first-hand testimonies from detained Algerian women, this pamphlet reprinted selected articles of the Fourth Geneva Conventions that outlined specific protections for women prisoners against “rape, prostitution, and all attacks on modesty” (Article 27, Paragraph 2) alongside testimonial evidence—notably from the infamously imprisoned and tortured Djamila Bouhired—that such provisions were not being applied in France’s treatment of incarcerated Algerian women. Significantly, this pamphlet positioned French imprisonment of Algerian women—Mesli, Bazi, and Belmihoub included—as a violation of international law and human rights.

“Respect of the International Geneva Conventions for Algerian Women Prisoners,” published by the Comité des étudiantes d’Algérie, Tunisie, Maroc [“Committee of Women Students of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco”] (Tunis: undated).

Interestingly, these two sources—one produced by a French humanitarian organization, the other by a North African women’s student group expressly concerned with international human rights law—evoked the same three imprisoned Algerian women. Together, they offer an avenue for considering the connected relationships between decolonization, humanitarianism, and human rights. Further, these documents and their shared interest in Mesli, Bazi, and Belmihoub show how decolonization, humanitarianism, and human rights were not only connected at the highest level of global politics and international institutions, but also formed the basis of meaningful solidarities between different historical actors whose paths crossed on the ground, so to speak, of decolonial activism.

Yet, this entanglement between decolonization, humanitarianism, and human rights has long been obscured in the historiography. To be sure, decolonization, humanitarianism, and human rights are distinct even as they overlap. While, for example, humanitarianism has a long history associated with religion and charity, gendered care-taking, and liberal imperialism, among other things, “human rights” have more often emerged as a marker of the international order of the post-1945 world. However, British historian Andrew Thompson has recently argued that decolonization, humanitarianism, and human rights deserve to be examined together. A reframing of these three topics as interrelated in the aftermath of World War II, he suggests, allows us to pose the following questions: what effects did discourses and practices of human rights and humanitarianism have on movements for decolonization? And how, in turn, did decolonization impact the future of international human rights and humanitarian organizations in the latter decades of the twentieth century?

Other scholars have begun to address these questions, albeit with varying answers. Samuel Moyn has argued, for example, that while decolonization gave a platform to anticolonial nationalists around the globe to argue for national self-determination as the basis of welfare, these Third World actors’ calls for global equality did not constitute a “human rights movement.” Human rights as we know them, he argues, would only emerge out of the global neoliberalism of the 1970s. Jennifer Johnson, however, disagrees with that assessment. In her study of the FLN’s healthcare services during the Algerian War, Johnson shows how FLN leaders claimed national sovereignty not only by fighting the French for it, but also by providing healthcare and welfare services to Algerians. Significantly, FLN leaders offered these healthcare and welfare services as evidence to international organizations, such as the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, that national self-determination was better prepared than French colonialism to guarantee humanitarian aid and human rights to the Algerian people. With help from other countries in the Third World, the Soviet bloc, and the West, the FLN successfully garnered support within these international human rights and humanitarian communities, crucially helping turn the tide of war against France. In the process, Johnson shows, “the war in Algeria demanded that the international community rethink the meaning of humanitarianism and human rights” (10) to include serving those fighting for national sovereignty on the grounds of welfare and healthcare. As such, she argues, “Algerian decolonization should be considered part of human rights history” (11). Human rights history, in other words, can and should incorporate the rights claims and humanitarian actions made by historical actors working toward decolonization and national sovereignty—even if a more recognizable “human rights movement” did not coalesce until the 1970s. In this reading, then, we can see Mesli, Bazi, and Belmihoub as not only prisoners receiving humanitarian aid or FLN nurses. They were also welfare and human rights workers, at once claiming and contributing to the decolonization of Algeria by offering up the nation as a framework for guaranteeing healthcare, humanitarian aid, and human rights. 

Understanding decolonization, humanitarianism, and human rights as interrelated, moreover, offers an expanded view of how we might shift our perspective on decolonization from a national to a global scale. As historians Andrew Thompson and Martin Thomas argue in their introduction to The Oxford Handbook of the Ends of Empire, decolonization encompasses not only the establishment of new nations at the ends of empire. It is also a series of ongoing global processes that historically linked claims of self-determination, national sovereignty, and human rights. In this view, decolonization saw actors from the Third World work on national and global levels to enter into, appropriate, and fundamentally change organizations of international human rights governance that had been established under the purview of Western empires. This is, for example, part of the arguments that Johnson makes for the FLN and that Roland Burke posits for Third World actors in the United Nations. Each author shows how decolonizing leaders acted within and across national lines in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s in ways that fundamentally transformed the international stage of human rights by the 1970s. Decolonization, then, not only brought the logics of post-WWII human rights and humanitarianism to the level of national self-determination; it also globalized the concept of self-determination as a guarantor of welfare and human rights.

The historically documented cases of Mesli, Bazi, and Belmihoub, however, pose an additional question: how and why did politics of humanitarianism and human rights map onto decolonial networks of solidarity, both within and beyond the Third World? Scholars of so-called “Third Worldism” among the European left have, in part, considered this question, particularly in the context of the student, worker, and migrant protests of 1968 and new forms of humanitarian engagement that followed. Quinn Slobodian and Christoph Kalter, in their respective studies on radical leftist movements in West Germany and France, examine how both European imaginaries of and collaboration with Third World actors during and just after decolonization fundamentally shaped the politics of these countries’ “New Left” movements in the 1960s. Eleanor Davey further contends that, for the French case, these “Third Worldist” radical left actors went on to found a “new humanitarianism” in the 1970s and 1980s that lives on in Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders), founded in 1971 and still influential in today’s humanitarian and international development scene. Concerned with documenting the importance of the Third World and Third Worldism to postwar European history, these works offer radical leftist politics and humanitarianism—both of which coalesced around human rights claims—as arenas for solidarity between European and Third World actors during and beyond decolonization.

“Appel aux femmes de tous les pays” (back page of “Respect des conventions internationales”). This “Call to Women of all Countries” asks for international support for Algerian women nationalist fighters, particularly for issues surrounding the French use of the death penalty, the application of the Geneva Conventions, and support from the International Red Cross.

Significantly, the two Algerian War-era documents mentioned in the beginning of this essay position Mesli, Bazi, and Belmihoub at the intersection of multiple solidarities. The SPF document, through these Algerian women’s letters, shows how humanitarian action and infrastructure could help form “vertical” alliances between French and Algerian anticolonial adherents, even during the middle of a violent decolonial war. Conversely, the pamphlet published by the Comité des étudiantes d’Algérie, Tunisie, Maroc evidences human rights law as the basis of a “horizontal” alliance of Third World actors who not only shared a North African geography, but were also students and women. Indeed, the end of the pamphlet included a “call to women of all countries” to act on behalf of Algeria and donate to the International Committee of the Red Cross, specifically to help “Djamila Bouhired and her companions” (back page). This document’s focus on a particular type of women’s solidarity around human rights, humanitarianism, and decolonization is significant. It shows that the relationship between women and humanitarianism is not just one of gendered care-work, and that women had a place in human rights discourse before the United Nations’ “International Year of Women” in 1975 and “Decade for Women” from 1976 to 1985. Rather, the intersection of decolonization, human rights, and humanitarianism reveals women’s activism in the 1950s and early 1960s to be a potential vector of decolonial and humanitarian solidarity across national and regional borders. As such, attention to women at the intersection of post-WWII decolonization, human rights, and humanitarianism  may allow for a gendered reading of human rights during decolonization that can help shape our understandings of the global feminist movements that emerged in the later 1960s and 1970s.

If we can consider these evocations of Mesli, Bazi, and Belmihoub as representative of broader contemporary strategies of anticolonialism, at least in the Franco-Algerian case, then human rights and humanitarianism become more than just connected to decolonization on its national and global levels. In this view, we can see how human rights and humanitarian action were crucial vectors of solidarities that connected actors across multiple categories—Algerian, French, European, North African, Third World(ist) activists, students, women—under the banner of decolonization, whether through the “high politics” of the international law of the Geneva Conventions or the interpersonal action “from below” of sending French holiday cards to imprisoned Algerians. Continuing studies in these fields, then, might fruitfully consider the solidarities that decolonization, humanitarianism, and human rights made possible, in and beyond the postwar decades of decolonial conflict.

Ariel Mond is a doctoral student at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, where she studies modern European and global history. Her dissertation research considers the intersections of French political imprisonment, the decolonization of Algeria, and the rise of postwar human rights politics from the 1940s to 1970s.

Featured Image: Abane Ramdane, Bazi Safia, Mesli Fadhila, Belmihoub Meriem and Amara Rachid, 4 May 1956, Ouazana, Algeria. Source: WikimediaCommons.

Intellectual history

Unlearning Eugenics in Post-Nazi Europe

By guest contributor Jonathon Catlin

The New York Consortium for Intellectual History recently hosted Dagmar Herzog (CUNY) for a discussion of her new book, Unlearning Eugenics: Sexuality, Reproduction, and Disability in Post-Nazi Europe (Wisconsin, 2018). Three scholars offered responses: Danilyn Rutherford (Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research), Johanna Schoen (Rutgers), and Moira Weigel (Harvard), all introduced by Stefanos Geroulanos (NYU). A recording of the event provided by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s George Mosse Program appears at the end of this article. Herzog’s recent discussion on New Books Network is linked here.

Dagmar Herzog’s provocative new book is based on the George L. Mosse Lectures she delivered at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in December 2016. In the acknowledgements, Herzog makes a fitting homage to Mosse’s pioneering work on European cultural history and the history of sexuality. Yet Herzog breaks new ground by illuminating the under-studied—but, as she shows, decisive—subject of disability rights. Unlearning Eugenics is a politically shrewd and empathetically attuned culmination of the distinctive critical approach combining attention to sexuality, religion, and the politics of memory we have come to recognize in Herzog’s work since her landmark Sex after Fascism: Memory and Morality in Twentieth-Century Germany (Princeton, 2005). It also proves as essential as her Doktormutter Joan W. Scott’s recent intervention Sex and Secularism (Princeton, 2017) for understanding the complex nexus of religion and sexuality in contemporary Europe.

Unlearning Eugenics tells the surprising story of how two progressive and traditionally allied causes, women’s reproductive rights and disability rights, have become pitted against one another. Since the 1990s, anti-abortion activists across Europe (and now in the U.S. as well) have successfully promoted “restrictions on sexual and reproductive self-determination as justice for the physically and cognitively disabled” (3). Taboos about Nazi eugenics have become a key weapon in the arsenal of the religious right’s campaign to restrict abortion access by conflating abortion on the grounds of fetal anomaly with Nazi eugenics and mass murders of the disabled. Herzog provides a convincing genealogy of this this false association (after all, the Nazis restricted and penalized abortions), with each turn of her narrative unraveling this dubious connection stitch by stitch. In the process, she illustrates the “contrapuntal relationship between different moments in time” and profound “ricochets and repercussions” of the Nazi past in contemporary Europe (10).

Antiabortion demonstrators in Warsaw, June 2011, with banners of bloody fetuses and Adolf Hitler as an abortionist. In the foreground, a feminist counter-demonstrator raises a poster declaring, “Life for fetuses / Death to women,”  feminist activists’ summation of the new law proposed in Poland that would have banned all abortions without exception.

The epicenter of these debates was postwar West Germany, where among Protestants and Catholics alike “early pride in having protested the so-called euthanasia murders was generally combined with the message that sexual conservatism needed to be restored and that above all abortion—on any grounds—must remain criminalized” (4). From Germany, to Italy, to France, völkisch anxiety about falling birthrates carried over from the fascist era and in some respects even intensified. Meanwhile, other religious groups defended reproductive self-determination as a moral right in itself, arguing that “‘wantedness’ is a foundational condition of the human quality of human life and that this condition cannot be forced via the threat of punishment” (27). On both sides of the debate, arguments about abortion were haunted by “the persistence of contempt for the disabled” and an inability “to argue straightforwardly for women’s rights to sexual pleasure without reproductive consequences. Abortion quite evidently was never just about itself” (16).

In the 1960s, thousands of highly publicized cases of birth defects caused by the morning sickness pill thalidomide helped legalize abortion in the UK, the first country in Western Europe outside of Scandinavia to fully decriminalize abortion in 1967; they made the “eugenic indication” for fetal health included in the law “appear to be imperative and self-evidently moral” (29). Yet such campaigns shot themselves in the foot with their often “disdainful, unempathetic tone, treating disability as a tragedy for families and a burden for societies” (9). Decades later, fetal anomaly went from being a widely accepted ground for abortion to being “a new entry point for regenerating a sense of moral conflictedness about abortion in general.” By the 2000s, “it was becoming unmistakable that unreflected insensitivities inherent in the prochoice rhetoric of the 1960s–1970s had come to haunt the abortion politics of the twenty-first century.”

The 1989 “Singer Affair” explored in Herzog’s second chapter was a high point of these debates. German disability rights advocates invited the Australian philosopher and animal rights activist Peter Singer to discuss his defense of infanticide for severely disabled infants on the grounds of preventing unnecessary suffering. The tremendous backlash that ensued ended in all but one of Singer’s appearances in Germany being canceled due to protestors—ranging from religious groups to an AIDS victims’ organization—who invoked the lessons of Nazi eugenics. Singer’s host retorted that “it was the critics’ refusal to let Singer speak that was best compared to the Nazis’ ‘burning of books.’” (Singer’s parents were Jewish refugees from Vienna and three of his grandparents were murdered in the Shoah.) For some, the Singer affair revealed “the immaturity of moral reasoning abilities in West German society in comparison with the rest of the West, a lamentable and inappropriate oversensitivity that led to ‘thought and discussion taboo[s],’ an incapacity to confront the genuine and inescapable challenges brought by technological advances and crises of extremity of suffering at either end of life” (49).

While the backlash was excessive, Singer courted it with his inflammatory conclusions. His radical utilitarianism led him to insist that pre-intelligent infants and severely cognitively disabled adults were not “persons,” while intelligent non-human animals were; hence “the life of a newborn baby is of less value than the life of a pig, dog, or a chimpanzee” (59). Singer had in fact used growing moral acceptance of abortion fought for by feminists as a “springboard” for his defense of ethical cases of infanticide; but by his then “actively blurring the boundary between abortion and infanticide,” Herzog writes, “feminists would lose the ability to retain the—morally crucial—distinction between an abortion on grounds of anticipated disability and an infanticide.”

Memorial for the Victims of National Socialist Euthanasia Killings (2014), Berlin, designed by Ursula Wilms, Heinz Hallmann, and Nikolaus Koliusis. Image courtesy of DPA.

Throughout the book, Herzog applauds the struggles of radical disability rights activists to have Nazi eugenics, euthanasia, and forced sterilization recognized as “racial” policies, which would grant their victims recognition as part of the Holocaust and make them eligible for reparations.

In this ongoing struggle, many disability rights activists rejected being “instrumentalized” by anti-abortion groups, who they accused of indifference toward the “‘social euthanasia’ stigmatizing disabled adults” (p. 60). Gisel Hermes, an activist in the German “radical cripple” movement, denounced the way “we are so apparently being used as show-pieces for an action that trivializes the fascist crimes against the disabled” and the fact that “for the opponents of abortion, only the unborn, and not the born life, appears worthy of protection” (p. 61). Herzog is quick to note the hypocrisy here: many on the right calling for abortion restrictions in the name of disability rights also advocate austerity that undermines social programs enabling differently abled adults to live flourishing lives. Thus it is not easy to determine where disability rights are “sincere” or have been “instrumentalized” (p. 34). In both cases, Herzog criticizes “romanticized” depictions of disability, noting that many activists with firsthand experience of the burdens disabilities may carry advocate a woman’s right to make an informed choice about abortion, taking into account her circumstances and resources. Against paternalistic moral dogmatism, Herzog emphasizes that disability is not only a matter of conception and birth; it has lifelong consequences for differently abled people, their network of family and caregivers, and the welfare states that support them. Eschewing simplistic solutions, Herzog calls for information, understanding, and empathy amidst the anguishing personal decisions many women are faced with in the course of pregnancies.


Cartoon by John Francis Borra for the American Christian anti-abortion group Operation Rescue (2007)

Unlearning Eugenics also delves into the “post-secularism” debate by illustrating “the growing success of an energetically politicized postmodern religiosity in advancing its agendas in secular moral language” (6). Religious political parties played a strong role in postwar West Germany, where, “to legalize abortion… opponents of abortion had contended in the 1970s, would be ‘the most disturbing attack on the moral foundations of our society since 1945’ and ‘the largest Auschwitz in European history’” (28). In France, the republican doctrine of laïcité (secularism) compelled analogous movements to frame their moral crusade in secular terms, and so oftentimes “reference to the horrors of Nazism fulfilled the moral function” (29). Yet Herzog argues that such cases are not so much indications of secularism as of “postmodern” “religious renewal” (17).

Herzog’s final chapter explores how activists turned to strains of psychoanalysis and French poststructuralist theory that reconceptualized agency for differently abled lives. For example, the notions of “supported decision-making” and “assisted freedom” may support the right of disabled individuals to vote (85). Similarly, “the locus of… personhood is dispersed” when individuals may require assistance to realize their human right to sexual pleasure (78). For Herzog, disabilities challenge “long-cherished Enlightenment ideals of individual autonomy—even as the Enlightenment heritage remains indispensable for advancing the cause of disability rights in numerous realms” (11). After all, the point of disability “coordination… is preciselyso that the disabled individual is ‘able to flourish as an individual’” (78–79). This aim fit well with the “schizoanalysis” of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari, coauthors of the 1972 classic Anti-Oedipus, which emphasized the “rhizomatic” interconnectivity of human lives, as well as with the “intimate and vulnerable” style of psychoanalysis pioneered by Sigmund Freud’s longtime associate Sándor Ferenczi (13). The forms of utopian communal disability care Herzog commends in her conclusion emphasize the particularity of disabled experience in order to challenge normative assumptions of “ordinary” life as well—opening up what Eve Sedgwick called a dialectic of “minoritizing” and “universalizing” views of difference.


In her response, Moira Weigel situated Unlearning Eugenics amidst wider crises of care and social reproduction seen around the world today, in which the temptation to find a “usable past” for one’s cause—enabled by social media—can be a dangerous one. Ultimately, the “moral and strategic failings” of past movements for reproductive rights “raise the question in the present of whether it is not a mistake not to be more ambitious in our feminist and emancipatory politics to make claims from the basis of female autonomy and even a right to pleasure on its own terms as an end in itself, not something that needs to be rationalized in relation to other moral ends.”

Johanna Schoen aptly condensed another key lesson from Herzog’s book: “moral reasoning” surrounding reproductive choices like abortion “shifts as our positionality changes.” An unfortunate effect of taboos about the Nazi past in her native Germany, she reflected, is that it has “limited not only reproductive choices, but also conversations about these choices.” Indeed, “From an American feminist perspective, Germans’ inability to concede full reproductive decision-making authority speaks to the very erasure of women as moral agents.”

Danilyn Rutherford’s response centered on a question illuminated by the different dependencies of pregnancy and disability: “To whom do we make ourselves vulnerable?” “In a world where there is more support for those who care for the disabled,” she said, “prospective parents facing a prenatal diagnosis might make different kinds of decisions. Without contempt for disability, people’s dreams and nightmares might change.” As Weigel similarly asked: “How would the world have to change to create the conditions under which a person could desire a disabled child differently?” What work might be done “to collectively, politically, desire better, to build a better desire?”

Herzog concludes that until now it has been “apparently quite hard to unlearn eugenic thinking” (32). At the same time, as Weigel remarked, the process of unlearning Herzog’s book initiates means working through the past in a way that opens up understanding and dialogue rather than retreating into the safety of taboos: “To unlearn means first engaging… To unlearn we must first do the work of having known.” In this sense, unlearning is the opposite of forgetting.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Princeton University. His dissertation in progress is a conceptual history of “catastrophe” in modern European thought, focusing on German-Jewish intellectuals including the Frankfurt School of critical theory.

Think Piece

How did Catholics Embrace Religious Liberty?

By guest contributor Udi Greenberg

This post is a companion piece to Prof. Greenberg’s article in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas, “Catholics, Protestants, and the Tortured Path to Religious Liberty.”

A series of recent controversies in Europe and the United States have sparked intense interest in the scope and limits of religious liberty. Can governments make sure everyone has the right to freely practice their faith? Should they protect this right even if it clashes with other priorities and principles, such as national security imperatives or anti-discrimination statutes? While almost all the participants in these debates—politicians, jurists, commentators, and social thinkers—claim to be defenders of religious freedom, they assign profoundly different meanings, goals, and consequences to this term. Progressives have invoked it to decry anti-Muslim measures such as anti-veil laws in Europe or the “Muslim ban” in the United States, while conservatives have used religious liberty to defend the right to discriminate against single-sex couples, deny access to birth control, and ban displays of certain religious faiths. Perhaps because it is so heavily contested, the language of religious liberty has acquired a significant aura in contemporary public, political, and legal discourse. Like “democracy,” “justice,” and “freedom,” it is a term that radically different camps seek to claim as their own.

Pope Gregory XVI

It can therefore be surprising to remember how recent religious liberty’s popularity is. Few institutions reflect this better than the Catholic Church, which as recently as the early 1960s openly condemned religious freedom as heresy. Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, Catholic bishops and theologians claimed that the state was God’s “secular arm.” The governments of Catholic-majority countries therefore had the duty to privilege Catholic preaching, education, and rituals, even if they blatantly discriminated against minorities (where Catholic were minority, they could tolerate religious freedom as a temporary arrangement). As Pope Gregory XVI put it in his 1832 encyclical Mirari vos, state law had to restrict preaching by non-Catholics, for “is there any sane man who would say poison ought to be distributed, sold publicly, stored, and even drunk because some antidote is available?” It was only in 1965, during the Second Vatican Council, that the Church formally abandoned this conviction. In its Declaration on Religious Freedom, it formally proclaimed religious liberty as a universal right “greatly in accord with truth and justice.” This was one of the greatest intellectual transformations of modern religious thought.

Why did this change come about? Scholars have provided illuminating explanations over the last few years. Some have attributed it to the mid-century influence of the American constitutional tradition of state neutrality in religious affairs. Others claimed it was part of the Church’s confrontation with totalitarianism, especially Communism, which led Catholics to view the state as a menacing threat rather than ally and protector. My article in the July 2018 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas uncovers another crucial context that pushed Catholics in this new direction. Religious liberty, it shows, was also fueled by a dramatic change in Catholic thinking about Protestants, namely a shift from centuries of hostility to cooperation and even a warm embrace. Well into the modern era, many Catholic writers continued to condemn Luther and is heirs, blaming them for the erosion of tradition, nihilism, and anarchy. But during the mid-twentieth century, Catholics swiftly abandoned this animosity, and came to see Protestants as brothers in a mutual fight against “anti-Christian” forces, such as Communism, Islam, and liberalism. French Theologian Yves Congar argued in 1937 that the Church transcends its “visible borders” and includes all those who have been baptized, while German historian Joseph Lortz published in 1938 sympathetic historical tomes that depicted Martin Luther and the Reformation as well-meaning Christians. This process of forging inter-Christian peace—which became known as ecumenism—reached its pinnacle in the postwar era. In 1964, it received formal doctrinal approval when Vatican II promulgated a Decree on Ecumenism (1964), which declared Protestants as “brethren.”

Pope Pius X

It was in this context that Catholic leaders also shed their opposition to religious liberty. Catholic thinkers had long demonized religious liberty as a Protestant conspiracy that allowed Luther’s heresy to thrive. This was the spirit in which Pope Pius X, in his famous 1910 encyclical Editae saepe, decried Protestants for “pav[ing] the way for modern rebellions and apostasy.” But after the Church embarked on its quest for cooperation with Protestants, it also reconsidered its approach to state institutions. They no longer required Catholic countries to impose Catholic education and practices. Indeed, for many Catholic writers, interdenominational peace required a new approach to the state, where no church held formal legal hegemony; they believed that the two intellectual projects—making peace with Protestants and revising Catholic teachings on the use of state power—were ultimately inseparable. It was no coincidence that the thinkers who drafted Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom also penned the Decree on Ecumenism. Both texts also emerged from the same organ, the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity.

This story may seem like a scholastic dive into arcane theological debates, but it has broader implications for our own debates about religion and politics. It raises questions about the origins of contemporary laws that regulate religion in Europe and the United States. Reflecting on recent controversies, some scholars have often attributed religious liberty laws to the ideology of “secularism” (or laïcité in French). If countries like France, they have asserted, routinely discriminate against Muslims through actions like banning the veil, it is in part (though not exclusively) because of an obsession with secular public affairs cannot digest certain religious behaviors or open displays of faith. Yet as this story of Catholic thinking reveals, religious liberty is not simply the product of secularist ideas. In some cases, it was the product of inter-confessional peace between Catholics and Protestants, whose architects had no aspirations of promoting universal religious equality. On the ideological level, ecumenical religious freedom in fact sought to maintain religious dominance in the public sphere by joining forces against “anti-Christian” enemies. It thus may be that religious liberty is best understood not only as the product of secular ideas and conditions. Rather, it was also the work of religious actors and ideas—a legacy that continues to profoundly shape contemporary political and public life.

Udi Greenberg is an associate professor of European history at Dartmouth College. He is currently writing a book titled Religious Pluralism in the Age of Violence: Catholics and Protestants from Animosity to Peace, 1879–1970. Together with Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, he edited a special forum on Christianity and human rights in the latest issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas; the introduction to that forum can be found here.

Intellectual history

Introduction: Special Forum on Christianity and Human Rights

By Udi Greenberg (Dartmouth College) and Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins (Yale University)

We are delighted to bring you the Introduction to the Special Forum on Christianity and Human Rights that appears in the latest issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas, by kind permission of the Journal, the University of Pennsylvania Press, and Project MUSE. You can find the Project MUSE page for this introduction here, and the entirety of volume 79, number 3 here.

The intellectual roots of human rights have been a source of much debate, but Christianity’s role in shaping the language of universal equality has been especially controversial. Historians agree that prominent Catholic philosophers, such as Jacques Maritain, were crucial in crafting and popularizing theories of rights, and that Protestant activists, such as American Protestant Frederick Nolde, were instrumental in drafting the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet the lessons that scholars draw from this genealogy are diverse. For some, such as John Nurser, history reveals Christianity as the crucial engine of the modern era’s most celebrated concept. Christians may have engaged in countless brutalities over the centuries, but the Gospel’s universal aspirations also helped bolster peaceful endeavors. Others, such as Samuel Moyn and Joan Scott, have instead claimed that the marriage of Christianity and rights reflect how deeply the language of universal equality preserved traditional hierarchies. Human rights and religious freedom, they claim, were forged by Christian Western Europeans, and were meant to combat Marxists, feminists, Muslims, and anti-colonial activists. In this provocative narrative, the concept of rights was never an equalizing force. Rather, it helped—and still helps today—sustain political, gender, and social inequalities.

This recent debate has centered on the nature of rights, but the essays assembled in this forum seek to push the discussion in a new direction. The authors explore Christian engagement with the idea of rights to better understand the scope and evolution of Christian thought over the last two centuries. Indeed, if the project of mapping human rights’ origins and ascendancy may be now reaching its conclusion, scholars still have much to say on Christianity’s seminal role in shaping modern politics, ideologies, and culture. Having long stood on the margins of modern intellectual history, thinkers who self-identified foremost as Christian—theologians, philosophers, and social theorists—have received growing attention. Protestants and Catholics alike developed comprehensive visions of economic, social, and sexual relations, and repeatedly sought to explain the Gospel’s message regarding varied topics such as Judaism, racial tensions, marriage, and international politics. These projects—which often defied the secular categories of left and right—enjoyed considerable influence, especially in Europe and North America where Christianity remained dominant. They often resonated well beyond theological seminaries and churches, inspiring state laws and policies in a variety of regimes, in colonial, democratic, fascist, or authoritarian settings. Rights often figured prominently in these efforts, as thinkers sought to explain who has what rights and under what conditions. The concept of rights therefore provides a crucial window to an expansive and ongoing intellectual effort.

What is more, exploring the ways in which Christian thinkers grappled with rights helps chart the dramatic shifts that characterized Christianity in the modern era. While the nature and meaning of Christianity had never been stable and was always contested, the centuries that followed the French Revolution brought a new kind of turmoil. Protestants and Catholics confronted a proliferation of ideological projects rooted in non-religious and even atheist assumptions, such as utilitarian morality, racial science, and socialist revolution. For many Christians, secularism’s assumed corrosive impact necessitated a recalibration of Christian life. Many came to believe that if the Gospel were to triumph, the churches would have to rethink their approach to state institutions, foster new alliances with other Christian denominations, and even treat other religious groups (such as Jews or Confucians) as legitimate. Debating the scope and nature of rights stood at the heart of these efforts. Tracing the trajectories of these disputes helps shed light on the complex redrawing of Christianity’s content and borders.

The following essays uncover diverse Christian reflections on rights, from their first sustained appearance in the late eighteenth century until their zenith in the mid-twentieth century. They examine how a panoply of thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic, largely Catholic but also Protestant, utilized rights to rethink Christianity. Taken together, they offer new ways of understanding the transformations of Christian thought in one of its most dynamic and fascinating periods.

Udi Greenberg is an associate professor of European history at Dartmouth College. He is currently writing a book titled Religious Pluralism in the Age of Violence: Catholics and Protestants from Animosity to Peace, 1879-1970.
Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is a lecturer at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He is currently writing a book for Columbia University Press titled, The Neoconservative Moment in France: Raymond Aron and the United States
Interview Think Piece

The Historical Origins of Human Rights: A Conversation with Samuel Moyn

By guest contributor Pranav Kumar Jain

Professor Samuel Moyn (Yale University)

Since the publication of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, Professor Samuel Moyn has emerged as one of the most prominent voices in the field of human rights studies and modern intellectual history. I recently had a chance to interview him about his early career and his views on human rights and recent developments in the field of history.

Moyn was educated at Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied history and French literature. In St. Louis, he fell under the influence of Gerald Izenberg, who nurtured his interest in modern French intellectual history. After college, he proceeded to Berkeley to pursue his doctorate under the supervision of Martin Jay. However, unexcited at the prospect of becoming a professional historian, he left graduate school after taking his orals and enrolled at Harvard Law School. After a year in law school, he decided that he did want to finish his Ph.D. after all. He switched the subject of his dissertation to a topic that could be done on the basis of materials available in American libraries. Drawing upon an earlier seminar paper, he decided to write about the interwar moral philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. After graduating from Berkeley and Harvard in 2000-01, he joined Columbia University as an assistant professor in history.

Though he had never written about human rights before, he had become interested in the subject in law school and during his work in the White House at the time of the Kosovo bombings. At Columbia, he decided to pursue his interest in human rights further and began to teach a course called “Historical Origins of Human Rights.” The conversations in this class were complemented by those with two newly arrived faculty members, Mark Mazower and Susan Pedersen, both of whom were then working on the international history of the twentieth century. In 2008, Moyn decided that it was finally time to write about human rights.

Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012)

In The Last Utopia, Moyn’s aim was to contest the theories about the long-term origins of human rights. His key argument was that it was only in the 1970s that the concept of human rights crystallized as a global language of justice. In arguing thus, he sharply distinguished himself from the historian Lynn Hunt who had suggested that the concept of human rights stretched all the way back to the French Revolution. Before Hunt published her book on human rights, Moyn told me, his class had shared some of her emphasis. Both scholars, for example, were influenced by Thomas Laqueur’s account of the origins of humanitarianism, which focused on the upsurge of sympathy in the eighteenth century. Laqueur’s argument, however, had not even mentioned human rights. Hunt’s genius (or mistake?), Moyn believes, was to make that connection.

Moyn, however, is not the only historian to see the 1970s as a turning point. In his Age of Fracture (2012), intellectual historian Daniel Rodgers has made a similar argument about how the American postwar consensus came under increasing pressure and finally shattered in the 70s. But there are some important differences. As Moyn explained to me, Rodgers’s argument is more about the disappearance of alternatives, whereas his is more concerned with how human rights survived that difficult moment. Furthermore, Rodgers’s focus on the American case makes   his argument unique because, in comparison with transatlantic cases, the American tradition does not have a socialist starting point. Both Moyn and Rodgers, however, have been criticized for failing to take neoliberalism into account. Moyn says that he has tried to address this in his forthcoming book Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World.

Some have come to see Moyn’s book as mostly about President Jimmy Carter’s contributions to the human rights revolution. Moyn himself, however, thinks that the book is ultimately about the French Revolution and its abandonment in modern history for an individualistic ethics of rights, including the Levinasian ethics which he once studied. In Moyn’s view, human rights are a part of this “ethical turn.” While he was working on the book, Moyn’s own thinking underwent a significant revolution. He began to explore the place of decolonization in the story he was trying to tell. Decolonization was not something he had thought about very much before but, as arguably one of the biggest events of the twentieth century, it seemed indispensable to the human rights revolution. In the book, he ended up making the very controversial argument that human rights largely emerged as the response of westerners to decolonization. Since they had now lost the interventionist tool of empire, human rights became a new universalism that would allow them to think about, care about, and perhaps intervene in places they had once ruled directly.

Though widely acclaimed, Moyn’s thesis has been challenged on a number of fronts. For one thing, Moyn himself believes that the argument of the book is problematic because it globalizes a story that it mostly about French intellectuals in the 1970s. Then there are critics such as Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, a German historian at UC Berkeley, who have suggested, in Moyn’s words, that “Sam was right in dismissing all prior history. He just didn’t dismiss the 70s and 80s.” Moyn says that he finds Hoffmann’s arguments compelling and that, if we think of human rights primarily as a political program, the 90s do deserve the lion’s share of attention. After all, Moyn’s own interest in the politics of human rights emerged during the 90s.

Eleanor Roosevelt with a Spanish-language copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Perhaps one of Moyn’s most controversial arguments is that the field of the history of human rights no longer has anything new to say. Most of the questions about the emergence of the human rights movements and the role of international institutions have already been answered. Given the major debate provoked by his own work, I am skeptical that this is indeed the case. Plus, there are a number of areas which need further research. For instance, we need to better understand the connections between signature events such as the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the story that Moyn tells about the 1970s. But I think Moyn made a compelling point when he suggested to me that we cannot continue to constantly look for the origins of human rights. In doing so, we often run the risk of anachronism and misinterpretation. For instance, some scholars have tried to tie human rights back to early modern natural law. However, as Moyn put it, “what’s lost when you interpret early modern natural law as fundamentally a rights project is that it was actually a duties project.”

Moyn is ambivalent about recent developments in the study and practice of history in general. He thinks that the rise of global and transnational history is a welcome development because, ultimately, there is no reason for methodological nationalism to prevail. However, in his view, this has had a somewhat adverse effect on graduate training. When he went to grad school, he took courses that focused on national historiographical canons and many of the readings were in the original language. With the rise of global history, it is not clear that such courses can be taught anymore. For instance, no teacher could demand that all the students know the same languages. Consequently, Moyn says, “most of what historians were doing for most of modern history is being lost.” This is certainly an interesting point and it begs the question of how graduate programs can train their students to strike a balance between the wide perspectives of global history and the deep immersion of a more national approach.

Otherwise, however, in contrast with many of his fellow scholars, Moyn is surprisingly upbeat about the current state and future of the historical profession. He thinks that we are living in a golden age of historiography with many impressive historians producing outstanding works. There is certainly more scope for history to be more relevant to the public. But historians engaging with the public shouldn’t do so in crass ways, such as suggesting that there is a definitive relevance of history to public policy. History does not have to change radically. It can simply continue to build upon its existing strengths.

Professor Lynn Hunt (UCLA)

In the face of Lynn Hunt’s recent judgment that the field of “history is in crisis and not just one of university budgets,” this is a somewhat puzzling conclusion. However, it is one that I happen to agree with. Those who suggest that historians should engage with policy makers certainly have a point. However, instead of emphasizing the uniqueness of history, their arguments devolve to what historians can do better than economists and political scientists. In the process, they often lose sight of the fact that, more than anything, historians are storytellers. History rightly belongs in the humanities rather than the social sciences. It is only in telling stories that inspire and excite the public’s imagination that historians can regain the respect that many think they have lost in the public eye.

Pranav Kumar Jain is a doctoral student in early modern history at Yale University.