France and the World Wars – SSFH / ASMCF Study Day 2016


During the SSFH/ASMCF Postgraduate Study Day held on 5 March 2016, one panel discussed the theme of PATRIMOINE through the lens of France and the World Wars. The Panel Chair, Mason Norton (Edge Hill), reflects on the individual papers by Emily Marsden (Durham), Florence Largillière (QMUL) and Adam Spencer (Hull). From postcards to Jewish heritage to lieux de mémoire, these papers not only show the importance of cultural history in the world wars, but also confirm the fact that the study of the 1914-45 continues to prosper in new and exciting directions. 


reflecting on patrimoine

The history of France between 1914 and 1945 is sometimes framed within a narrative framework of political and military history, an example being Albert Muller’s La seconde guerre de trente ans, 1914-1945.[1] Yet more recent historians have sort to define the history of war via a broader set of parameters, as was shown in the volume co-edited by Ludivine Broch and Alison Carrol, France in an Era of Global War, 1914-1945: Occupation, Politics, Empire and Entanglements,[2] (and well worth noting that this volume and the workshop that preceded it at the Maison Française d’Oxford in 2013 were at the foundation of the French History Network) and Manchester University Press currently run a series of the cultural history of war, one of the books in which is Chris Millington’s work on war veterans in Inter-War France.[3]

So it was following this recent trend amongst historians to look at ‘guerre, autrement’ that three papers looking at the links between war and heritage in the period 1914-1945 were assembled into this panel. Emily Marsden (Durham) looked firstly at postcards of ruins from the First World War in northern France, which were largely destined for a British market. Her paper examined issues such as memory, photography, archiving, and media. Identifying firmly the postcard as the dominant form of visual economy in the early twentieth century, she showed the interplay between both the photograph as a form of the mass media and news reporting of this time, but also the need to conceive of visual archives, recognising that photography was also becoming a valuable source to the historian, and that even as northern France reconstructed from 1918 and 1919 onwards, the vestiges of these ruins needed to persist in the historical memory of the First World War.

The next paper came from Florence Largillière (QMUL), who looked at the heritage of Jews in Inter-War France. Defining patrimoine as ‘the common heritage’, she looked at five constructions of Franco-Jewish patrimoine during this time. These were the memory of the French Revolution, which marked the entry of Jews into French identity; Franco-Judaism, a philosophy reconciling republicanism and Judaism; the memory of the Dreyfus affair, and the banalisation of anti-Semitism accompanied by the conflict that this provoked; the history of the First World War and the memory of Franco-Jewish patriotism and sacrifice at the front; and finally family histories in letters to the Vichy regime, and the demonstrations of French roots and Frenchness. Her argument was that proof of belonging was important throughout this period, and even more so after the coming to power of Vichy in 1940, and that Franco-Jewish patrimoine (with an emphasis upon the ‘franco’) was essential towards this idea of appartenance.

The final paper came from Adam Spencer (Hull), who is currently working upon the collective memory of the Second World War in the department of the Charente in western France. His paper looked at a methodological question as much as anything either historiographical or epistemological, which was the potential usage and viability of Geographic Information System (GIS) in constructing a digital map of lieux de mémoire in the Charente, with the aim of this becoming a dissemination tool about history and memory of the war in the Charente. He explained what was GIS, explaining that it was a tool for mapping sites either geographically or conceptually, to bring raw source data to the user in order that they may be able to inform themselves better either about a location or an activity, and showed how it might work, as an example, to show war memorials in different communes of the Charente. The paper linked different domains such as history, geography, memory and information science.

Before the floor was opened to questions in the discussion, Mason Norton in the chair remarked upon how the leitmotif between all three papers seemed to be the sociological concept of imaginaries. All three speakers reflected on this question. Emily Marsden talked about the symbols that she was analysing as performing a function that was both indexical and iconic, showing both the actual extent of damage caused by the ravages of war but also evoking images that would influence the imaginary. Florence Largillière stated that imaginaries held a great importance in her research, as there was little emphasis and evidence upon actual physical objects, and that her work was framed within a triumvirate between history, memory and patrimoine. Adam Spencer in contrast said that there was at present a strong emphasis upon physical objects in his research, but that he was looking at moving beyond that, and hoped that GIS could map both physical and resonant places of memory, in the same way that Pierre Nora viewed and defined lieux de mémoire in the 1980s and 1990s.[4] He also commented upon different senses of locality in imaginaries, saying that whilst the local meant the département in the Charente, other resisters in other parts of France, such as Grenoble for example, defined their locale upon a more ancient sense of area and region.

In the questions from the floor, Tom Stammers asked Emily Marsden about the nature of the Gothic and its influences and importance in the postcards and in memory- she replied that she was not entirely sure if we could really talk about these photographs as being influenced by the Gothic. He also asked Florence Largillière about the importance of Napoleon within Franco-Jewish patrimoine- her response was that the picture was mixed, as there had been some influence, but that much Franco-Jewish patrimoine drew upon more recent sources of inspiration. Charlotte Faucher commented upon the potential for GIS within historical research, and remarked that there was some existing interest, as had been shown by recent research into the French in London, which had drawn upon similar forms of historical geography.

All three papers showed lively engagements not just with the evidence of the actual sources, but with wider conceptual questions relating to both methodological and epistemological elements of their own work. This showed not just a broader conception of, but also an interdisciplinary understanding of, the cultural history of war and of the history of France during the period 1914-1945.



[1] Albert Muller, La seconde guerre de trente ans, 1914-1945 (Bruxelles, L’édition universelle, 1947).

[2] Ludivine Broch & Alison Carrol (eds.), France in an Era of Global War, 1914-1945: Occupation, Politics, Empire and Entanglements (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

[3] Chris Millington, From Victory to Vichy: Veterans in Inter-War France (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2013).

[4] Pierre Nora (ed.), Les Lieux de Mémoire (Paris, Seuil, 3 vol., 1984-92).


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