Elisabeth Mann Borgese (24 Apr 1918 – 8 Feb 2002): Visionary of Common Oceans
BIOGRAPHIES, 24 Apr 2017
René Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service
“The people of the earth having agreed that the advancement of man in spiritual excellence and physical welfare is the common goal of mankind…therefore the age of nations must end, and the era of humanity begin.”
— Preamble to the Preliminary Draft of a World Constitution.
Elisabeth Mann Borgese whose birth anniversary we mark on 24 April, was a strong-willed woman. She had to come out from under the shadow of both her father, Thomas Mann, the German writer and Nobel Laureate for Literature, and her husband Giuseppe Antonio Borgese (1882-1952), Italian literary critic and political analyst.
From 1938, Thomas Mann lived in Princeton, New Jersey and gave occasional lectures at Princeton University. Thomas Mann, whose novel The Magic Mountain was one of the monuments of world literature between the two World Wars, always felt that he represented the best of German culture against the uncultured hordes of the Nazis. He took himself and his role very seriously, and his family existed basically to facilitate his thinking and writing.
G.A. Gorgese had a regular professor’s post at the University of Chicago but often lectured at other universities on the evils of Mussolini. Borgese, who had been a leading literary critic and university professor in Milan, left Italy for the United States in 1931 when Mussolini announced that an oath of allegiance to the Fascist State would be required of all Italian professors. For Borgese, with a vast culture including the classic Greeks, the Renaissance Italians, and the 19th century nationalist writers, Mussolini was an evil caricature which too few Americans recognized as a destructive force in his own right and not just as the fifth wheel of Hitler’s armed car. Although there are many Americans of Italian ancestry, they have never made Italian culture part of the American mainstream so that Borgese’s subtle analysis of Gabriele D’Annunzio always fell by the side since his listeners had rarely read D’Annunzio’s poetry much less his 1919 Constitution of the Carmara for Fiume with its syndicalism, later taken over by Mussolini.
G.A. Borgese met Elisabeth Mann on a lecture tour at Princeton, and despite being close to Thomas Mann in age, the couple married very quickly shortly after meeting. Elisabeth moved to the University of Chicago and was soon caught up in Borgese’s efforts to help the transition from the Age of Nations to the Age of Humanity. For Borgese, the world was at a watershed period. The Age of Nations − with its nationalism could be a liberating force in the 19th century as with the unification of Italy − had come to a close with the First World War. The war clearly showed that nationalism was from then on only the symbol of death. However, the Age of Humanity, which was the next step in human evolution, had not yet come into being, in part because too many people were still caught in the shadow play of the Age of Nations.
Since University of Chicago scientists had played an important role in the coming of the Atomic Age, G.A. Borgese and Richard McKeon, a cultural anthopologist and Dean of the University felt that the University should take a major role in drafting a world constitution for the Atomic Age. Thus the Committee to Frame a World Constitution, an interdisciplinary committee under the leadership of Robert Hutchins, head of the University of the University of Chicago, was created in 1946. To re-capture the hopes and fears of the 1946-1948 period when the World Constitutions was being written, it is useful to read the book written by one of the members of the drafting team: Rexford Tugwell. A Chronicle of Jeopardy (University of Chicago Press, 1955). The book is Rex Tugwell’s reflections on the years 1946-1954 written each year in August to mark the A-bombing of Hiroshima
Elisabeth had become the secretary of the Committee and the editor of its journal Common Cause. The last issue of Common Cause was in June 1951. G.A. Borgese published a commentary on the Constitution, dealing especially with his ideas on the nature of justice. It was the last thing he wrote, and the book was published shortly after his death: G.A.Borgese. Foundations of the World Republic (University of Chicago Press, 1953). In 1950, the Korean War started. Hope for a radical transformation of the UN faded. Borgese and his wife went to live in Florence, where weary and disappointed, he died in 1952.
The drafters of the World Constitution went on to other tasks. Robert Hutchins left the University of Chicago to head a “think tank”- Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions – taking some of the drafters, including Elisabeth, with him. She edited a booklet on the Preliminary Draft with a useful introduction A Constitution for the World (1965) However, much of the energy of the Center went into the protection of freedom of thought and expression in the USA, at the time under attack by the primitive anti-communism of then Senator Joe McCarthy.
In the mid-1950s, from world federalists and world citizens came various proposals for UN control of areas not under national control: UN control of the High Seas and the Waterways, especially after the 1956 Suez Canal conflict, of Antarctica and of Outer Space. A good overview of these proposals is contained in James A. Joyce. Revolution on East River (New York: Ablard-Schuman, 1956).
Elisabeth Mann Borgese thus turned her attention and energy to the law of the sea. In 1967, Ambassador Arvid Pardo of Malta proposed at the UN General Assembly that the seabed be internationalized as the Common Heritage of Mankind so as to put it outside the control of the technologically-advanced States. The seabed was to be exploited for the benefit of the entire world, the common heritage requiring a system of autonomous management. The Malta proposal led to the 1974 start of the Law of the Sea conference in which Malta continued to play a creative role.
As the UN Law of the Sea Conference continued through the 1970s, sometimes in New York, sometimes in Geneva, Elisabeth was active in seminars and conferences with the delegates, presenting ideas, showing that a strong treaty on the law of the sea would be a big step forward for humanity. Many of the issues raised during the negotiations leading to the Convention, especially the concept of the Exclusive Economic Zone, actively battled by Elisabeth but actively championed by Ambassador Alan Beesley of Canada, are with us today in the China seas tensions. As I had done my studies both at Princeton University and the University of Chicago, we could share memories of both areas, though I was a student at Chicago in the mid-1950s after her husband’s death.
While the resulting Convention of the Law of the Sea has not revolutionized world politics – as some of us hoped in the early 1970s – the Convention is an important building block in the development of world law. We are grateful for the values and the energy that Elisabeth Mann Borgese embodied.
René Wadlow, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and of its Task Force on the Middle East, is president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens and editor of Transnational Perspectives. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 24 Apr 2017.
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