In Frankurt: Voluntary Action

As luck would have it, the cheap train was the one that took the scenic route – along the Rhine down from Cologne to Frankfurt. Much luckier than those planning to fly over from Birmingham that day, grounded by the Lufthansa cockpit strike. It meant I found myself alongside Kate Bradley and Lucy Robinson as a shrunk but vocal British delegation to a fantastic History conference at Goethe Universität in Frankfurt on The Changing Nature of Participation and Solidarity: Voluntary Action, Volunteering and NGOs in Contemporary History.

Nicole Kramer and Christine Krüger put together a very strong programme to address the lack of attention on charity, campaigning and civil society in German historical study. Over two days the (West) German history of ‘Third World Shops’ and international child sponsoring was put alongside comparative British and German histories of carers and youth work, as well as the Swiss and wider history of active aging. A common history was drawn out across the liberal democracies of North-Western Europe. But perhaps most important was hearing of a new project on volunteer fire fighters in Central and Eastern Europe – a tradition that predated and had an important place under Soviet Communism. With its history as the frontier between Europe’s East and West in the late-twentieth century, it’s fitting it was in Germany that we met to discuss this wider history of voluntary action.

Over the two days, something was gradually dawning on me. In different ways, with different foci, many of us speaking were nudging towards calling for a new history of voluntary action – an emotional history. My own work has borrowed from the economic sociology of Viviana Zelizer and others to examine the complexities caught up with the act of handing over money. The bread and butter of philanthropy would be a donation (either to a charity or from a charity to a recipient) offered or withdrawn, accepted or refused. And then my own research has grappled with the oddities of asking recipient to contribute financially towards the services they receive subsidised philanthropically. But I don’t just want to follow the money. I want to ask what these acts meant.

Was paying something that caused anxiety or prompted fear? Was it something in which to take pride or find a source of empowerment? Was there an anticipation of status conferred? Were there feelings these activities were chosen or were they playing the role assigned them? How does all this relate to the construction of the model of the charitable recipient? The same might be asked of the fear, shame, pride and ideas of heroism bound up with the recording of charity singles or serving as a volunteer fire fighter. Feelings of loss also came to the fore, whether in individual lives, communities or generations. Discussing this on the day Thomas Dixon’s Weeping Britainnia was published made me wonder if we’d somewhat bypassed the cultural history of voluntary action for which I’ve been imagining for a while I was positioning myself, and jumped on to an emotions history approach instead.

Eschenheimer Turm, fifteenth-century city gate in Frankfurt

It was good to catch up with Melanie Oppenheimer, who gave an excellent keynote on gender and voluntary action. Since I last saw her she has become the first female Chair of History at Flinders University in Adelaide. A few years ago we called for a new focus on the transnational histories of voluntary action, and it was always hoped this would be pursued by a community of researchers around the globe. So it was great to hear plans for a German-based international network of the voluntary sector’s historians and archivists.

It’s a testament to the efforts of Georgina Brewis and others with the campaign for voluntary sector archives that it was understood as crucial from the start that archivists should be part of this new network. It was also good to hear German historians had found useful both the blog we set up and the podcasts I introduced – with the Voluntary Action History Society’s becoming the first of the IHR’s seminar series to make recordings of their London talks freely available, reaching new audiences around the world. It’s a pleasant vindication, but what’s really exciting is the energy driving things forward. If one thing was eminently clear in Frankfurt, the next phase in the history of voluntary action is in good hands.

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