We love to hear about exciting postgraduate projects, and the doctoral students at the University of Sussex have recently devoted a special issue of their journal – University of Sussex Journal of Contemporary History – to a micro-history of the French defeat in June 1940. Sally Palmer, a postgraduate student from the University of Sussex working on the resistance, discusses the project behind the current issue.
One Spring afternoon, a group of doctoral students at the University of Sussex were having a well earned lunch break looking out over the South Downs and discussing the trials and tribulations of archival research and the differences in working with the British Mass Observation and the French Archives Nationales. We then fell to talking about the contrasts between events in Britain and France in June 1940 and realised that we had enough material to organise a conference for doctoral students and early career researchers.
Together with Jessica Hammett, a doctoral student at Sussex, and after a considerable amount of hard graft and sending what felt like a million emails (a process familiar to all conference convenors) I co-convened a conference on June 1940, held at Sussex in October 2014, to offer a micro history approach to the historical practice of memory and commemoration. We were privileged to have two wonderful keynote speakers, Professor Hanna Diamond who gave a compelling paper on the exode of June 1940, ‘Fleeing Hitler, Lessons from the Website’ (fleeinghitler.org) about the dilemmas involved in creating and maintaining the website over time which resulted in a stimulating and lively discussion, and Professor Richard Vinen, who spoke on the mythology of 1940 in France and in England and the significance of June 1940 for both de Gaulle and for Churchill. Professor Rod Kedward also attended the conference and contributed valuable insights to the discussion and was immensely encouraging of the new research being undertaken. A full conference report by David Selway is available.
Jessica Hammett, working on Civil Defence in Britain during World War Two, offered one of many different papers from the British perspective, in a well argued paper which showed the extent of the Civil Defence preparations in England (in contrast to France). Through looking at the representation of public opinion by the press and politicians, she demonstrated that the events of June 1940 had a profound effect on the experience of working within Civil Defence and the way in which the personnel have been remembered.
Two papers looked at France in June 1940. Rebecca Shtasel, also a doctoral student at Sussex working on trade unionists in Le Havre, gave a moving paper on memories of the exode in the town, and my own paper considered Gritou and Annie Vallotton, through their journal C’etait au jour le jour, whose experiences in June 1940 working with refugees on the exode, I argued, led to their subsequent engagement in resistance activity in Lyon. These two papers showcased the diversity of new doctoral research being undertaken on the Occupation, on trade union activity, and on women’s voices, and both emphasised the significance and specificity of place,
These articles have been published, along with the five others from the conference written by doctoral and early career researchers at Sussex and further afield, together with the full conference report in the online and open access University of Sussex Journal of Contemporary History, as a special edition to mark the 75th Anniversary of June 1940.