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  • Urban Planning and the Politics of Expert Internationalism, 1920s–1940s*
  • Phillip Wagner

On June 5, 1937, the world of Auguste Bruggemann, professor emeritus at the Paris Institute of Urbanism, collapsed.1 On this day, the governing board of the International Federation for Housing and Town Planning (IFHTP) decided to appoint Karl Strölin, a committed National Socialist and burgomaster of Stuttgart, as president.2 Until the very last moment, Bruggemann had opposed the nomination of Strölin. Unable to alter the course of the IFHTP, [End Page 79] Bruggemann resigned from the organization, to which he had devoted constant attention since the late 1910s. By the early 1920s, Bruggemann had contributed to transforming the IFHTP from an organization only propagating Ebenezer Howard's concept of the garden city to a full-fledged international expert organization engaged in classifying, evaluating, and disseminating knowledge on urban and regional planning. One of the most active IFHTP officials, Bruggemann engaged in the organization of conferences, wrote for the organization's different international journals, co-edited an international planning and housing glossary, and contributed to collaborative research projects. Thus he helped to forge a network of mostly European and North American civil servants, professors, and representatives of professional associations dedicated to various conceptions of planning and housing.3 Although Bruggemann and his colleagues in the IFHTP could not impose their ideas on national planning policies, professional groups from countries such as Great Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, and the United States freely deployed the support and expertise of the international planning and housing body to support domestic reform campaigns after 1918. From the mid-1920s to the early 1930s, Bruggemann had also played a part in the conflicts between liberals and socialists over the objectives of the IFHTP. Since the IFHTP attracted a heterogeneous membership that included not only liberals and socialists, but also communists, fascists, and National Socialists, Bruggemann was one of the voices that called for the IFHTP's political neutrality in the interwar years.4 He only abandoned his insistence on political impartiality when National Socialists attempted to conquer "his" organization. Looking back on the events of June 1937 in 1939, he reflected that allowing a National Socialist to assume the IFHTP presidency had eroded the traditions of an erstwhile "democratic [End Page 80] body."5 Comparing the machinations of National Socialists in the IFHTP to the "Anschluss of Austria," he offered the gloomy prospect that one day those IFHTP officials who had failed to stop Strölin would learn how "shortsighted" they had been.6

Bruggemann's bitter remarks do not merely suggest that political disagreements were intrinsic to the IFHTP.7 As the IFHTP was part of the larger phenomenon of expert internationalism, Bruggemann's comments also speak to the political underpinnings of this internationalism in the decades after the Great War. Historical scholarship has demonstrated that, since the nineteenth century, expert internationalism manifested itself in the transborder cooperation of professional groups such as charity organizers, social workers, public health officials, social scientists, engineers, and urban planners.8 These professional camps initiated international conferences and founded international voluntary (i.e., private "non-governmental") organizations such as the IFHTP in order to facilitate cross-border cooperation.9 Gathering, evaluating, and standardizing knowledge, these forums of expert internationalism helped invent the alleged scientific foundations of social reform. Particularly in the industrializing societies of Europe, North America, and the settler colonies of the [End Page 81] British Empire, international expert conferences and organizations aided in constructing the status of the "expert," thus legitimizing the technocratic and scientistic claims of various professional groups.10 Although voluntary institutions were not able to decide on international standards, participants in these forums could use their expertise to support domestic reformist endeavors. The political underpinnings of expert internationalism in the period prior to 1914 were shaped by the antagonism of liberalism and illiberalism. The majority of participants in international expert institutions were entangled in liberal projects of piecemeal reform that aimed at gradually amending social conditions without challenging the overall structures of capitalist economies. In the liberal reformist imagination, the perceived illiberal ideas of socialism and, later on, of communism performed the role of the "defining 'other...


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