As part of the Mémorial de Caen’s annual showcase of research and exhibitions to the wider public, les Mémoriales, the Université de Caen organised a two-day conference for early-career researchers working on the history of France during the Second World War, held at the Mémorial. The event combined a conference focusing on current doctoral research, discussion of current issues in the historiographical field, a seminar looking at sport during the Occupation, and a keynote linked to a visiting exhibition on Nanking at the museum.
The first day featured a closed workshop on current research topics under the chair of Prof. François Rouquet and Dr Gaël Eismann. This was followed in the afternoon by a research seminar as part of the Masters programme at the university, with Dr Doriane Gomet of Rennes-2 giving a seminar on ‘Sport during the Vichy regime’, which discussed the political and cultural aspects of organised sport between 1940 and 1944, and its links and ties to the National Revolution. In the early evening, Prof. Michael Lucken of INALCO (Paris) and Director of its Centre for Japanese Studies gave a keynote looking at the history and memory of three events in the Pacific during the Second World War: Nanking in 1937, Singapore in 1942, and Manilla in 1945. The usages of history and memory were examined in this talk, and showed the audience of both the similarities and differences between the war in Asia and the war in Europe- in Asia, as in Europe, the war can be seen as belonging to a longer time-frame than the one usually conceived, and as being at the heart of a seemingly never-ending war of memory in the present day. This was followed with the delegates treated to an after-hours tour of a visiting exhibition on Nanking temporarily housed at the Mémorial.
The second day was a conference that was attended by both postgraduate students at the Université de Caen, and students on the final-year Licence 3 option on Occupied France, as well as members of the CNRS research team based at the university, and the wider public. Prof. Rouquet and Stéphane Grimaldi, the director of the Mémorial de Caen, welcomed the audience by stating that this was early-career research, all of which was presently being carried out, or had very recently been carried out, and that there was an essential, even necessary link, that needed to exist between museums and historians, a relationship between researchers and the wider public.
Panel 1 looked at engagement. Anne-Sophie Anglaret (Paris 1-Sorbonne) looked at the Légion française des combattants, Vichy’s attempt to harnass veterans of the First World War, and how this was indicative of both the early enthusiasm for, followed by progressive and then steep decline in, support for Vichy and Pétain. This was shown not just through an examination of membership numbers and internal workings, but also a lexical analysis of their propaganda. She concluded that the difficulties of the Légion were due to its problematic stances, both within the apparatus of the État français, and French society more widely. Mason Norton (Edge Hill) gave an overview of his recently-submitted thesis, arguing for resistance in Upper Normandy to be seen as a history from below to be understood within the framework of the political (le politique), using an intersectionality of gender, agency, ideology, class and culture and employing Pierre Bourdieu’s theories around capital, as well as looking at the possibility of fleeing the relève du STO as a form of economic resistance. If resistance had a common denominator, it was not patriotism, but the engagement of faire cité, he argued. Guillaume Pollack (Paris 1-Sorbonne) gave a presentation of his work in progress, an overview of all 266 networks within la France combattante, using military archives, and framing his understanding of these networks via the prism of their actions and intelligence, the theatre of their operations, and the nature of the repression that they faced, looking at how resistance engaged with, and operated against, violence.
After lunch, panel 2 looked at the everyday. Abdelakim Rezgui (Amiens/Paris 1) looked at the writing of diaries and testimonies under the Occupation, both amongst leading intellectuals and amongst ordinary, anonymous people. He found that the writing of diaries was surprisingly commonplace under the Occupation, even amongst the general populace, and tell a narrative that differs from some of the more general received ideas about the Occupation and public opinion, giving an indication of the variety of sentiments felt amongst the wider population. Byron Schirbock (Cologne) looked at the behaviour of German soldiers in the Wehrmacht under the Occupation, and the different approaches of German military authorities, units and individual soldiers to the word and conception of korrekt. This, he showed, led to an unevenness in the nature of occupation, differences, and even double standards, in the behaviour of the Germans, and to the differences in perceptions of the occupiers by the French people and their own authorities. It showed that in reality, soldiers’ behaviour and perception of conduct was more finely nuanced than some have represented it.
A short break for coffee intervened, before panel 3 looked at the writing of History. Benedetta Carnaghi (Cornell) presented a case study of two spies tried for espionage against the Allies in France, and used this as a starting point to explain her thesis on espionage in France and Italy, and how this can allow for an understanding of not just the functioning of the inner workings of states such as Vichy and fascist Italy and their tactics, but also the behaviour of individuals in these societies, and of the relationships between states, networks and individuals, and the crossover points between the everyday and the war, as well as between the public and the private, using theories such as the panopticon from Foucault’s Punir et châtir. Jean-François Bonhoure (Paris 1-Sorbonne) looked at the writing of History and the production of historical knowledge during the war. There was a use of History as an escape from the tumults of the time- past glories as comfort in a threadbare present- but he detected as well a battle between a neo-traditionalist writing of History and the methodical approach of la science historique, and a Vichyite reaction against the social sciences, exemplified in the reaction to the Annales school under the National Revolution. Using François Hartog’s theories of historicité, one could detect two broad currents in the wartime writing of History- the past explaining the present, and the use of the present to gain a better understanding of the past.
After a few words from Gaël Eismann, the conference was closed. The conference showed a variety of directions in research amongst early-career researchers, and that the history of the Second World War in France, though still involving military history, now encompasses other approaches such as political, cultural and social history, as well as techniques such as lexical readings, oral history and diaries, and the use of historical epistemology and historiography (in the sense of the history of History) to arrive at new conclusions. Indeed, what was particularly noteworthy was that many of these historians actually combined several of these approaches in their work, suggesting that les années noires is no longer the exclusive domain of any one section of historical research, and that early-career researchers are using an approach that could be described, to use Penelope Corfield’s term, a more ‘holistic’ approach. This involves blending a number of methodologies and branches of historical enquiry to arrive at an understanding of the past without necessarily following the approach of the Annales school and aiming to replicate a 21st century form of histoire totale, yet acknowledging the connections between politics, language, culture and society to name but four.
The leitmotif seemed to be one of attempting new understandings as a result of reading these sources. This shows that if Vichy, as Henry Rousso & Eric Conan wrote, is ‘un passé qui ne passe pas’, then the history- and the understandings that follow from the writing of history- of les années noires continue to evolve, refine, develop and enlighten.
Mason Norton recently defended his PhD thesis at Edge Hill University, entitled ‘Resistance in Upper Normandy, 1940-44’. Previously educated at Keele University, Université de Limoges, and University of Nottingham, he started at Edge Hill in 2012, after having worked as a language assistant in the Académie de Créteil. He has also been a visiting researcher at the Université de Rouen as part of his PhD. His interests focus primarily on Resistance in France between 1940 and 1944, but also include the Occupation more generally, oral history, contemporary French politics, History in Contemporary France, and the teaching of History in UK Higher Education.