Research Office
07 January 2019

Romanian Nation-Building and American Foreign Assistance (1917–1940)

In her recent PhD thesis, Doina Anca Cretu looks at the case of American humanitarianism and philanthropy in Romania to broadly explore the reception of international aid diffusion in Central and Eastern Europe during the First World War and in the interwar period. The project examines the case of Romania as a region where American assistance extended to a direct agenda to relieve, rehabilitate and modernise the population and the institutions of this country. As Dr Cretu explains below, Romanian state and non-state elites domestically adapted, integrated and instrumentalised these forms of American assistance as avenues to strengthen individual, social and political agendas during a period of intense nation-building politics and policies.

How did you come to choose your research topic?

In many ways this project represents the pinnacle of a few years of interest and work in research related to practices of foreign aid, from both historical and contemporary perspectives. In basic terms, the starting point of the thesis was my general interest in the history of foreign aid in Central and Eastern Europe, the region I primarily focus on in my work. I have been particularly interested in the meaning of external assistance practices for state leaders or locals in this region, in times of sociopolitical change (e.g. regime change, postwar periods). During my undergraduate years I worked on a project on foreign aid transparency, sustained by the now-called Global Research Institute at my alma mater, College of William & Mary in the United States. Around that time, I read a book published by one of my undergraduate mentors, Dr Paula Pickering. The book, titled Peacebuilding in the Balkans: The View from the Ground Floor, investigated the way the population of Bosnia-Herzegovina responded to peacebuilding projects developed by international organisations after the end of the Balkan wars in the 1990s. This book drew me to the idea of “local responses” to forms of aid. During my master studies at the Graduate Institute I took a research-methods class in which Professor Davide Rodogno, who eventually became my supervisor, encouraged us to investigate the way scholars across disciplines treated processes and projects of foreign aid.

So, over the course of a few research experiences I realised that an investigation of what aid efforts signified for the various channels of reception in the field would be worth pursuing from a historical perspective. Even more than that, an analysis of Central and Eastern Europe as a territory of aid practices was essentially missing from the historiography at the time.

For my PhD research I went back to the First World War and the interwar period, a time of belligerence and profound changes of borders, regimes or social and ethnic structures in Central and Eastern Europe. Furthermore, this was a time when practices of humanitarianism and philanthropy abroad crystallised from short-term, emergency relief initiatives, to medium- and long-term processes. In this context, I decided to focus on the case of Romania and the diffusion of American foreign assistance in this country. I particularly paid attention to intersections and interactions between aid organisations (including leaders and representatives in this country) and Romanian state and non-state elites. When possible, I also addressed the views of some of the direct recipients of aid, many of whom were war sufferers.

Can you describe your thesis and its major findings?

The thesis has five core chapters focused thematically and chronologically on humanitarian and philanthropic assistance. They highlight emergency relief in times of war, the relief and rehabilitation of children, humanitarian efforts on behalf of Jews, as well as philanthropy for the modernisation of health structures and the institutionalisation of knowledge production.

The main argument that emerges from these chapters is that Romanian state and non-state elites sought alternate arenas of relief, rehabilitation and modernisation in order to address social and political changes that the First World War and the 1918 creation of Greater Romania generated. The relief and rehabilitation of war sufferers or underdeveloped populations (i.e. peasantry) and the modernisation of their lives were tied into the nation-building process of this new nation-state. In the context of war-generated social volatility, expanded poverty, poor institutions, and a significant peasant population, Romanian elites sought American aid, and often collaborated with organisations, their leaders and representatives. Even more so, these elites frequently instrumentalised American practices of foreign assistance on behalf of, or as a reaction to, the process of nation-building.

In the broader historical narrative of assistance, the case of Romania shows that humanitarian and philanthropic practices were profoundly asymmetrical, but not unilateral. American aid did not arrive in a void, but domestic elites adapted and integrated it in indigenous initiatives of postwar reconstruction. The new postwar Central and Eastern European states were not sites of sheer passive reception, where American assistance landed with a purpose to fight Bolshevik affinities and German military legacies of the time, or with a socioeconomic agenda to shape backward societies according to an American brand of modernity. In fact, I argue that the political, social and economic aspirations and pragmatic agendas of nation-building ultimately informed the domestic reception of assistance and, at times, its eventual outreach in Central and Eastern Europe.

At its core, this thesis examines an unwritten story of the presence of American humanitarian and philanthropic organisations in Romania during the First World War and in the interwar period. In this way, it empirically reconstructs a transnational history of Romania that draws attention to new narratives and interpretations regarding a period of deep sociopolitical transformation. This lens of “international aid” challenges the seeming rigidity of the process of nation-building as analysed by various scholars thus far. In most interpretations, the process was based on state interventions in people’s lives or on a domestically driven shaping of national consciousness in multiethnic and multinational territories. However, the story of international humanitarianism and philanthropy in this country reveals not only the outreach of the politics and policies of nation-building, but also their challenges and limits during a time of deep social instability.

Can your historical research help understand current aid issues?

As previously mentioned, my thesis shows how domestic actors instrumentalised American involvement to pursue their own nation-building projects. It thus highlights the connectedness between the domestic perception and reception and the eventual outreach of international aid on the ground. In this way, it draws attention on how international aid can enable local formal and informal structures of power and related practices of social and political transformations. Thus, while this is a deeply historical analysis, it still highlights the potential agency of direct recipients or local interlocutors of aid on the ground of its implementation.

What are you doing now?

At the moment I am a Junior Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, where I am working on a book proposal and an article that emerged from this project. I have also attempted to access some archival material in the Austrian State Archives, primarily related to information about European forms of humanitarian assistance in Transylvania and Bukovina, which were Austro-Hungarian provinces until 1918 and part of Greater Romania after the First World War. After this I will start a postdoctoral project on the genesis and structural transformation of the first European refugee camps, which were established in Austria-Hungary in 1914, in the early days of the First World War.

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Doina Anca Cretu defended her PhD thesis in International History in October 2018. Associate Professor Amalia Ribi Forclaz presided the committee, which included Professor Davide Rodogno, thesis director, and Associate Professor Katherine Lebow, from the Faculty of History at Oxford University, UK.

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Cretu, Doina Anca. “‘For the Sake of an Ideal’: Romanian Nation-Building and American Foreign Assistance (1917–1940).” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2018.

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Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Front illustration: An American Red Cross distribution centre at a monastery near Bucharest, Romania. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, American National Red Cross Collection, LC-DIG-anrc-05044.