UNESCO: United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization

The Organisation


Paul Weindling

Paul Weindling is Wellcome Trust Research Professor in the History of Medicine in the Department of History, Oxford Brookes University.
His publications include Health, Race and German Politics between National Unification and Nazism (Cambridge University Press, 1989), Epidemics and Genocide in Eastern Europe 1890-1945 (Oxford University Press, 2000), and Nazi Medicine and the Nuremberg Trials: From Medical War Crimes to Informed Consent 1945-55 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).
He edited  International Health Organisations and Movements 1918-1939 (Cambridge UP, 1995).
His research interests include international health organisations in the twentieth century, the medical emigration to Britain in the 1930s and 40s, and Nazi medical war crimes.
“The UNESCO German Programme, International Politics and Administrative Biography: the Role of John Thompson, 1946-1954”

One of the aims underlying the foundation of Unesco was educational reconstruction after the Second World War. This paper examines Unesco policy to the occupied territories, and especially Germany. The approach is biographical with a focus on the Unesco official John West Thompson, who from 1947 to 1954 took a key role in formulating German policy. He joined a group of visionary intellectuals who supported the foundation of UNESCO having the idea that the post-war world needed new educational and ethical standards.

A biographical approach allows one to understand more fully the expectations, which brought an official to work for Unesco. It allows one to combine a number of factors – such as politics and religion – and how these were negotiated at a time of rising Cold War tensions. Thompson tried to interest Huxley in the ethics of medical research in the light of Nazi medical atrocities, hoping that Unesco might disseminate any ethical Code arising from the Nuremberg Trials. His contact with Huxley led to employment as a Unesco official can be seen as part of an endeavour to provide post-war Germany with therapy, and reorienting German education and youth culture.

At first, policies towards Germany were held up by the incipient Cold War tensions on the Allied Control Commission. Julian Huxley hoped that Thompson’s links with the Control Commission as a former scientific intelligence officer would be useful in overcoming Soviet opposition to Unesco work in Germany. Eastern European delegates opposed the opening of a Unesco office in Stuttgart. The second phase involved initiating scattered assistance for study visits and library resources, so as to overcome Germany’s cultural isolation. Huxley supported a study by Unesco of Nazi psycho-political techniques. The third phase involved the founding of a German Unesco Committee, as well as institutes for education, social science and youth.

Thompson’s biography is relevant in that as a former neuropathologist, he was close to Huxley. Having been born in Mexico, he was able to retain his position under the second Director-General, Torres-Bordet. Thompson organised the German Unesco Committee, as well as three German Unesco Institutes – for education, youth and social science. Yet he encountered increasing difficulties in 1953-54. There was pressure to seek support from American foundations for the new German institutes. Thompson’s difficulties in securing funding, and in gaining the confidence of Luther Evans contributed to his resignation in 1954.

As a Roman Catholic who admired Jacques Maritain (a major influence on Unesco’s human rights programme), Thompson bridged the scientific humanism of Huxley with Christian humanism. Within West Germany, religious tensions surfaced over whether the UNESCO education institute should be sited in Catholic Freiburg or in Protestant Hamburg. The establishment of each institute involved academic rivalries, and differing viewpoints on political structures and cultural policies.

The paper considers the work of each institute, and the associated networks of academic and international support. Overall, Thompson saw the three institutes as a single international endeavour, and Unesco as providing educational and cultural therapy as a cure for “the German problem”. Although the programme and some aspects of his efforts were criticised, Thompson’s endeavours laid the foundation for enduring institutional arrangements in the Federal Republic of Germany.

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