Gepubliceerd op 06-01-2020

Relief, Culture, and Allegiance: Humanitarianism in World War I and its Aftermath

Call for Papers


Relief, Culture, and Allegiance: Humanitarianism in World War I and its Aftermath

University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, from May 1-3, 2020

Dylan Mohr (University of Minnesota), Lena Radauer (Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg)

The First World War pitted over thirty nations against each other, fueling concepts of civilizational hierarchies and national cultures. While sixty million men fought in the trenches of World War I and ten million were held as prisoners of war, many more fought against the rippling effects of those battles: starvation, epidemics, and displacement.

These unprecedented numbers of affected bodies forced a swift mobilization and modernization of international and institutional humanitarian aid groups. Different institutions (Red Cross, YMCA, to name but a few) answered this call and dispersed across the world under the aegis of neutrality, as it was legally defined prior to the Great War. While enlightenment humanitarian ideals were often advertised as their sole purpose, next to the substantial support they provided, many of these institutions also preached a “national relief” effort, or what might now be called the mobilization of soft power abroad. For example, agricultural modernization and the exhibition of films aimed at “cultural refinement” across Eastern Russia by the YMCA went hand in hand with what George Creel called “carrying of the gospel of Americanism” in the face of Bolshevism. Humanitarian aid was no longer just food and shelter, but rather tractors, cinema halls, and libraries.

Notions of culture and nation were closely linked in the context of the Great War and as such, this form of humanitarianism became a crucial geo-political tool, as so many had to newly define their civic allegiances following the (re-)drawing of national borders. As aid institutions responded to a human rights crisis hitherto unimaginable, they spread their work across not just to the armed men in the trenches and prisoners of war, but also to civilian populations.

This conference aims to open a discussion as to the complexities of these institutional practices during the First World War and the legacies of cultural humanitarianism.

Questions that we are interested in discussing include, but are not limited to:

  • The work of international aid organizations with displaced persons, prisoners of war, or other groups affected by the First World War
  • Comparative work on relief organizations
  • The use of film, literature, music, and the arts in the context of humanitarian aid
  • Connections between humanitarian relief and religion/faith
  • The politization and transfer of culture during wartime
  • The meaning of culture in situations of migration, displacement, and captivity

The conference will be held at the at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, from May 1-May 3, 2020.

We intend to provide limited assistance towards travel expenses for those researchers whose institutions do not offer conference funding. Please indicate on your application if you require financial assistance.

Please submit your paper abstracts (around 300 words) and short CV to Dylan Mohr (mohrx144@umn.edu) or Lena Radauer (lena.radauer@wolfson.oxon.org) by January 15, 2020 or contact us for further information.

The conference will accompany the exhibition “Relieving Victims of War: The YMCA and Prisoners of WWI in Russia” held at the Anderson Library, University of Minnesota.

March 9-June 12, 2020

Curators: Lena Radauer, Dylan Mohr, Ryan Bean

About the Exhibit:

In 1919, Walter Teeuwissen, an American pastor, arrived in the Russian Far East as secretary for the YMCA. Struck by the desparate situation of the thousands of war prisoners from the Central Powers still held in Russia after the end of the First World War, he took on work in the camp of Nikolsk-Ussurijsk. Apart from his humanitarian mission, as a pastor, he forged a particular bond with the community of protestant Hungarian prisoners. Several of the former POWs went on to undertake religious work in their native Hungary as well as being dedicated to the YMCA, thus by seemingly confirming the YMCA’s POW work as long-term investment in the new nation states emerging after 1918.

Illustrated with different visual materials, the exhibition presents the situation of those war prisoners interned in the remote camps of Siberia, victims of both the First World War and the revolution and civil affecting Russian society at the time. Built around the unique private collection of YMCA secretary Walter Teeuwissen, the exhibition presents the work of the YMCA in a particular camp of the Russian Far East. Presenting objects created by the prisoners, the exhibition explores the meaning of the YMCA to POWs’ existence in captivity and beyond.

Contact Info:

Dylan Mohr and Lena Radauer


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Het KNHG is de grootste organisatie van professionele historici in Nederland. Het biedt een platform aan de ruim 1100 leden en aan de historische gemeenschap als geheel. Word lid van het KNHG.
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