French History @ the IHR

French History @ IHR: Ludivine Broch’s book launch ‘Ordinary Workers, Vichy and the Holocaust’

Date & Place: Monday 9 October, Wolfson Room, IHR, London

Speakers: Ludivine Broch (Westminster), Jackie Clarke (Glasgow), Robert Gildea (Oxford)

Paper Title: Roundtable Book Launch for Ordinary Workers, Vichy and the Holocaust: French Railwaymen and the Second World War (Cambridge University Press, 2016)

Chair: Andrew Smith (Chichester)

They say the launch of your first book is a right of passage, and so at the French History Seminar we have been hosting ‘first’ book launches for a few years now. Ludivine Broch’s book launch of Ordinary Workers, Vichy and the Holocaust: French Railwaymen and the Second World War (CUP, 2016) was the latest of these occasions. Following a brief introduction where she thanked some of her main mentors and explained how the submission of her final manuscript had brought on active labour and the birth of her son within twelve hours, Broch outlined some of the big questions which she had been concerned with over the past decade. Since the late 1990s, French railwaymen – the cheminots – had been tied to very public debates and trials over their role in the Second World War: had they been heroic resisters and saboteurs, or had they collaborated and been passive actors in the Holocaust? In her book, Broch bursts these myths to introduce a new reading of cheminot history in this period – one which looks to nuance attitudes and experiences under the occupation, and highlight other aspects of the everyday life of almost half a million workers under Vichy. From accommodation with the Germans to the reluctance to sabotage the railways, she drew the outlines of a unique community of workers whose professional code of conduct shaped much of their actions before but also during the war. And if the Vichy years were crucial in shaping the image of the cheminot resister or the cheminot collaborator in genocide, those four years of occupation were, she argues, more decisive in that they transformed the cheminot community, marking a period of unprecedented disillusionment with work, employers and the state.

Left to Right: Ludivine Broch, Jackie Clarke, Andrew Smith, Robert Gildea
Left to Right: Ludivine Broch, Jackie Clarke, Andrew Smith, Robert Gildea. Photo used here with the kind permission of Caroline Watkinson (Westminster)

Jackie Clarke and Robert Gildea offered valuable remarks and insights into Broch’s book. They had picked up on the many individual stories that Broch told to makethe story of the cheminots come to life in all of its complexity: those Jews who worked for the SNCF but were sent to the camps; the cheminot who befriended the Germans; the other who loved his wife almost as much as his locomotive. Clarke explored the many ties to the broader working classes, whilst Gildea emphasised the studies of sabotage and memory carried out by the author. But were particularly gripped by the study of theft within the railways, which sits at the heart of the book. They also pushed Broch into developing themes and questions: what does the author mean by ‘community’? how did notions of gender shape this group of workers? The audience then also added to this rich discussion: What does ‘ordinary’ mean? Were the cheminots not labour aristocracy? How does the concept of geographical space shape the story of these workers?

The room was packed, the atmosphere warm and buzzing, the evening ended with drinks in a nearby pub and later dinner in a burger joint. Broch described it as ‘the perfect evening’ which gave her first book a real sense of both celebration and the closure. Ultimately, her book tells the story of Vichy France from the perspective of a unique group of workers whose stories highlight the many grey areas of Vichy’s history and memory. It is a first book which has launched two new projects she is highly inspired by: one on black resisters in Vichy and the other main project on the Gratitude Train gifted from France to America in 1949. So watch this space.

Click HERE to listen to an mp3 recording of the paper (right click to save).

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