Post-First World War Humanitarianism

Hundreds of thousands of people were threatened by famine, disease, and displacement as a consequence of the First World War and the conflicts that followed in its wake. Around one hundred years ago, a wide range of humanitarian organisations were established which sought to cater for these civilian victims of war. Some of these organisations – such as the Save the Children Fund – helped define how civilian suffering was understood during the twentieth century and still play a huge role in the charitable sector today.

Post-First World War humanitarian activity took many forms, from large, professional organisations, to small scale, amateur endeavours run by a handful of individuals. My new research article, to be published in the European Review of History/Revue européenne d’histoire explores the work of one small committee run by the American archaeologist Thomas Whittemore.

Whittemore is well known in certain fields. Before 1914, he was part of a Parisian artistic circle that included the American poet Gertrude Stein and the French artist Henri Matisse. Egyptologists may have heard of Whittemore from his excavations in Egypt before and after the First World War. Art historians might know of him as the man who restored the mosaics of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul in the 1930s, having personally negotiated access with the Turkish president, Kemal Atatürk. Less well known, however, was Whittemore’s work as a humanitarian.

Between 1920 and the 1931, he personally oversaw the relief of over one thousand Russian students who had been displaced by the Russian Civil War. Whittemore’s humanitarian work was unusual because it was so elitist; he was open about the fact that he was not especially interested in saving those with the greatest material need. Instead, he sought to assist only those who demonstrated (what he considered to be) the greatest academic merit, rescuing them primarily from refugee camps in Constantinople and arranging their placement in schools and universities across Europe. Whittemore oversaw the whole operation personally and spent much of the 1910s and 1920s in continual motion, travelling across the United States where he raised money, traversing Europe to personally check in on his students, venturing to Russia to provide aid to those in need, and, amazingly, continuing his work as an archaeologist in Egypt at the same time.

When Whittemore died in 1947, obituaries celebrated his scholarship but few discussed his humanitarian work at any length. I came to his story by chance in the course of my archival research and decided to try to find out more about this side of his remarkable life. I was fascinated by this character who seemed to jump out of the archives, and seemed to be so energetic, charismatic, well-connected, yet whose work appears to be out of touch with wider humanitarian ideals of the period – and now.

The resulting article draws on research from archives in the United States, Britain, France and Switzerland. In it, I try to show that Whittemore, like many American and European elites, felt that the Bolshevik takeover in Russia would be short lived; he hoped that his scheme was training the next generation of Russian leaders. Of course, the Bolshevik regime lasted longer than he expected, and as such his plan never came to fruition. I hope that the article demonstrates that one life can tell us much about a wide range of historical phenomena including humanitarianism, philanthropy, archaeology, diplomacy, as well as attitudes towards Bolshevik Russia.

By Dr Tomás Irish

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