Free and Equal - Equal and Free? Human Rights and Communism in the 20th Century

Free and Equal - Equal and Free? Human Rights and Communism in the 20th Century

Janis Nalbadidacis (South East European History, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin); Jochen Krüger (History of Eastern Europe, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)
From - Until
23.11.2017 - 25.11.2017
Jochen Krüger, Institut für Geschichtswissenschaften, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Not many ideas had such a deep impact on the world as the one of communism. Numerous states tried in many different ways to follow the concept of communism and to restructure the entire society according to its postulated ideals. In theory, communism aimed at the welfare of everyone and their equality under the law, but practically communist states often oppressed and pursued dissidents. Also, the concept of inalienable human rights had similar goals. Regardless of any belief, color, or age, these rights should be applied to everyone. But claims of human rights never took place in apolitical contexts. Rather they were used as bargaining chips and means to reach political aims or to claim an own moral superiority (cf. work by Samuel Moyn). Taking this into consideration the workshop will deal on various levels with the complex relation of communism and human rights.

Especially from the perspective of a history of ideas, certain overlaps between communist theory and the concept of man are remarkable. Therefore, theoretical debates among intellectuals or leading ideologues which tried either to connect or to discriminate between these two concepts would be of special interest. Of course, the reference to human rights did not only remain on a theoretical level. Over the course of time, human rights mattered also in politics and public discourses. States had to position themselves and to explain their policies with regard to human rights. Among the actors who put human rights on the agenda, various NGOs like the ICRC, Amnesty International, or also the churches played an important role. Especially the focus on precise cases and actions of NGOs shed light on human rights as a kind of bargaining chip. In many cases, this might be also true for the field of international relations. Quite often, political conflicts and demonstrations of power might have been carried out at the expense of individuals.

Our aim is to address various facets of the complex interrelation between communism and human rights and to ask how communist states in all their different forms faced the development and the claim of human rights. To this end, we encourage the presentation of research which addresses on the basis of a specific case one of the following overarching question sets:

1. „All Humans are Equal“- Idea of History Approaches and the Question of Compatibility of Human Rights and Communism
What attempts can be identified to discuss the relation between human rights and communism on theoretical or conceptual levels? In which contexts did such discussions evolve and to what purpose? Under which conditions were concepts like humanistic Marxism developed? To what extent were conflicting points already seen and discussed on a conceptual level?

2. Human Rights in Communist and Inner State Discourses
Since when, under which circumstances, and by which means references to Human Rights played a role inside the internal Communist state system? What are the connotations associated with Human Rights in the interstate discourse? How did these discourses change e. g. by the Helsinki Accord 1975?

3. NGOs in Communist States
Which challenges did NGOs like the ICRC or Amnesty International have to deal within communist states? In which fields of tension did their actions take place? Within which scope of actions was it possible to speak up for human rights?

4. Human Rights as Bargaining Chips in Foreign Policy
To what extent the reference to human rights did matter for the foreign policy of and with communist states? Which conditions, notions, and expectations are linked to it?

A focus will lie on Soviet Union, Middle and Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia and other Balkan States, but we also welcome contributions about other countries and regions as Latin America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and Africa as well. Equally, we are open for further exciting aspects which are not included in the aforementioned question sets but still address the overarching relation of communism and human rights.

Accommodation will be provided, travel expenses will be at least covered up to an amount of 100 €. Papers will be pre-circulated and participants are expected to read the workshop’s material and respond to presentations. Please submit your paper abstracts (up to 400 words) accompanied by a short CV to and

by August 27, 2017.

Supported by Bundesstiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur


Contact (announcement)

Janis Nalbadidacis; Humboldt-Universität, Lehrstuhl für Südosteuropäische Geschichte, Unter den Linden 6, 10099 Berlin

Jochen Krüger; Humboldt-Universität, Lehrstuhl Osteuropäische Geschichte, Unter den Linden 6, 10099 Berlin

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