From the 1920s through the 1940s, European and Anglo-American Protestants perceived a crisis of humanity. While trying to determine religion's role in a secular age, church leaders redefined the human being as a theological person in community with others and in partnership with God. This new anthropology contributed to a personalist conception of human rights that rivalled Catholic and secular conceptions. Alongside such innovations in post-liberal theology, ecumenical Protestants organized a series of meetings to unite the world churches. Their conference at Oxford in July 1937 led to the creation of the World Council of Churches. Thus, Protestants of the transwar era supplied the two main ingredients of any human rights regime: a universalist commitment to defending individual human beings regardless of race, nationality, or class and a global institutional framework for enacting that commitment. Through the story of Protestant thinkers and activists, this article recasts the history of human rights as part of a larger history of critical reappraisals of humanity. Understanding why human rights came into prominence at various twentieth-century moments may require abandoning ‘rights talk’ for human talk, or, a comparative history of radical anthropologies and their relationship to broader socio-economic, political, and cultural crises.
This article has evolved from a working paper first composed in 2010. Special thanks to Margaret L. Anderson, John Connelly, Gene Zubovich, Tehila Sasson, Udi Greenberg, Samuel Moyn, and the anonymous readers for their helpful commentary.
1 ‘Universal declaration of human rights’, in Brownlie Ian, ed., Basic documents on human rights (2nd edn, Oxford, 1981), pp. 21–7. See Mazower Mark, ‘The strange triumph of human rights, 1933–1950’, Historical Journal, 47 (2004), pp. 379–98; and Morsink Johannes, The universal declaration of human rights: origins, drafting, and intent (Philadelphia, PA, 1999).
2 I borrow the term ‘transwar’ from the historian Philip Nord. See Nord , France's new deal: from the thirties to the postwar era (Princeton, NJ, 2012).
3 See especially Gene Zubovich, ‘The global gospel: Protestant internationalism and American liberalism, 1940–1960’ (Ph.D., UC Berkeley, 2014); and Nurser John, For all peoples and all nations: the ecumenical church and human rights (Washington, DC, 2005).
4 See most recently Moyn Samuel, Christian human rights (Philadelphia, PA, 2015); and Duranti Marco, ‘Conservatives and the European Convention on Human Rights’, in Frei Norbert and Weinke Annette, eds., Toward a new moral world order? Menschenrechtspolitik und Völkerrecht seit 1945 (Göttingen, 2013), pp. 82–93 . Moyn's work focuses on Catholic personalism. He did try to account for Protestant personalism in an article on the German historian Ritter Gerhard, ‘The first historian of human rights’, American Historical Review, 116 (2011), pp. 58–79 , revised in Moyn, Christian human rights, pp. 101–32. But Ritter was hardly representative of major trends in German much less continental or international Protestant thought.
5 Thompson Michael G., For God and globe: Christian internationalism in the United States between the Great War and the Cold War (Ithaca, NY, 2015); Edwards Mark T., The right of the Protestant Left: God's totalitarianism (New York, NY, 2012). These books nevertheless correct some long-standing Eurocentric biases. Warren Heather A. also expressed concern about the ‘neglect of the Americans’ significance’ in her book Theologians of a new world order: Reinhold Niebuhr and the Christian realists, 1920–1948 (Oxford and New York, NY, 1997), p. 6.
6 Bradley Mark Philip, ‘American vernaculars: the United States and the global human rights imagination’, Diplomatic History, 38 (2014), pp. 1–21 (at p. 13).
7 Geroulanos Stefanos, An atheism that is not humanist emerges in French thought (Stanford, CA, 2010). During the same era, the scientific discipline of anthropology developed a concept of humanity that denied the existence of race. See Bratain Michelle, ‘Race, racism, and antiracism: UNESCO and the politics of presenting science to the postwar public’, American Historical Review, 112 (2007), pp. 1386–413. On debates within the American Anthropological Association over whether to endorse the Universal declaration, see Goodale Mark, Surrendering to utopia: an anthropology of human rights (Stanford, CA, 2009).
8 For recent genealogies of human rights that focus on the 1970s, see Moyn Samuel, The last utopia: human rights in history (Cambridge, MA, 2010); and Keys Barbara L., Reclaiming American virtue: the human rights revolution of the 1970s (Cambridge, MA, 2014). Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann has refocused attention on the 1990s as the real breakthrough of human rights into public discourse and international politics. See his forthcoming book Human rights: a short history and his introduction ‘Genealogies of human rights’ to the edited volume Human rights in the twentieth century (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 1–26 .
9 See Graf Rüdiger, ‘Either–or: the narrative of “crisis” in Weimar Germany and in historiography’, Central European History, 43 (2010), pp. 592–615 .
10 See Latourette Kenneth Scott, Christianity in a revolutionary age, ii: The nineteenth century in Europe: the Protestant and eastern churches  (Grand Rapids, MI, 1969), pp. 12–60 ; and Hutchison William R., The modernist impulse in American Protestantism (Cambridge, MA, 1976).
11 Dahm Karl-Wilhlem, Pfarrer und Politik. Soziale Position und politische Mentalität des deutschen evangelischen Pfarrerstandes zwischen 1918 und 1933 (Cologne, 1965), pp. 9ff.
12 See Gordon Peter E., ‘Weimar theology: from historicism to crisis’, in Gordon and McCormick John P., eds., Weimar thought: a contested legacy (Princeton, NJ, 2013), pp. 150–78. In the United States, the post-liberal turn came in the form of Christian realism. See Edwards, The right of the Protestant Left; and Hulsether Mark, Building a Protestant Left: Christianity and Crisis magazine, 1941–1993 (Knoxville, TN, 1999).
13 Emil Brunner (Obstalden) to Karl Barth, 28 Nov. 1918, in Busch Eberhard, ed., Karl Barth – Emil Brunner. Briefwechsel, 1911–1966 (Zurich, 2000), pp. 23–8. All translations are mine unless otherwise noted. Caught up in the revolutionary fervour of 1917–21, both Barth and Brunner sympathized with the socialist cause.
14 Latourette Kenneth Scott, Christianity in a revolutionary age, iv: The twentieth century in Europe: the Roman Catholic, Protestant and eastern churches  (Grand Rapids, MI, 1969), p. 358.
15 Emil Brunner to Karl Barth, 8 June 1929, in Busch, ed., Karl Barth – Emil Brunner, pp. 174–81. See Webster John, ‘Introducing Barth’, in Webster John, ed., The Cambridge companion to Karl Barth (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 1–16 .
16 Emil Brunner (Zurich) to Karl Barth, 12 June 1930, in Busch, ed., Karl Barth – Emil Brunner, pp. 196–9. See also Brunner's books The mediator: a study of the central doctrine of the Christian faith , trans. Wyon Olive (Philadelphia, PA, 1947), and God and man: four essays on the nature of personality , trans. Cairns D. S. (London, 1936).
17 See the debate in Brunner Emil and Barth Karl, Natural theology: comprising ‘nature and grace’, trans. Fraenkel Peter (London, 1934). See also Busch, ed., Karl Barth – Emil Brunner, pp. xix–xx.
18 Wolf Krötke, ‘The humanity of the human person in Karl Barth's anthropology’, trans. P. G. Ziegler, in Webster, ed., The Cambridge companion to Karl Barth, pp. 159–76 (at pp. 166, 168). Krötke quotes from Barth's Church dogmatics. On Barth's mature personalism, see McInroy Mark J., ‘Karl Barth and personalist philosophy: a critical appropriation’, Scottish Journal of Theology, 64 (2011), pp. 45–63 ; and McLean Stuart D., Humanity in the thought of Karl Barth (Edinburgh, 1981). See also Dorrien Gary J., ‘The Barthian revolt: Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and the legacy of liberal theology’, in Kantian reason and Hegelian spirit: the idealistic logic of modern theology (Malden, MA, 2012), pp. 454–529 ; and McCormack Bruce L., Karl Barth's critically realistic dialectical theology: its genesis and development, 1909–1936 (Oxford and New York, NY, 1995).
19 See Samuel Moyn's discussion of Emmanuel Mounier, Jacques Maritain, and Pius XII in ‘Personalism, community, and the origins of human rights’, in Hoffmann, ed., Human rights in the twentieth century, pp. 85–106, revised in Moyn, Christian human rights, pp. 65–100. For a more celebratory account of Catholic personalism, see Williams Thomas D., Who is my neighbor? Personalism and the foundations of human rights (Washington, DC, 2005).
20 Oldham J. H., ed., The churches survey their task: the report of the conference at Oxford, July 1937, on church, community, and state (London, 1937), p. 193.
21 See Bowne Borden Parker, Personalism (Boston, MA, and New York, NY, 1908); Knudson Albert C., The philosophy of personalism: a study in the metaphysics of religion (New York, NY, 1927); Brightman Edgar S., Personality and religion (New York, NY, 1934). In Brightman's work especially, personalism functioned as a ‘philosophy of religion’ rather than a theological system. See also Pihlström Sami, ‘Pragmatism and American personalism: problems in perspectival metaphysics’, Iyyun: The Jerusalem Philosophical Quarterly, 53 (2004), pp. 287–324 .
22 See Edwards, The right of the Protestant Left, pp. 48–9. A book that helped introduce European ideas into American discourse was the ecumenist Keller Adolf's Karl Barth and Christian unity: the influence of the Barthian movement upon the churches of the world , trans. Manrodt Manfred et al. (New York, NY, 1933). See also Warren Heather A., ‘The shift from character to personality in mainline Protestant thought, 1935–1945’, Church History, 67 (1998), pp. 537–55; and Ahlstrom Sydney E., ‘Continental influence on American Christian thought since World War I’, Church History, 27 (1958), pp. 256–72.
23 Brunner Emil, ‘The Christian understanding of man’, in Jessop T. E. et al., The Christian understanding of man (Chicago, IL, 1938), pp. 141–78 (at p. 177).
24 For more recent histories of the Oxford conference, see Thompson, For God and globe, pp. 93ff; Edwards, The right of the Protestant Left, pp. 78–82; Smith Graeme, Oxford 1937: the Universal Christian Council for Life and Work Conference (Frankfurt/Main and New York, NY, 2004).
25 See Mott John R., The evangelization of the world in this generation (New York, NY, 1900). See also Preston Andrew, Sword of the spirit, shield of faith: religion in American war and diplomacy (New York, NY, 2012), pp. 184–5; and Latourette Kenneth Scott, ‘Ecumenical bearings of the missionary movement and the International Missionary Council’, in Rouse Ruth and Neill Stephen C., eds., A history of the ecumenical movement, i (Philadelphia, PA, 1967), pp. 353–402 .
26 Nils Ehrenström, ‘Movements for international friendship and life and work, 1925–1948’, in Rouse and Neill, eds., A history of the ecumenical movement, i, pp. 545–96 (at p. 553).
27 On the trans-Atlantic planning of these conferences, see Thompson, For God and globe, pp. 93–119; Smith, Oxford 1937, pp. 135–9; and Warren, Theologians of a new world order, pp. 59–77. An early report by Edwin E. Aubrey emphasized the continuity between the Stockholm and Oxford conferences. Aubrey Edwin E., ‘The Oxford conference, 1937’, Journal of Religion, 17 (1937), pp. 379–96.
28 ‘From Oxford to Germany: sympathy with the church: a new world council’, Times, 20 July 1937, p. 13.
29 L&W and F&O have survived as independent commissions of the World Council of Churches. The IMC held its own world conference at Tambaram (Madras, India) in 1938 and reached many of the same conclusions as L&W at Oxford. Perhaps because of the unique concerns of missionary work – and probably also reluctance to join an organization dominated by members from (former) colonial powers – the IMC did not officially merge with the World Council of Churches until the New Delhi Congress of 1961.
30 Clements Keith, Faith on the frontier: a life of J. H. Oldham (Edinburgh, 1999), pp. 1, 471–5.
31 Kent John used the term ‘religious professional’ in William Temple: church, state, and society in Britain, 1880–1950 (Cambridge, 1992).
32 See Robertson Edwin H., Unshakeable friend: George Bell and the German churches (London, 1995); and Rupp E. Gordon, ‘I seek my brethren’: Bishop George Bell and the German churches (London, 1975).
33 See Thompson, For God and globe, pp. 93–119; and Clements, Faith on the frontier, pp. 309–28.
34 Quoted by Charles W. Hurd, ‘Militant program urged for religion’, New York Times, 14 July 1937, p. 12.
35 Over 400 official delegates from 125 Protestant and Orthodox churches in 40 countries gathered together with 300 laypeople and 100 representatives from various Christian youth movements. Fenn Eric, That they go forward: an impression of the Oxford conference on church, community, and state (London, 1938), p. 12; J. H. Oldham, Introduction to The churches survey their task, pp. 9–55 (at pp. 27–8).
36 Clements, Faith on the frontier, pp. 271–2. Aubrey noted that the ‘Scandinavian Barthians’ wanted to begin the conference with preliminary theological definitions, while the American and Eastern Orthodox delegates preferred pragmatic discussions of church unity. ‘The Oxford conference, 1937’, p. 386. The claim by Warren (Theologians of a new world order, pp. 78–80) and Edwards (The right of the Protestant Left, pp. 73–8) that American influence dominated the conference, however, does not accord with the evidence.
37 Emil Brunner to Karl Barth, 20 Oct. 1930 and 13 Dec. 1932, in Busch, ed., Karl Barth – Emil Brunner, pp. 199–205 and 210–12.
38 Brunner Emil, Man in revolt: a Christian anthropology [Der Mensch im Widerspruch, 1937], trans. Wyon Olive (Philadelphia, PA, 1947). For a detailed analysis of Brunner's paper and the Oxford reactions to it, see Thomas S. Derr, ‘The political thought of the ecumenical movement, 1900–1939’ (Ph.D., Columbia, 1972), pp. 516–62.
39 Brunner, ‘The Christian understanding of man’, pp. 142, 153, 168.
40 Oldham J. H., Church, community and state: a world issue (London, 1935), pp. 36–7. See Smith, Oxford 1937, pp. 126–7. In his introduction to the main Oxford report, Oldham noted the participants’ widespread engagement with personalism. The churches survey their task, p. 46.
41 Pierre Maury, ‘The Christian doctrine of man’, in Jessop et al., The Christian understanding of man, pp. 245–68 (at p. 267). He quoted from the biblical verse 1 Cor. 8:11.
42 Quoted by Fox Richard W., Reinhold Niebuhr: a biography (New York, NY, 1985), pp. 180–1.
43 Niebuhr Reinhold, ‘The Christian church in a secular age’ , reprinted in Christianity and power politics (New York, NY, 1940), pp. 203–26. The parable appears in Luke 15:11–32.
44 Hurd, ‘Militant program urged for religion’.
45 ‘A way of life’, Times, 14 July 1937.
46 See Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr, pp. 176–8.
47 Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral man and immoral society: a study in ethics and politics (Louisville, KY, 2001), p. 3.
48 Ibid., p. 68. See also Niebuhr Reinhold, The nature and destiny of man: a Christian interpretation, i (New York, NY, 1941), p. 220, and ii (New York, NY, 1943), pp. 64–7, 159, 278–9.
49 On Niebuhr's generally negative opinion of Barth, see Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr, p. 117. The feeling was mutual. After the war, for example, Barth described Niebuhr as a ‘hopeless discussion partner’ and asked never again to be paired with him at ecumenical conferences. Karl Barth (Basel) to Willem A. Visser ’t Hooft, 11 June 1951, in Herwig Thomas, ed., Karl Barth – Willem Adolf Visser ’t Hooft. Briefwechsel, 1930–1968 (Zurich, 2006), pp. 243–5.
50 Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr, p. 201.
51 ‘New Nazi blow at churches’, Times, 2 July 1937, p. 16; ‘Die erste Kanzelabkündigung zur Verhaftung Martin Niemöllers’, in Niemöller Wilhelm, ed., Briefe aus der Gefangenschaft Moabit (Frankfurt/Main, 1975), p. 326; Bentley James, Martin Niemöller, 1892–1984 (New York, NY, 1984), p. 209.
52 George Cicestr, letter to the editor, ‘Arrest of Dr. Niemöller’, Times, 3 July 1937, p. 15; ‘Action of the conference in regard to the absence of the German evangelical church delegation’, in Oldham, ed., The churches survey their task, pp. 275–6. The German invitees represented a wide spectrum of views within the German evangelical church, both pro- and anti-Nazi. They were denied exit visas by the German government. Eugen Gerstenmaier gathered their input into a pamphlet and mailed it to Oxford. It appeared in English as Church, Volk and state (London, 1938). Two representatives from the German free churches did attend the conference: the Baptist leader Paul Schmidt and the Methodist bishop F. H. Otto Melle, both of whom openly supported the Nazis. Observers knew very well that these individuals functioned as Nazi propaganda tools. See ‘Reich takes issue’, New York Times, 14 July 1937, p. 12.
53 Bergen Doris L., Twisted cross: the German Christian movement in the Third Reich (Chapel Hill, NC, 1996), p. 6 (plate).
54 Robert L. Calhoun, ‘The dilemma of humanitarian modernism’, in Jessop et al., The Christian understanding of man, pp. 45–81 (at p. 45).
55 See for example Latourette Kenneth Scott, Missions tomorrow (New York, NY, 1936), and the study by Hutchison William R., Errand to the world: American Protestant thought and foreign missions (Chicago, IL, 1987). In his pioneer dissertation, Graeme Smith argued that Oxford was primarily a ‘missionary conference’ with conversion as its ulterior goal. However, he underestimated both the change in missionary consciousness and the novelty of the Oxford doctrine of man. Smith, Oxford 1937, p. 13 and passim.
56 ‘A message from the Oxford conference to the Christian churches’, in Oldham, ed., The churches survey their task, pp. 57–63 (at p. 58).
57 Fenn, That they go forward, p. 30. On Christian totalitarian ideas in the United States, see Edwards, The right of the Protestant Left. In contrast, prominent Christian thinkers including Waldemar Gurian also helped develop the theory and politics of anti-totalitarianism in the 1930s and 1940s. See Chappel James, ‘The Catholic origins of totalitarianism theory in interwar Europe’, Modern Intellectual History, 8 (2011), pp. 561–90.
58 Oldham J. H., The resurrection of Christendom (London, 1940).
59 Oldham, Introduction to The churches survey their task, pp. 9–55 (at p. 50).
60 Fenn, That they go forward, p. 25.
61 Clements, Faith on the frontier, p. 471.
62 See ibid., pp. 363–88 and 471, and Clements Keith, ed., The Moot papers: faith, freedom and society, 1938–1947 (London, 2010). On examples of religious totalitarianism in France, see Hellman John, The communitarian third way: Alexandre Marc's Ordre Nouveau, 1930–2000 (Montreal and Ithaca, NY, 2002).
63 Niebuhr Reinhold, Reflections on the end of an era (New York, NY, 1934), pp. 90–3. Drawing on European personalism, Niebuhr would develop his own theological anthropology in The nature and destiny of man (1941–3) and The self and the dramas of history (New York, NY, 1955).
64 See the subsequent books on Christian anthropology by Oxford conference attendees: Calhoun Robert L., What is man? (New York, NY, 1939); Aubrey Edwin E., Man's search for himself (Nashville, TN, 1940); and Niebuhr, The nature and destiny of man. See also Smith, Oxford 1937, pp. 158–71, and John Kimball Saville, ‘The relevance of the Oxford conference doctrine of man to industrial reconstruction’ (B.Div., Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, CA, 1942).
65 ‘Report on the universal church and the world of nations’, in Oldham, ed., The churches survey their task, pp. 167–87 (at pp. 173–4). George Bell later echoed this sentiment in the article ‘The church and the future of Europe’, Fortnightly Review, Mar. 1943, reprinted in The church and humanity (1939–1946) (London, 1946), pp. 110–22. The argument about the moral deficiency of international law had been developed by Huber Max in his essay ‘Some observations upon the Christian understanding of international law’, in The universal church and the world of nations (Chicago, IL, and New York, NY, 1938), pp. 97–143 .
66 Bell George, Christianity and world order (Harmondsworth, 1940), p. 104; Bell George, ‘The church in relation to international affairs’, International Affairs, 25 (Oct. 1949), pp. 405–14 (at pp. 407, 409). See Moyn, Christian human rights, pp. 124–5. The correspondence between Barth and Visser ’t Hooft in 1939–40 bears witness to Bell's evolving stance on the war. See Herwig, ed., Karl Barth – Willem Adolf Visser ’t Hooft, pp. 111–30. On the provisional WCC's activities during and immediately after the war, see Bell George, The kingship of Christ: the story of the World Council of Churches (Harmondsworth, 1954), pp. 34–46 ; and Visser ’t Hooft Willem A., Memoirs (London and Philadelphia, PA, 1982), pp. 129–203 .
67 Thompson, For God and globe, pp. 176–9; Nurser, For all peoples and all nations, pp. 50–4.
68 Brunner Emil, ‘Das Menschenbild und die Menschenrechte’ [Part 1], Universitas. Zeitschrift für Wissenschaft, Kunst und Literatur, 2 (Mar. 1947), pp. 269–74 (at pp. 269–70). Part 2 of the essay appears in no. 4 (Apr. 1947), pp. 385–91.
69 Emil Brunner (Zurich) to Karl Barth, 13 Oct. 1948, in Busch, ed., Karl Barth – Emil Brunner, pp. 366–7. See also Brunner Emil, ‘The new Barth: observations on Karl Barth's Doctrine of Man’, trans. Campbell John C., Scottish Journal of Theology, 4 (1951), pp. 123–35. According to a letter from Barth to Visser ’t Hooft of 11 June 1951, however, Barth still thought Brunner's interpretation was ‘entirely outrageous’. Herwig, ed., Karl Barth – Willem Adolf Visser ’t Hooft, pp. 243–5.
70 See the five-volume conference report edited by ’t Hooft Visser, Man's disorder and God's design (London, 1948), and Visser ’t Hooft's own reminiscences about the conference in his Memoirs, pp. 204–14.
71 Nurser, For all peoples and all nations. See also Nolde O. Frederick, Free and equal: human rights in ecumenical perspective (Geneva, 1968).
72 Bell, The kingship of Christ, pp. 85, 124–8. See also Visser ’t Hooft, Memoirs, p. 219.
73 Visser Willem A. ’t Hooft, ‘Report of the general secretary’, Ecumenical Review, 2 (1949), pp. 57–70 (at p. 68). The WCC published a brief discussion of this issue by Malik Charles, ‘Human rights and religious liberty’, Ecumenical Review, 1 (1949), pp. 404–9.
74 Devanesen Chandran, ‘Post-Amsterdam thoughts from a younger church’, Ecumenical Review, 1 (1949), pp. 142–9. In 1954, George Bell nevertheless claimed that ‘[a]mong all the questions confronting the world at the present time the race question is pre-eminent’. Bell, The kingship of Christ, pp. 136–9; Visser ’t Hooft, Memoirs, pp. 277–95.
75 ‘The church and international law’, Ecumenical Review, 3 (1950), pp. 64–76 (at p. 73).
76 Edwards, The right of the Protestant Left, pp. 123ff. Oldham had introduced the concept in his pre-war writings.
77 On tensions within the international ecumenical movement, see Hulsether, Building a Protestant Left, and van der Bent A. J., From generation to generation: the story of youth in the World Council of Churches (Geneva, 1986). Visser ’t Hooft noted the generational change in his Memoirs, pp. 365–8. On the general decline of European religiosity in that decade, see McLeod Hugh, The religious crisis of the 1960s (Oxford, 2007).
78 Bell, The kingship of Christ, pp. 90–5, 129–30, 145–8; Visser ’t Hooft, Memoirs, pp. 228–44, 302–3. On the human rights activism of the WCC during the 1960s and 1970s, see Christian Albers, ‘Der ÖRK und die Menschenrechte im Kontext von Kaltem Krieg und Dekolonisierung’, in Katharina Kunter and Annegreth Schilling, eds., Globalisierung der Kirchen. Der Ökumenische Rat der Kirchen und die Entdeckung der Dritten Welt in den 1960er und 1970er Jahren (Göttingen, 2014), pp. 189–215.
79 Moyn, The last utopia.
80 Greif Mark, The age of the crisis of man: thought and fiction in America, 1933–1973 (Princeton, NJ, 2015), p. 8.
81 Maritain Jacques, Man and the state (Chicago, IL, 1951), p. 106.
* This article has evolved from a working paper first composed in 2010. Special thanks to Margaret L. Anderson, John Connelly, Gene Zubovich, Tehila Sasson, Udi Greenberg, Samuel Moyn, and the anonymous readers for their helpful commentary.
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