At the Gates of Europe: The Eastern European Refugee Crisis

In this post, Ana Antic probes further into the widely quoted anti-immigration discourses in Eastern Europe, and identifies striking connections with those in the West.


As Syrian, Iraqi, Afghani and other Middle Eastern refugees struggled to make their way to Europe this spring and summer, the European Union first greeted them with silence, and then, in September, the world was universally appalled by the images coming from Eastern Europe: the self-proclaimed (or aspiring) borderlands of the European Union mobilized state and police power to prevent the transit of refugees to Germany or Scandinavia. Hungary’s border fence, only an ominous idea back in June, came to life in a string of violent incidents, in which the Hungarian police (and, strikingly, one journalist) were pitted against unarmed men, women and children who attempted to enter the country from Serbia. Hungary’s PM memorably opined that ‘Hungary is a country with a 1000-year-old Christian culture. We Hungarians don’t want the global-sized movement of people to change Hungary.’ But there was more at stake than only Hungary’s Christendom: as the PM of the state positioned on the very border of the EU, Orban took on himself the grandiose responsibility for protecting the entire continent, as he repeatedly stated that Europe’s way of life and ‘culture’ were threatened by the influx of non-European and, even worse, non-Christian refugees.

Bulwark of Christianity?

            Orban has been particularly fond of the Christian theme, and remains steadfast in his commitment to ‘keep Europe Christian’, because, reportedly, ‘European identity [has been] rooted in Christianity.’ Slovakian and Polish spokespersons agreed and stated that their countries would only accept Christian refugees, thereby making Muslims explicitly unwelcome and marking them as a security as well as civilizational threat. This, though, is not a recent development: the myth of being antemurale Christianitatis – literally, in front of the ‘walls’ of the castle of Christianity, the last outpost of Europe and ‘defender of its gates’ and its ‘true’ civilization – has been one of the most persistent and significant ones in European and East European national historiographies, and has arguably remained central to national identity production on the borders of the continent. This interpretation of East European historiography rests on the idea of a civilizational and cultural boundary, which different societies defined according to their own needs, and serves to show that the group in question is included in a superior cultural community, and is forced to protect it from other, inferior groups who do not belong.

The myth has had explicitly martyrological and messianic overtones, and suggests that the nation on the borders of a larger community has chosen to sacrifice itself in order to save that broader civilization of which it is a part. But the myth also served as a legitimating mechanism, a way of proving that, say, the Balkan or East European borderlands did in fact belong to the European civilization despite their marginal geographical or political position. And while the ‘dark forces’ that attacked Europe throughout its history have been many – the Ottoman Muslims, the ‘Eastern’ or ‘Asiatic’ Communists, the Orthodox Slavs – they have always been marked as barbarians and infidels. The myth has proven to be remarkably flexible, and can easily accommodate different types of non-Europeans in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The current reiterations of the need to defend the ‘gates’ and borders in Eastern Europe only show how the ‘new Europeans’ have been imagining themselves in relation to the coveted ‘West.’

Eastern Europe has consequently itself become a target of some very unfavourable recent reviews in European public and academic discourses. In response to what he termed the East European ‘deficit of compassion’, leading Balkan and Bulgarian political scientist and analyst Ivan Krastev wrote that, ‘[d]espite living at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Russia and the Middle East, many Eastern Europeans are incurious and insular.’ Prominent American-Polish historian and foremost expert on WWII and post-war violence in East Central Europe, Jan Gross, added that, ‘[t]he states known collectively as ‘Eastern Europe,’… have revealed themselves to be intolerant, illiberal, xenophobic, and incapable of remembering the spirit of solidarity that carried them to freedom a quarter-century ago.’ In his piece in Foreign Policy, Paul Hockenos referred to the ‘stunning hypocrisy of Mitteleuropa’, and argued that ‘[i]t seems tolerance and civic values in these countries are less advanced than we assumed. Illiberal values, it seems, have been passed from one generation to the next, and it will take more than the arrival of tens of thousands in need of compassion and succor to change this sad state of affairs.’

The role of the West

            The images of brutality and rhetoric of discrimination coming from Eastern Europe seem to justify these harsh words. The discourses of civilizational bulwarks and outposts only work to generate more authoritarian and chauvinistic domestic policies and public opinion, For instance, it’s clear that the Hungarian government’s comprehensive anti-refugee campaign was mainly aimed to please domestic right-wing voters. But what is even more worrying is that this idea of being the outposts and defenders of Europe (or a certain unfortunate concept of Europe) has been directly encouraged by Western Europe and the EU.

The idea of Europe which East European leaders now seem to believe they are defending is a particularly narrow and exclusive one: in addition to ‘Christian values’, it seems to mainly rest on a nebulous concept of ‘Western’ civilizational/cultural standards. But this is pretty much the only one that has ever been put forward to them in practice: it is exactly the kind of exclusionary politics that the EU has long been practicing on its Eastern borders. It’s the kind of disparaging treatment that East European migrant workers are still facing as they move to Western Europe, long after they received their EU passports which gave them unrestricted labour rights anywhere on the EU territory. As Dejan Jovic has argued, instead of democratizing the countries on its borders, the EU has made them even more authoritarian and less liberal: instead of spreading the idea of freedom and cooperation, it has been erecting walls towards Eastern Europe, reinforcing its borders and reintroducing non-liberal policies as it attempted to ‘protect’ itself from those countries and their flawed, authoritarian or unruly characters (remember the EU requests that Serbia ‘prevent’ its Roma population from entering the territory of the European Union and asking for asylum – it remained unclear how the EU officials imagined such screening of the Roma exiting the country to be organised).

This points to one of the main problems with this particular historical discourse of being antemurale: it can cast one and the same group or society in both roles: as defenders as well as ‘barbarians.’ This is the phenomenon that Milica Bakic-Hayden called ‘nesting orientalisms’, and while she mainly wrote about Balkan countries, the term seems to be eerily applicable to the current refugee crisis. While Eastern European countries define and prove their ‘Europeanness’ or Christianness or civilization by distancing themselves culturally from the refugees, they are often frustrated to find themselves identified as ‘not European enough’ by their Western neighbours, and by the EU itself.

The idea that non-Communist ‘Europe’ always represented a set of liberal and humanistic values has remained very influential but rather vague and unsubstantiated throughout the post-Communist period. Moreover, walls have not always remained symbolic: between 2010 and 2012, the EU’s border patrol agency sent teams of policemen from across the Union to guard the Greek border with Turkey against immigrants from Iraq, Afghanistan, and African countries, and a number of other measures were introduced to increase Greece’s border security – including building a fence! – with EU backing.

2012. Greece, Corinth. Mohamed from Morocco and his friends hiding behind the rocks at the port during the night, waiting for the right time to illegally board a ship to Italy. ### 2012. Corinto. Grecia. Mohamed del marocco con i suoi amici si nasconde dietro le rocce del porto, aspettando il momento giusto per entrare nella illegalmente sulla nave merce diretta verso L'Italia.
2012. Greece, Corinth. Mohamed from Morocco and his friends hiding behind the rocks at the port during the night, waiting for the right time to illegally board a ship to Italy. Photo by Alessandro Penso []
For instance, the problem of illegal immigrants who entered Bulgaria from Turkey has been the main obstacle preventing the former country’s inclusion in the Schengen area. This led to Bulgaria’s decision to raise its own barbed wire fence along its Turkish border, another feat which was directly caused by the EU political pressures and partly funded by EU money. Even now, although the Hungarian reaction provoked almost universal consternation and the Austrian chancellor’s dramatic comparisons with the 1940s, the official EU responses were lukewarm at the most. The EU solution to the crisis is less violent but substantially not very different from Hungary’s. The President of the European Council affirmed that ‘we need to correct the policy of open doors and windows. Now the focus should be on the proper protection of our external borders.’ This proposal moves the symbolic wall over to Turkey, the new (aspiring) outpost of Europe, which is supposed to ‘stop people heading for the EU.’

West European states such as Denmark and the UK have actively worked to discourage the influx of refugees and migrants, while the French and British governments remain slow to deal with the inhumane conditions in the Calais makeshift refugee camp. A string of fires in refugee camps and shelters across countries such as Sweden or Germany indicates that the problem is much larger than Eastern Europe’s lingering illiberalism. Just last week, the EU mini-summit in Brussels aimed to come up with agreements and policies to alleviate the mounting refugee crisis, but its conclusions have not moved beyond the same old framework of fences and borders: the European Commission promised more funds for ‘extra border police’ in order to ‘strengthen Schengen’s external borders in Greece and Slovenia.’ Since Orban’s inflammatory statements this summer, both Slovenia and Austria have both partially closed their borders in an attempt to slow down the influx of people into Western Europe. Orban’s rhetoric might be more incendiary than any other EU leaders’ at the moment, but his solutions are ultimately far from controversial, and ‘Fortress Europe’ lives on.

‘Europeanizing’ Eastern Europe

            Jan Gross’s article suggested that the Communist period should be viewed as the key to understanding the current ‘compassion deficit’ of Eastern Europe: unlike Germany, ‘Eastern Europe… has yet to come to terms with its murderous past. Only when it does will its people be able to recognize their obligation to save those fleeing in the face of evil.’ In other words, the Communist regimes in the region never honestly addressed the East European societies’ complicity in Nazi crimes, and substituted overly politicized narratives of WWII for such cathartic, German-style ‘dealing with the past.’ Hockenos agrees, adding that, over ten years after most of formerly socialist Eastern Europe joined the EU, ‘we might have expected that some of these communist-era hangovers should have mellowed and disappeared.’ However, calling the East European governments’ extreme unwillingness to welcome the refugees ‘a communist hang-over’ and pinning all the blame for the ‘compassion deficit’ on Communism is hardly productive, as it completely bypasses Europe’s responsibility for encouraging and supporting the idea of raising symbolic and concrete walls on the EU’s borders. While Communist societies’ memory politics left a lot to be desired, it is highly problematic to argue, or imply, that the sole legacy of Communism in Eastern Europe is the culture of illiberalism and intolerance.

Moreover, it was in the anti-Communist dissidents’ proclamations, much hailed by a welcoming West, that some of the most powerful reinforcements of the antemurale myth have been entertained: Milan Kundera’s influential essay ‘The tragedy of Central Europe’, affirmed East Central Europe’s ‘Europeanness’ by stating that it was ‘a piece of Latin West which has fallen under Russian domination’, and that, although it was politically in the East and dominated by ‘Asiatics’ – Russians, it remained ‘culturally in the West.’ Thus, in the 1980s twist of the myth, it was the countries of Central Europe – Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia – which defended the true ‘European civilization’ from the non-European barbarians. From that lofty civilizational perspective, there could not be too much difference between Russians and Syrians.

So it was one of the most influential – and brilliant – liberal democratic thinkers of Eastern Europe, a naturalized French intellectual, who popularized the civilizational bulwark discourse in the 1980s, and believed that precisely such discourse could best aid his country’s and region’s inclusion in a European family of nations. Moreover, Kundera was hardly the only one. We are currently seeing the unsavoury consequences of such ruminations. As East and Central European states negotiated their ‘return’ to Europe after 1989, this inclusion rested on re-affirmations of the region’s commitment to the ‘Western’ values and ‘European way of life’ which Orban is now invoking so avidly. In fact, the post-Communist ‘Europeanization’ confirmed and reinforced the image of Eastern Europe as the bulwark, and the symbolic walls were constantly erected and occasionally moved further to the southeast. In that sense, the East European states’ brutal reactions to Middle Eastern refugees might be the sign and the proof of the former Communist region’s ultimate Europeanization.

festung europa
Demonstrations against immigration by Austria’s Identitarian movement, Vienna, November 2013 []
Importantly, the recent string of articles by scholars who explored the historical sources of Eastern Europe’s poor record in the refugee crisis have tended to reinforce that same narrative of fundamental distinctions between East and West, and have almost universally argued that Eastern Europe was missing some crucial cultural and political elements to make it properly ‘European.’ Tara Zahra, for instance, has highlighted the East European ‘fiction that national homogeneity was the essential precondition for a modern, democratic state,’ and has related the East European states’ hostility towards refugees to this regional obsession with ethnic uniformity and with keeping minorities outside state borders. But this argument disregards the zeal with which West European and US governments encouraged that very fiction, and in fact drew it onto the map of Eastern and Central Europe after 1918. It also fails to take account of the long and troubled history of the nation-state in the West itself, and of the persistent intolerance towards national and racial minorities and immigrants throughout Western Europe. The idea of national homogeneity (or cohesiveness) has certainly maintained its appeal in some of the oldest members of the EU.

Such interpretations of Eastern Europe unwittingly repeat the antemurale strategy by erecting a conceptual border between East and West and emphasizing Eastern Europe’s continual ‘lagging behind’ the Western standards. This often results in self-congratulatory narratives by authors who praise Western Europe’s supposedly unproblematic commitment to pluralistic and liberal values in contrast to the troubled East. The purpose of the antemurale myth-making has often been to preclude self-reflection and self-criticism by displacing blame and responsibility further to the east or south, and the current public discourse in the West on the East European refugee crisis seems to be doing precisely this. But the influx of refugees and the consequent EU crisis offer an unprecedented opportunity for such self-reflection, primarily in Western Europe. It remains to be seen if that opportunity will be taken, and if the very idea of ‘Fortress Europe’ with its borders, fences and cultural chauvinism will be re-examined.

Conference report: Globalization of medicine and public health

On March 12 and 13, the University of Lausanne hosted a thought-provoking and intellectually rich conference on the ‘Globalization of medicine and public health: economic and social perspectives (1850-2000).’ Convened by Sanjoy Bhattacharya (University of York, UK), Thomas David (University of Lausanne, Switzerland), Pierre-Yves Donzé (Kyoto University, Japan), Davide Rodogno (Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, Switzerland), this inter-disciplinary meeting aimed to explore the roots, development and consequences of the intensive globalizing trends in medicine and public health since the mid-nineteenth century. As Davide Rodogno and David Thomas said in their opening remarks, the conference sought to provide a critical analysis of the emerging historiography of global health and narratives of globalization, primarily by connecting the history of public health with other approaches such as business and economic history, history of medicine, international history etc. Moreover, the conference aimed to move away from linear and simplistic narratives of international cooperation and harmony, and to study international health organizations as spaces of interrogation, contestation, opposition and imposition of ideas.

The first panel addressed a score of these themes and opened up a number of key questions in the historiography of global public health. Anne-Emanuelle Birn (University of Toronto, Canada) discussed complex ties between philanthropic organizations and global health agencies through the prism of the fraught relationship between two of the most important actors in this field – the Rockefeller Foundation and the WHO. In her analysis of the ups and downs in their cooperation between the 1940s and 1980s, Birn examined the RF’s (often indirect) role in defining the WHO’s approaches and priorities, its participation in the WHO’s personnel, and emphasized the key moments as well as tensions, conflicts and dilemmas in the relations between the two institutions. Her paper explored how these developments affected global health initiatives in the second half of the twentieth century, and how they shaped the current role of philanthropy in the field of global health. Erez Manela (Harvard University, USA) discussed the WHO’s campaign for the global eradication of smallpox in the 1960s and 1970s. Focusing primarily on the US perspective, Manela examined the circumstances of this signal event in the history of global health in the second half of the twentieth century, and asked how this programme managed to achieve its goal of eradication on a global scale in the midst of international conflict, when so many similar initiatives had failed. Manela placed the smallpox eradication programme in the context of the US-Soviet Cold War rivalry and the growing role of the global South in international politics following the de-colonization. A transnational network of experts succeeded in co-opting governmental power and the backing of inter-governmental agencies for the project of small pox eradication at the very moment when the US sought to improve its vulnerable international status, while the programme of international development gained increasing importance for the US government as a tool for containing the spread of Communism in the newly independent countries in Asia and Africa. Nitsan Chorev (Brown University, USA) presented her research on the emergence in the 1970s and 1980s of remarkable local pharmaceutical sectors in East Africa, and explored the structure and development of local pharmaceutical production in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in a comparative perspective. According to Chorev, the development of local pharmaceutical manufacturing was seen as an important industrial goal in these countries, as they hoped to free themselves from their dependence on multinational companies and to secure access to necessary medicines. Chorev emphasized three interrelated factors that contributed to significantly different levels of success of local pharmaceutical industries in the three countries: state policies, transnational ties and foreign aid in support of state policies, and capable local entrepreneurs with cross-national ties (the key role was here played by ethnic minorities, for instance Indian Kenyans with their educational ties to the UK and India and work experience multinational pharmaceutical companies). The discussion following the panel was rich and vigorous, and it explored the difference and similarities between the concepts of global and international, but also emphasized the missing link in all three presentations – the Soviet perspective.

The second panel sought to focus on “non-Western visions” in the history of global health. Marcos Cueto (Casa Oswaldo Cruz, Brazil) shed light on the establishment and role of the WHO’s African Regional Office (AFRO) in the 1950s and 1960s, and placed the history of this important regional health agency in the context of the Cold War rivalries and the ongoing struggle for independence in sub-Saharan Africa. While initially this office was led by European experts in tropical medicine, its activities and personnel soon reflected the changing political and social realities in Africa, and this led to the increasing number of African personnel and African member-states. AFRO produced important studies on malaria, yellow fever and onchocercasis, and contributed to the revival of tropical medicine as a discipline, but Cueto’s presentation offered a critical analysis of the complex political role and achievements of this regional agency. On the one hand, the existence and activities of AFRO may have indirectly helped the independence processes in the 1960s, but it also re-produced the dependency of the south of Africa on Western, colonial models, and encouraged problematic discourses in which the newly independent countries of sub-Saharan Africa were constructed as the most underdeveloped and anarchic region in the world in need of a new form of humanitarianism, while AFRO was constituted as an island of (Western-style) modernity and progress. Monica Saavedra (University of York, UK) presented her research on the involvement of Portuguese India in the WHO’s South-East Asia Regional Office, in the final years of the Portuguese colonial rule. Saavedra showed that the WHO and SEARO were not merely forums for scientific and technical exchange and cooperation in the area of health, but also an international political stage where Portugal struggled to lay claim to Portuguese India and to legitimate its rule. This ambiguous relationship with SEARO resulted in political interests overshadowing the health needs of the population, so that official sources were dominated by political manouvres and agendas. The SEARO archive reveals a selective way of dealing with the international health affairs, and illustrates Porugal’s efforts to keep a flimsy balance between international approval and self-interest.

The third panel dealt in some detail with the history of pharmaceutical practices, initiatives and marketing in a global perspective. Jeremy Greene (Johns Hopkins University, USA) presented his research on critical discourses regarding the uneven distribution of access to life-saving pharmaceuticals in different parts of the world between the 1960s and 1980s. Greene explored the key discussions of the role that access to medicines played in international political and health development, and looked at positions of a number of stakeholders – doctors, policymakers, lawyers, manufacturers – in this global mapping of therapeutic inequalities. Julia Salle Younge (Hosei University, Japan) traced the emergence of a global vaccine industry model. According to Yongue, combination vaccines have become the global standard of vaccination in all developed nations — save one. Her presentation then traced the process that led to the formation of a global model for the vaccine industry while comparing two distinctively different cases, the French vaccine industry, which played a central role in the acceptance and propagation of combination vaccines and the Japanese vaccine industry, whose government, until only recently, has promoted the ‘de-combining’ of vaccines as the best means of preventing adverse reactions. The final speaker of the panel, Johanna Conterio Geisler (Birkbeck, UK), provided the sorely missing Soviet perspective and countered the historiographical narratives of the Soviet Union as increasingly isolated and isolationist in the interwar years. Her research explored the development of Soviet pharmaceutical industry in the global context of the 1920s and 1930s, and looked at how Soviet medical and health experts engaged with Western networks and approaches. They actively sought external influences and Western – US – models in order to spur the development of pharmaceutically crucial agricultural products and raw materials in the Soviet peripheries, and aimed to prevent the Soviet dependence on international pharmaceutical monopolies. While Soviet borders were closing down, outside influences continued flowing in.

In the fourth panel, focusing on actors and networks, David Thomas and Davide Rodogno discussed their ongoing project on the history and genealogy of public health fellowships in the twentieth century. They sought to connect the post-WW2 WHO international fellowships programme to its predecessors – the Rockefeller Foundation and UNRRA fellowships. Their research explored continuities and ruptures in this history, and focused on the concepts of human capital and development which informed and shaped the structure and goals of the different health fellowship programmes across the twentieth century. Clifford Rosenberg (CUNY, USA) analyzed the RF International Health Board’s attempt to establish a field programme in French Algeria in the 1920s, following the successful anti-TB programme it funded and ran in France during WWI. Rosenberg’s research explored this failed attempt in a political and colonial perspective, and placed the RF’s initiative in the context of the emerging international institutions and French and Algerian colonial patronage networks. Paul Weindling (Oxford Brookes, UK) presented his research on the RF’s social medicine healthcare experiments in the twentieth century. His paper focused on the RF-funded schemes in Natal, South Africa, in the 1950s. Weindling traced the RF’s efforts to establish a Department of family practice at Durban, the University of Natal, in a new medical faculty for non-white students, and its attempts to obtain guarantees that the non-white graduates would get government posts. While the Durban scheme ultimately failed in the context of the South African apartheid, Weindling argued for its great significance for understanding the history of the RF’s involvement in social medicine healthcare experiments, and he related the Natal health centre to other earlier attempts of the RF to combine primary healthcare with rural development and cultural and social factors.

The subsequent panel dealt with a variety of historical approaches to analyzing ‘Diffusions and models’ in global healthcare. Thomas Zimmer’s paper addressed the history of the Malaria Eradication Programme in the 1950s and 1960s, and specifically explored the role of the World Health Organization in the development and implementation of this initiative. Zimmer (Freiburg University, Germany) argued that, although the WHO financial and material contributions to the MEP were significantly lower than those of the main donor countries (such as the US), the WHO played a fundamental role in coordinating and codifying the Programme by establishing pilot projects which served as future models, lent legitimacy to the very idea of eradication, served as an intermediary between donor and developing countries, and was pivotal in evaluating ongoing projects. The paper concluded that the global malaria eradication was ultimately a WHO project, although the WHO could not have possibly launched or run it by itself and was at mercy of the ebbs and flows of international politics. Pierre-Yves Donze discussed the theme of diffusion and globalization of health models from a slightly different perspective – that of economic entrepreneurs and the history of industrial business. At the centre of Donze’s story was the German electro-medical equipment maker Siemens-Reiniger-Werke and its attempts to re-enter non-European (Latin American, as well as Asian and African markets) in the aftermath of WWII through the project of hospital construction. Instead of merely exporting goods, SRW organized and directed an informal association called Deutsche Hospitalia, which gathered around thirty German manufacturers. They were all involved in constructing and fully equipping the final product – the German hospital, which was then offered to the local governments. Donze analysed the initiative in the context of globalizing trends in medicine, and discussed how SRW contributed to these trends. Yi-Tang Lin (University of Lausanne, Switzerland) critically analysed the nature and production of WHO health statistics in different regions and areas, questioning the value of statistics as neutral markers of local health programmes and placing them in proper socio-political contexts. Lin concluded that the WHO’s strategy of standardization was not making a unique standard, but giving different instructions to countries with different public health administration capacities, and using statistics as a tool for legitimizing health programmes in different countries. Moreover, the WHO forged a network of knowledge transfer by providing fellowships for national health statisticians, inaugurating short-term training centres, and employing a statistician or economist for every regional office.

The final panel of the conference was titled ‘The world as a laboratory.’ Agata Ignaciuk (University of Granada, Spain) presented a comparative study of the leading European and US pharmaceutical companies’ strategies and practices for marketing the contraceptive pill in Francoist Spain and socialist Poland in the 1960s and 1970s. Although the two markets were radically different from the West European and American ones, as well as form each other, Ignaciuk was able to identify striking similarities. In the Spanish case, although sale and advertising of contraception had been banned until 1978 and the pill was marketed as a therapeutic drug, the pharmaceutical strategy was not fundamentally different from that practiced in Western Europe or the US, and focused on normalizing the idea of family planning among physicians and the broader public. According to Ignaciuk, this helped legitimize the idea of contraception in Spain, and aided its social and medical acceptance well before 1978. On the other hand, although the Western pharmaceutical companies were significantly less successful in the context of Poland’s nationalized industry and state markets, their marketing strategies and persistent attempts to approach Polish institutions throughout the 1960s and 1970s prepared the market for a massive expansion in the 1990s. Dora Vargha (Birkbeck College, UK) discussed the development and coordination of polio live vaccine trials in the late 1950s and early 1960s in as many as fifteen different countries on four continents. Vargha’s presentation revised the common historiographical understanding of the globalization of pharmaceutical research, and demonstrated that the 1950s and 1960s were in fact the crucial decades for the internationalization of drug testing, while polio vaccine trials were among the first truly global phenomena in twentieth-century medicine. Her paper shed light on the nature, assumptions and mechanics of international cooperation between health institutions, governments and individual researchers in organizing polio vaccine trials and evaluating their results. Sarah Hartley (University of York, UK) focused on the international, regional and colonial politics of nutrition in British Colonial Fiji over the two decades after WWII in order to assess how the relationships between various health agencies – UN, WHO and FAO bodies, as well as regional and colonial administrations and offices – affected the design and delivery of nutrition programmes, and the development of international health. Hartley showed how the South Pacific Commission (a Western dominated multi-governmental agency), the South Pacific Health Service (the British and New Zealand colonial health service), and the regional offices of WHO and FAO sought to shape health policy in accordance with their individual ideological and security needs in the South Pacific region. The resulting networks of political and professional allegiance created a patchwork of practice in the field of nutrition across the South Pacific.

In the final analysis, this conference offered a rich and sophisticated account of the complex political and economic circumstances in which twentieth-century international health projects and initiatives emerged and developed – the vagaries of the Cold War constituted the core theme of most presentations. Many papers successfully explored the convoluted relations between pharmaceutical businesses and health organizations; others sought to evaluate the role of experts, their intellectual trajectories and meeting places, as well as their attempts to co-opt political governments for various unorthodox international health endeavours in the context of extreme political rivalries. The conference also emphasized the multiple effects of colonialism and de-colonization on the development of international medicine and health, and several participants attempted to move away from exclusively Anglo-American and Francophone accounts of health globalization. At the same time, while the conference aimed to engage the discussion of scales of historical analysis and to shed light on how international public health programmes were implemented at the local level, it did not devote enough attention to exploring the wealth of social and cultural consequences of such globalizing forces in different parts of the world. Most papers addressed institutional histories or discussed the role and discourses of individual experts, researchers or health administrators, and offered almost exclusively top-down accounts. Many of these narratives would have likely been significantly different – or at least enhanced – if told from the perspective of cultural and social history, history from below and medical anthropology: how did such important international medical and health projects, plans and initiatives transform the social micro-universe of those on the receiving end? did these health programmes induce any significant cultural shifts in how people – patients, physicians, lawmakers – in different parts of the globe thought of and defined illness, death, medicine, political ideology or nation and internationalism? how did the globalization of healthcare and medicine change everyday lives and human interactions? Some of these themes were occasionally touched upon in the course of the conference, but they certainly remain important potential topics for future meetings.

CfP: Homecomings

Homecomings: Experiences and narratives of anti-fascist resistance veterans and the construction of post-war Europe

April 24-25, 2015

Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, Birkbeck College

In the aftermath of WW2, the narrative of widespread anti-fascist resistance became the true foundational myth of both Eastern and Western Europe, and the memory of the resistance came to constitute the core element in national identities and post-war legitimation of European states. However, the experiences of actual resistance soldiers at the end and in the immediate aftermath of the war were complex and multi-layered, and quite often far from celebratory and victorious. This conference will tell a much-neglected transnational European story of experiences of WW2 resistance, and address the mismatch between resistance soldiers’ expectations and their post-war socio-political realities. While historians of European resistance have primarily addressed the theme in isolated national contexts, this conference will explore the striking commonalities in veterans’ experiences across the divided European continent: why was it that resistance soldiers and veterans in so many different political settings, and both East and West of the Iron Curtain, reported a similar feeling of neglect, misunderstanding and betrayal? How can we explain the similarities in the way in which different European countries dealt with their resisters and veterans, and appropriated the narratives and memories of the resistance? The conference will thus cross the traditional boundaries of European historiography, and draw comparisons between the Soviet Union, East and Central Europe, and Western Europe. By including the Soviet Union in a broader European historical narrative, the conference will explore to what extent veterans’ experiences as well as associations cut across Cold War faultlines. Among other themes, the conference will advance our understanding of the history of soldiers’ trauma – physical and psychological – in the context of post-war social and cultural history and memory. It will examine the issue of veterans’ reactions to states’ attempts at appropriating or sanitizing the memory of the resistance, and veterans’ ability to influence national politics; internationalism of veterans’ organizations; veterans’ conceptualizations of justice, retribution and reconciliation; as well as everyday experiences of resistance soldiers in post-war societies and (both harmonious and fraught) relationships between different veterans’ associations.

Panellists are sought to present papers addressing one or more of the following questions: Why did post-war political and military authorities develop such an uneasy relationship with resistance soldiers’ groups, and why were these celebrated victors and anti-fascists often considered a threat to social order and stability? How did the relationship of veterans’ groups to the state evolve over time, and how was it affected by major political and social events of the Cold War? What were the relationships between different veterans’ groups and associations? What was the social, cultural and political position of veterans in post-war Eastern and Western Europe, and did they hold any significant national or international leverage? To what extent was the memory of WW2 shaped by the veterans’ memory/input? What were the early narratives of the resistance, generated from below, and how did they relate to the subsequent construction of memories of WW2? How did resistance soldiers imagine their role in post-war societies? Finally, how did WW2 resistance soldiers engage with the ideological struggles of the incipient Cold War, and how did the Cold War affect the veterans’ status?

Please send resumes, paper titles and abstracts (up to 400 words) to by December 7, 2014.


Contact information:

Dr Ana Antic, conference convener

Post-doctoral Researcher

Department of History, Classics and Archaeology

Birkbeck, University of London

26-28 Russell Square

Dora Vargha’s upcoming talk at LSHTM

On October 16, Dora Vargha will give a talk at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, as a part of the Centre for History in Public Health and the Vaccine Centre lunchtime seminar series. Dora’s presentation, titled ‘ When polio became global: a pre-history of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative’, addresses the development of international concepts and practices in polio prevention in the post-war decades and explores the ways in which the scientific practices, intertwined with Cold War politics of the 1950s and 1960s, were formative to the current polio eradication campaign (the full abstract is available here). This paper forms a part of Dora’s new research project undertaken under the auspices of ‘Reluctant Internationalists’, and will be a great opportunity for anyone interested to engage with this exciting topical theme. The talk will take place at LG9, LSHTM, Keppel Street Building, at 12:45-2pm. Admission is free and open to all. For more information, please visit the LSHTM seminar website.

 Dora Vargha seminar flyer with pic copy

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