Spotlight on Karine Varley

Welcome to another edition of Historians Under the Spotlight – an occasional interview series which offers a snapshot from academics’ lives: their passions, interests and reading suggestions. You can catch up with previous posts here.

This month, our spotlight is being trained on Karine Varley (University of Strathclyde) who, in the midst of a very busy commemorative year, has managed to find time to put together a Virtual Special Issue in collaboration with the journals French History and German History to mark the 150th anniversary of the Franco-Prussian War. You can access the VSI here.

In a nutshell, what is your research about?

I have two main areas of interest. My first book looked at how memories of the Franco-Prussian War influenced French political culture in the early Third Republic. I’ve recently returned to the subject to explore how the experiences of the Franco-Prussian War transformed ideas on sacrifice in war. I’m also looking into European responses to the conduct of the war. My second area of research interest is on Vichy’s relations with Fascist Italy during the Second World War. My forthcoming book, Vichy’s Double Bind: Playing Hitler against Mussolini in France and its Empire seeks to reframe French collaboration as part of a three-way relationship with the Nazis and Italian Fascists.

What was it that first got you interested in researching French history?

I had no interest in French history until it came to choosing my undergraduate dissertation topic. I originally planned to focus on German history, but my supervisor, Chris Clark, knew that I spoke French because of my family background in Corsica, so he suggested that I work on memories of Vichy. I was incredibly lucky to have had such an inspiring and supportive supervisor. The experience of writing my dissertation under Chris Clark’s supervision not only got me hooked on French history but led me to want to pursue an academic career. My first book was on memory and my second is on Vichy, so the themes I explored in my undergraduate dissertation continue to echo in my research to this day.

In the length of a Tweet, what is your Virtual Special Issue (VSI) about?

Franco-German perspectives on the impact of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, focusing on themes of violence, the conduct of war, national and border identities, republicanism, liberalism and state-building.

What made you decide to put together a VSI on this subject?

I was keen to use the 150th anniversary of the Franco-Prussian War to draw attention to the topic. Nineteenth century European history has seemed a bit less fashionable in recent years, but I think there has been a revival of interest in the events of 1870-1871, including the Paris Commune. There has been major investment in some of the museums dedicated to the Franco-Prussian War, most notably the Musée de la Guerre de 1870 et de l’Annexion at Gravelotte and the Musée de la Guerre 1870 at Loigny. Unfortunately, the pandemic meant that many of the events and conferences that had been planned to mark the 150th anniversary were cancelled or postponed. So when Claire Eldridge asked whether I’d be interested in putting together a virtual special issue, drawing together articles from French History and German History, I leapt at the opportunity.

What are the main insights you hope people will take away from the VSI?

For me, there are two main ‘takeaways’ from this VSI. The first is how the articles help us to gain a comparative perspective on the impact of the Franco-Prussian War in France and Germany and to gain a greater sense of the entanglements between the two states and their borderlands. The second is that the VSI reflects how the scholarship is much broader than the traditional military studies, with historians turning to the wider political, social and cultural repercussions of the war.

What new thing(s) did you learn in the course of putting together the VSI?

I really enjoyed re-reading some of the articles that influenced my thinking when I was writing my PhD and working on my first book. Seeing the developments in the subject in the period since then was fascinating. There has been a particularly notable shift in emphasis on the international and global implications of the Franco-Prussian War as well as the longer-term impacts in French and German politics and society. This was the first time I had put together a VSI, so I found looking at previous examples invaluable.

What advice would you give to other people contemplating guest editing a VSI?

One of the greatest difficulties in putting together the VSI was also one of the most enjoyable aspects, namely whittling down the selection of articles. I guess my main advice would be to think about what connects the articles. Unlike a special issue of French History, where the articles are written with a particular theme in mind, the articles included in VSIs were originally published as standalone pieces of research. For me, it was a matter of thinking about why each article should be included and how bringing the selection together might bring a new perspective to the subject. Because I was working across two journals, I thought in terms of trying to pair the articles. The articles by Taithe and Krüger work well together as they deal with aspects of violence; Heinzen and Hazareesingh deal with political dimensions; finally, Mazón and Klein engage with cultural aspects of the war’s repercussions.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

For me, the most rewarding aspect is being able to pursue my own interests in my research and teaching. I also like how writing books and articles gives you the opportunity to create something and to produce something that hopefully people can enjoy as well as learn from. I’ve also been fortunate to have had the opportunity to present my research at the British and French ambassadors’ residences in Paris and London. It was amazing to be in such historical surroundings and to get a sense of how ideas on the past shape diplomacy today. On the teaching side, I’ve been fortunate to teach some excellent students at Strathclyde. Having come from comprehensive school in Leeds and an environment that didn’t always value education, I find it rewarding to see students develop their skills over the course of their studies and to realise their potential.

One of the things I find most frustrating is the lack of time to develop ideas in my research. The pressure to produce publications and other ‘outputs’ means that it can be very difficult to have sufficient time to reflect on what you have read in the archives and to engage properly with the scholarship. Trying to come up with ideas for the next project before you’ve had time to complete the last one is something I’ve always found really challenging as well.

What one change would you most like to see in Academia in the next five years?

So many things need changing, but what feels most pressing at the moment is that I wish there could be greater stability in the next five years, especially here in the UK. The threat to a number of History departments as well as other arts and humanities subjects across the UK is very worrying. It’s a reminder that while we’re often set in competition with one another for grants, jobs etc, ultimately we’re all on the same side and facing the same challenges.

What are you working on now/next?

I am currently working on a new project that explores changing concepts of sacrifice in war in nineteenth-century Europe. The project focuses upon the Franco-Prussian War as a key turning-point, exploring the impact of new humanitarian movements, medical treatment and greater public awareness of the conditions of war through reporting and how these factors contributed towards changing attitudes towards soldiers’ deaths. It also explores the religious and political discourses around death and sacrifice and the changing relationship between the citizen, the state and the nation.

Quick fire questions:

What French place/space would you most like to be able to go to right now?

Porto-Vecchio (Corsica).

Favourite archive or library?

I always enjoy being in municipal and departmental archives, but the Archives de Corse in Ajaccio are close to the sea, so it’s ideal for going swimming afterwards.

Favourite century?

Nineteenth.

Typed or handwritten?

Handwritten.

Éclair or saucisson?

Saucisson. So long as it’s with a good baguette.

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