Allen on Watenpaugh, 'Bread from Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism'

Keith David Watenpaugh
Lori Allen

Keith David Watenpaugh. Bread from Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism. Oakland: University of California Press, 2015. 272 pp. $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-520-27932-2; $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-27930-8.

Reviewed by Lori Allen (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London)
Published on H-Levant (May, 2016)
Commissioned by Laila Parsons

In Bread from Stones, Keith David Watenpaugh tells the early history of humanitarianism, largely through tracing the efforts of Western organizations, especially American ones, to help Armenians during the period of massacres and genocide that stretched from before World War I. He extends the story into the response of the League of Nations to the Iraqi purge of its Assyrian Christians in the 1930s. Bringing the Eastern Mediterranean into the growing historiography of humanitarianism is a welcome corrective to what has largely been a narrative told from the perspective of Western do-gooders. More than just expanding the geography of our understanding, alongside the American humanitarian actors, Watenpaugh brings into the frame the voices, experiences, and intentions of the designated objects of Western humanitarianism, from Armenian orphans to intellectuals. Drawing on an impressive diversity of sources (including institutional archives, memoirs, and other first-hand accounts) in multiple languages (Arabic, Turkish, Armenian, and European languages), Watenpaugh blends analysis of structural and political changes across a century of history with sensitive attention to the experiences of individual humanitarian actors and beneficiaries, alongside institutional accounts of Near East Relief, the major humanitarian player in the region, and the League of Nations.

Distinguishing modern humanitarianism as a particular form, phase, and “ideology of organized compassion,” Watenpaugh designates it a “phenomenon of late colonialism” of the late interwar period, informed by ideologies of race, ethnicity, and nation (pp. 4, 179-180). The book argues that in its modern formulation originating in Western Europe and North America, humanitarianism is distinct from its earlier version by virtue of its largely secular approach to “addressing the root causes of human suffering” (p. 44). Also making it modern is the regular use of social scientific methods and representative forms, and the propounding of a universalizing ideology of transnational practice.

Watenpaugh places this book in the growing scholarly conversation about the history of human rights and its relationship to the development of humanitarianism. He disagrees with scholars who find more overlaps between human rights and humanitarianism in the early part of the twentieth century. Instead, he insists that “the reason of humanitarianism pivoted not on the rights of the victim of war or genocide, but on the humanity of those providing assistance and ... the humanity of those receiving it” (p. 21). The academic “who started it and when” debate chugs on (recently refueled by Samuel Moyn’s provocative assertion in The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History [2010] that the human rights movement did not really begin until the 1970s), and the book is cast as “bringing the theory and practice of humanitarianism into the history of human rights” (p. 3). It comes to a somewhat vague conclusion that the League of Nations’ humanitarian discourse “seems to come so close ... to asserting the role of individual human rights,” but that it was only later and in response to humanitarianism’s failures that the human rights system crystallized in the 1940s (p. 180).

What is interesting is the attention Watenpaugh draws to how political and national frameworks for understanding the mass brutalities of the Armenian genocide guided Western interventions in the interwar period. One of the critiques of present-day human rights and humanitarian practice is its pretense to an apolitical stance and its tendency to focus on individuals requiring Band-Aids for suffering rather than political solutions to systemic problems undergirding abuses. Watenpaugh’s history shows that, at least when it came to the Armenians, their existence as a national people, not just individually abused victims, was a Western priority. The ways that humanitarian actors generated knowledge about the Armenian situation influenced an “international consciousness that what had happened to the Armenians had been the ‘Murder of a Nation,’ [and] a ‘crime against humanity’” (p. 61). By contrast, in the book’s analysis of the “Hamidian massacres” of 1894-96, we see how political neutrality characterized the response of the American Red Cross, leading to “the substitution of humanitarianism for politics” (p. 67). Bread from Stones charts the transformations from this politically agnostic stance of humanitarianism of the late nineteen century to the Wilsonian inflected concern with the preservation of Armenians as a national people (set apart from their Arab Muslim context), ending with the failure of the humanitarian system and eventually the abandonment by the League of Nations of Armenian national aspirations.

A question posed throughout the book is about how suffering of only certain kinds of people—mainly non-Muslims—becomes a focus for Western humanitarians. Watenpaugh explains the Western humanitarian focus on Armenians in a strangely humanist way: It was “because of the practical reality that the [Armenians] had faced genocide and dispossession, were living in refugee camps in Egypt, Syria, Greece, and the Soviet Union, and were being prevented by the Republic of Turkey from going home. They were stateless, had no legal standing under international law, and were wholly reliant on Western humanitarian institutions and organizations for their mere survival” (p. 14).

Although Watenpaugh recognizes that “early twentieth-century ideas about race and religious preference informed the choices” of international humanitarians, the fact that Christians were easier to “unstranger,” as he calls it, was clearly important in the Near East Relief’s motivations (pp. 14, 19). Explaining the humanitarian response to the Armenian predicament as being prompted by the enormity of the human tragedy seems to contradict the argument he makes about the relative lack of response to the floods and famine in Baghdad, in comparison to the strong response in Jerusalem, especially on behalf of the Jews. A core argument of this book is that humanitarian response depended on the construction of people as deserving objects of humanitarianism, as a problem for humanity; humanitarianism emerges out of cultural, religious, and political ideologies, not just the extent of the suffering. It was, after all, Christian missionaries who introduced to the American public the plight of the Armenians, figured as pious Christian victims.[1] But the book also takes care in trying to portray the many motivations—the moral, humanist, and sympathetic, the individual and professional, and not just the Christian colonial impulses—of the Americans involved in humanitarian work.

Bread from Stones will be of interest to historians and other scholars interested in World War I, the League of Nations, refugees and human rights, and of course humanitarianism and Armenian history. It will also be interesting for anyone considering the state of the world presently, as war and disregard reduces the humanity of millions of displaced people across the Middle East and beyond.


[1]. Mark Malkasian, “The Disintegration of the Armenian Cause in the United States, 1918-1927,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 16, no. 3 (August 1984): 349.

Printable Version:

Citation: Lori Allen. Review of Watenpaugh, Keith David, Bread from Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism. H-Levant, H-Net Reviews. May, 2016.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.