Guest Post by visiting fellow Francesca Piana, Swiss National Science Foundation

Among the many research interests that I share with “The Reluctant Internationalists” is the understanding of internationalism as a varied and multifaceted phenomenon. This is one of the many ways in which my research on the history of international responses to the needs of prisoners of war and refugees in the 1920s connects with the interesting discussions that I have had over the past three months at Birkbeck College.

Coming from the history of Western liberal internationalism and, in particular, the history of the international organisations such as the League of Nations, I enjoyed learning about the history of other internationalist projects, such communism, socialism, or Catholic internationalism. Despite the singularity of each historical process, there are communalities in the creation and development of structures as well as in the centrality of expert knowledge in international networks.

Mapping the geography of internationalism is also a productive way to think at the refugee question after the end of the First World War. Something that has spurred from the discussions is to think of internationalism in terms of “center” and “peripheries.” For instance, in the case of refugees, there are the places where decisions are made, such as national cabinets and the headquarters of international organisations, while these same places are also the hub of initiatives developed in other spaces, such as the local, national, regional, and transnational. The local – such as a refugee camp – is no less international than the decision-making process at the headquarters of international organisations. Implementing projects locally or distributing technology is highly international.

It has been also essential for my own research to think how to recover the experiences of prisoners of war and refugees themselves. Internationalism is not only a history of institutions but it is also embedded in people’s lives. Migrants and refugees choose or are forced to go international. For others such as relief workers, health professionals, or international civil servants, internationalism is often a professional choice.

There are many perspectives, geographies, scales, and methodologies to look at the history of internationalism in the 20th century. By recognizing the malleability and plurality of internationalism, there is the potential to write more interesting stories, connect different historiographies, and, as such, complete and challenge the history of the 20th century.