- Bread from Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism by Keith David Watenpaugh
Keith Watenpaugh’s new book, Bread from Stones, considers humanitarianism in its activist form as a set of individual and official policy responses to human suffering that emerged out of the experience of World War I. By focusing on the nature of the response to humanitarian crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Armenian experience in the postwar moment, Watenpaugh suggests that scholars more closely consider the role of humanitarianism in “contemporary human rights thinking” (p. 3). This approach marks an important development in the scholarship on global humanitarianism. Placing humanitarianism and human rights in the same field of study reorients the scholarly gaze away from debating the origins of the human rights story toward more closely considering the historical relationship between the rise of an ideology of universal rights and the practice of humanitarian intervention.
In short, Bread from Stones is a very humane book and suggests that it is time to expand the study of humanitarianism beyond the familiar story of the episodic engagement of the West in particular humanitarian campaigns to include in-depth studies of the rhetoric, institutions, and objectives of humanitarian intervention by state and nonstate actors.
The interest in knowing where contemporary notions of humanitarian intervention came from and how it worked in the past has a new urgency in today’s geopolitical and scholarly landscape. The Armenian Genocide casts a long shadow over Watenpaugh’s story of the origins of “modern humanitarianism,” which he understands as a secular refashioning of older forms of missionary-led philanthropy and aid work (p. 5). The book explores both the ideological and pragmatic origins of secular institutions led by Near East Relief, which offered aid to distressed peoples deemed deserving of assistance in the Eastern Mediterranean around the period of the Great War.
Seven chronologically arranged chapters use a thematic approach to disentangle the historical relationship between humanitarianism, the [End Page 136] nation-state, and international institutions. Instead of a conclusion, the book ends by revisiting the theme of ambiguity in the humanitarian project. This seems a missed opportunity to offer a clearer sense of how to assess the twists and turns of the powerful stories that Watenpaugh tells in the preceding chapters. By unpacking the humanitarian logic behind famine relief schemes, rescue work, Near East Relief orphanages, and the creation of the League of Nations’ Nansen passport for stateless refugees, Watenpaugh uses a range of source materials, including those from aid workers, those who received aid, and papers from international aid organiƵations, to show the “dynamic and evolving process of humanitarian action during a time of unprecedented disaster” (p. 95). By contextualizing attempts to mitigate human suffering in the ideologies and practices of the wartime and postwar moment, the author insists that historians work to create a more textured portrait of how and why the modern humanitarian movement was made.
Intervention did help suffering subjects, but in Watenpaugh’s reading of postwar humanitarian regimes, it also continued to operate in the spirit of nineteenth-century paternalism. The entry of the United States into the business of relief work starting in the late nineteenth century had important implications for how this paternal humanitarianism played out in the international arena. The case of President Woodrow Wilson’s failed vision for a postwar Armenian state, which opens chapter 6, “Between Refugee and Citizen,” highlights the important element of national self-interest to the list of factors that motivated international humanitarian intervention in the Middle East. This offered a challenge to what some aid workers at the time tried to craft as a disinterested humanitarianism that had as its new purpose the attempt to address the “root causes of human suffering” (p. 54). Watenpaugh quite rightly reminds us that historians must look carefully not only at why and how particular decisions were made, but also at who was in charge of making these decisions in the first place.
Watenpaugh’s critique of...