Human Rights

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.

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

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.

Sovereignty Without Borders: Discussing Afghanistan’s Cold War History with Timothy Nunan

Interview conducted by guest contributor Chloe Bordewich

Timothy Nunan’s recent book, Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan (2016), sets global Cold War history on an Afghan stage. It is not, however, the familiar story of the decade-long war between the country’s Soviet-backed communist government and the U.S.-backed Islamic mujahidin. In this account, foreign visions for Afghanistan clash instead in the cedar forests of Paktia, the refugee camps of an imagined Pashtunistan, and the gas fields of Turkestan.

This is an Afghanistan of aid workers and technocrats. While American modernizers and European humanitarians play important roles, Nunan foregrounds Soviet development experts and their protracted attempt to fashion a successful socialist nation to the south. Afghanistan was a canvas across which these different foreign actors sketched out their aspirations for postcolonial states. But modernization, socialism, and humanitarianism all foundered on conceptual errors about the nature of Afghan territory, errors whose consequences were often devastating for Afghans.


Cambridge University Press, 2016

When we follow the misadventures of development projects in Afghanistan, a second salient story emerges: the rise and fall on both sides of the Iron Curtain of a certain romance with the idea of the Third World nation-state. By the late 1970s, foreigners’ disillusionment with their attempts to mold Afghanistan resulted in the inversion of international mechanisms once designed to promote postcolonial sovereignty. Countries like Afghanistan were suddenly put on trial, exposed, and shown to be unjust.

In providing a nuanced look into shifting sites of postcolonial sovereignty, Nunan’s account of scholars, engineers, militants, murderous border guards, and traumatized orphans highlights the importance of juxtaposing histories of ideas with the real encounters that unsettle them.

JHI: How did you come to this project? Did you hope to revise popular misconceptions about the history of Afghanistan?

TN: Clearly, concerns about the ethics of humanitarian invention and the prospects of building a “functional state” in Afghanistan reflect what was going on while I was writing the book. But I did not sit down intending to write a history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, or Afghanistan at all. I came to this topic from the north – from the Soviet Union and the study of Soviet Central Asia. I originally thought I would write on the thaw in the 1950s and 1960s in Soviet Central Asia, to look differently at a story usually centered on Russia. However, when I arrived at the archives in Moscow and, later, Dushanbe (in Tajikistan) many of the files I discovered from the 1950s were wooden and bureaucratic. I struggled to think of how I could turn this archival material into a manuscript that would speak to broader concerns.

But in the State Archive of the Russian Federation, I found, for example, the long transcript of a conference in Moscow in 1982 to which Afghan socialist feminists were invited to talk about what a real women’s movement would look like in Afghanistan under conditions of socialist revolution. As I spent more time on Afghanistan, I became aware of the files of Komsomol (Soviet Youth League) advisors, which took me down to the village level. Quickly, I found myself being able to write a certain version of the history of Kandahar or Jalalabad in the 1980s, which seemed much more exciting and current.

JHI: In the first chapter, “How to Write the History of Afghanistan,” you map out in fascinating detail the epistemological framework of the Soviet area studies and development studies apparatus that facilitated, but also was at times in friction with actual Soviet development projects. As you point out, Soviet Orientology developed alongside anti-Western-imperialism, not as an accomplice of it – a hole in Edward Said’s map of Orientalism.

Today, the unipolarity of scholarship is striking and the Soviet knowledge apparatus has largely been forgotten. What happened to this alternative body of expertise with the fall of the Soviet Union? Do we see parallels emerging today that could challenge Euro-American hegemony over the narration of the history of the Third World?

TN: Soviet Orientology was very different from how graduate students [in Western Europe and North America] are trained to think about Orientalism. Anouar Abdel-Malek, the author of the entry on Orientalism in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, was an Egyptian Coptic Marxist who came out of the same social background as Edward Said. But rather than challenging the Soviet Orientalist establishment, as Said did in the U.S. context, he was embedded in it.

Alfrid Bustanov, Masha Kirasirova, and others are doing outstanding work on how Russian and Soviet Orientological traditions affected nationalisms inside and outside the USSR, but there is still an enormous amount of Soviet scholarly engagement we don’t know much about.

The question of what happened afterward is a very good one, especially as we ponder what might come after this moment and the problems with the global history approach. Within the former Soviet space, after 1991, institutions of Soviet Orientology suffered from significant funding shortages and positions were cut, and many of the people I interviewed felt embattled.

I spend a lot of time reading mujahidin publications from the 1980s, mostly in Persian, and even when these journals translate works of propaganda written by Saudi scholars, they cite Russian orientalists such as Vasily Bartold. The Soviet Orientological tradition appears to have been received, processed, and understood by actors working in the Arabic- and Persian-speaking world. In Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Algeria – places that were strongly aligned with the Soviet Union – there were academies of sciences that employed dozens of people. What was it like to be a member of one of these institutions in Syria after 1970, or in Afghanistan after 1955, or 1978 or 1979? These are important stories that I was only able to gloss in Humanitarian Invasion, but which I hope future works will elucidate.


Timothy Nunan

JHI: Some of the most interesting sources you use are interviews with these Soviet Orientologists who worked in and studied Afghanistan, mostly in the 1970s and 1980s. How did you track down these scholars, and how do you deploy their stories in the book?

TN: I wanted to access Soviet subjectivity of experiences in Afghanistan beyond the archive. What did Soviet Uzbeks and Tajiks think about Afghanistan? Did they suddenly convert to Wahhabism? Did they feel some special bond with Afghans?

The interviews would have been impossible without a yearbook that Komsomol advisors had produced about themselves around 2006. When I arrived in Dushanbe in summer 2013, I started Yandex-ing [Russian Googling] these people to find out where they were. One person responded and that led to more introductions. Their networks ran all the way from Kiev to the border of Afghanistan, and I was able to travel widely around the former Soviet Union to interview many of them. By talking with these people I identified figures and turning points that distilled the themes they themselves emphasized.

JHI: In your introduction, you write that you hope to cast Afghanistan not as the “graveyard of empires,” as it has often been known, but as the “graveyard of the Third World nation-state.” Just as the former has more to do with the foreign empires than with Afghanistan itself, the latter speaks to the idea of the Third World nation-state as it was championed by foreign actors and transnational bodies – and their eventual disillusionment with it. Could you elaborate on the life and death of the international romance with the Third World nation-state? What role did Afghanistan play in shaping it?

TN: Afghanistan gained its independence from the British Empire in 1919, and the Soviet Union was the first country to recognize it. But what did this recognition mean? From 1914 to 1945, countries could become independent, but in many cases didn’t have the geopolitical wherewithal to make this sovereignty meaningful. Furthermore, there was no significant international forum not already dominated by the imperial powers. This changed after 1945 and especially after 1960, when not only did independent nation-states have a forum, the United Nations, in which they could gain representation, but there were also new rules within that international organization that allowed them to effect a certain kind of power not commensurate with their GDP or whether or not they had nuclear weapons. We might point to 1960 as a turning point, when the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly affirms the independence of colonized people as a human right, and when “civilization” is erased as a criterion for admission into the United Nations.

This lack of commensurability between sovereignty at the United Nations and geopolitical heft began to have real effects on international society. Throughout the mid-1960s and especially from the 1970s onward, many Third World nation-states, including Afghanistan and often sponsored by the Soviet Union, began to realize that they could sponsor resolutions against Israel, the Portuguese empire, apartheid South Africa – and attempt to delegitimize entire states’ right to exist. By the mid-1970s, in addition to this power, however symbolic, at the United Nations, nations were taking control of their destinies with armed force. Broadly speaking, if you had enough Soviet or Chinese weapons, you could push back the imperialists and eventually gain enough power at the level of international organizations to delegitimize groups that disagreed with you.

However, Afghanistan was one of the turning points against this mood, starting in the late 1970s. European actors became disillusioned with this Third World nation-state form through events like the Vietnamese boat people crisis of the late 1970s, and the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. Often, post-colonial sovereignty seemed more like an excuse to murder ethnic minorities and political dissidents than to realize a vision of freedom. Arguably, China’s post-1970s Chinese détente with the United States was a factor, as well. Leftists saw that China no longer offered a viable vision of revolution, but was just a lackey of American finance capital and imperialism. Many of the intellectuals who went on to found humanitarian NGOs had lost faith in the USSR as a revolutionary force since the Prague Spring, or, at the very latest, the publication of The Gulag Archipelago.

In short, by the late 1970s, these East Asian and Southeast Asian fantasies of the future were discredited. One place these groups turned was humanitarian action, rather than the Third World nation-state, as a new form of political organization. But the old tools of delegitimization and Third World politics were applied in reverse to places like Afghanistan. Forums pioneered for use against Israel or South Africa, such as the UN Special Rapporteur and human rights investigations, were flipped. It was suddenly no longer the oppression of black Africans or Palestinians qua colonized subjects but rather the oppression of Afghans qua humans under a Third World socialist regime that constituted the supreme crime within international society. The reversal of this Third World logic onto Third World nations is one of the key themes of the book.

JHI: One of the overarching themes of the book is sovereignty: sovereignty as it was imagined and sovereignty as it was performed. Could you flesh out for us some of the major disjunctions between the ways different foreign actors, as well as Afghan politicians, conceptualized Afghan sovereignty, and acts of sovereignty that were carried out on the ground?

TN: The Afghan government was extremely ambitious in claiming that other countries were parts of it, yet was very weakly territorialized. From 1947 onward, when Pakistan is formed, Afghanistan does not recognize its own entire eastern border. One official Afghan government map has a disclaimer on it saying “this map was composed in great haste and none of the information on it should be taken to be reliable.” There’s an odd mix of hyper-ambition and total insecurity. The indeterminacy of the border also creates catastrophic consequences for people living around it.

In the 1980s, Soviet border guards extend the Soviet border regime hundreds of kilometers inside Afghanistan, and murder Afghans within Afghanistan’s borders. Children are another interesting lens. On one hand, the Soviet Union says that children are the future of the nation and need to be educated and mobilized as symbols of the nation’s future. Orphans, especially, are taken to the Soviet Union. From the Soviet Union’s point of view, there’s nothing wrong with this. Insofar as states have a right to exist and defend their borders, it then follows that the state has a right to mobilize its citizens–men, in particular–to defend those borders and weave protection of the state with the citizen’s life-cycle.

In the 1970s and 1980s, however, humanitarian actors like Amnesty International become concerned with children having the right to a nationality and the right not to be trafficked out of the nation-state of their birth. And yet, those deploying this humanitarian logic, who are often concerned with diagnosing children as traumatized, have no problem taking the children out of their familiar contexts to receive medical treatment. Here we see two different logics of what the Third World nation-state project is supposed to be about: the solution for creating a national future, or the problem causing people to be traumatized for life.

Nunan Image JHI Blog.jpg

Prior to Afghanistan becoming a battleground between the Soviet Union, the Afghan mujahidin, and the European NGOs embedded among them, it was famous for being an ‘economic Korea’ where Western powers competed with the Soviet Union to offer more effective forms of aid to Kabul. Pictured here is an exhibition for a West German-managed agricultural and forestry project in eastern Afghanistan, the Paktia Development Authority. Photograph courtesy of Christoph Häselbarth

JHI: We’re in a moment of deep suspicion not only toward internationalism, but also toward humanitarianism. In this context, a particularly timely thread of the book traces how states, Leftist activists, and eventually NGO workers envisioned social justice and moral responsibility toward distant people in need. What is the landscape of conviction in Humanitarian Invasion? Where does it intersect with expertise, on one hand, and geopolitical strategy on the other?

TN: While I see the humanitarian groups that I look at most closely – Doctors without Borders (MSF) and the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA) – as entangled in this geopolitical game, I don’t view them as having had nefarious intentions. Many of the groups that enter the Afghan theater via Pakistan in the 1980s initially try to stay very distant from a geopolitical focus. But there are different trajectories that these groups follow, with the Swedes trying to adopt a more consistent anti-imperialism and the French flirting with explicit engagement in politics.

Regardless of specific anti-imperialist or anti-totalitarian politics, new regimes of intervention are created from the late 1970s onward. Rather than saying, “OK, the Afghans or Cambodians have had their socialist revolution, now they should finally be free from foreign interference,” NGOs embed themselves in trans-border resistance movements that reframe those Third World citizens as subjects of new internationals regimes of governance. NGOs are able to diagnose Afghans as traumatized or suffering from disease, and this becomes grounds for further intervention, or shipment of supplies into a country without consulting its government. Over time, this contributes to a shift in which the dominant optic employed when engaging with Third World populations is not so much that of the guerrilla fighter but of the traumatized individual, the wounded girl. This reframing wasn’t intentionally nefarious, but did reframe subaltern actors as non-political.

There is a strange boomerang effect to all of this. In the 1980s, identifying trauma or certain types of wounds became a carte blanche for aiding armed insurrections in Third World countries–as in the case of Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Ethiopia. Today, however, as scholars like Miriam Ticktin have shown, refugees have to demonstrate exactly these kinds of wounds in order to gain the right to stay in European countries. In both cases, a discourse centered around individual, often corporeal trauma became the litmus test for whether states could maintain control of their borders, but a procedure that once allowed Europeans to insert themselves into Afghanistan now allows Afghans and others to claim a (marginal) space in European settings. Pushing back, governments like Germany have sought to classify entire countries, and specific provinces of Afghanistan, as “safe countries of origin” or “safe zones” from which it becomes procedurally impossible to file such an asylum claim. The boomerang, then, is that Europeans are grappling with these humanitarian claims in an obviously political way, even as the turn toward humanitarianism was itself motivated by an exhaustion with traditional left-right politics in the first place.

JHI: So the Soviets, while pursuing a parallel project, never really bought into the humanitarian discourse?

TN: Yes, though this does not mean they lacked something. The Soviets had a strong interest in childhood as a stage of life that is political and is protected, not, as we would put it, a stage of life that is protected and therefore should not be political.

Russian critiques of the creation of humanitarian protectorates in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, and even Libya and Afghanistan hold that humanitarian action without a strong central state is nonsense. Syria is the most dramatic instance of where these impulses are contrasting again. The Russian government claims that Syria is a sovereign member state of the United Nations that has invited Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah (not a state) to aid it in an act of collective self-defense—something permitted under the United Nations charter. Russia also provides humanitarian aid to government-held areas in Syria through its Ministry of Defense. In contrast, Russian diplomats would argue, Western media have conspired with Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia to portray the jihad against Damascus exclusively in terms of traumatized children, the destruction of Aleppo, and so on. Now as in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the tension has to do with the legitimacy of post-colonial states and reading the Syrian people’s aspirations not solely in terms of geopolitics or trauma.

JHI: Humanitarian Invasion gives an account of global actors making decisions with global repercussions, but it is at the same time firmly grounded in a particular place. So, where do you see global history heading as a field, and where does this book fit? What are the potential risks of global history?

TN: Obviously, Humanitarian Invasion is not a history of the world or of every place in the world. Rather, the book’s central concern is shifting meanings of postcolonial sovereignty during the Cold War. The Afghan-Pakistan borderlands form a particularly rich location to examine how this idea of the Third World nation-state was changing over time, precisely because so many different actors brought their own conceptual baggage to it. I would welcome anyone who wants to write a history of the Cambodian-Thai borderlands or, indeed, much of Ethiopia during the 1980s. MSF, in fact, had a larger presence in the Cambodian-Thai theater than in the Afghan one, and it would be fascinating to understand what difference it makes when these NGOs are collaborating against the Vietnamese, who had been their heroes only a decade before.

Yet as historians like Dipesh Chakrabarty have pointed out, the intensive language training and multi-archive projects of many global historians depend on the extensive resources that only wealthy American and Western European universities possess. One way we can correct this imbalance, learn from colleagues in other countries, and maintain a spirit of humility about our work is to remember, even while working on so-called global themes, that events are still taking place in actual places with local histories, and never to insist on a hierarchy in which NGO actors are more important than national stories.

For example, writing Humanitarian Invasion, I was not able to explore as much as I would like how Afghans themselves changed their political language to respond to the surge in humanitarian ideas (and funding streams) that emerged in the 1980s. I would have liked to probe more how much the massive changes in the 1980s actually affect the ways Afghans talk about politics and what they expect from an Afghan state, what needs they expect to be met by international organizations. How ideas and discourses are transmitted from North to South or South to North is a major interest for global historians today, and that’s an area where “local” scholars with a knowledge of Pashto and a deeper knowledge of regional political thought would be a great contribution.

JHI: What is your current project, and how did it evolve from Humanitarian Invasion?

TN: I would have liked to consider, more seriously, Afghan socialists as thinkers. What did socialism actually mean to them? How did they, on the front line of an Afghan national jihad and the emerging global jihadist movement, understand political Islam? The current project looks at how socialists in the Soviet Union and allied left-wing groups such as the Afghan Communists and Iranian Tudeh Party understood political Islam or Pan-Islamism, particularly in Iran and Afghanistan, where Islamists took violent control of states in the 1980s.

In 1914, the Russian orientalist Vasily Bartold writes that Pan-Islamism is totally bogus, that it’s a political program created by the Ottomans with German support. Fast-forward 60 or 70 years, and there’s enormous anxiety about Islam not only destabilizing client states such as Afghanistan or Syria, but also infiltrating the Soviet Union itself. I was shocked to discover a 1983 publication by an Adjarian nationalist from southwest Georgia describing Muslims as “something that crawled out of a trash heap, who need to be weeded out of our garden” – things you expect to hear from Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, or Steve Bannon today. I became really interested in how the Soviet Union and Russian scholars go from viewing Pan-Islamism as a potential ally in fomenting an anti-Western and anti-colonial global front, to viewing Muslims and Pan-Islamism as inherently opposed to the interests of the Soviet Union. In doing so, I hope to provide a unique perspective on contemporary concerns about the threat, real or imagined, of Muslim unity and Muslim communities in Europe and the United States.

The editors wish to thank Timothy Nunan for his graciousness in granting this interview.

Chloe Bordewich is a PhD Student in History and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. She currently works on histories of information, secrecy, and scientific knowledge in the late and post-Ottoman Arab world, especially Egypt. She blogs at


A History of Humanity, Humanitarian Law, and Human Rights

by guest contributor Boyd van Dijk

Like human rights, the popularity of the term of international humanitarian law (IHL) has skyrocketed since the late 1980s. Following the downfall of bipolarity, the term regularly appears on the covers of various print and digital media. Similarly, IHL has attracted the attention of countless reporters, diplomats, practitioners, scholars, and students. The Jean-Pictet competition, named after its mythicized founder, receives every year record numbers of student applications from across the globe. Similar to human rights, IHL usually guarantees law professors of full classrooms, illustrating the booming nature of this field of international law, despite of its countless violations during recent armed conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria.

Contrasting with this rising interest, it is remarkable how few historiographical insights there exist about the origins or genealogy of this branch of law. Unlike that of human rights, this field of academic study still suffers from the traditional weaknesses in legal-intellectual historiography – e.g. Whig history, triumphalism, and so on. Building upon Nietzsche’s critique of the search for Ursprung, Michel Foucault famously commented in the 1970s on the problem of describing the history of law in terms of a linear development. Genealogical approaches, he argued, are designed to achieve the very opposite, that is to identify the “accidents, the minute deviations, [and] the errors [that] gave birth to those things that continue to exist and have value for us” – IHL, for instance.


Jean S. Pictet (1914-2002)

When I recently attended two conferences in Uppsala and Berlin about the origins of IHL, I was struck by the continuing relevance of his words. For many colleagues, IHL and its origins can be traced back to certain foundational ideas of either the ancient Stoics, the early modern period, or to the colonial civilizing mission in the late nineteenth century. In reality the origins of IHL are far more recent, dating back to the 1960s. Around this period, the term became more regularly used while the United Nations and ICRC began fusing human rights law with early humanitarian law, as part of their larger efforts to revise the legally amorphous Geneva Conventions of 1949.

The first serious and systematic attempt to define the concept of IHL occurred only in 1966, with the publication of Jean Pictet’s famous essay in the Revue internationale de la Croix-Rouge et Bulletin international des Sociétés de la Croix-Rouge. Pictet, one of the primary founders of the original drafts for the Geneva Conventions, had first coined a briefer version of this term (“droit humanitaire”) in the late 1940s. Then, it still mostly lacked systematic thought. In his new essay, however, he laid out a comprehensive theory of what “le droit international humanitaire” actually meant – or could mean. Essentially, he designed an expansive, colorful legal patchwork whose origins go back to a range of different intellectual modalities – from natural law, positivist human rights law, Hague Law, Calvinism to Genevan humanitarianism. By the 1970s, Pictet’s terminology of IHL, or DIH, became widely known. It was used by various practitioners to protect “victims of war”, the ICRC’s original vocabulary for the law’s main focus-group, against inhumane treatment.

The terminology of international humanitarian law raises another, far more important question: to what extent are the discourses of humanity, humanitarianism, genocide, human rights, and the Geneva Conventions actually related? Echoing an expansive notion of IHL, many scholars have argued in favor of drawing a connection between these fields of law and politics – or both, although this claim is historically contentious. For example, neither the Martens Clause, defining the laws of humanity, and the words of “crimes against humanity”, first catapulted into legal history as an Allied response to the Armenian Genocide, are mentioned in the original Geneva Conventions (see Kerstin von Lingen’s forthcoming Habilitation.) Nor do these treaties strictly forbid the use of scorched earth policies, or even starvation, as a means of warfare. In other words, while often called humanitarian conventions, they have a remarkably inhumane instinct as well as consequences.

Another example of the troubling relationship between the Conventions and other fields of international law is genocide. Like the famous international lawyer Hersch Lauterpacht whose own contributions to the Geneva Conventions are now largely forgotten (see Philippe Sands’ magisterial work and its neglect of them), Pictet found this term, originally coined by Raphael Lemkin, far “too political.” He also disliked its focus on collective as opposed to individual rights. For these and other reasons, the ICRC hardly referred to the term of genocide after its coining in the 1940s, even though the Conventions do make mention of “extermination” (see Article 32 of the Civilian Convention), its apparent moral equivalent. However, this terminology has technically – though not effectively – little to do with genocide: the former was originally suggested by the Soviets in order to ban atomic warfare altogether, a tactic that had turned the Geneva diplomatic conference in 1949 into a major Cold War-battleground.

Still, the most widely discussed topic remains the often contested relationship between the Conventions and human rights. Many Anglo-American scholars – though not only them – question whether there are really any connections between them. Their answer is often negative because they focus almost exclusively on the translated minutes, drafts, and/or ICRC commentaries. Pointing to the fact that none of the four Conventions make any direct reference to human rights, they argue that these two fields had remained fundamentally distinct in this period of the 1940s.

My research employs a more genealogical approach to challenge this assumption. This entails a sharpened focus on the ideas, inspirations, and contributions of influential European continental drafters, particularly those from the Francophone countries, in developing the laws of war before and after WWII. For these men – very few women were involved – there existed in the late 1940s a tight connection between human rights and early humanitarian law, a much closer relationship than might be easily assumed in retrospect.

In 1966, Pictet wrote in his essay that humanitarian law from its very beginnings had been about protecting “la personne humaine.” In his view, this field of law had reached a decisive stage in its development already in the late 1940s, with the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the Geneva Conventions (1949), and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950) – interestingly, he did not include in this list the Genocide Convention of 1948. Claude Pilloud, a fellow ICRC-official and a co-drafter of the original drafts of the Geneva Conventions, made a similar claim. In April 1949, right at the start of the diplomatic negotiations, he argued in an essay for the Revue, which was entitled: “La Déclaration Universelle des droits de l’homme et les conventions internationales protégeant les victimes de la guerre,” that there existed “des points communs évidents” between the UDHR and the drafts that he had helped to design for the upcoming diplomatic conference.

Strikingly, the French-Jewish co-drafter Georges Cahen-Salvador, also René Cassin’s colleague at the Conseil d’État, strongly echoed his view at the end of these negotiations. In an article for Le Figaro, he argued that the drafters of the Conventions had finally safeguarded human rights (“des droits et des libertés humaines”) in wartime, which further indicates the degree of closeness between these two fields of international law – why, how, and to what extent this connection was made by the drafters as a whole is more extensively discussed in my research.

Equally important, it is critical to identify not just those moments of overlap, but also the instances when human rights failed to connect with humanitarian law – the occasion upon which a mostly continental European aspiration remained unrealized, to paraphrase Foucault. Put differently, why are human rights not mentioned in the Geneva Conventions? One answer to this question is to refer to the drafting history of Common Article 3, a critical legal provision that the US Supreme Court used in 2006 (look here for its judgment) to end the torture of Al Qaeda detainees. Originally, the text for this article, co-drafted by Cahen himself, had made mention of human rights; they were made part of a list of individual protections against forms of inhumane treatment, such as hostage taking, summary executions, and torture. However, the drafters decided, under pressure from various delegations, to remove this reference to human rights from the final texts, eventually causing a bias in the literature which claims that human rights had nothing to do with early humanitarian law.

What is true, however, is that a direct legal contact between these two branches of law was only established in the period since the 1960s, following the attempts by particularly the UN Human Rights Division in seeking to remedy for the failures of Common Article 3 to regulate so-called “non-international armed conflicts,” such as colonial wars. This was partly a response to the previous years during which it had witnessed how colonial powers had denied the relevance of this article for their brutal counterinsurgency campaigns in Algeria, as well as in Kenya.

As a consequence of these failures of Common Article 3, the UN body and the General Assembly wished to use human rights as a means to fill the law’s gap with regard to insurgencies that were considered short of armed conflict. Such an approach has fundamentally changed the language, typology, nature, and practice of legality in war. Whereas it formerly applied only in peacetime, human rights law now did so in wartime as well (see Guglielmo Verdirame’s criticism of this point). Ironically, the unintended consequence of this effort to strengthen IHL led to its gradual weakening, if not overtaking, by human rights – or, as some prefer to call it, to the weaponization of human rights law.

Boyd van Dijk is a doctoral candidate at the European University Institute and a GTA at the War Studies Department of King’s College, London. He is currently working on a new international history of the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Previously, he published a book on the bystanders of an SS concentration camp in the Low Countries.

Back in the Sattel(zeit) again

by John Raimo

Where does the historian Reinhart Koselleck (1923-2006) stand in intellectual history today? Among his readers, Koselleck remains a preeminent theorist of historical time and historiography, an innovative figure in ‘conceptual history’ (Begriffsgeschichte), and an accomplished historian in practice, not least in his editorial oversight of the great political lexicon of the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe (1972-1996). The historian’s status in his native Germany seems assured with continuing posthumous publications, scholarly attention devoted to his work, and the opening of his archives to researchers. Koselleck also remains a lively reference point among such thinkers and historians as Aleida Assmann, François Hartog, and Jacques Revel, not least following Paul Ricœur’s sustained engagement with his German contemporary. Translations of his writing (perhaps most prominently in Portuguese) and the practice of conceptual history further contribute to what has become a global reputation.

Speakers at an AHA panel this last weekend discussed the limits of this influence.* Helge Jordheim addressed the continuing feasibility of larger tropes found throughout Koselleck’s writing, most prominently the notion of a Sattelzeit (‘saddle-time) or a transitionary period into political (even secular) modernity roughly spanning 1750 and 1850. The notion of a Sattelzeit itself hearkens back to his earliest work. In his dissertation (published as Kritik und Krise or Critique and Crisis in 1959), Koselleck famously argues that the 17th century absolutist state inadvertently created the first effective, oppositional public sphere in the Enlightenment. This laid the foundations not only of the French Revolution, but also of the liberal subject (as understood today) and of the modern political order which followed. This latter period furnishes the span of Koselleck’s studies in conceptual history, namely programmatic studies of semantic change in key political concepts. Kathleen Davis questioned the consequences for historiography in this broader division, however, and not least in terms of reconceiving the Middle Ages as such. (The triad of antiquity, mediaeval, and modernity also preoccupied Jacques Le Goff to the end of his career, incidentally.)

Koselleck is not a systematic thinker, and he constantly revised his theories. While conceding a theoretical blurriness, the AHA panelists make a strong case that Koselleck’s legacy should be contested and both geographically and chronologically expanded. How far can this be done?

Two notions spring to mind. The first applies to the Sattelzeit thesis and the professional turn to global history imagined by Michael Geyer and Charles Bright among others. Following such historians as Adam Tooze, we might take the 1870s as the starting point for a worldwide convergence of (and converging opposition to) political and economic vocabularies. This is not to advance a theory of modernity, necessarily, nor indeed to dismiss the alternative national histories floating about before, during, or after the period in question. (Here Koselleck’s notion of a modern ‘collective singular’ arising in historical thought also bears upon any reconstructed ideas of progress.) As per Koselleck’s account of conceptual history, both semantic change and the circulation of ideas would prove jagged and asymmetrical in any historical telling. Yet the larger Sattelzeit thesis—when extended beyond Germany—could be tested against any history of globalization or a perceived global condition.

Conceptual history also expands beyond political concepts in Germany. Indeed, the same historiographical approach applies just as easily to larger transnational exchanges. These also prove more expansive in terms of content, finding traction not only in political but also in politicized vocabularies. Carol Gluck and Anne Lowenhaupt-Tsing’s volume Words in Motion: Toward a Global Lexicon (2009) furnishes a wonderful model for global history written in this key.

Another suggestion bears upon a possible conceptual history of human rights. The subject has recently become one of the most formidable and exciting fields in history: formidable, in light of the exacting debates swirling around its origins and character; exciting, in the sheer volume of its historiography today. But where will histories of ideas, of governmental policy, and NGOs now lead historians?

Koselleck’s insistence that circulation refines and changes concepts may afford a broader historiographical frame. Ideas trickle down and bubble back up. Drawn against a global stage, the receptions (plural) of human rights ideas and policies would vary between regions, states, areas, political identifications, and people before returning to political science departments and the occasional history blog. How deep do the archives extend on this score? What sorts of translation occurred within and across languages, which mediums carried the ideas, and how far did global aspects of human rights travel? Is there a social history, a cultural history, a media history, and so on for human rights?

The research program of Koselleck’s great lexicon, the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, establishes an initial framework for these questions. The introduction sketches out levels of reception while implicitly tracing an arc of scholarship. Historians begin with ‘classic’ (Klassiker) texts in political theory, philosophy, jurisprudence, theology, and so on—call it the ‘Great Man’ approach to intellectual history—before advancing to ‘widely circulating’ (Streuweite) texts including literature, journalism, pamphlets, bureaucratic records, and scholarship as much as private letters and diaries. This constitutes the great work of archives then contrasted against the third-level of ‘dictionaries’ (Wörterbücher), namely the reference works progressively fixing (or attempting to fix) concepts for each period.

This schema may first appear overly-determined. Yet in practice, the historiography blurs and leads ever outwards. One example for human rights historians in this register can be found in the career of Robert L. Bernstein, founder of the Human Rights Watch as well as the long-term head of Random House.** The publication of dissidents under Bernstein’s aegis might conceivably furnish a history of the book or a literary history for human rights, say, and an account of popular intellectual history of American readers of Soviet dissidents. If Koselleck’s theories and conceptual history indeed open up such new perspectives and even archives for consideration, what other anchors for a global history of human rights can be found elsewhere?

*Please note that the panel was incomplete.
**The author thanks Timothy Nunan for this reference.