Special Journal Issue on ‘Youth and Internationalism in the Twentieth Century’ by Daniel Laqua and Nikolaos Papadogiannis

Our special issue explores the intricate relationship between youth, activism and internationalism in the twentieth century, covering a variety of national, international and global contexts. We focus on youth for several reasons. Firstly, young people were among the pioneers of several international initiatives. Their role in the global protests of 1968 is arguably the most famous example, yet – as the contributions to our journal issue show – there is a rich and diverse history of youth action in the international realm. Importantly, the phenomenon in question cannot be confined to protest. For instance, recent work has highlighted the political dimensions of youth mobility, as illustrated by Richard Ivan Jobs’s conceptualisation of travelling youth as ‘backpack ambassadors’.[1] Secondly, a variety of political leaders and organisations pinned their hopes on young people, launching a range of international ventures – from scholarship schemes to organisations – that were aimed at them. Such interest in the potential of young people reflected a broader phenomenon: in a variety of political imaginaries, youth was deemed crucial for building a future society. As Luisa Passerini has put it, it was also a ‘metaphor for social change’.[2] To feature the voices of young people involved in internationalist projects, our authors draw on a wide array of sources, encompassing travel accounts, memoirs, the records of youth organisations, films and much more.

Our interest in youth is combined with a second aspect, namely the ambiguous encounters that internationalism tracked and helped shape. We understand ‘internationalism’ as denoting a variety of phenomena to forge international cooperation – and we concur with scholarship that sees it as a major feature in both European and global history of the twentieth century.[3] Echoing recent works, our collection of articles demonstrates both the benevolent aims and the blind spots circumscribing internationalist initiatives. We particularly illuminate the complex links between youth, internationalism and various forms of social hierarchies. We delve into how internationalism may have been empowering but how it could also shore up power asymmetries among young people in relation to their social class, caste, gender, ‘race’, and disability. The conjoined study of youth, internationalism and the parameters of caste and disability has so far been limited, and in this respect, the journal issue covers very distinct ground.

Poster for the World University Games 1957

Our journal issue comprises an introductory essay that outlines the key parameters of our undertaking. It subsequently features eight research articles, which are broadly arranged along chronological lines. The first research article, a contribution by Sneha Krishnan, examines how ideas of ‘girlhood’ and ‘womanhood’ were being constructed within the publications of the Young Christian Women’s Association (YWCA) in India. In doing so, Krishnan traces the complex relationship between the YWCA’s Christian internationalism, colonial power relations, ideas about gender and Indian women’s actions. The history of Christian internationalism also features in Isabella Löhr’s article, which examines European Student Relief, a humanitarian venture launched by activists from the World’s Student Christian Federation. Löhr draws attention to both the historical context of this venture – launched in the aftermath of the First World War – and its operation in Central and Eastern Europe.

Following on from this, our journal issue features two contributions in which student mobility plays a central role. An article by Robert Hornsby considers the work of the Communist Youth League (Komsomol) in the Soviet Union and its interactions with students from the Global South. Hornsby explores tensions between a discourse of internationalism and the practical work of Komsomol members, thus also drawing attention to the limitations of such ventures. Similar ambiguities become evident in Daniel Laqua’s analysis of multidirectional student mobilities involving Ghana during the year’s of Kwame Nkrumah’s rule. Laqua contrasts outward student mobility – which was partly facilitated by Cold War competition for African students – with attempts by the Ghanaian state to support inbound mobility under a ‘Freedom Fighter’ scholarship scheme. As with Hornsby’s article, Laqua’s highlights the divisions that became apparent in such interactions, showing how young people’s action could run counter to official designs.

Nikolaos Papadogiannis’s article shifts the focus to a particular form of youth mobility, namely organised travel from West Germany to Israel between the late 1950s to the Six-Day War of 1967. According to Papadogiannis, these ventures reflected an ‘uneven internationalism’ in which young West Germans were primarily interested in contacting Israeli Jews while largely ignoring Arabs living in Israel (or applying Orientalist stereotypes to them). Moreover, Papadogiannis shows how young West Germans tended to either sideline the history of the Holocaust or approach it in a largely ahistorical manner.

Jodi Burkett investigates the internationalist initiatives of the Overseas Student Bureau (OSB at the University of Sheffield, which supported overseas students at the institution but also interacted with the city’s immigrant population. Burkett shows that the OSB moved in the 1970s from ‘soft’ forms of multi-culturalism to political Blackness, anti-imperialism and anti-racism. In the latter respect, her piece contributes to a wider history of Black Power in Britain, in a way that moves beyond the focus on London-based activities.

Finally, Heather Vrana analyses youth and disability in the context of the civil war in El Salvador, with a particular focus on documentary films focused on disabled young veterans in a Cuban rehabilitation camp. As Vrana shows, these films ‘fused youth, disability and transnational solidarity to appeal to a spirit of revolutionary love’. With its focus on Latin America, Vrana’s piece combines research in Disability Studies with histories of youth and internationalism.

While no journal issue can be exhaustive in its treatment, we hope that our collection of research articles as well as our introduction will offer pointers to future research, in particular with regard to the visions and tensions that manifested themselves in the global histories of youth.

Daniel Laqua is Associate Professor of European History at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne. He has published widely on the history of international campaigns, movements and organisations. Most recently, he has completed a book on Activism across Borders since 1870: Causes, Conflicts and Campaigns in and beyond Europe, which will be out with Bloomsbury Academic in September 2023.

Nikolaos Papadogiannis is a Lecturer in European History at the University of Stirling. His research explores histories of sexuality, migration, and activism in post-1945 Europe. He has recently completed an AHRC-funded project on Transnational Aids Activism in Western Europe in the 1980s-1990s.


[1] Richard Ivan Jobs, Backpack Ambassadors: How Youth Travel Integrated Europe (Chicago, IL, 2017).

[2] Luisa Passerini, ‘Youth as a Metaphor for Social Change: Fascist Italy and America in the 1950s’, in Giovanni Levi and Jean-Claude Schmitt, eds, A History of Young People in the West, vol. 2 (Cambridge, MA, 1997), 281–340.

[3] See e.g. Glenda Sluga and Patricia Clavin, eds, Internationalisms: A Twentieth-Century History (Cambridge, 2017); David Brydan and Jessica Reinisch, eds, Internationalists in European History: Rethinking the Twentieth Century (London, 2021).