Atlantic Ocean, 1923: European Student Relief, Humanitarianism, and Post-World War I Reconciliation

On December 7, 1923, the steamer Hansa was in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, en route from New York City to Hamburg. On board were 300 tons of flour, meat, fat, and corned beef, scheduled to arrive at their destination on Christmas morning. The cargo was a gift from American students to German students that had been left destitute by the galloping inflation of the preceding years. The American gesture inspired gratitude far beyond the transatlantic student world. The evening of the Hansa’s arrival, the German President and Chancellor even held a dinner for the representative of American students in Berlin. By New Year’s Eve, the contents of the “American Student Friendship Ship”, as it was officially known, had been distributed to German university towns and would help feed German students during the winter months.

People standing in line in front of a grocer's shop during the 1920s. German Federal Archive, Image 146-1971-090-14/CC BY-SA 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons

The “Friendship Ship” was but a small episode in a much larger effort to relieve the distress of European students in the early 1920s. After the Great War, economic chaos, revolutions, and civil wars left tens of thousands of students in Central and Eastern Europe without sufficient housing, clothing, medical supplies, and food. Their plight evoked a worldwide humanitarian response. At a conference in Switzerland in August 1920, the World Student Christian Federation founded the European Student Relief (ESR) to alleviate the distress of European students. A first worldwide appeal on behalf of Austria soon sparked similar efforts on behalf of other Central and Eastern European countries, including Russian, German, Polish, and Hungarian students. By emphasizing international student solidarity and by relying on national student bodies to administer the relief, the ESR quickly grew into a truly global enterprise. Scandinavian, Dutch, British, and U.S. students gave warmly to the cause, but so, too, did those from less proximate and prosperous countries like China, Japan, or Argentina. By 1925, the ESR had collected two million dollars worth of provisions and distributed them among 100,000 European students. In all, the ESR involved students from sixty countries, making it one of the most geographically extensive humanitarian projects of its time.

The European Student Relief allows broader insights into the dynamics and objectives of humanitarianism in the era of the Great War. On the most obvious level, it exemplifies the dramatic expansion of humanitarian work during and after the war. Starting in 1914, the unprecedented suffering of combatants and civilians gave rise to increasingly large-scale, professional humanitarian operations, which often continued and expanded in the post-war period. The ever-more encompassing forces of destruction, as Michael Barnett has concluded, called forth ever more encompassing forces of humanitarianism. [Barnett, p. 22]. The ESR reflected this larger development, extending humanitarian concern to a civilian group, which had found very scant attention in the past but which seemed critical to building a peaceful Europe: students.

Moreover, the ESR illustrated the implementation of “modern” humanitarian standards at the time. Although a Christian organization, its resources were distributed on the bases of proven need, irrespective of race, creed or nationality. In its work it also tried to adhere to new standards of efficiency and accountability, minimizing overhead expenses, keeping close track of distribution networks, and working through field representatives all over Europe. Its fundraising and publicity efforts, too, were innovative, drawing on statistics, photography, and personal interest stories to illustrate the plight of European students. The fact that even a fairly small NGO like the ESR adopted such sophisticated fundraising and distribution measures illustrates how important global logistics and publicity had become to humanitarian work in the era of the Great War.

The ESR also highlights the place of humanitarian operations in the difficult project of post-war reconciliation. The ESR’s ambitions were never limited to the alleviation of physical suffering. Like other humanitarian organizations at the time, its leaders saw relief work as a distinct contribution to European reconstruction and ultimately conceived of it as a peace-building measure. To them, hundred of thousands of malnourished students – Europe’s future leaders – provided a dangerous reservoir for the rise of nationalistic ideologies and seemed to threaten the vista of an enduring peace. British student organizer Ruth Rouse characteristically referred to “the hearts of the students” as “the danger zone of Europe” [Rouse, p. 10]. The provision of food, books, and clothing as tokens of international goodwill was thus considered an important step in the demobilization of student minds. Appeals to a common student identity were to overcome national, ethnic, and religious divisions. The ESR’s leaders even entertained the hope that its own impartiality with regard to race, creed, and nationality would serve as a model for European conciliation at large. As such, student relief work underlines the degree to which humanitarian projects were part and parcel of the post-war search for a durable peace.

The ESR’s accomplishments were many. The amounts of meals, clothes, and books it delivered were statistically impressive and individually meaningful. But some of the ESR’s most ambitious programs, including the relief of Russian students, proved ultimately too complex to be brought to a satisfactory close. The same is true for its broader objectives. To be sure, the ESR’s relief work facilitated constructive cooperation between victors and vanquished at an especially early date. Personal encounters and gestures of goodwill hastened the cultural demobilization of those closely involved in the work. This also allowed the ESR – renamed the International Student Service in 1926 – to continue in the field of international cultural and educational cooperation.

Still, the ESR’s ambitions were often undermined by deep-seated ethnic, religious, racial, and national resentments. Its student conferences of the early 1920s witnessed not only scenes of amity between former enemies but also chauvinist proclamations and confrontations. For instance, the 1923 ESR conference in Parad, Hungary, was overshadowed by the French occupation of the German Ruhr district in January of that year and saw considerable animosities between German and French delegates. [Hartley, p. 307] Donor-recipient relations, too, were adversely affected by the difficult psychological climate of the post-war period. Among German students, for example, the acceptance of aid from erstwhile enemies could engender very different responses: it could inspire gratitude and a renewed belief in international goodwill; but it could also remind them of, and breed resentment over, the personally and nationally humiliating consequences of German defeat, which had turned them into objects of charity in the first place. In this way, the ESR’s work was often constrained by the very conditions it was trying to overcome.

The history of the ESR contributes to the historiography of humanitarianism in three important ways. For one, it highlights the era of the Great War as a transitional period between traditional and modern forms of humanitarianism. Professional relief workers, large-scale organizations and increasingly sophisticated publicity measures worked alongside well-intended amateurs, local charities and church collection baskets. Moreover, the ESR cautions against all too neat assumptions about a clear shift from the religious to the secular in the emergence of “modern” humanitarianism. For all its emphasis on efficiency, the ESR’s operations were inconceivable without personal faith, social gospel traditions, and ecumenical networks. Indeed, the example of the ESR suggests the coexistence of old and new motivations, practices, and organizational forms as the true hallmark of that period’s humanitarian engagement. The intensity of the ‘humanitarian awakening’ in the era of the Great War (attested to in recent studies by Bruno Cabanes, Julia Irwin, Branden Little, Davide Rodogno, Keith Watenpaugh and others) owed much to this intersection of traditional and modern approaches to alleviating distant suffering. Finally, the ESR reminds us to what extent post-war humanitarianism reflected and shaped the wider internationalist agenda of the early 1920s. At the time, relief efforts were often just the most concrete expression of larger ideas about a peaceful reordering of the world. For many NGOs, conversely, post-war relief work built networks, trained personnel, momentum, and legitimacy, which they often seamlessly translated into broader cultural or social initiatives. The ESR is a case in point: in 1926 it transformed its humanitarian endeavors into worldwide student travel and exchange programs. Today, a century after the “Friendship Ship” crossed the Atlantic, the ESR’s successor, the World University Service, continues its work as a global advocacy group for educational rights.

Further Reading

Short Biographical Note on Contributor

Dr. Elisabeth Piller is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for War Studies, University College Dublin, where she is writing a global history of the Commission for Relief in Belgium during the First World War. Jennifer was a participant of the Global Humanitarianism Research Academy 2018.