Neither Right nor Left: Interwar Internationalism between Justice and Order

The Birth of the New Justice: The Internationalization of Crime and Punishment, 1919–1950
Mark Lewis
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. xii + 346 pp.

The Great War and the Origins of Humanitarianism, 1918–1924
Bruno Cabanes
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. vii + 360 pp.

The Emergence of International Society in the 1920s
Daniel Gorman
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. xii + 377 pp.

Toward the very end of The Division of Labor, his 1897 masterpiece on the modern form of social solidarity produced by industrial modernity, Emile Durkheim offered the provocative observation that the dream of human brotherhood appeared close to realization. From his fin-de-siècle vantage point, the division of labor had successfully knit together national states and would eventually unify an even larger subset of humanity. This dream would not be achieved, Durkheim argued, “until all men form part of one and the same society, subject to the same laws.” 1 There were limits, of course; Durkheim explained that global diversity would never allow for the emergence of a single world society answerable to the same legal commands. However, societies “of the same species” could merge into a single entity that harmonized social responsibility with robust individualism.2

The Great War snapped the networked wires Durkheim saw winding round the European continent. Yet its aftermath provided an unprecedented opportunity for reformers to build institutions committed to putting prewar transcontinental solidaristic plans into action. In the decade after the war, actors from a variety of political backgrounds denounced the doctrine of the state’s supreme legal authority and promoted diverse forms of political and legal subjecthood outside the boundaries of defined political communities. Under the sign of a single international legal order, jurists debated whether individuals could claim independent legal personality and sue foreign states through the Permanent Court of International Justice, established in 1922, or bring complaints for violations of minority protection treaties directly before international courts. The subject of piracy, and its connection to the nature of international legal order, particularly captured the juridical imagination. Pirates held a unique status in Roman and international law as “enemies of the human race” —criminals who could be captured and tried by any state or private agent. After World War I, the notion that subjects could transcend national jurisdictions offered the inviting possibility that other individuals or groups could connect directly to international legal order without the mediation of the state. Clyde Eagleton, an American international lawyer, articulated the fervent intellectual interest in the subject of piracy and its connection to international legal order. During preparations for a 1930 conference on the international codification of international law Eagleton requested to serve on a committee devoted to piracy not, he wrote, “because it is romantic, but because of its connection with a subject which attracts me. How an individual can violate international law, and all that.” 3 And so despite the vast destruction caused by national conflict a world unified under a single legal order again seemed to flash into view.

How should historians interpret the numerous calls to demystify and recast state sovereignty in the decade after World War I? Three recently published books elect the 1920s as the crucial decade for understanding the transformation of Western moral and legal culture. They highlight the new international scale of political, legal, and moral imagination, and the novel importance of individual agents committed to inter-nationalist causes. In The Great War and the Origins of Humanitarianism, Bruno Cabanes argues that large scale projects undertaken in the 1920s to ameliorate the suffering caused by the war transformed basic assumptions about duties toward victims of catastrophe. Daniel Gorman’s The Emergence of International Society in the 1920s addresses the institutional transformations important for the history of globalization and global civil society. And in The Birth of the New Justice: The Internationalization of Crime and Punishment, 1919–1950, Mark Lewis examines the interwar movement to render individuals punishable under international law and its historical, if highly contingent and ironic, relation to the prosecution of individual offenders at Nuremberg and to the eventual creation of the International Criminal Court in the 1990s.

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