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

Dylan Mohr (University of Minnesota), Lena Radauer (Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg)
01.05.2020 - 03.05.2020
Lena Radauer

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 many had to redefine 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 ( or Lena Radauer ( by 15 December 2019 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: Ryan Bean, Dylan Mohr, Lena Radauer

About the Exhibit:

In 1919, pastor Walter Teeuwissen travelled to the Russian Far East as secretary for the American YMCA, where he took on work with prisoners of WWI held beyond the war. There, he set up a system of relief work in the camp of Nikolsk Ussuriysk according to the YMCA’s guidelines: administering aid, caring for the war prisoners’ spiritual well-being – and promoting the American way of life as long-term investment in the new nation states emerging after 1918.

Based on to the private collection of Walter Teeuwissen documenting his activities in Russia, the exhibition presents the mission and work of the YMCA during the First World War through the example of POWs. Thanks to a plethora of sources penned by the recipients of Teeuwissen’s aid work, it is able to explore the effect the YMCA had on the lives of victims of the war as well as the effect of the “national relief” effort.


Lena Radauer

Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg

Relief, Culture, and Allegiance: Humanitarianism in World War I and its Aftermath, 01.05.2020 – 03.05.2020 Minneapolis, in: H-Soz-Kult, 05.11.2019, <>.