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Religion et humanitaire : renouveau historiographique et chantier des archives Pie XII

At the Intersection of Religion and Humanitarianism: An Interview with Esther Möller et Johannes Paulmann

Esther Möller et Johannes Paulmann
p. 209-214

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1Questions : Marie Levant et Nina Valbousquet

2What brought you to study and research the history of humanitarianism?
Esther Möller: Already during my PhD thesis on French schools in Lebanon in the early twentieth century, which I defended in 2011, I had come into contact with different religious and secular philanthropic institutions, as education, humanitarian aid and charity were closely related fields and many organisations maintained schools, orphanages and medical institutions at the same time. At the time I finished my PhD thesis, humanitarian aid became an important field of research and I realised that although scholars started to criticise a too close and positive perspective of Western organisations providing aid to non-European regions, very few studies took Non-Western and in particular Arab and Islamic countries into consideration. My idea was thus to change this perspective and look at Arab individuals and groups not only as recipients, but also as active participants and donors of humanitarian aid, on the national, but also regional and international level. I focused on the Egyptian Red Crescent, the first Arab Red Crescent society, which became the topic of my habilitation thesis which I submitted in 2021. At that time, I also initiated, with Karène Sanchez Summerer and others, a transnational network on the history of missionaries and humanitarian aid in the Arab World, because we realised that there was a real lack of research concerning the interconnection between both. In this context, Johannes and I organised a workshop on diplomacy, humanitarianism and religion between Europe and the Arab world which resulted in a special issue with the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies to come out later in 2023. Together with Katharina Stornig we also organised a conference on the relationship between gender and humanitarian aid with an important focus on religious organisations. The edited volume that emerged from this conference was published with Palgrave Macmillan in 2020 under the title Gendering Twentieth-Century Humanitarianism. Practice, Politics and the Power of Representation.
Johannes Paulmann: My approach to the history of humanitarianism has been via my interest in inter- and transnational history. I had written a book on royal visits in the nineteenth century in which I tried a cultural history approach to diplomatic relations. At that time, I also edited a volume together with my colleague Martin Geyer on The Mechanics of Internationalism. Culture, Society and Politics from the 1840s to the First World War (OUP 2001). I was then looking for a topic to try out our understanding of internationalism as international reform movements and practices in time of increasing internationalisation of politics, society, culture and economy since the nineteenth century. I first looked at the history of wildlife protection and environmental movements as a possible research area. As the Frankfurt Zoological Society, which held pertinent records for German international activities, rejected my request for archival access, I started around 2005 on a related topic which seemed fruitful for my systematic interest, i.e. the history of development aid. From there, it has only been a small step into the field of humanitarianism, which a decade and a half ago was a virtually non-existent field of historical study. Based on a conference I organised at the German Historical Institute in London in 2011, I got together a number of colleagues who had worked on various case studies and edited a volume on the Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid in the Twentieth Century (OUP 2016). We were beginning to turn the history of humanitarianism into a collective endeavour.

3In examining this history in your own research, in which instances did you encounter religious themes and questions?
J.P.: As I started by taking a closer look at German humanitarianism after the Second World war in order to analyse the re-integration of German players into international society, the first thing to be noticed was that the early organisations, still active and big today, were church-based activities. “Brot für die Welt”, the protestant aid organisation was founded in 1959 to provide food aid to India. A year earlier, the German Catholic bishops had founded “Misereor” to fight hunger and illness in the world. They also initiated “Adveniat” with a 1961 special Christmas collection to support religious work and charity in Latin America which became a regular activity in 1969. The German case seems particular because the Nazi Regime had left only religious charity independent while all other welfare organizations had been brought under the control of and integrated into Nazi organisations. It was only after changes in charity law that secular organisations were able to develop. Perhaps the German case is not so peculiar after all. Looking at aid organisations such as Save the Children or Oxfam, we also see the religious motivations and connections that triggered their beginnings. Going further back to anti-slavery abolitionism the strong religious dimensions are well known.

4E.M.: When I started doing research on the Arab Red Crescent society, I expected this organisation to be very inspired by religious, in particular, Islamic values in a similar or even stronger manner than its European counterpart, the Red Cross. In my archival research, however, I realised that although Islamic references played an important role for the Egyptian humanitarian activists and mattered, for example, in the organisation of charitable activities linked to religious feasts, the Egyptian Red Crescent, in internal correspondences or press releases, also often referred to humanity and human values in order to legitimate and advertise its engagement. In this, it differed a lot from other organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which declared religion the central pillar of its humanitarian engagement. Nonetheless, despite a certain competition between both organisations, they also cooperated in times of crisis. In a similar manner, in the context of the network on missionaries and humanitarian aid that I mentioned above, we also discovered surprising points of interconnections between Christian missionaries and humanitarian organisations which worked together in times of crises. During the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, for instance, nuns of the French missionary order “Filles de la Charité” worked closely together with and for the ICRC in hospitals for wounded civilians in Palestine.

5In your opinion, which contributions and novelties can the field of religious studies bring to the history of humanitarianism, and vice versa?
E.M., J.P.: The two fields may profit from each other a lot. Religious studies help consider seriously the religious and transcendent dimensions of humanitarian action, in particular the continuities and transformations of religious discourses and thoughts in “modern” humanitarian language. The practice of “témoignage” (witnessing) propagated by the NGO Médecins sans Frontières cannot be fully understood without going back to the Christian tradition of witnessing one’s own faith or God’s good actions in the world. From this perspective, so-called neutral or secular humanitarian organisations have been often more religious than they realised themselves.
The history of humanitarianism in turn demonstrated to religious studies how important it is to take into account the political, diplomatic and social context when analysing the history of humanitarian activities that seem completely apolitical at first sight or claim to be so. Good examples of this are proselytising activities which often used education and health services as a means for their efforts but were in a manner part of European colonialism. The various activities of missionaries at the same time relied on the logistical, ideological and even financial support of the colonial state, colonial societies or trading companies. Finally, the history of humanitarian and religious studies might both benefit from a change of perspective, i.e., considering the agency of beneficiaries.

6In the scholarship there is often a distinction between humanitarianism and charity. Do you find this distinction adequate and where do you draw the line between these categories?
E.M., J.P.: If historians distinguish between humanitarianism and charity, they make certain assumptions about motives, professionalism, effects, new initiatives or break-throughs, and political or religious dimensions. It seems to us that neither are these assumptions correct nor were the two clearly distinct in the past. Different factors came together at particular points in the history of humanitarian aid (see J. Paulmann, “Conjunctures in the history of international humanitarian aid during the twentieth century”, In: Humanity 4, 2013, 215-38). If as researchers we use these various terms we should be aware of connotations and define explicitly what we mean. For example, faith-based organisations were highly professional and acted mainly from religious motivation. Yet Christian missions also supported imperial agendas and saw Christianity as an essential part of the civilizing mission; they could also pursue anti-communist aims under the label of charity, for example when giving aid to Russians at the end of the First World War.
However, it is important to analyse the language the historical players themselves used. Those involved often employed particular terms for a purpose. Regardless of what the activity may have been, it could seem useful to them to speak of humanitarian activities when they addressed a particular audience in order to win its support whereas under different circumstances the term charity might have a bigger attraction. It seems that religious actors more often talked about charity while the ICRC used humanitarianism to emphasise its political neutrality. We should always ask why which terms were used by which actors. In other cultural contexts, such as the Islamic world, the socio-historical connotations may also be, when for example the term “humanitarian(ism)” was also used by religious actors.

7Religious actors and organisations involved in humanitarianism often claimed their neutrality and impartiality, above any political agendas and competition. To which extent was religious humanitarianism in fact political?
E.M., J.P.: Of course, religious humanitarianism was also political if we understand this term as linked to its position in society in general. Especially in the colonial context, religious actors and organisations happened to be deeply involved in colonial rule and politics, most often on the side of the colonising powers, but sometimes also on the side of the societies under colonial domination. As missionaries were dependent on financial, but also logistical and juridical support of the colonial governments, it was only with difficulty that they could take or claim an impartial attitude. The Jesuits and their relief activities in 19th and 20th century-Lebanon and Syria investigated by Chantal Verdeil is one of many examples.

8Does the approach through a religious lens help to revise our general understanding and periodization of modern humanitarianism?
E.M., J.P.: Although we cannot ignore that at certain moments new, non-religious humanitarian organisations emerged, we need to realise that they often developed out of and in parallel or in close entanglement with religious organisations. For example, as Davide Rodogno argues, the American Near East Relief (NER), although it declared itself as a secular organisation, had tight links with American missionaries who had been engaged in the Middle East for some time: these missionaries provided knowledge, personnel, and also structural and logistical support to the secular partner organisation. One could even say, as Katharina Stornig argues, that 19th century religious and missionary organisations to a certain extent were more than a prelude to the development of modern humanitarianism. They should rather be regarded as an integral and continuous part of its history. The history of humanitarian activities by religious organisations and its entanglements with other developments demonstrate that non-religious organisations did not emerge subsequently to religious organisations but rather in parallel, with conjunctions between them at certain moments. This also becomes evident when we study Islamic humanitarian organisations. Their origins go far beyond classical landmarks of humanitarian history, such as World War One, and have been linked closely to religious foundations (Arabic awqaf) which were providing aid for many centuries.

9In your opinion, to which extent did religious actors involved in humanitarian and charity work contribute to the emergence of the welfare state?
E.M., J.P.: Speaking about the Islamic context, religious actors were definitely part of the emerging welfare state, where they were either supported or restricted by colonial and national powers. For example, religious foundations, either Islamic, Christian or Jewish, were at times encouraged and at times hindered to provide medical or food aid. In the European context, the development was quite similar, as religious institutions played a crucial role in the emergence of the welfare state in the 19th century. But what about the further development in the 20th century and what about the relations between Europe and other regions in the world?
The topic generally deserves further study. How did missionary and colonial activities advance welfare provisions and for whom did they do so? How did they affect existing local activities and knowledge? How were colonial structures of public health, schooling and especially professional and technical training transformed in the post-colonial era of independent states? For these questions, the agency of so-called beneficiaries becomes important. This agency is very difficult to reconstruct from the sources available to historians. Yet, it is not impossible. In a chapter in our volume Gendering Global Humanitarianism, Beth Baron has analysed the agency of Egyptian women who made a big effort and often crossed long distances to reach the dispensaries which took care of their ill babies. This example also corrects the image of Muslim or Arab individuals and groups as not being interested in medical or technical support, be they from outside or inside the country.

10Did religious actors and organisations approach the media in a specific way?
E.M., J.P.: What is the “media”? If we understand the media in a broad sense, religious actors and organisations dealt differently with the media. A peculiar feature of religious actors has been that they not only interacted with the press or television but that they had their own channels in the form of newspapers, pamphlets, engravings and photos, lantern lectures and radio stations. The churches and missionary societies were in fact media organisations with an institutional structure and financial means including fund raising in a most efficient manner. Male and female missionaries, spouses, priests and nuns were journalists but in name. In later periods, professionally trained staff took over. Religious media were one important element of the institutionalised global media system and contributed to the development of ethical norms, regulations and standards that govern production, distribution and reception of media products and their content. The example of the Congo Reform movement at the turn of the 19th century exemplifies the importance of missionary networks for taking images of the gruelling colonial practices of labour exploitation, distributing and displaying them to a European audience as well as using them in a political campaign to make some changes, even if limited ones, in the Belgian colonial system.

11How can historians grasp the gender dimension in humanitarianism when they examine primary sources? Do you see gender boundaries as being stronger in religious humanitarian work compared to non-religious humanitarianism?
E.M., J.P.: Scholars have only recently begun to explore systematically the role of women and men. First, many humanitarians were women, yet their contributions, ideas, reflections, and voices have often remained unheard by scholars who have failed to reflect upon gender-biased structures, divisions of labour and power relations in humanitarian encounters, organisations and archives. This is particularly the case for those numerous women who were not in the forefront of the social or humanitarian reform movements of their time, such as well-known figures as Eglantyne Jebb (1876-1928), who has become one of the humanitarian icons which made it into mainstream histories of humanitarianism. Second, research has for a long time looked at religious women in the context of philanthropy and care, separating it from the history of humanitarianism as non-religious, political and rather male-dominated. We think it is important to link both fields as they are closely connected to each other. This is what we argued in our edited volume Gendering Twentieth-Century Humanitarianism. We highlighted that a focus on gender not only concerned women, but men as well. For the religious context that means that female and male missionaries as well as the people with whom they interacted on the ground and in the Church hierarchies contributed to the construction of certain ideas of femininity and masculinity.
A third topic in which scholars of humanitarianism have already started to fruitfully apply gender as a category of research concerns the narratives and representations in the humanitarian politics of compassion. Especially with regard to religious organisations, we ought to be not only interested in studying how humanitarianism affected men and women, but also in learning more about the ways in which gender-specific interpretations and ideologies shaped humanitarian discourses and narratives in the 20th century. Recent research of the last few years has revealed that humanitarian organisations have often represented women as passive or innocent and as victims in order to trigger empathy and engagement by donors, because representations of men were reported to provoke rather negative reactions by potential donors. These narratives can be traced back to the colonial era when gender differences intersected with racial and class differences to present European men as saviours of endangered indigenous women who were endangered by indigenous men, while European women were regarded as both capable and weak at the same time.

12Scholars specialised in religious studies who recently examined the history of humanitarianism try to bring to light the voices of the beneficiaries which remains a challenging task given the scarcity of sources. How can we tackle this methodological challenge?
E.M., J.P.: This is indeed a big challenge. One way to tackle this is to critically reflect on what we understand by beneficiaries and donors. This includes questioning the way in which we see Western individuals and institutions as donors and non-Western ones as beneficiaries. Historical examples show that outside Europe, there were many humanitarian initiatives which were motivated either by religious or secular ideas. A telling example are the many philanthropic societies in the Arab world whose voice can be brought to light through their own archival documents. A second way to face this challenge for the post-colonial context is to rely on oral history interviews. Fortunately, there have been initiatives to collect the voices of people who were victims of humanitarian catastrophes and thus beneficiaries of aid. Great examples are a database concerning the war of partition in India and Pakistan in 1947, entitled​ or another one about the Israel-Palestine war of 1948 called​OralHistory/​index.html.

13In the light of the increasing scholarship in the field over the last few years, what new research avenues could you possibly consider?
E.M., J.P.: In the particular field, more research needs to be done on interreligious connections or rivalries between Islamic, Jewish and Christian charities. Until today, there is often a focus on one specific religion and even on one specific confession in the case of Christianity, but as has been shown, there were very many interconnections.
In terms of politics of humanitarianism, the period of decolonization in the so-called “Global South” is a period we still do not know very well. What was the role of humanitarian agencies and players in the transformation? What were their relations to the former colonial powers? And how did their position change or was maintained in relation to the governments of the newly independent countries? Exploring these relations further will also tell us more about the complex links between humanitarian aid and development, a topic recently explored by Annalaura Turiano and Malak Labib at a workshop they organised at the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology (IFAO) in Cairo.
With respect to current humanitarian crises, this may lead to the analysis of the connections between humanitarian aid and environmental movements. Today, many NGOs rely on religious authorities in order to implement changes in environmental thinking. Are there any ‘environmental’ tracks leading from past activities of humanitarian organisations to this apparently new concern? What role has the idea of protecting the “creation” played? With regard to emerging infectious diseases, such as Covid-19, we may look towards previous involvement of religious agencies and actors in fighting diseases and implementing, for example, vaccination campaigns. Seen overall, present humanitarianism and the presence of humanitarian needs will no doubt continue to pose questions about the past which need careful historical research to provide answers for humanity.

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Esther Möller et Johannes Paulmann, « At the Intersection of Religion and Humanitarianism: An Interview with Esther Möller et Johannes Paulmann »Mélanges de l’École française de Rome - Italie et Méditerranée modernes et contemporaines, 134-2 | 2022, 209-214.

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Esther Möller et Johannes Paulmann, « At the Intersection of Religion and Humanitarianism: An Interview with Esther Möller et Johannes Paulmann »Mélanges de l’École française de Rome - Italie et Méditerranée modernes et contemporaines [En ligne], 134-2 | 2022, mis en ligne le 29 mars 2023, consulté le 05 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Esther Möller

Université des armées fédérales à Munich (Universität der Bundeswehr München)

Johannes Paulmann

Leibniz–Institut für Europäische Geschichte – Université de Mayence (Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz)

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