International solidarity movements in the Low Countries during the long twentieth century. New perspectives and themes

International solidarity movements in the Low Countries during the long twentieth century. New perspectives and themes

Universtité Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) / KU Leuven (KUL)
Vom - Bis
26.05.2016 - 27.05.2016
Charles Roemer (ULB) / Kim Christiaens (KUL)

Over the two last decades, international historiography has given much consideration to the ways in which a so-called “global civil society” was well under its way before the end of the Cold War. It has now became fashionable to depict the 20th century as “the century of NGOs” and the apogee of “transnational civil societies” which projected human rights and various kinds of international solidarity across the globe. Citizens in Europe broadened their scope towards what happened in foreign and distant countries in the Global South, or – closer to their homes – to dictatorships in Eastern or Southern Europe. Making sense of the bewildering variety of foreign causes and countries that inspired social movements in Europe as well as the elective and changing affinities of this activism, has proved to be a challenge for many historians. The history of transnational activism during the twentieth century has for a long time been written with a fragmented focus, with little diachronic and synchronic comparison between different solidarity movements and countries. Concepts such as the “human rights revolution of the 1970s” and “new social movements” tend to stress change and discontinuity. In recent years, new voices, increased access to archives, and the growing interdisciplinary nature of the research field have however stimulated fresh perspectives and new themes in the history of international solidarity movements.

The aim of this conference is stimulate innovative research on the rise of international solidarity movements in the Low Countries – the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg – over the long twentieth century. It wants to put these movements in a broader comparative and transnational perspective, and embed them in other research fields, such as the history of the Cold War, decolonization, European integration, and communism.

Papers can focus on three issues, not exclusively:
1. Belgium and the Netherlands as sites and actors in the development of international networks of solidarity during the 20th century. Belgium and the Netherlands have profiled themselves as transnational sites of international campaigns over peace and solidarity. Was this role so unique as often averred, and how were activists and campaigns in the Low Countries embedded in broader European and global networks? What was the role of national and international politics (such as decolonization policies and the Cold War) in the history of transnational activism? How did international politics and diplomacy relate to social movements?

2. The import and export of ideas of “revolution”: Solidarity movements are an interesting laboratory of social and political change. Do they extend the action of trade unions and other “pillarised” organisations or do they rather constitute the end of their organisational monopoly? Are they the melting pots of a new type of society ? Do they clear the way for the political participation of previously underrepresented categories? Are they an outgrowth of the disenchantment with Western European reformism, institutionalised corporatism, consensus politics and economic stagnation, projecting their dreams and expectations of a world revolution to distant and exotic locations? The solidarity movements certainly also show that globalisation was not limited to the corporate world. How did local and international actors and structures interact? How real or how imagined were their encounters ? Does this process correspond to the circulation of ideas and means of action coined by Håkan Thörn as the “global civil society”?

3. Human rights and democracy as contested issues. The history of transnational social movements has mostly been told and remembered as a struggle for moral values and political principles such as democracy and human rights. This narrative has tended to obscure the contested nature of international solidarity, as well as actors and ideas that do not fit this storyline. In the wake of the fall of state socialism in the East, there has been for instance a tendency to widen the gap between communism and morality, which makes communist parties and movement stand awkwardly in the history of transnational activism. Narratives of humanitarianism and non-violent resistance have also tended to pooh-pooh the appeal of “armed resistance”, and its complex relationship with human rights and democracy. Also the role of the “right” in solidarity movements has traditionally been neglected. All this renders it interesting to look at the construction of narratives regarding international solidarity. Who has written the history and made the memory of international solidarity movements, and what are the forgotten networks and ideas? How can we cut through rather linear, sentimental and teleological narratives of the rise of human rights?

The conference is organized by the Université Libre de Bruxelles and KU Leuven and takes places in Brussels on 26-27 May.
Please send proposals of no more than 350 words accompanied by a short bio, to by Saturday, 20th February 2016. The language of the workshop will be English. Limited financial aid will be available to those who need help with travel expenses. A publication of selected papers is planned.



Charles Roemer
Université Libre de Bruxelles
Av. F. D. Roosevelt, 50. 1050 Bruxelles.