Night on Earth
Western humanitarians pretended to act upon a kind of tabula rasa, when in fact there was no tabula rasa there, and there was a very long Ottoman humanitarian tradition. Davide Rodogno
Western humanitarians pretended to act upon a kind of tabula rasa, when in fact there was no tabula rasa there, and there was a very long Ottoman humanitarian tradition.
Davide Rodogno in conversation with Rajan Menon and Joshua Craze.
Constructed after Jim Jarmush’s film and driven by profound empathy, Davide Rodogno’s Night on Earth is a broad-ranging account of international humanitarian programs in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Near East from 1918 to 1930. The author shows that international ‘relief’ and ‘development’ were intertwined long before the birth of the United Nations with humanitarians operating in a region devastated by war and famine and in which state sovereignty was deficient. Influenced by colonial motivations and ideologies these humanitarians attempted to reshape entire communities and nations through reconstruction and rehabilitation programs. The book draws on the activities of a wide range of secular and religious organizations and philanthropic foundations in the US and Europe including the American Relief Administration, the American Red Cross, the Quakers, Save the Children, the Near East Relief, the American Women’s Hospitals, the League of Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Rodogno applies the metaphor of relationship between taxi drivers and passengers, to the givers and recipients of humanitarian aid. Inevitably, miscommunication, tensions and distortions take place, especially in the Ottoman context which was linguistically, culturally and politically removed from the mentality of the providers of relief. Both geographies and chronologies become central to these equivocations and, in some ways, carry on their impact well beyond that period.
This geographical area is rich in terms of the reflection on sovereignty. The history of the mandates, the independence of Turkey, the processes of sovietization or the role of the Refugee Settlement Commission all happened in Ottoman Lands.
In scholarly research, the Ottoman Lands are studied separately but in fact – as in the mental imaginaire of the Western humanitarians described in the book – these lands were considered to be one. Many of these actors found themselves in places spanning from Georgia to what would soon become the Soviet Republic of Armenia or Greece, or Lebanon and Palestine, because these institutions had a very broad reach parallel to that of warfare.
Rodogno also repositions chronological perspectives. For instance the recent years’ academic focus on 1918 is meaningful for Western Europe as the end of World War I. However for these areas, 1918 is not an end. If anything, it is the beginning or the continuation of many wars. Humanitarians operating in Central and Western Europe moved down to the Balkans and to other former Ottoman Lands after 1918 precisely because they could deploy resources and extend their raison d’être to where humanitarian aid was needed by civilian populations.
By delving into a specific chapter of humanitarian history, Night on Earth offers a fruitful sounding board to re-evaluate the questions and problems we face today in this field.
Davide Rodogno is a Professor of International History and Politics and the Head of the Interdisciplinary Master Programs at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, the Director of the Certificate in Advanced Studies in Advocacy in International Affairs at the Geneva Graduate Institute. He specializes in researching international organizations and associations, philanthropic foundations, and transnational networks and movements since the 19th century. His research interests include the history of human rights, of minorities, of crimes against humanity and International Law, the concept and practice of international development programs, state-building and international administration since creation of the League of Nations. His publications include: Fascism’s European Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2006); Against Massacre: Humanitarian Interventions in the Ottoman Empire (1815-1914), the Birth of a Concept and International Practice (Princeton University Press, 2011). He co-edited and authored Humanitarian Photography: A History (Cambridge University Press, 2015). In 2021 he published Night on Earth – A History of International Humanitarianism in the Near East (1918-1930), (Cambridge University Press). He collaborates with the Museum of the Red Cross and co-funded the podcast Utopia3 jointly with with the Festival International et Forum des Droits Humains.
Rajan Menon is director of the Grand Strategy program at Defense Priorities and the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Chair Emeritus in International Relations at the Powell School, City College of New York/City University of New York. He is also a Senior Research Scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University and a Non-Resident Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Menon has been a fellow at the Carnegie Council on Ethics in International Affairs and the New America Foundation, academic fellow at the Carnegie Corporation, research scholar at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (the Wilson Center), and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. His books include Soviet Power and the Third World (Yale University Press, 1986), The End of Alliances (Oxford University Press, 2007), Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order, coauthored with Eugene Rumer (MIT Press, 2015), and The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention (Oxford University Press, 2016). His next book, Russia After Putin, co-authored with Eugene B. Rumer, is under contract to Oxford University Press.
In addition to publications in numerous academic journals, Menon has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Guardian, Chicago Tribune, Boston Review, Foreign Policy, and The National Interest. He has appeared as a commentator on ABC, CNN, MSNBC, the BBC, NPR, France 24 Television, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and Radio Australia.
Joshua Craze’s writing on art, war, and literature have appeared in n+1, Cabinet, and the Guardian. His Grammar of Redaction, which examined the strange linguistic categories of the redacted documents of the war on terror, was exhibited at the New Museum, New York, and he has written catalogue essays for Jenny Holzer’s redaction paintings. He has had residencies at Dar al-Ma’mûn, Marrakech, where he was a UNESCO artist laureate in creative writing; Art OMI, New York; and, most recently, at the Embassy of Foreign Artists, in Geneva, where he began research for a new project in the archives of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.