Creating a "piratical state organization for benevolence," the Commission for Relief in Belgium: 1914-1915

Austin, Ryan
Major Professor
Hamilton Cravens
Committee Member
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On October 22, 1914 a temporary institution named the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) was created by a group of diplomats, industrialists, businessmen, and volunteers under the direction of American engineer-financier Herbert C. Hoover with the goal of providing emergency food relief in Belgium. Within twelve months the scope of the CRB expanded from providing relief to the communes surrounding Brussels to an effort geared towards making Belgium self-sufficient by the harvest of 1915 before becoming the permanent, on-going, official charitable organization supporting Belgium. In the course of development the Commission evolved into a worldwide charitable organization network with diplomatic and political powers reserved primarily for sovereign states. Described as "A Piratical State Organization for Benevolence" the CRB combined seemingly disparate elements of private charity and philanthropy with principles of American big business and engineering into an organization with a single purpose of Belgian relief.

In 1914 and 1915 the CRB set up an infrastructure of relief under the Provisioning and Benevolence Departments that systematically accumulated, coordinated, and distributed charity in the form of money and material from around the world through volunteer organizations, cooperation with large freight companies and food producers in the United States, and shipping interests in Europe to deliver products to the Belgian communes. Working in conjunction with the Comity National the Commission scientifically determined the actual needs of the civil population and set up a network of warehouses, soup kitchens and canteens to deliver pre-specified rations on a daily basis. Active at every step of the provisioning process the delegates, representatives, and volunteers of the CRB stood constantly vigil to make sure that its promises were maintained Whether it was coordinating the collection of wheat and cornmeal in America, writing appeals and pamphlets explaining the plight of Belgium, manning the Commission's warehouses and private fleet of shipping vessels, or serving as delegates inside the communes the thousands of volunteers that made up the CRB fought with resolve and tenacity to make sure that Belgium survived World War I.

This project focuses on the formative period of the CRB during its first year and a half of operations spanning from October 1914 to December 1915 in Belgium and Northern France. Over its first fifteen months of existence the Commission set into action its program of theoretical imports, established the basic parameters for diplomacy with belligerents, launched a vigorous press world-wide press campaign, and forged the system of charity that coordinated vast sums of money and supplies at an overhead expense rate of less than one-half of one percent--a figure unprecedented in the realm of charitable and philanthropic organizations. Tracing the experience of the CRB from multiple points of view the text examines the history of the Commission from the farms of North America to the dangerous waters of the English Channel, the negotiating table in London and Berlin, the occupied city of Brussels, the several thousand communes distributing rations and all places in between.

Under the constant threat of starvation, governmental prohibition, public scrutiny, harassment by the German military and financial failure the Commission pressed to feed Belgium in the most efficient manner possible under the guidance Hoover and his cadre of volunteers. While the CRB faced new challenges calling for it to adapt to conditions in Belgium and Northern France between 1916 and its retirement in 1919 the Commission's program of relief was fundamentally in place by the end of December 1915. For the remainder of its existence the structure and strategies employed by the CRB remained virtually static.