A Transnational Approach to European Resistance, 1936-48 (Robert Gildea)

Academics are under publication pressure from at least two sources (i) to write high-quality articles and monographs for the REF; and (ii) to secure external funding for big projects, preferably with overheads. Instinctively, we probably prefer the first, and when I was asked nearly ten years ago by former 1968 activist Alain Geismar why I was involved in our ‘Around 1968’ project, I said, ‘For the Oxford History Faculty’. I was only half joking. But there are many and wonderful rewards in being involved in a collaborative project, which is probably why I find myself doing it for the third time.

‘Not the French Resistance, but resistance in France’

Fighters in the Shadows, my book on the French Resistance, led naturally to a wider project on transnational resistance. The Musée de la Résistance nationale at Champigny-sur-Marne contains a series of boxes of applications of foreign resistance fighters, written in the 1970s and 1980s when they were approaching retirement and pressed for cash, detailing their resistance activities and asking for recognition as a Combattant Volontaire de la Résistance (CVR), if not for recompense of some kind. One of my favourites came from Julia Pirotte, who had the misfortune to be Polish, Jewish, a communist and a woman. ‘I am tired of it all’, she sighed, after being turned down for the second time for a CVR in 1978, ‘but I have the satisfaction of knowing that I did something for France. If France does not want to recognise it, that’s her business.’ I wrote a chapter entitled ‘The Blood of Others’, a rather shameless recycling of the title of Courtois, Peschanski and Rayski’s Le Sang de l’Étranger, which ended with the suggestion that ‘it may be more accurate to talk less about the French Resistance than about resistance in France’. This line, which challenges the national myth that the French liberated themselves in 1944, was happily taken up by a number of reviewers as one of the contributions of the book.

Building a team, finding the money

Very early it became obvious that a new approach should be tried, exploring the trajectories of resisters who resisted outside their country of origin, and exploring how they came together and exchanged ideas and expertise – or violently disagreed with each other. This was happening all over Europe, starting with the International Brigades in Spain and evident in a number of theatres, from the Pyrenees to the Eastern Front and from the Low Countries to the Balkans. The approach owed a good deal to ‘Around 1968’ project of 2007-11, the subtitle of which was ‘Activism, Networks and Trajectories’. Again, what was required was an international team and a decent pot of money. Both took several years to assemble. We held two exploratory workshops in 2011 but did not secure external funding until 2015, when we got one of the last Leverhulme International Network grants. This underpinned a partnership of seven research institutes that had been brought together over time, plus two visiting research fellows. We were also lucky enough to be awarded money by the Gerry Holdsworth Special Forces Trust, which allowed us to add in three postdoctoral researchers and some targeted research expenses. The interchange of younger and more senior researchers is one of the dynamics and pleasures of the enterprise.

Thinking transnationally

It seemed a good idea to hold the first workshop outside Western Europe, to changer les idées as it were. To move a centre of investigation to the Balkans, where the Yugoslav resistance and Italian resistance after 1943 had been intertwined in complex ways. The first workshop was kindly hosted by the Institute for Recent History, Belgrade, on the theme of ‘Becoming a transnational resister’, and heard some wonderful mini-papers on the recruitment of the International Brigades in the Netherlands, Yugoslavia, Romania and Palestine, internment camps in France and North Africa as crucibles of international resistance, the contribution of Jews and Muslims to transnational resistance and the interfaces of transnational resistance in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Bringing together such a diverse team flagged up different research cultures in different parts of Europe. Interesting tensions were played out in the group between those who seized on the transnational approach as the way out of national histories of resistance and forward and those who were instinctively happier with those national narratives. There was also sharp discussions of what ‘rewriting history’ meant – between those for whom it was about historiographical ‘turns’ and those for whom it means the subordination of history to politics, periodically air-brushing people out of the story. That is why it was important to come to Belgrade, where mugs and T-shirts of Chetnik leader Mihailović are now more common than those in Tito’s image in the souvenir shops, sitting snugly alongside memorabilia of Nicolas II and Putin. The great thing about a three-year project, however, and what makes it different from a one-off conference, is that the teams works together over time and we all learn from, each other in unexpected ways. This is histoire croisée in action. We look forward to the second workshop in Dublin next year, hosted by UCD’s Centre for War Studies.

Where next?


Robert Gildea is a professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford. He has written extensively on modern French history. His latest works include his book on Fighters in the Shadows and an article on The Transnational and the Local, both published in 2015.


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