The best books about the origins of modern humanitarianism and its consequences for the contemporary world

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a historian and professor in Louisiana, in the southern United States. When I was an undergraduate in college (many years ago!), I embraced the opportunity to study diverse subjects, ranging from the natural sciences to the humanities. I became fascinated by medicine and health and their relationship to history, society, and international relations–and have remained fascinated ever since. These interests led me to study humanitarianism and its place in 20th-century US foreign relations and international history. Over the years, I have researched and written two books and more than 20 articles on these subjects, and I love sharing this history with readers and students alike.

I wrote...

Catastrophic Diplomacy: US Foreign Disaster Assistance in the American Century

By Julia F. Irwin,

Book cover of Catastrophic Diplomacy: US Foreign Disaster Assistance in the American Century

What is my book about?

This book offers a sweeping history of US foreign disaster assistance, highlighting its centrality to 20th-century US foreign relations. Spanning over seventy years, from the dawn of the 20th century to the mid-1970s, it examines how the US government, the US military, and their partners in the American voluntary sector responded to major catastrophes around the world.

Focusing on US responses to sudden disasters caused by earthquakes, tropical storms, and floods—crises commonly known as "natural disasters"—my book highlights the complex and messy politics of emergency humanitarian relief. Deftly weaving together diplomatic, environmental, military, and humanitarian histories, the book demonstrates the importance of international disaster assistance and humanitarian aid, more broadly, to modern US foreign policy.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of In the Cause of Humanity: A History of Humanitarian Intervention in the Long Nineteenth Century

Julia F. Irwin Why did I love this book?

This book opened my eyes to the long and fraught history of humanitarian interventions–that is, military operations conducted in the name of protecting people from harm and suffering.

In recent decades, we have witnessed fierce debates over the legitimacy of these activities (in places like Rwanda, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria). Yet, as this book persuasively shows, such concerns are nothing new. Across the nineteenth century, government leaders and citizens debated–and undertook–many so-called “wars for humanity.”

With examples stretching from the Middle East to Africa to the Americas, this book raises provocative and important ethical questions about humanitarianism and human rights, both historically and today.

By Fabian Klose,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In the Cause of Humanity as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the Cause of Humanity is a major new history of the emergence of the theory and practice of humanitarian intervention during the nineteenth century when the question of whether, when and how the international community should react to violations of humanitarian norms and humanitarian crises first emerged as a key topic of controversy and debate. Fabian Klose investigates the emergence of legal debates on the protection of humanitarian norms by violent means, revealing how military intervention under the banner of humanitarianism became closely intertwined with imperial and colonial projects. Through case studies including the international fight against the slave…

Book cover of Humanitarianism and the Greater War, 1914-24

Julia F. Irwin Why did I love this book?

More than a century has passed since the First World War, but this book shows us that its humanitarian legacies are well worth remembering.

I appreciate this book for many reasons, but most of all, for the truly global perspective its authors take. They make it clear that the Great War was truly a world war. More than this, it should be remembered as a global humanitarian crisis. The authors examine many diverse efforts to assist both soldiers and civilians while also considering the messy politics involved in these relief efforts.

I find this book valuable for revealing the complex relationships between aid workers and relief recipients, a dynamic as central today as it was 100 years ago.

By Elisabeth Piller (editor), Neville Wylie (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Humanitarianism and the Greater War, 1914-24 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book provides fresh perspectives on a key period in the history of humanitarianism. Drawing on economic, cultural, social and diplomatic perspectives, it explores the scale and meaning of humanitarianism in the era of the Great War. Foregrounding the local and global dimensions of the humanitarian responses, it interrogates the entanglement of humanitarian and political interests and uncovers the motivations and agency of aid donors, relief workers and recipients. The chapters probe the limits of humanitarian engagement in a period of unprecedented violence and suffering and evaluate its long-term impact on humanitarian action.

Book cover of Preparing for War: The Making of the Geneva Conventions

Julia F. Irwin Why did I love this book?

The 1949 Geneva Conventions are often viewed as a progressive and self-evident response to the horrors of the Second World War, but this book shows that their development was a highly contested and deeply politicized process.

I greatly appreciated the depth and rigor of the author’s research. By examining archival sources from ten countries and in multiple languages, van Dijk shows that the drafters of this landmark development in international humanitarian law had competing priorities and interests. The decisions and compromises they made in the 1940s shaped the future of warfare in profound ways.

In addition to teaching me about history, this book helped me to understand the consequences for civilians caught in today’s global conflicts.

By Boyd van Dijk,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Preparing for War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The 1949 Geneva Conventions are the most important rules for armed conflict ever formulated. To this day they continue to shape contemporary debates about regulating warfare, but their history is often misunderstood.

For most observers, the drafters behind these treaties were primarily motivated by liberal humanitarian principles and the shock of the atrocities of the Second World War. This book tells a different story, showing how the final text of the Conventions, far from being an unabashedly liberal blueprint, was the outcome of a series of political struggles among the drafters. It also concerned a great deal more than simply…

Book cover of Blue Helmet Bureaucrats: United Nations Peacekeeping and the Reinvention of Colonialism, 1945-1971

Julia F. Irwin Why did I love this book?

Even after Europe’s colonies became independent, this book reveals earlier political hierarchies were preserved through a surprising channel: the United Nations and its peacekeeping forces.

I loved this book for multiple reasons, but above all, because it shows how practices we consider “humanitarian,” in fact, perpetuated power imbalances between former empires and their former colonies. It also helped me to think about the United Nations and its global role in new ways. Perhaps most importantly, it changed my understanding of international peacekeeping, showing that its history was often more violent than the name might imply.

While focused on the decades after World War II, this book also helps readers understand the political challenges with global peacekeeping operations today.  

By Margot Tudor,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Blue Helmet Bureaucrats as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This history of colonial legacies in UN peacekeeping operations from 1945-1971 reveals how United Nations peacekeeping staff reconfigured the functions of global governance and sites of diplomatic power in the post-war world. Despite peacekeeping operations being criticised for their colonial underpinnings, our understanding of the ways in which colonial actors and ideas influenced peacekeeping practices on the ground has been limited and imprecise. In this multi-archival history, Margot Tudor investigates the UN's formative armed missions and uncovers the officials that orchestrated a reinvention of colonial-era hierarchies for Global South populations on the front lines of post-colonial statehood. She demonstrates how…

Book cover of Amidst the Debris: Humanitarianism and the End of Liberal Order

Julia F. Irwin Why did I love this book?

Connecting the recent past with our contemporary moment, this book shows that humanitarian agendas have shaped the post-Cold War world in deeply unsettling ways.

I love this book because it brings together both academics and practitioners in a single volume, putting them into conversation with each other. All of the contributors are specialists in humanitarianism, but they approach this subject from very different angles and perspectives. Together, they raise provocative questions about humanitarian governance in the 21st century.

This book made me think deeply about the political and economic relationships involved in humanitarian activities. Above all, it invites us to learn from the less savory aspects of the history of humanitarianism in order to build a better humanitarian system in the future.

By Juliano Fiori (editor), Fernando Espada (editor), Andrea Rigon (editor) , Bertrand Taithe (editor) , Rafia Zakaria (editor)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Amidst the Debris as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For many liberal commentators at the turn of the 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union represented a final victory for Western reason and capitalist democracy. But, in recent years, liberal norms and institutions associated with the post-Cold War moment have been challenged by a visceral and affective politics. Electorates have increasingly opted for a closing inwards of the nation-state, not just in the democratic heartlands of Europe and North America, but also on the periphery of the world economy. As the popular appeal of the 'open society' is thrown into question, it is necessary to revisit assumptions about the…

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Traumatization and Its Aftermath: A Systemic Approach to Understanding and Treating Trauma Disorders

By Antonieta Contreras,

Book cover of Traumatization and Its Aftermath: A Systemic Approach to Understanding and Treating Trauma Disorders

Antonieta Contreras Author Of Traumatization and Its Aftermath: A Systemic Approach to Understanding and Treating Trauma Disorders

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

As a trauma therapist and dedicated researcher, I love uncovering valuable insights within lesser-known books. There are hidden gems, free from the pressure of commercial success, crafted by authors deeply committed to research, understanding, and the art of writing itself. Their dedication resonates with me, as I believe in the profound value of information and the power of critical thinking. Through my own book, Traumatization and Its Aftermath, I aim to emphasize that psychological concepts often lose their depth in translation and my mission is spreading awareness and fostering a deeper understanding of trauma and its intricate facets. With that idea in mind, I chose these five titles. 

Antonieta's book list on uncovering the human experience and exploring the depths of trauma

What is my book about?

A fresh take on the difference between trauma and hardship in order to help accurately spot the difference and avoid over-generalizations.

The book integrates the latest findings in brain science, child development, psycho-social context, theory, and clinical experiences to make the case that trauma is much more than a cluster of symptoms to be tamed, but instead best understood as development gone off course, away from growth and towards (only) survival.

This book prompts a profound shift in perception, inviting to view trauma as an intricate and diverse experience, a point of view that ultimately leads to sharper treatment and, hopefully, more healing. It encourages a transition from asking, "What happened to you?" to the deeper question, "What is your relationship with what happened to you?"

Traumatization and Its Aftermath: A Systemic Approach to Understanding and Treating Trauma Disorders

By Antonieta Contreras,

What is this book about?

The book is comprehensive, bold, and practical-a much-needed resource for the assessment and treatment of trauma. Instead of the traditional focus on the overall importance of healing, Traumatization and its Aftermath decodes why some people don't heal as easily as others, analyzes the various failures of diagnosis, and explains how to make therapeutic interventions truly effective.

This book offers a systemic deep dive into traumatization that clarifies myths and misinformation about the entire spectrum of trauma and provides both clinicians and non-clinicians with the right level of validation, preventive measures, conceptualization methodology, assessment tools, and healing facts that have not…

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