23rd Gellner Lecture: The Soviet Union, Self-Determination, and the Creation of the Postwar Human Rights System (Eric Weitz)

Date(s) - 23/04/2019
16:30 - 17:30

Playfair Library, Old College, South Bridge, Edinburgh, EH8 9YL

Prof. Eric Weitz will deliver the 23 Gellner Lecture titled: The Soviet Union, Self-Determination, and the Creation of the Postwar Human Rights System. The lecture is free and requires no ticket. It will take place at Playfair Library, Old College, South Bridge, Edinburgh, EH8 9YL at 17:30-18:30 on Tuesday 23 April.



Prof. Weitz is Distinguished Professor of History and the former Dean of Humanities and Arts at The City College of New York (CCNY). Previously he was on the faculty of the University of Minnesota and St. Olaf College. At Minnesota he chaired the History Department and directed the Center for German and European Studies. He held the Arsham and Charlotte Ohanessian Chair in the College of Liberal Arts and was Distinguished McKnight University Professor.

Trained in modern German and European history, Weitz has also worked in international and global history. He is currently completing, A World Divided: A Global History of Nation-States and Human Rights since the Eighteenth Century. His major publications include Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy (2007; second expanded edition 2013),  A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation (2003; reprint with new foreword 2014), and Creating German Communism, 1890-1990: From Popular Protests to Socialist State (1997), all with Princeton University Press.  Weimar Germany was named an “Editor’s Choice” by The New York Times Book Review.



Most people think that the international human rights system is a liberal creation fostered by the United States and its allies. There are good grounds for such views. However, the Soviet Union allied with countries from what we now call the Global South to create a much more expansive human rights system. The question immediately arises:  How can we even talk about human rights in a system that, under Stalin, was bloodily repressive, that killed, tortured, and deported millions of its own citizens? Yes, we can talk, in one and the same breath, about rights in the Soviet Union while also recognizing the deeply repressive and murderous character of the system. Soviet history adds many new angles and panes to the multistoried, fragile glass house of human rights.

As early as 1947, at nothing less than the UN debate on Palestine, Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet ambassador to the UN and later foreign minister gave an acute and moving speech in support of the foundation of a Jewish state. Before the UN, Gromyko spoke with great sympathy about the “indescribable” Jewish suffering and “almost complete physical annihilation” of Jews under the Nazis. Gromyko went on to lament the sorrowful state of Jewish survivors, many of them homeless or living in displaced persons camps, all of them impoverished. If the UN ignores their plight, he argued, it would violate “the high principles proclaimed in [the UN] Charter, which provide for the defense of human rights, irrespective of race, religion, or sex. The time has come to help these people, not by words, but by deeds.” Gromyko used the desperate situation of Jews to attack the western powers, who had utterly failed the Jews, he charged. None had been able to protect them from Nazi violence, none had helped Jews defend their rights. Hence, the Jews aspire to their own state, and the UN should not deny them this right.

The passing of the two covenants in 1966 represented a landmark in the development of the international human rights system. The promise of 1948 and the UDHR had, it seemed, been fulfilled. A great deal of the credit rests on the countries of the Soviet bloc and the Global South. The United States, in contrast, has still not ratified the covenant on economic, social, and cultural rights. On the international plane, then, the USSR became a firm advocate of human rights, especially in regard to decolonization, self-determination, social rights, and women’s rights. Strange but true:  a country that on its home turf was deeply repressive, that denied large segments of its populace basic rights and at times murdered and terrorized its own citizens on a vast scale, this same country promoted human rights at the international level.

So it was in the Soviet Union. When a human rights movement emerged in the mid-1960s, its members – in its origins overwhelmingly from the intelligentsia – called not for the overthrow of the Soviet Union, but for the fulfillment of Soviet law.The language of rights, proclaimed with such flourish in the 1936 constitution and its successor in 1977, served as the weapon hurled by dissidents as they called on the Soviet government to respect freedom of speech and assembly and the right to emigrate (among other rights). Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders had helped uncork the bottle. The vocabulary of human rights entered Soviet discourse even though the USSR had abstained in 1948 on the vote on the UDHR. Khrushchev used the phrase “human rights” in his address to the General Assembly in 1960, as had Gromyko before him in 1948 (as we have just seen). The USSR and its Soviet bloc allies retained their seats on the UN’s Commission on Human Rights, a powerful perch from which they influenced international proclamations and treaties. By the late 1950s, the Soviet Union was speaking and acting as if it had actually signed the UDHR.

Activists demanded a halt to the extra-judicial, inhumane repressions of individuals who had dared to speak out, many of whom languished in prisons, psychiatric hospitals, and labor camps. Soon enough, activists would also draw upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, thereby internationalizing their movement. In turn, foreign support for these Soviet dissidents helped create the modern human rights movement, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch two prominent examples. National and social rights within the country, the USSR as a major actor in the creation of the postwar human rights system, and the emergence of a domestic dissident and human rights movement from the 1960s onward – these topics make the Soviet experience critical to any history of human rights.