Davide Rodogno’s Night on Earth

A complex and fascinating mosaic of the Western Humanitarian Organizations activities in the Near East After World War One

Monique Sochaczewski

Monique Sochaczewski was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where she received her PhD in History, Politics and Cultural Heritage from the Fundação Getulio Vargas. Her dissertation became the volume From Rio de Janeiro to Istambul: Contrasts and Connections bewteen Brazil and the Ottoman Empire (1850-1919), FUNAG, 2017. She is the author of many articles and essays on the Middle East and Ottoman presence in Brazil. She is often featured in national Brazilian media on Middle Eastern politics and history. Monique was a fellow at the Bilkent University in Ankara. Senior Researcher athe Culture and International Relations Programo f the Brazilian Center for International Relations (CEBRI). Since 2020 she is a Permanent Professor focusing in History and International Relations at the Master Program in Law, Justice and Development at the Brazilian Institute for Development, Education and Research (IDP)


One of the most impactful aspects of the International Museum of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IRCR) in Geneva, are the testimonies of the men and women who were either agents or recipients of the organization’s aid. Refugees, activists, employees, refugees who became employees… their short, personal, and difficult stories connect with great immediacy the institution to individual experiences. In 2023 recipients, employees, and managers have become the focus of the Red Cross’ humanitarian mission. It was not the case a century ago, as we discover through the complex and fascinating history that Davide Rodogno reconstructs in Night on Earth. 

Rodogno paints a broad picture of Western humanitarian organizations’ activities in the Near East after World War One, in particular those from the United-States, Great Britain, France, Switzerland, and Scandinavia. The focus of their work was to help local victims. However, those who were helped, like the community local actors, had no voice. They had no participation in the decision-making that would shape their lives. Their voice does not appear in the extensive documentation that Rodogno surveyed in years of archival research in various locations around the world. 

The book can be divided into two parts. The first presents the intellectual horizon and the work of United States and European relief organizations in Anatolia, “Armenia,” Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. In the second part, it focuses on the impact of the population exchanges between “Turks” and “Greeks” before and mainly after the Treaty of Lausanne. Greece became an epicenter of humanitarian action. Rodogno analyzes the discussions about interventions aimed both at immediate relief and long-term rehabilitation, but also includes some instances of technical assistance and development. 

Through the analysis of humanitarian intervention in the regions of the recently dissolved multi-ethnic Ottoman and Russian empires, the book zooms in onto the war’s devastating impact on human lives. From the Ottoman center, the Republic of Turkey emerged. The formerly Ottoman Arab lands of Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon came to be dominated by British and French mandates. Armenia had a short life as an independent state before becoming one of the Soviet Republics. The new order was tenuous at best. Through his delicate lens, Rodogno shows how weak and transient sovereignty allowed Western humanitarian organizations a vast space of action and maneuver.

Many of the models created for the Near East after the First World War, are still followed today, including advertising campaigns to raise funds for humanitarian operations. A century ago, the managers of the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief (ACASR), for instance, hired experienced professionals to create fundraising campaigns and convince citizens of Western countries to sponsor a student or a particular communal endeavor, a practice that is still in use today. It became common to publish firsthand testimonies of respectable spoke-persons, like missionaries who related stories of massacres. One of the main challenges of humanitarianism was to create something permanent and beyond short-term interventions. This is also a common topic of today’s relief action: “On one hand they [organizations] need to present success stories from their activities to legitimize their existence and show donors the quality of their work; on the other hand, they need to explain that the humanitarian crisis is not over, more work needs to be done, and the organization is in the best possible position to carry it out”. 

Among other things, the humanitarian response for the Near East refugee crisis provided a base for the work of the League of Nations that often needed the experience and the infrastructure of humanitarian institutions for food distribution, medical help, and education. As the author points out “In the end, Nansen and the League of Nations were not key actors in the rescue of Christian population fleeing Ottoman lands during the Lausanne peace negotiation”. 

Rodogno shows that in relation to the Western colonial authorities, international humanitarian actors were “conspicuous by their absence, silent bystanders or active collaborators”. Corporate interests, as was the case of the US Tobacco Trust in Greece also played a role in the decision of relief institutions. There were, however, important exceptions like the “forgotten history” of the ICRC delegate Maurice Gehri, who responded to the dire conditions of the Muslims in the Marmara Sea region by summoning help through the Red Crescent. 

Night on Earth sheds light on many different elements. I chose to focus on three: 1) the meaning of Near East; 2) women; 3) “humanitarian orientalism”. 

Regarding the first topic, it is quite common to refer to the former lands of the Ottoman Empire as the Middle East, indicating the region comprised between Turkey and North Africa, reaching the Persian Gulf. In the book, however, Rodogno focuses on the toponymy commonly used by Western humanitarian organizations of the period he studies. Greece, and Armenia – the Balkans and the Caucasus – are part of this “mental geography” named Near East. It is important to emphasize that these regions are not a given. They are “invented,” and have different meanings for different people, as the author further emphasizes in an interview for the RevDem podcast. 

A second major achievement, and one that particularly intrigued me, was that I perceive in Rodogno’s gaze a sort of “feminist curiosity,” to use Cynthia Enloe´s term. Throughout his research, he was curious of where the women were in all places, always and in all institutions. Even though the records do not deal specifically with such topics as prostitution (the documents kept by the institutions suffered a kind of curatorial selection) Rodogno learned of this issue when it is discussed in documents about venereal diseases, for instance. When we think of victims who had no voice, we understand that many have suffered rape, human trafficking, had been taken into prostitution, or taken into harems as well. There was also the challenge of how to take care of them in a dignified manner, as was the case in the so-called “neutral houses”. 

Women appear as missionaries, doctors, nurses, even perpetrators of crimes (as the case of Armenian and Greek women who robbed Turks in the Sea of Marmara region), as well as institution builders and leaders. We learn about Eglantyne Jebb who, in England, created the Save the Children Fund in 1919. The American Women´s Hospital receives a full chapter exemplifying the author’s effort to show how feminist they were, although perhaps in a perspective that is difficult to fully appreciate today. Some promoted a sort of “medical imperialism,” and some understood that women could occupy an important niche in the humanitarian universe. The Danish missionary Karen Jeppe wore many hats and emerges as an especially intriguing figure for her activities in Syria as entrepreneur and fundraiser, and for the independence of her actions. The French colonial authorities perceived her as threat and a nuisance.

A third point is what I would call “humanitarian orientalism,” which Rodogno treats as the “colonial posture of so many humanitarians.” Many organizations genuinely believed in Western supremacy—mainly Anglo-Saxon—and in the existence of hierarchy among nations. Relief institutions were oblivious to the Muslim presence or to what remained of Muslim local governments. Records are silent about Ottoman religious networks supporting Muslims, Christians, and Jews. With rare exceptions, humanitarians ostensibly did not help Muslim victims and demonstrated pervasive prejudice toward their Christian recipients even though they regarded them as superior to Muslims. “Armenians appear as part of the broad category of ‘Easterners’. They might have been martyrs and Christians, but they remained as uncivilized as other oriental populations.”

Humanitarians who operated on the rubbles of the war were arrogant and had “blind faith in scientific methods and efficiency.” Despite great ambitions, “international Western humanitarianism in the aftermath of the First World War did not live up to its promises: it did not leave a permanent mark, it did not change the Near Easterners, and it did not ´civilize them´. It was an ephemeral phenomenon, Promethean in its aspirations, self-righteous in its assumptions and attitudes, and provincial in its origins. Its redemptive ambition remained unfulfilled”. As the author also puts on: “To Western humanitarians Near Easterners of all faiths and races were not intellectually or socially ready to embrace all aspects of modernity.” The help provided by humanitarian organizations was on their own terms, following the priorities they established. Despite the clear preference of refugees to go to cities such as Beirut, Aleppo, Salonica, or Athens, “because displaced civilians saw urban centers (…) as endpoints of their journeys or ports of call to reach more distant final destinations,” institutions continued to devise plans to move them to rural areas, teaching specific skills, and focusing on modernization of agriculture as the only means of development.  

In todays’ highly polarized world, where “good people” and “evil people,” are more than ever represented as neatly defined and separate, Rodogno offers relief to our intelligence presenting with great sensibility a landscape of human complexity. Jim Jarmuch´s film that inspired the title is a good way to present the mosaic of cases and stories narrated in the book. The idea of the organizations being the taxi, the leaders and workers the taxi drivers, and the passengers the recipients of assistance, help us keep our attention on the stories of so many institutions operating in a vast region and in a short eventful period. As someone who took on the study of the (not so obvious) relation between the Ottoman Empire and Brazil, I commend Rodogno for joining the the efforts of Ottomanists around the globe who face a babel of languages and documents, connecting regions of the Ottoman past that are often studied separately as modern entities (especially Greece), and still trying, for what’s possible, to keep in mind the destinies of those who were not saved: the “drowned”. 

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