A Brief History of Humanitarianism

Early humanitarianism was indebted to Kantian humanism, including not only his ideals of human dignity and Kingdom of ends, and his cosmopolitan notion of rights accorded to human beings qua human above and beyond national citizenship, but also his humanitarian view of Christ. The very first uses of the word humanitarian in the late eighteenth century referred to those who believed Christ’s nature was human only and not divine, with Kant leading the way.[1] One of the earliest encyclopedia entries on “humanitarian” begins, “The Humanitarian or Unitarian Christology makes Christ a mere man, though the wisest and best of men, and a model for imitation. . . . Kant may be said to have inaugurated the modern Humanitarian view. He regarded Christ as the representative of the moral ideal, but made a distinction between the ideal Christ and the historical Jesus” (Herzog and Schaff 2011, 58). Indeed, in Religion within the Limits of Mere Reason, Kant says, “For let the nature of this human being well-pleasing to God be thought as human, inasmuch as he is afflicted by just the same needs and hence also the same sufferings, by just the same natural inclinations and hence also the same temptations to transgression, as we are” (Kant 1999, 6:64).

In the aftermath of what is considered to be the first truly international natural disaster, the 1755 earthquakes in Lisbon, Kant wrote three essays explaining how the earthquakes were a natural phenomenon and not punishments from God and how, in the face of the inhospitality of nature, we must come together as a cosmopolitan community. Even foreshadowing the notion of humanitarian political neutrality and humanitarian space, Kant suggests that a noble prince would stop warring on a country that was the victim of a natural disaster like an earthquake (Kant 2015, 1:461). In his second essay, titled “History and Natural Description of the Most Noteworthy Occurrences of the Earthquake That Struck a Large Part of the Earth at the End of the Year 1755,” Kant claims, “Whatever damage the . . . earthquakes [may] have . . . occasioned [erweckt] men on the one side, it can easily make it up with profit on the other side,” and he mentions natural hot springs as a benefit: “We know that the warm baths, which in the process of time may perhaps have been serviceable to a considerable part of mankind for promoting health, owe their mineral property and heat to the very same causes from which happen in the bowels of the earth [and] the inflammations that shake it” (Kant 2015, 1:456). On the cosmic balance sheet, Kant’s firm belief in Providence assures him that the benefits of earthquakes outweigh the costs. In this sense, Enlightenment humanitarianism begins with a Christian teleological version of cost–benefit analysis.

The use of humanitarian in relation to Christ’s human suffering continues into the twentieth century. But, in the mid-nineteenth century, the word humanitarian takes on its modern meaning of having concern for humanity (although even then, it was originally used as a derogatory term to describe those who were overly sentimental). At the same time, humanitarian became associated with widespread human suffering, a meaning in use today in phrases such as “humanitarian crisis” or “humanitarian catastrophe.” Humanitarianism, then, in all of its uses, is related to suffering, and originally to Christ’s suffering on the cross. On one hand, the concept “humanitarian” originates with the bloody and violent sacrifice of Jesus, and on the other, it signals his salvation through the sovereign power of God, who welcomes all sinners into his house through Christ’s blood.

We don’t need the Oxford English Dictionary or archival research to know that in practice, humanitarian aid has been, and in many cases continues to be, essentially linked to Christian charity, especially in the context of war. The oldest and largest humanitarian aid organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross, still uses a symbol from medieval Christianity signifying Christ’s blood on the cross. And in its beginnings, along with bandages and medicine, nurses delivered a Christian civilizing mission. The relation of justice to the balm and unction of Christ is at work in the birth of humanitarian aid, beginning with the founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863 in Geneva, Switzerland, around the same time that Hugo was arguing for abolitionism from his exile off the coast of Normandy. From the start, however, the Red Cross had its detractors. For example, nurse Florence Nightingale told its founder, “Such a society would take upon itself duties which ought to be performed by the government of each country and so would relieve them of responsibilities which really belong to them . . . and render war more easy” (Greenspan 2013). And by World War I, “the American Red Cross was considered so essential to the war effort . . . that a Wisconsin public official was convicted under the Espionage Act for calling it, among other things, ‘nothing but a bunch of grafters’” (Greenspan 2013).