In This Review

Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (Human Rights in History)
Human Rights in the Twentieth Century (Human Rights in History)
Cambridge University Press, 2010, 366 pp

This important collection brings together historians attempting to chronicle the contested path Enlightenment ideas about human rights took as they made their way across the centuries and into the heart of contemporary world politics. The authors are united in the conviction that the rise of human rights around the world was historically contingent and politically contested. The American and French Revolutions of the late eighteenth century generated a language of human rights, but this was eclipsed in the nineteenth century by the rival concepts of nation, race, class, and civilization. Hoffmann and his colleagues argue that it was only in the conflicts and crises following World War II that human rights became a universal moral ideal. Several chapters look at postwar Europe and the connections there among political unification, Cold War anticommunism, and the emergence of a European human rights regime. Others take up decolonization and the internationalization of human rights. Even though colonial states had their own perspectives on human rights, by using these norms as moral and political tools to pressure Western states into granting them independence and supporting their development, they joined the global human rights regime. As several authors in this book argue, the United States has also used the language of universal human rights, in its case to bolster its own hegemonic legitimacy.