09 May 2017

Carolyn Biltoft: Passports and the League of Nations

Graduate Institute Professor Carolyn Biltoft appeared on BBC radio to explain how the modern international passport system took shape following World War One.

“The League of Nations was tasked with the impossibility of satisfying desires for international cooperation after the draconian conflict of the first world war while preserving and holding sacred the principle of national sovereignty”, said Prof. Biltoft. “It was in this context that the League held the Passport Conference in 1920 to debate how fluid, how mobile and how free-flowing the international terrain should actually be.”

“There were two competing philosophies at play: increasing cooperation to manage the febrility of the international system, or creating borders to protect the sacrosanctity and safety of individual territories. These two philosophies were equally virulent and constantly in tension.”

Prof. Biltoft said that “while people desire the mechanism that allows them to travel, it is very important to them that this mechanism explicitly reflects their own identity. In a world where nationality is a kind of currency for participating on the wide stage, for individuals it’s about getting official recognition that the label on their passport reflects what they feel about who they are.”

Referring to the desperate requests for passports from Russian Jews in Nazi Germany, she said “the irony, difficulty, beauty and tragedy of the inter-war moment is that people inside national borders where they had been put or placed, were at risk from their own governments because their ethnic or racial identity didn’t correspond to the identity that the state had defined. “

You can listen to the BBC programme here.