Life in Post-War Shanghai

A rich and varied literature written by both former refugees and academics has shed light on many aspects of the cultural, economic and social history of the 16,000 Jewish refugees in Shanghai.

As seen in my previous blog post, refugees were highly active in their engagement with local and international NGOs in their quest to leave Shanghai at the end of the war. Their pleas for help, often raw with emotion and frustration, help supplement our understanding of post-war Shanghai. As the years dragged on, many found life in Shanghai increasingly precarious. Life was especially hard for the old, vulnerable and infirm, who found themselves alone in an alien city. It is these protagonists, living on the fringes of society in care homes and medical institutions, who have been neglected by historians. I’ve included one such ‘life story’ below, dated 27 December 1949:

My sister had a miserable life in Shanghai where she came from Germany more than ten years ago. Her marriage was unhappy, she divorced her husband, and by all that she became nervous. When I left Shanghai for America in March 1947 my sister lived in this Old Age Home with unpleasant people in a dark room. The manageress is known to be most provoking towards her charge. Unfortunately, my sister lost her temper at such an occasion and was taken to a Nerve Hospital in August 1947. January 1948 already the hospital doctor wanted to release her, which should be proof that her state of health was considered to be normal. But the American Jewish Joint Committee whose support she receives, prolonged her stay for lack of accommodation.

After many efforts made by my sister and a relative of ours, now in Palestine, she was finally released June 1948.

My sister is in possession of three affidavits for immigration to USA. But the American Consulate doctor did not grant her the OK.

We are the only members of our family who survived.

The International Tracing Service and the ‘Legacies of Political Humanitarianism’

Last night I attended a fascinating talk at London’s Wiener Library on the International Tracing Service (ITS), an agency established by the Western Allies during World War II to locate and reunite persons missing as a course of the hostilities. Historian Dr. Jennifer Rodgers described how and why anxieties about the possession of and access to the archives by various state and non-state actors defined the ITS and its mandate. The ITS was one of the most contested humanitarian services of the post-war world, and Dr Rodgers’ research shows how the agency was exploited by various parties to steer post-war agendas, win hearts and minds and to negotiate the history of Third Reich crimes.

I was interested to learn how humanitarianism was used as a soft power tool and a means of cultural diplomacy, and to discover the ways in which the management of the archive reinforced Cold War borders to the detriment of Nazi victims.

In tandem, Dr Rodgers addressed how archives have long influenced politics and social memory. It is worth remembering that those who control the archive control the past, as well as aspects of the future.

You can follow the ITS archive on Twitter here and learn more about Dr. Rodgers’ work here. There is also an excellent (free) exhibition that tells the little-known history of the ITS and the search for Holocaust survivors called ‘Fate Unknown: The Search for the Missing after the Holocaust’ now on display at the Wiener Library.

Empire of Humanity

After a six month maternity sabbatical I’m finally back at work on the ole’ PhD. What better way to return to the thesis (and this blog) than to read Empire of Humanity by Michael Barnett. As I grapple with the dynamics of humanitarianism in inter-war Hong Kong, Barnett’s pioneering study reveals the ambiguities of the international humanitarian order and gives much needed clarity to a discipline all too often guided by mythology and absolutist and binary arguments.

Empire Humanity

Barnett’s seminal book opens with the assertion that ‘all communities get their history wrong, and the humanitarian community is no exception’. He recounts the humanitarian ‘origin story’ through its original hero, Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman and activist whose ‘life transformative’ experience at the Battle of Solferino in the mid-nineteenth century resulted in his moral awakening, and eventually, in the formation of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions. In the twentieth century, as traditional histories recount, the destruction and longevity of the First World War led to a surge in private voluntary relief organisations, including Save the Children, an organisation still prominent today. After 1918, states established the first of many international humanitarian organisations, among them the High Commission for Refugees, a largely ineffectual organisation during the Jewish refugee crises of the 1930s. After the Second World War, against the backdrop of a decolonised world, many organisations originally created for exclusively European based relief extended their scope and mandate to the rest of the world. As Barnett says, ‘humanitarianism had gone global’.

In the post Cold-War period, many historians look to the 1990s as a break with the non-political and impartial humanitarianisms of the past, towards a world where humanitarian organisations adopted the role of state builders, advancing the foreign policy interests of the west. It’s a watershed decade of moral corruption, when humanitarian agencies enter the murky and morally taboo nexus of politics. Barnett rejects this interpretation and turns away from binary classifications of humanitarianism as ‘ethics versus politics’. Humanitarians and humanitarianism, he argues, were politicised well before the 1990s. Instead, Barnett calls for a more complex, and morally complicated, understanding of humanitarianism. He writes that ‘humanitarians must get their hands dirty, they must make difficult choices and compromises as they live the credo that the perfect should never be the enemy of the good’. In other words, the imperfect world in which humanitarians live and operate often means that they can’t, and don’t, practice what they preach. Barnett takes a global view of humanitarianism and critically examines the convergence of geopolitics, capitalism and ethics, exploring the ways in which these shape contemporary understandings of the humanitarian mission. He argues that humanitarianism has become increasingly public, hierarchical and institutionalised, and that paternalism, for good or bad, has played an important part throughout its history.

Barnett explores the inherent tensions of humanitarian history through six central arguments, which I’ve summarised below:

  1. Humanitarianism is a creature of the world it aspires to civilise: the moral vision of humanitarians is limited by culture, circumstance and contingency. The phase of Imperial Humanitarianism (nineteenth century to World War Two) was limited by colonialism, commerce and civilising missions. Barnett concedes that humanitarian actors do exert agency in that they often reflect upon their actions and attitudes
  2. We live in a world of humanitarianisms, not humanitarianism: humanitarians define ‘humanitarianism’ against their goals and constraints. How do humanitarians conceptualise their own humanitarianism?
  3. Humanitarian ethics are simultaneously universal and circumstantial: any humanitarian ethic is rooted in contemporary notions of humanity and victimhood.
  4. Humanitarianism is defined by the paradox of emancipation and domination: humanitarianism operates in the best tradition of emancipatory ethics. It aspires to keep people alive, expand their opportunities, and give them greater control of their fates. Yet any act of intervention, no matter how well intended, is also an act of control, as well as an exertion of power. Control and care is partly paternalism. Barnett argues that paternalism is not simply an unsavoury legacy of the nineteenth century, but instead represents the best and worst of humanitarianism today
  5. Humanitarianism both undermines and advances moral progress: although the notion of ‘progress’ is heavily contested as both Euro-centric and a by-product of the civilising mission, the concept of ‘community’ must also include the mutual obligations and mutual responsibilities of its members
  6. Humanitarianism is about meeting the needs of others and meeting our own needs: what motivates humanitarian actors? Is it power and superiority? Or are we driven by guilt, religious redemption, or to prove our goodness to ourselves, and to others? Barnett turns away from these facile explanations and instead focuses on moments of atonement. He argues that the act of giving to strangers is as much about ourselves, and that it is within this central paradox that the ambiguities of humanitarianism are best conveyed. Could it be that our needs drive the actions that benefit others? Food for thought as I embark upon my next chapter!

Barnett, Michael ‘Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism’, 2011 (Cornell University Press)

Decolonising Refugee History?

Does Hong Kong’s refugee history need to be ‘decolonised’?

A special post-war issue of the Journal of Refugee Studies laid down a challenge for historians: ‘when it comes to refugees, then, the project of decolonising history still remains to be completed’. The decolonisation project is particularly pertinent in the case of Hong Kong, a former British Crown colony whose history, population and identity is tied to waves of refugees from China who sought (often temporary) refuge during the upheaval of the Tai Ping Rebellion (1851-1864), the republican revolution of 1911, the Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese revolution of the 1940s. Despite the journal’s rallying call, Hong Kong historians have already successfully tackled Euro-centric histories by looking to the plight of Chinese refugees, the emergence of a regional (rather than international) refugee regime and the colonial discourse of the ‘Problem of People’ in the 1940s – 1960s. Such research raises important questions about the nature of colonial rule and can help trace the fault lines of Hong Kong’s political schisms between former refugees and the so-called ‘post-80s’ generation in the SAR today. These historians include Glen Peterson, Agnes Ku and Laura Madokoro, whose pioneering research seeks to question the role of empirical surveys in shaping westernised categories of Chinese refugees.


The Modern Refugee

MACEDONIA-GREECE-EUROPE-MIGRANTSIn light of US President Donald Trump’s entry ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations and the suspension of America’s refugee programme announced on 27 January, it’s more important than ever to understand past refugee movements, displacement and forced migration so as to help inform contemporary policy responses.

Even as far afield as in Hong Kong, Trump’s ruling has left asylum claimants in limbo.

If you’re interested in finding out more about broad-brush refugee history there are a number of excellent websites, films, books and public exhibitions that have helped engage the public on refugee issues, past and present.

A relatively new web resource, Refugee History includes a number of thought-provoking evidence based blogs written by an academic panel. Check out Lyndsey Stonebridge’s timely piece on Hannah Arendt’s refugee status, a woman who is as relevant today as she was in the 1950s: ‘As long as mankind is national and territorially organized in states, a stateless person is not simply expelled from one country, native or adopted, but from all countries … which means he is actually expelled from humanity’. You can also follow the network on Twitter via @RefugeeHistory.

Although the global refugee situation is changing daily, Professor Alexander’s Betts’ Guardian piece, Five history lessons in how to deal with a refugee crisis , written in 2015, is still worth a read today. For a more in-depth analysis, I recommend Tony Kushner’s Remembering Refugees, Then and Now (2006), for an insight into contemporary representation of refugees, and Peter Gatrell’s The Making of the Modern Refugee (2013), praised as a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the recent historical roots of refugees.

The Wiener Library in London is currently hosting an excellent exhibition titled ‘A Bitter Road: Britain and the Refugee Crisis of the 1930s and 1940s’, which explores Britain’s response to Jewish refugees using items from the Library’s collection. The exhibition is due to close on 17 February 2017 so do hurry if you want to catch it.

Gianfranco Rosi’s ‘beautiful, mysterious and moving film’ Fire at Sea

Finally, for a more contemporary view, the documentary Fire at Sea (2016) is a moving portrait of Lampedusa, the Sicilian Island where thousands of desperate migrants from Africa and the Middle East arrive each year for hopes of a better life. The film was described as ‘masterly film-making’ by the Guardian. Unfortunately Fire at Sea is not available on Netflix but can be downloaded from itunes for a couple of pounds. For those who prefer to read rather than watch, I recommend Emma Jane Kirby’s short yet excellent The Optician of Lampedusa (2016), the true story of Carmine Menna who along with a group of friends stumbled upon a sinking boat carrying hundreds of refugees whilst on a fishing expedition. The Observer gives a nod to Kirby’s dedication to the refugee plight as both journalist and author: ‘Shortly after the drownings, Pope Francis spoke of “a day for tears”. Emma Jane Kirby challenges us to do more than cry.’