The international student movement during the inter-war-era

In the spring of 1919 student unions from all over Europe got an invitation from UNEF – The National Union of French Students, to come to Strasbourg to celebrate the anniversary of the liberation of that city and its university from the hands of the Germans. In those days, many European countries only had a handful of universities each, and a national organization for the representative local student bodies didn’t seem necessary.

The invitation was sent out to student unions from allied and neutral countries, but not to those from the central powers. Student unions from the allied countries accepted the invitation cordially, whereas some unions from neutral countries were wary of endorsing an allied event and didn’t send any representatives. That did however not stop individual students from those countries to attend the celebrations in Strasbourg.

The celebrations were grandiose with much pomp and circumstance and high profile guests from the French government. But at the celebrations, UNEF revealed that they had called on the students of Europe to Strasbourg not only to party, but also to found a student international.

There had been cross-border student movements since the mid 19th century, but these were mostly (pan)nationalistic ones, such as pan-German, pan-Slavic and pan-Scandinavian, founded after the revolutionary events throughout Europe in 1848. The 19th century also saw the forming of various international organizations and treaties, such as the Red Cross (1863) and the Geneva Convention (1864), which in its turn gave rise to international youth and student organizations. These were however either religious (such as the World Student Christian Federation, founded in 1896) or political (such as the Socialist Youth International, founded in 1907).

After World War 1 and the founding of the League of Nations in 1919, the time was ripe for a non-religious, non-political student international. The student unions and students attending the celebrations in Strasbourg in 1919 enthusiastically endorsed UNEF’s suggestion on forming a student international. The Réunion des Etudiantes Alliés (Meeting of Allied Students), as the gathering was called soon elected a committee which set out to form a true organization.

Although it was called a meeting of allied students, the unions agreed that students from neutral countries were also welcome to this organization that they had in mind. One of the prerequisites to become a member of the organization was that each country only could be represented by one national union of students. This in its turn gave rise to a number of national unions of students being founded at this time, such as SFS Sweden, SYL Finland, NSU Norway, UNES Switzerland and NUS United Kingdom. In countries such as Norway or Finland, the unions only consisted of two members and the sole purpose of these national unions were to represent their respective countries at the student international.

With the inclusion of national student unions from neutral countries, the second meeting in Warsaw in 1924 saw the founding of the Confédération Internationale des Étudiants (CIE).

The CIE set out to be an “information bureau” for the national unions of students, a promoter of “intellectual exchange” between students from all over the world, with recognition of diplomas and student mobility on top of its priorities. The CIE also had an elected Executive Committee which took care of policy decisions between the congresses, and an “Office Central” located in Brussels, Belgium, to carry out the decisions and the exchange of information. Other CIE branches were the Intellectual Cooperation Section which coordinated student films and other activities, a press secretariat providing international links among student journals, a Social Information Section collecting data on professions and other information relevant to careers. There were also a sports section.

From the beginning, the CIE was confined to Europe and the Commonwealth, but it grew and in the 1930-ies it had some 40 member unions from Europe, the Americas and Asia.

The CIE remained firmly non-political throughout its history and it was devoted to the concept of “student as such”. However, that didn’t stop political fissures within the organization. As previously noted, the CIE was from the beginning limited to unions from allied and neutral countries, thus banning students from such countries as Germany and Hungary to participate. The NUSes from neutral countries as well as from NUS UK made it clear that in order for them to participate in CIE, it had to be open to all students. In the end, a compromised was reached: membership was restricted to one NUS per country, where the country was a member of the League of Nations. This did however still exclude the Germans, as 1) Germany wasn’t a member of the League of Nations and 2) the German NUS (Deutsche Studentenschaften, DSt) was a pan-national union with members in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Danzig. The German question was a constant irritant within the organization, with NUSes threatening to leave the CIE should the Germans be included or excluded. Eventually, the issue was solved in the 1930-ies when the DSt turned Nazi and lost all interest in joining the CIE.

The saga of the CIE came to an end with the onset of World War II in 1939, when almost all international student activities ceased and in 1940 the Office Central in Brussels was ransacked by German troops, and all records were lost.

From the beginning of the CIE in Strasbourg in 1919 it was clear that the endeavour had the firm backing of the French government and that the founding of the various NUSes also had the backing of their respective governments. So why were governments involved in international student activities? Firstly, one has to understand that with only a handful of universities in each country as it were at that time, most politicians, high ranking civil servants and businessmen attended the same institutions, thus creating personal networks early on. Secondly, during World War I, the French government was baffled when it realized that the Germans got strong support from intellectuals in neutral countries all over Europe. The reason for this, they found out, was that neutral intellectuals had very strong scientific and personal relationships with the German intellectuals from before the war. Apparently, the Germans had been very good at networking from a low level, knowing that individuals on low levels would rise to high levels eventually. It was that force the allied governments tried to harness when supporting the CIE and the NUSes. It should be noted that the support did usually not originate from the ministries of education, but rather from the ministries of foreign affairs.

Is there anything at all left of the CIE today, one might ask? Well, as a matter of a fact, one institution has survived depression, world war and cold war, still owing legacy to the CIE: The Student Universiade, a sort of a student Olympics, which is being held every second year, last time in Deagu, South Korea in 2003 and the next in Izmir, Turkey in 2005.


Philip G. Altbach and Norman T. Uphoff: The Student Internationals, Scarecrow Press 1973

Bengt Åhsberg: Studenter och storpolitik. Sverige och det internationella studentsamarbetet 1919-1931, Lund University Press 1995


Post a Comment


Copyright 2006-2008 Thomas Nilsson | Ursprunglig design av K2, modifierat till Blogger av GeckoandFly och Blogcrowds.