Biographical continuities despite political ruptures

European actors of global development in international organizations in the 20th century

Date: 31 August 2017, 02:30–05:00

Venue: Corvinus University, Fővám tér 8, room 324




In the wake of the transnational turn in historical studies, historians have begun to use international organisations as lenses through which to examine mechanisms on the global level. Largely relying on sources produced by these organisations, they observe and study how the international organisations favoured the transfer, exchange, circulation and the internationalisation of knowledge and competences produced by individuals and international networks. This panel will resemble case studies focused on European actors inside organisations such as International Labour Organisation, International Council of Scientific Unions or World Council of Churches, from both Eastern and Western part of the continent, analysing the ways in which international organisations allowed their exchanges to continue and even to strengthen despite the series of Communist revolutions in the immediate post-WW2 period. Biographical perspective will allow us to examine the hypothesis that the rupture that marked the beginning of the Cold War did not destroy the work of older, pre-existing networks (formed mainly in interwar period but some of them also rooted in pre-1914 imperial connections), which were only reconstituted within this new geopolitical framework and refocused on common issues of interest connected namely with global modernisation and development.


Ondřej Matějka (University of Geneva / Charles University Prague)


Benjamin Auberer (Heidelberg University)


Véronique Plata-Stenger (University of Geneva)

Ondřej Matějka (University of Geneva / Charles University Prague)

Eloisa Betti (University of Bologna)



Véronique Plata-Stenger: The ILO and the beginnings of technical assistance (1930s-1950s): A biographical approach

When the global economic crisis settled in Europe in the 1930s, officials of the International Labor Organization (ILO) became well aware of the difficulties to obtain new ratifications of international labor conventions and to reach any consensus on the coordination of social policies. At the same time, the ILO, through its Secretariat, sought to develop new forms of cooperation and to invest other fields, outside of Europe. New instruments of international cooperation emerged, such as the ILO's regional conferences and the missions of technical assistance, both instruments thought as appropriate responses, firstly, to the context of crisis and, secondly, to the needs of countries where social policies were less developed. In this respect, it was in Latin America that the ILO met with more success between 1930 and 1945. Our contribution will provide access to the profile and the activities of the international officials sent in mission of technical assistance from the interwar years to the post war period. We will insist on the continuities, beyond political divisions and wars, that lied behind the ILO project to establish a new world order based on peace and social justice.

Ondřej Matějka: East and West European Barthians in the construction of the WCC 1920s-1960s

The World Council of Churches (WCC), officially established in 1948, remained one of the rare international organizations where contacts between representatives from the East and the West continued even in the freezing phases of the Cold War. On the Western side, the WCC based its prestige and singularity among its rivals in Geneva on this continuity, and in the East, the top leaders of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, for instance, used the visibility of Czech actors inside the WCC as a resource in the intra-bloc power competition. The objective of this contribution is to analyse the basic condition for the maintenance of this continuity – namely the existence of a multi-national network of theologians sharing the same theological background (Barthianism). It will first introduce spaces where the contacts and circulations leading to the constitution of this network were established in the early 1920s: mainly the World Alliance of the YMCAs and the World Student Christian Federation. Furthermore, it will make sense of the logic of mutually advantageous relationships that connected its members and determined its stability over time and over politically dividing lines (including the “Iron Curtain”) and the importance of the growing focus on issues of the development of the global South.

Eloisa Betti: Struggling for equality between the local and the global: Biographies of female trade unionists and politicians in 20th century Italy

Biographies are an important source for understanding women’s involvement in the struggle for equal pay and equality rights in the Cold War era, a struggle that connected the local, the national and the global, including international organizations such as the ILO and the UN. At the same time, by analyzing the biographies of female trade unionists and politicians who played a role at international level, the continuities between the inter-war and Cold War period clearly emerge. Several left-wing women, active in left-wing unions (e.g. Cgil) and political parties (PCI, PSI) in Cold War Italy, during the Fascist Ventennio sought exile outside Italy (e.g. Soviet Union, France, Switzerland) establishing long-lasting international connections and becoming part of the Resistance movement during the World War Two. The paper will analyze some Italian female trade unionists and political leaders (e.g. Teresa Noce, Ines Pisone Cerlesi, Marisa Rodano etc.), who took their claims for equal pay and equality into the international context such as the ILO, the UN and within international networks such as WIDF, WFTU. These biographies clearly reveal how women acted as transnational agents during the Cold War, taking their claims to the different levels in which they were active and creating a fruitful interaction and exchange between them.

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