W. Schmale u.a. (Hrsg.): Human Rights Leagues in Europe (1898-2016)

Human Rights Leagues in Europe (1898-2016).

Schmale, Wolfgang; Treiblmayr, Christoph
Stuttgart 2017: Franz Steiner Verlag
323 S.
€ 59,00
Rezensiert für 'Connections' und H-Soz-Kult von:
André Keil, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Liverpool John Moores University

The history of human rights has received considerable scholarly attention in the last two decades. Despite being a relatively “young” field of research there is an ever-growing number of publications on the intellectual, political and international history of human rights.[1] It is, however, fair to say that the majority of them focuses on developments after 1945 and particularly on the so-called “human rights revolution” of the 1970s.[2] While this focus on the more recent developments might be understandable, it has also led to a certain neglect of the “pre-history” of the contemporary human rights regime. A case in point are the various human rights leagues that were founded all over Europe (and beyond) in the first half of the twentieth century. Particularly during the interwar years, human rights leagues were relevant actors in national and international politics as well as important networks of activists. The French League for Human Rights (LDH) with its over 180,000 members in the early 1930s, for instance, wielded considerable influence in French politics during this period. So much so that in 1932, 222 of the 598 elected members of the Chamber of Deputies belonged to the League. This political influence was even more obvious in Léon Blum’s Popular Front government of 1936, where 29 of the 40 ministers were members of the League (p. 36-37). The French case was certainly exceptional - most other leagues were smaller in size and had less direct access to political power. Yet as many of the case studies in this book highlight, leagues in other countries acted as important organisational hubs that brought together representatives from different political backgrounds, ranging from communists and socialists to liberals and Christian conservatives. What connected them was a commitment to democracy and “republican values” often with direct reference to the “ideas of 1789”. Moreover, most leagues sought to combine their commitment to national politics with international activism and joint campaigns with sister leagues. They are therefore also a relevant example for the re-emergence of the transnational networks in Europe after the disruption of the First World War. Although it is difficult to identify a full-blown shared political agenda in the activities of the individual leagues, they played a crucial part in shaping the language, discourse and activist networks that were instrumental for the emergence of the human rights regime after 1945.

In their introduction to the volume, the editors rightly point out that the history of most human rights leagues is largely unwritten. One explanation lies in the absence of archives and in the difficulties of identifying relevant sources. This is a theme that runs through all essays in this volume. For instance, the archives of the French league for the time before 1940 were inaccessible to researchers until 2000, when they were returned by Russia where they had ended up in 1945 after having been confiscated by the Gestapo in 1940. In other cases, organisations did not create archives at all and researchers have to rely on the repositories of prominent activists. It is one of the strengths of this volume that it provides the reader with extensive information as to how and where to find relevant materials for further research. Generally, the majority of the essays do present rather general overviews of the history of national human rights leagues. They provide information on prominent activists, organisational structures and the relations to their respective governments. This results in a sometimes very encyclopaedic style, which is however a fair reflection of the fundamental research on some leagues that is presented in this volume. For the most part, the essays are the first historical overviews on some human rights leagues in English, opening up new avenues for further research.

In contrast to the contributions on the Central, Eastern and Southern European leagues, the essays on the better-known leagues in France and Germany offer some attempts at synthesising existing research. William Irvine, for instance, in his essay on the LDH and its complicated commitment to pacifism in the face of German aggression in the 1930s highlights the inherent tensions between political ideals and realpolitik that many activists faced. Similarly, Gilles Manceron discusses the difficulties of assessing the trans- and international character of the human rights movement in the interwar years and beyond. Using the example of the LDH, Manceron points out that from the very beginning human rights leagues had an internationalist outlook that was rooted in the fundamental belief in the universal nature of human rights. Nonetheless, the international activities of the French league were often also guided by an almost missionary spirit to promote the French model of the human rights league abroad. This is of particular importance for assessing the activities of the human rights leagues. Do we have to see them merely as an extension of French cultural diplomacy, or were they a truly supranational movement? Emmanuel Naquet’s essay on the relations between the German and French leagues explores a similar problem. Both leagues collaborated closely during the interwar years and played a central role in the attempts to foster a Franco-German reconciliation after the First World War. This led, however, also to incessant attacks on the German league as being an agent of the French state, particularly during Ruhr Occupation of 1923-25. In her contribution on the reconstruction of the German league after 1945, Lora Wildenthal traces the struggles over the ownership of the history and tradition of the human rights movement in Germany. She sheds light on the politicisation of the human rights movement against the backdrop of the early Cold War in the 1940s and 1950s. Early on the league was instrumentalised by French and American intelligence agencies to use the language of human rights to publicly attack the socialist regime in the GDR. All of these essays suggest that the problem of “politicisation” of the human rights agenda set in much earlier than the existing literature tends to acknowledge.

Overall, the volume is an invaluable resource for both researchers and students of the history of human rights. It offers an excellent overview of the current state of research, including information on relevant archives and sources. Although thorough research into the leagues is still in an embryonic state, the findings presented in this volume suggests that particularly the interwar years have to be taken much more seriously as a formative period for the modern human rights movement. Hopefully, this book will provide important starting points for further into this fascinating topic.

[1] For a broad overview, see Kenneth Cmiel, The Recent History of Human Rights, in: American Historical Review, 109 (2004), pp. 117-135.
[2] See for example Akira Iriye / Petra Goedde / William Hitchcock (eds), The Human Rights Revolution. An International History, Oxford 2012. Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia. Human Rights in History, Cambridge MA, 2012.

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