Workshop Report: Beyond Relief and Rehabilitation – UNRRA in Historical Perspective, 1943-1947


In the first post in our new series of workshop and conference reports, Samantha Knapton and Katherine Rossy report on a workshop they organised at Newcastle University on 28 June 2018.


At the end of June, Newcastle University hosted the first ever workshop dedicated entirely to the world’s first truly international humanitarian agency: the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). Co-organised by Samantha Knapton (Newcastle University) and Katherine Rossy (Queen Mary University of London), the workshop aimed to bring together likeminded scholars and experts of UNRRA with the aim of revealing how humanitarian needs conflicted with administrative and political restrictions within the context of WWII and its immediate aftermath. The full conference programme can be viewed here, along with a list of abstracts.

UNRRA’s often poor reputation amongst its contemporaries has caused this pioneering organisation to be left by the wayside when studying twentieth century history. Sandwiched between the historical giants of the Second World War and the Cold War, the topic of post-war reconstruction is rapidly gaining momentum with scholars across a wide spectrum. As current forced population displacement across the world has recently surpassed the levels caused by the Second World War, it has become imperative to look to the first organisation entrusted with helping those who were left devastated by atrocities in that war’s aftermath. To some observers, the Displaced Persons (DPs) of 1945 are showing alarming similarities to the refugees of the modern world. Through understanding the intricacies of UNRRA’s organisation, its achievements and failures, we can begin to comprehend the making of our modern refugees.

The Jewish DPs that remained, particularly throughout Europe, at the end of the Second World War were indeed amongst the most in need of care. Having survived the Shoah, they presented particular challenges for the Allies. Kierra Crago-Schneider (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) expertly analysed the problems of UNRRA with organisations such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) throughout the Trummerzeit (rubble-time). As highly politicised organisations sought to protect their European counterparts from further persecution, this led to a rift between UNRRA welfare workers, non-governmental organisation (NGO) workers, the Allied military and Anglo-American policies. The history of children in the immediate aftermath of the war has also drawn scholarly attention, especially the Child Search teams as part of the International Tracing Service (ITS) in the western zones of occupation. Widy Novantyo Susanto (Bilkent University, Turkey) detailed the inherent problems in determining what was ‘in the child’s best interest’. Children, some too young to recognise the language of their biological parents, were analysed by Child Search teams, and repatriated to their determined countries of origin. Susanto gave examples of the problematic measures put into place to not only determine eligibility for Allied and UNRRA care, but also to determine nationality.

Food and economic shortages formed another central theme of the workshop, where scholars like Amanda Bundy (Columbus Academy, US) examined the interplay between American-backed UNRRA food relief measures and the communist expansion in Eastern Europe. Speaking about the UNRRA missions to the Ukraine and Byelorussia, Bundy revealed that there was initially a limited degree of hope for Anglo-Soviet cooperation in the early months of the immediate post-war period. By examining key figures within the Administration, such as Fiorello LaGuardia and Marshall MacDuffie, Bundy revealed that growing Cold War apprehensions coloured, and ultimately disbanded, UNRRA humanitarian missions on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Kelly Spring (Sassoon Visiting Fellow, University of Oxford) also spoke about food supplies with a paper on the impact of the umbrella organisation COBSRA (Council of British Societies for Relief Abroad) on the welfare of DPs and the German population,  particularly vulnerable groups such as pregnant women, nursing women, children, the old and the infirm. Analysing COBSRA’s important contribution to the supply of essential foodstuffs, Spring expertly argued that the Council was able to create its own British-led food relief programme to support the special nutritional needs of these groups, which was independent of UNRRA feeding schemes. However, COBSRA’s ability to feed the Continent was dependent on Britain’s domestic and foreign policies as well as shifting transatlantic relationships, which, at times, constrained the humanitarian relief that the Council could offer to the Europeans.

On international development and post-WWII relief programs, Joseph Lawson (Newcastle University) presented a fascinating, and often forgotten, case study on UNRRA in China after the Second World War. By exploring the interaction between UNRRA and the China National Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (CNRRA), Lawson revealed that UNRRA relief efforts in post-war China engendered an agricultural mechanization process that brought about sweeping change within Chinese rural society. UNRRA’s work in the far East, he revealed, set the groundwork for future policies and practices that would forever alter Asian agricultural practices for decades to come.

Joshua Thew (Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva), similarly expanded on UNRRA’s global reach. By studying the Near East Foundation (NEF), an American philanthropic organisation, Thew revealed continuities in relief practices from the First World War to the Second World War, and argued that these continuities are reflected in the humanitarian practices of the UNRRA years. Through thought-provoking discussion on the NEF’S work in child welfare, health, sanitation, agriculture, and education, Thew ultimately challenged the historiographical view that UNRRA was a watershed in mid-twentieth century humanitarian practices by exposing continuities and precedents.

Lisa Camichos (Hickory High School, US) gave an overview of community efforts to save the village of Volos in Greece in the immediate aftermath of war. Drawing on personal records, Camichos was able to give a thought-provoking and soulful overview of the work a small community in Orlando, Florida, did for the village of Volos in Greece. As UNRRA’s poor organisation has been commented on by every participant at this workshop, it came as no surprise that while the country was embroiled in civil war, the supplies intended for the high-up and mountainous village of Volos often went missing, leaving bad memories of UNRRA to fester amongst the community.

Silvia Salvatici (University of Milan, Italy) presented a paper on UNRRA and new humanitarian practices in post-war Italy. By considering post-war Italy’s relative lack of a centralised, national welfare system, Salvatici discussed UNRRA’s objectives and policies in Italy between 1944 and 1947 against the backdrop of the Italian state’s perceived failure to build a strong, liberal democracy that would allow the people to be self-sufficient instead of reliant on international aid in the aftermath of war. A fascinating study on the interplay between humanitarian and political assistance, Salvatici ultimately showed that there is a distinction to be made between post-war relief efforts and longer-term post-war democratisation.

The workshop was privileged to welcome Jessica Reinisch (Birkbeck College London, UK), an authority on UNRRA and internationalism, as its keynote speaker. Titled “UNRRA and the History of (Nearly) Everything”, Reinisch discussed the conscious act of ‘un-seeing’ UNRRA’s place in history. Through presenting a snapshot of post-war reconstruction histories, such as those by Richard Vinen, Harold James, Eric Hobsbawm and Mark Mazower, and detailing the level to which UNRRA has been discussed, it became obvious that UNRRA has largely been neglected from the post-war reconstruction historiography.

As Pam Ballinger argued in 2013, ‘in the last two decades, historical scholarship on the work of international agencies with European refugees during and after the Second World War has acquired critical mass’, and we still see numerous works on DPs, agencies, and their aftermath. In many ways this scholarship is important and desirable. However, Reinisch eloquently pointed out two main limitations in the way UNRRA has been written about: first, UNRRA’s history is often thought about solely through the lens of its work with DPs. Second, it has been viewed as a solely American enterprise. UNRRA was so much bigger than this, however. Reinisch urged scholars to break out from focused and ‘boxed-off’ histories of DPs by pointing out that UNRRA’s history needs to be told as much more than a footnote within larger narratives. Its history is a total history, its reach was far, and its impact is lasting.

Reinisch’s point was a powerful one – UNRRA has been relegated to the sidelines and it is time for a new, outward-looking view to encapsulate everything that UNRRA touched, effected, developed, instigated, and created, and that has led us to the world we live in today. The historiography of UNRRA can and must be viewed as a total history, and it is only the confines of the historian’s mind that has reduced this towering agency to a mere footnote.