France, the French & the Second World War

a historian blogs about research, teaching, motherhood and other stuff

Vichy in the French Presidential Elections: a not-so-divided memory?

On Sunday 9 April, Marine Le Pen declared that she did not believe that the French were guilty for the roundup of 13,000 Jews in the Vel d’Hiv in July 1942. That it was the people in power – she is implying that it was just the Germans – who were guilty of genocide. That France had not been in Vichy during the war years, but in London with de Gaulle. France was not responsible. These are her claims.

In many ways these are not new statements. In 1944 the regime in Vichy led by Pétain was discredited in the ordonnance of 9 August. According to de Gaulle, there had been no break in the Republic since the Republic itself had continued to exist in London. The government in Vichy had been illegitimate, and so were its actions. This tied into the dominant image at the time that France had been united and had resisted the Germans. Of course, one must understand the context of the post war period. After the war there was a denial of France’s role in the collaboration and, also, the Holocaust. This was due to a combination of factors which varied over the years – lack of knowledge and understanding ; refusal to accept the facts ; a need to present a united front. It was not a time for historic truth and accuracy, but rather a time for rebuilding a nation.

The myth of the French resistance would endure for several decades, but as the years wore on, more and more questions were raised. Shifts at international and national level began to occur. The 60s and 70s saw Eichmann trial, the Auschwitz trial, the release of films such as The Sorrow and the PityLacombe Lucien, the death of de Gaulle and the emergence of a rich body of works re-examining the history of the Second World War and also the Holocaust. (1) Works by Raul Hilberg, Serge Klarsfeld and many others made France’s crimes evident, but a generation of men and women still struggled to confront this head-on, not least François Mittérand. (2)

It was only in the 1990s that an official shift occurred, with Jacques Chirac’s speech at the Vel d’Hiv in 1995 acknowledging the extent of France’s culpability and crimes, and a series of very public trials revealing the involvement of French bureaucrats in the Holocaust. The film Sarah’s Key which came out in 2010 painted a picture of France reluctant to face its past and silent about Vichy and the Holocaust ; yet after 1995, that was no longer really the case. Exhibitions such as the one in Paris in 2014-15 on Collaboration revealed the darker aspects of the history of Vichy France.

What we see now is more of a consensus: that France contained resistors as well as collaborators, rescuers as well as perpetrators of genocide. There were the anti-Semitic laws, the roundups and the deportations, but there are also the Righteous, the rescuers and the resistors. And there were, of course, all those in the middle, the ones who live day by day, who survived. The need to look at this ‘full picture’ was in fact already present in Chirac’s speech in 1995 – far from lambasting the French, as some accused him of doing (3), he showed the different sides of its wartime history which contained collaboration and genocide, but also resistance and rescue. The new narrative of Vichy France was a combination of both its dark and its glorious past. Subsequent Presidents including Sarkozy and Hollande have continued to present this more balanced view of Vichy France. (4)

les milles

Le Camp des Milles, near Aix, where over 2000 Jews were interned before being deported.

What we know now, and have known for several decades, is that the Germans ordered the roundup of Jews in Paris in 1942 and that this roundup was executed by the French administration and the French police. We also know that in the Southern Zone – where the French government in the Vichy had total control – the French ordered, organised and executed the roundup and arrests of Jews, as well as their internment in specific camps, in the summer and fall of 1942. Ultimately, we know that, in regards to the Jewish question, the French collaborated with the Germans on numerous levels, but also at times acted upon their own initiative.

To deny these historical realities is problematic on many levels. In many ways it reminds us immediately of the controversial and negationist comment that Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, had made about the gas chambers years ago. MLP’s comments are not the same as those of her father since they touch on slightly different – albeit still highly controversial – questions. Yet we see here again a complete dismissal of over 50 years of scientific, legal, cultural, political and social work from historians, scholars, researchers, communities, witnesses, organisations, institutions, statesmen, judges and tribunals who have all been working towards a better understanding of the Holocaust in Europe. Le Pen claims that her comments are rooted in the Gaullist tradition – yet de Gaulle’s own understanding of the war was framed in a unique postwar context. We are now far away from that.

What is evident now, in the twenty-first century, is that Vichy history cannot be – and does not need to be – black or white, guilty or innocent. It is all of those things, and more. We know that France was in Vichy, that it was in London, that it was in Africa, as Eric Jennings has most recently pointed out. We know that France and the French were divided, that the history of the Second World War was full of contradictions and complications. The history of Vichy France continues to be a sensitive one in many ways, but the fundamental complexity of those years – which embraces a history of the resistance and the rescuers as much as it does the history of collaborators and bystanders – is no longer really up for debate. Seeing the uproar in response to Le Pen’s unfounded and outdated comments is a testament to the incredible work that has been done in questioning, researching, understanding and accepting France’s experiences in the Second World War over the past 50 years.


(1) For works on the memory of Vichy France see: Henry Rousso, The Vichy Syndrome, History and memory in France since 1944 (1991) ; Eric Conan & Henry Rousso, Vichy, un passé qui ne passe pas (Paris: Fayard, 1994) ; Florent Bayard, Le Génocide des Juifs entre Procès et Histoire (1943-2000) (2000) ; Tony Judt, ‘Epilogue’, Postwar: a history of Europe since 1945 (London: Heinemann, 2005) ; Peter Carrier, Holocaust Monuments and National Memory: France and Germany since 1989 (2005) ; Ludivine Broch, Ordinary Workers, Vichy and the Holocaust: French Railwaymen and the Second World War (2016).

(2) For works on the Holocaust, and in particular France and the Jews, see: Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (1961) ; Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton, Vichy France and the Jews (1981) ; Anne Grynberg, Les Camps de la Honte (1991) ; Serge Klarsfeld, Vichy-Auschwitz: La ‘solution finale’ de la question juive en France  (1993) ; Renée Poznanski, Etre Juif en France pendant la Seconde Guerre Mondiale (Paris: Hachette, 1994) ; Denis Peschanski, La France des Camps: L’internement, 1938-1946 (2002) ; Tal Bruttmann, Au bureau des affaires juives. L’administration française et l’application de la législation antisémite (1940-1944) (2006) ; Nicolas Moriot, Claire Zalc, Face à la persécution, 991 juifs dans la guerre (2010) ; Jean-Marc Dreyfus & Sarah Gensburger, Nazi Labour Camps in Paris: Austerlitz, Lévitan, Bassano, July 1943-August 1944 (New York: Berghan Books, 2011).

(3) Philippe Séguin was particularly critical of this type of what he called self-flagellation, see Peter Carrier, Holocaust Monuments and National Memory: France and Germany since 1989 (2005) p64.

(4) The history of Vichy France cannot be reduced to either a dark history or a radiant one, however – collaboration for resistance. It was history of shadows and shades of grey, where the extremes of resistance and collaboration, of the oppressor and the oppressed, could overlap and interconnect. But that is a conversation for another day.

Front Page News

I was in the British Library on Friday, trying to remember the exact day that the Merci Train had pulled into New York City harbour. Scanning over my notes I quickly found that it was on 3 February 1949 ; but rather than return to the application I was working on, I thought I’d slip up to the Newsroom and see if The New York Times had had anything to say about it at the time. The Merci Train is not mentioned in any historiography I have so far encountered, but I did know that it had received attention in the press. Perhaps a small article in the paper would help me elucidate some details?

Imagine my surprise when, scrolling down the microfilm looking for the 3 February issue, I realised my Merci Train had made front page news. The only image on that page, it showed the Magellan ship covered in painted letters reading ‘MERCI AMERICA’. You can spot small flags – bunting – adorning the ship, too. In fact, the whole article – which was, to my delight, continued on page 7 – emphasised the extent of the celebrations welcoming this gift from France. ‘A flotilla of small boats descended on the gayly beflagged Magellan at her anchorage off Quarantine in the wintry, early morning sunlight and made the Narrows resound with blasting sirens and whistles.‘ wrote Joseph J. Ryan, the journalist covering the story. An ‘aerial salute‘ of ‘bombers and fighter jets‘ accompanied the celebrations, as well as ‘four city fire boats‘ which, surrounding the Statue of Liberty, ‘turned their powerful nozzles skyward and sent towering streams of spray into the morning sunlight.’

Waiting on the harbour to welcome the Merci Train was Grover Whalen, who expressed ‘the official greeting of the city … on behalf of Mayor O’Dwyer.’ Who was this ‘Whalen’, and why had the mayor not bothered to come down himself? Was this ceremony not deemed important enough? Whalen, it turns out, was also ‘Mr New York’ (literally the title of his autobiography ), a key political, business and social figure known to everyone. And if O’Dwyer was not their to greet the ship at the harbour, it’s because he was waiting at the Town Hall, where the New York Merci Train Car, once off-loaded from the ship, would make its way in a parade from Battery to 43rd Street.

I can almost hear the harbour vibrating with the sounds of planes, water guns and cheers. They seem loud, celebratory, eager to welcome ‘(t)hese gifts, made at great sacrifice’  which, according to Whalen, were ‘a further assurance of the friendship of the French people for the people of the United States.’ Aside from a friendly gesture, though, this gift – with its 49 boxcars, 52,000 objects and countless notes and letters – was also a strong reminder of America’s own generosity. ‘New York remembers with great pleasure the opportunity of participating in the Friendship Train’, Ryan commented, referring to the humanitarian donation of food made in 1948 from ordinary Americans to the French people. Likewise, America’s participation in the world wars had apparently inspired French railwaymen to scour the country in search of ’40 x 8 rail cars so familiar to American veterans of World War I’. By welcoming this gift in such a grandiose way, were the Americans really celebrating a narrative of war, generosity and sacrifice? Did these gifts serve as mirrors reflecting their own heroism? After all, the French president’s name was misspelled in the article – Vincent Auriel instead of Vincent Auriol – suggesting, in my view, a certain disinterest in the French origins of the gift. No, this gift originated in American generosity dating back to the First World War. How the Merci Train and its 52,000 objects served as a tool to build a narrative of the world wars is, indeed, one of the most fascinating things about it ; it is perhaps for this reason that the story made the front page of The New York Times.


Doing research in your pyjamas: digitised sources, word search and methodology

I was recently at an IHR workshop talking about approaches and challenges to research and teaching for French historians.  The digitisation of books, newspapers and archives, but also the growing precision of online research catalogues, has an effect on the way we work as historians. Whereas before we had to physically go to a library for research, now, all of the sudden, we can do it in our pyjamas from home.

Well, sort of. I never really read books on google books, nor do I spend extended periods of time looking at digitised archives. Indeed, I find the software is often a bit clunky. By scanning the document with a mouse/zoom, I can slowly make out the content of the document, going from top to bottom, from left to right. I then click to look at the next page, which (more or less slowly) loads up, and then start scanning the single page again. The process is longer. It takes me much longer to read a document online than it would ‘in person’. There is no ‘flicking through’, there is less intuition. When it is in my hands, I can (pretty) quickly assess a file’s significance for my research ; when it is on my screen it takes a lot longer.

That being said, the internet can be an extraordinarily powerful and valuable tool for historians. Did I not already mention the thing about working in your pyjamas?! As a mother I am now much more selective about the time I spend away from home, and prolonged trips to do archival/library work in France seem less realistic all of the sudden. Parents are not the only ones who have to think carefully about planning trips to archives, though. The financial element of travelling to archives, and the teaching/admin duties we are generally bound to, have a major effect on how much time we spend in the archives. I remember what my PhD supervisor told me in my first year: ‘go to the archives, go for a year, enjoy it, you’ll never have that time again!’ She was right.

Aside from convenience, digitised sources also change the way we research. Word search, in particular, speeds things up, allowing us to locate crucial sources at impressive speed. It could be argued that word search is too precise, though, targeting words but not necessarily meaning. We would thereby reduce discussions of – for instance – race and racism to instances where those words are used explicitly. They may not be used in the context we are looking for though, or the context we are looking for may be using different key words. Word search, despite it’s comforting quantitative element, is an imperfect science.

And yet, could I use word search to develop a methodological approach for my latest research? I am currently writing a paper on ‘Race, Racism and Resistance’ which explores how the notion of ‘race’ intersects with the history of the French Resistance both within and beyond the metropole. Right now, the methodology is a bit … random. This is in part out of necessity. Indeed, there is no quick way of finding out who were non-white resisters in Occupied and Non-occupied France. That is kind of the reason why I am doing this. It is difficult to even define ‘non-white’ (what does it entail? variations of skin colour are far too high), and to quantify and identify those who resisted. And yet, in order to penetrate my subject, I felt I needed to get some understanding of this.

I began using a traditional methodology: gathering key secondary sources on the French Resistance. I almost immediately added books on empire, race and immigration in my time period. I looked at approaches and arguments, but I also looked closely at content: were these historians mentioning anyone who may have been black, North African, in metropole France, in the resistance, etc.? I started to build a small list of names, many of whom were anti-colonialist and  intellectuals in the years either before or afterthe war. Their activities between 1939-45 were, however, rarely mentioned, or only briefly. So I used google – I word searched – and I followed a series of leads through more or less reliable websites. In doing so, I was able to amass a variety of information which interlinked and overlapped at times, such that I was in some cases able to get a much more firm understanding of how non-white intellectuals had been entangled in the resistance.

Using word search, I haphazardly discovered an online source I never knew existed: the Service Historique de la Défense has its Dossier administratifs de résistants online. These are organised alphabetically, but also by place of birth and role in the French Resistance. If you go down the list of over 500,000 names, you can see who was born in Mali, Senegal, Algeria, and was part of the resistance as the FFL (Forces françaises libres); FFC (Forces françaises combattantes); FFI (Forces françaises de l’intérieur); RIF (Résistance intérieure française); DIR (Déportés et Internés résistants). It will take months going through this entire list, I have no doubt. It will also be imperfect since not everyone born in those countries was non-white, and since not every name has a place of birth or a resistance homologation. But it will be worth it. Just the other day, scrolling down the ‘D’ list, I came across one Syrian FFI resister, Jacques Dingian. By doing a simple word search of his name, I was able to identify the significance of the Corps France de la Montagne Noire, a maquis with numerous Algerians, Moroccans and other non-white, colonial, ‘indigenous’ resisters.

Would I have uncovered this without word search? Possibly by asking Rod Kedward and other maquis specialists. Is word search more distracting than anything else? Possibly, because my paper would probably be done by now ; instead I’m still following leads.

But this is just one of the many examples where word search has opened important avenues of investigation. Avenues which I would have probably left unexplored for a while. If anything, it had pointed me towards the usefulness of digitised sources. Reading up on Germaine Tillion’s network to help colonial POWs, I wanted to follow up some points, and so used the Archives Nationales’ online sources. I found documents which spoke to my specific questions, making my paper all the more robust and giving me a better understand of the significance of colonial POW escape networks in the French Resistance.

Word search and digitised sources are, as it so happens, proving invaluable tools as I take my first steps into a new research topic. More than that, they are becoming an important part of my research method. They can not replace archive trips, but I do believe they can enhance my research in new and unexpected ways.

Aleppo, a century later

Two weeks ago, I gave a lecture on the Armenian Genocide which took place in 1915-16. I cannot help but see the strong similarities with what we are witnessing today.

The history and historiography of the Armenian genocide is, unsurprisingly, complex. The Armenians had struggled from increased persecution in the late-nineteenth century, and the rise of radical Turkish nationalism in the early twentieth-century launched a new and fatal phase. Between 1915 and 1923 (and especially 1915-16), almost 1.5 million Armenians were killed. Deported, concentrated, massacred, raped, starved, made to join the death marches. Those who survived either managed to flee or were forced into conversion. The memory is even more controversial, not least because Turkey continues to deny the genocide to this day.

At the time, the great powers knew about the massacres of Armenians, but the priorities of the Great War meant that no one did anything to help. At the end of the war, the League of Nations was born in order to address a number of international problems, not least that of Russian and Armenian refugees fleeing civil war and genocide respectively. However, the rise of Ataturk and the creation of the Turkish nation saw a significant geopolitical shift in the region. The international powers dropped all mention of the Armenians in order to maintain important diplomatic relations with Turkey.

Aleppo was at the heart of the Armenian genocide in 1915-16. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of women, children and men were deported via Aleppo on their way to the camps before being marched, to death, through the Syrian and Mesopotamian deserts.

One hundred years later, Aleppo is again at the heart of a humanitarian crisis.

One hundred years later, the great powers still struggle to respond.

I don’t like to talk to much about the ‘lessons from history’, or that ‘if we don’t know the past than we risk repeating it’. But there is no doubt that history can open our eyes to present situations. It helps us create links with other times, other scenarios, other tragedies. It opens our eyes to the fact that anything is possible – no matter how terrible – and therefore hopefully makes us think twice about where we want to be heading.

In the comfort of my own kitchen, sipping my nice coffee, my world is a million times removed from the lives of those in Aleppo. But the material I teach, and the material I want my students to think about, helps me see the connections between between then and now, between us and them.

Last night I wrote to the Foreign Office about my concerns (, which are that the 100,000 civilians remaining in Aleppo must be allowed to safely leave the city. Before then, I donated to the White Helmets who are out there. I have academic friends who are actively involved in refugee charities, and others who are actively involved in writing the history of humanitarianism and internationalism. I don’t know what these tiny steps help in the long run, but in one hundred years I dread to think that someone will be teaching about Aleppo in a lecture room, saying how the world saw, and did nothing.

For more on the Armenian genocide, the award-winning documentary Aghet is available on youtube.

The Language of Motherhood

I recently discussed the struggle of choosing a next research project, but after I finished my book, my next research project actually chose me: motherhood. I went into labour the day after I pressed ‘send’ on my final manuscript (and all the photograph authorisations etc. etc.). It was a fast and furious delivery which involved a nervous Uber taxi driver and a lot of swearing on my part. I was delirious from pain. It felt like being hit by a bus over, and over, and over again. And suddenly, he was here. Without my glasses on I only saw a back smeared with white and heard a cry. ‘Is it a boy?’ I asked. We had not wanted to know. ‘Yes, it is’ the doctor said.

The next few weeks are a bit of a blur. Every parent will say that. But my historian’s instincts made sure that I kept some notes – on paper, on my iPhone – of what I was feeling. Already, I was turning my entry into motherhood as a research project, archiving details of him but also of myself. Amassing information but not really knowing what to do with it. A book for him, for when he is older; a family album. Archiving feeds, ‘firsts’ (smile; banana; museum; movie; pub; tube ride) and daily life. But also archiving information – what to do when he won’t sleep? When he won’t eat? When he cries all the time? When his eye looks wonky? What toys to get? How to engage him? How to make him sociable? What should I look out for? What should I do to help him become the most brilliant possible version of his already brilliant self?

As you do for any research project, I started with a literature review. I read Gina Ford and I read Laurence Pernoud. The Sleep Whisperer and the The Sensational Baby Sleep Plan. I googled everything on and I downloaded the What To Expect app. I asked my NCT friends questions on a weekly basis and I had one phone appointment with a sleep consultant. I came to the conclusion that Gina Ford is not as inflexible as many make her out to be, and that a lot of the theories of early motherhood overlap.

The two best books I read were Naomi Stadlen’s What Mothers Do Especially When It Looks Like Nothing (2004) and Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality by Rebecca Asher (2011). They were less about what to do with my baby, and more to do with me, a new mother. Giving birth made me feel empowered; becoming a mother made me feel quite lost, like a stranger in my own home. For the basic ‘how to keep your child alive and not totally distressed’ I began to rely almost only on my NCT friends, the Babycenter website and the one phone conversation with the sleep consultant; but Stadlen and Asher helped me navigate the first few months in a much more transformative way. They helped me reflect on the transformation of my identity – be it voluntary or involuntary – as I was now responsible for a tiny human. And they made me even more conscious of the huge gender problems that women face in the twenty-first century.

As the intensity of the first weeks began to subside somewhat, I began to relax into my new research project on motherhood. I realised how little I had known about the human body, and how fascinating it was to actually witness the development of sight, sound, smell, taste and understanding. I was shocked that the rational decisions I’d made prior to the birth (I didn’t need to breastfeed; going back to work would be fine; I’d make sure we did 50/50 parenting) had suddenly lost all relevance. I was horrified to discover that my biological nature shaped much more of my self and my life than I had ever wanted it to.

But one thing always kept coming back: the language of motherhood. Becoming a mother was about learning a new language, a new space, a new sense of time. Age was counted in weeks, not years. Spaces were either baby-friendly or they weren’t – the rest did not matter. All of this was accompanied by a new vocabulary: slings, Sleepyheads, Bugaboos; vests, babygrows, sleep suits; reflux, baby acne, teething. I became engrossed in this new discourse, so alien to anything I had ever known.

I soon became acutely aware, however, that this language undervalued women so much. Terms like ‘baby blues’ and ‘baby brain’ were thrown around casually by everyone, not least mothers themselves. Although it seems harmless, this vocabulary  was in fact reinforcing long-held stereotypes about women, belittling their experiences and silencing their real voices and potential.

First, Baby Blues. It is considered normal to ‘feel emotional and irrational’ in the first week after the birth of the baby due to the sudden crash of hormones. To ‘burst into tears for no apparent reason’; to ‘feel irritable or touchy’; to ‘feel depressed or anxious’. This is called having the ‘baby blues’. It is when these emotions continue for over 3-4 weeks that one can then talk of Post-Natal Depression. But if the latter is a serious medical term people instantly recognise, the former is a funny play on words which implies a brief period where you just don’t feel like your 100% self. You’re ‘irritable’ and ‘irrational’ and ‘emotional’ – you know, those words which are used to describe women when they are on their periods – or women just generally.

During the first two weeks of his life, I saw my baby die a thousand deaths; I cried as I secluded myself in a room to pump breastmilk every two hours of day and night; I could not sleep more than 20 minutes straight because I had to hear his every breath for reassurance; I could neither walk nor sit because of the pain of the stitches; wearing a bra or t-shirt was excruciating as the cloth scraped across my bleeding nipples; I lost my appetite, runny cheese and wine being the last things on my mind; I sat surrounded by congratulations flowers and cards and thought ‘when will this all be over?’. It was not all bad – I remember laughing at the knitted boob one lactation consultant forgot at my house. I remember the first time I said ‘I love you’ to my son when he was 8 days old. I remember thinking he was so, so beautiful and perfect. But I felt the other stuff too.

I felt so belittled when I googled ‘post-birth not sleeping not hungry’ and saw that they described it as the ‘baby blues’. It sounded like the title of a cute little country song – a far cry from what I was actually experiencing. This infantilising and patronising term is a perfect example of how womens’ experiences are downplayed – in this case as mothers – by professionals and institutions.

Second, Baby Brain. This is when you are pregnant/had a baby and your brain instantly goes to mush. You forget everything, become ‘oversensitive and less able to focus on logical tasks.’ There are actually many debates  about what happens to a woman’s brain when she has a baby – does it grow bigger? Does it become forgetful? Does it stay the same? (See the The Guardian, The Atlantic, Huffington Post for some examples).

The answer is that after a woman gives birth to a baby, and then to the placenta, her brain then finally slips out. A tiny balloon gets inflated and put in its place to keep the skull from caving in. She may never see her original brain again, or best case scenario it will take a long time to grow back. The balloon then partially disappears, squeezing into tiny corner.

This is certainly what it feels like sometimes. As an academic I felt particularly sensitive when hearing women say they couldn’t wait to go back to work to ‘use their brains again’. The idea that mothers should work so that they can ‘use their brains’ is offensive to all mothers who take some time off to take care of their baby in those first few months/years; to all those mothers who choose not to return to the workplace; to all those professionals (mostly women) who devote their life to childcare.

During that first year, I was acutely aware of just how much I was using my brain. I was learning an entire new language, an entire new way of life. Calculating formula; timing feeds; learning how to burp correctly; how to treat baby eczema; how to sterilize bottles; how to help a tiny human survive their first days in the world; how to understand the difference between spit-up and reflux. The last thing I learned was German and that was 3 hours a week – and I found that hard to keep up with on top of work; now, I was learning 24/7. My brain was working constantly, and that’s why I was forgetful. Because when you’re overworked, that’s what happens.

I was delighted to go back to work because I love what I do, who I work with, and the individual freedom that comes with it. But to ‘use my brain again’? No. I will never let anyone suggest that I did not need to use my brain to think when raising my son in his first year. Motherhood requires you to use your brain and body differently. The physicality of motherhood took me by surprise, for sure. But there was also a continuity between my maternity leave and academia: I networked (with new mothers); researched (child early development); organised events (baby yoga). The two were not mutually exclusive.

By implying that maternity leave or stay-at-home mums are not intellectually stimulated, we are downplaying the extraordinary skills one develops as a new mother. We are undervaluing women’s role in the home, but also in society. We are prioritising a clearly linear career trajectory, over one which is more flexible. The language of motherhood must change in order to keep fighting the gender imbalance of contemporary society.


Where to next?

I’ve been writing drafts of posts to publish about various things : trip to archives in late August ; a yellow star ; the language of motherhood ; national identity in academia ; historians and online research ; the Horror of Trump and what it means to my students. This has produced a total of zero published blog posts since Friday 24 June – that fateful day when Britain woke up with one of the worst hangovers ever. Now, since 8 November, the entire world has a dreadful hangover – every morning we wake up and wonder – is it true? Did it really happen? I still shudder. I’m angry. We all shudder. We should all be angry.

But where to next? I wonder this about the more global, tolerant, open society built in the twentieth century – what is happening to it now? After Brexit and Trump, I don’t know. But whilst I try to figure this out, might as well get back to work. To research. But the same question arises: Where to next? [skip to paragraph 11 if you are limited in time]

The problem is an old one: as soon as you finish the PhD you are expected to embark on a new project. That is mostly wishful thinking, since turning your thesis into a book takes a hell of a long time. But it is also necessary – thinking of a new project helps you see the light at the end of the tunnel, but also think about how you see your self, your career, developing in the future. What new directions do you want to take?

Over the years I’ve felt torn over that very question. I elaborated a total of three post-PhD research projects over the years. Martyred towns was the first one – I wrote a chapter on that in a volume I edited with Alison Carrol. But I realised that whilst this was an interesting topic it was not really something I felt too passionate about. Because that’s it, isn’t it – the next research project is a second chance at doing something you like way more than your doctoral thesis.

My second project idea was on race under Vichy. My interest in the history of discrimination and exclusion, and my work with the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism, made me think that whilst there was a huge literature around antisemitism in Vichy France, there was not much written about the history of race and racism during the ‘dark years’. I started to outline a project entitled Being Black under Vichy which focussed on the experience of non-white people in the metropole. I did some preliminary archival research and found that there were some interesting archives which showed a kind of everyday racism which was bubbling beneath the much more visible discrimination against Jews. It fits in with the recent burgeoning of works on French colonial Prisoners of War. This could be an interesting project, for sure. I’ve also started thinking about the material in the National Archives here in London, and what it tells me about race, resistance and Vichy. Transnational approach to (race under) Vichy? Archives on my doorstep? Yes please, thank you.

All the while, a third project was ticking away in my mind. In the SNCF archives during my PhD I’d discovered some documents about a Friendship Train, and I later stumbled across a lot more information on a random archive visit to the departmental archives in Toulouse. The Friendship Train had arrived there in early 1948 to distribute food and dried goods donated by the American people to the hungry, war-torn French population. The documents were describing the train’s arrival and distribution process, but also its somewhat mixed reception amongst the community. I was immediately intrigued: why had Americans made these donations? what did they include? Had other communities in France received similar donations?

The story of the Friendship Train was intriguing in itself, and I began to collate more information through at the Jewish Distribution Committee archives. Independent researchers had done some creative and significant work gathering archives about the Friendship Train, not least Dorothy Scheele, so the internet became an absolutely necessary tool. I traced the train’s trajectory across America and then France, listing state and departmental archives I would have to eventually explore, as well as the libraries and archives which housed the personal papers of those involved in the train’s organisation. Slowly, a picture began to emerge – not of grassroots humanitarianism, but of ideology and Hollywood. And behind that picture… another story.

In thanks for the Friendship Train, the French people donated a Merci Train in 1948-49. The Merci Train was made up of 52,000 objects* given by the French people to the Americans in 1948. The objects were extremely varied, from extraordinary objects such as the bugle that sounded the 1918 Armistice, to ordinary handkerchiefs with small embroidered flowers. Divided into 49 adorned boxcars, they traveled in a ship across the Atlantic before each boxcar was distributed to an American state (as well as Hawaii and Washington D.C.). Celebrations, parades, speeches greeted these objects. Exhibitions were put on, collections were preserved, boxcars were left to deteriorate and then were renovated in the late twentieth century. Again, independent researchers such as Earl Bennett were fascinated by this story which features no where in the history books, and their work so far is so critical, so fundamental.


Archives Nationales: 552AP/263 – Fonds Privés Vincent Auriol. French Railroad car containing gifts from New Jersey, leading parade in Trenton, New Jersey.

But the Merci Train, much like the Friendship Train, is not what it seems to be. Portrayed as an act of French gratitude for American help during and after the war, it was actually a very conservative, politically-motivated, nationalist gesture. Research into Vincent Auriol’s private papers in the Archives Nationales, and into some digital collections found online, suggests that by gifting 52,000 ordinary objects to the American people, the French were saying more than just ‘thank you’: this was about war, memory, loss, nationalism, regionalism. And also gratitude.

To get any kind of firm conclusions on this, though, I need to delve deeply into this history of objects – what were they? who were they from? who did they go to? where are they now? This is quite exciting. Using new approaches, transnational objects and international archives, all the while relying on the internet to trace historical witnesses, I’m extremely excited about writing about the immediate postwar period in a broader geographical sense.

So there it is: my decision. I long ago decided not to follow my idea on martyred towns, leaving it for someone else to pick up if they so wish. But I am stunned that I spent one paragraph writing about Being Black under Vichy, and four on the Merci Train. I even made the effort of adding in a PHOTO with a CAPTION. Wow. It is clearly the book I want to write. I’ve got some material on being black under Vichy, but really this should be able to fill a couple of papers/articles. The Next Book will be the story of the Merci Train – the story of Postwar France in 52,000 Objects. 

That being said, getting to archives in France and America is HARD when you have a tiny cute little baby-human that you want to spend time with. And when you have teaching loads etc etc. But yes, cute tiny human. So in the meantime, I’ll turn the archives I already have, and future ones I will get, into groundbreaking pieces on race under Vichy. Ta da! Because work is important but I’m more and more convinced I need it to fit into MY life – not the other way around, which I did for so many years. Those days are over.

Pros and Cons of doing two projects simultaneously:

Cons: I’ll be too dispersed ; I risk not being sufficiently focussed on either.

: more intellectual stimulation ; life is short so fuck it.
img_3234Between Feb and May 2017 I’m giving three papers in NYU and London on ‘Race in the Resistance’ and ‘Postwar Objects’. I have no doubt that the feedback I get will shape my future research trajectory. In the meantime I better get cracking. But first: it’s the weekend. It’s been a long week. Time to forget about time and politics and work and play with my son, the Gruffalo.




* The exact number is not known, as independent researcher Alexis Mueller has underlined in a private conversation, but it is probably in this range.

Witnessing History

The decision to leave the EU has been the second most important historical event I have witnessed. I have not felt so shaken since I watched 9/11 unfold on live television almost 15 years ago. I remember everything about that day ; I believe I’ll remember everything about last night, this morning and the rest of the day. Yesterday I posted a short piece about antisemitism in the Second World War and the anti-immigration, anti-Europe discourse of the Brexit campaign ; I never, ever, actually believed we might leave the EU. The sense of history in the making compels me to put pen to paper again this morning. Also it is really hard to do actual work when you are so upset.

I came to the UK in 2002 to study History. I felt that by staying in France, where I am originally from, studying history at university would have limited rather than expanded my options. The British university system, for all of its flaws, offers young people real promise and potential, not least in comparison to the French one.

I was able to study history at Royal Holloway because, as an EU citizen, I paid home fees. I fell in love with history thanks to RHUL’s thriving and passionate history department. After having gone to an International Lycée in Paris I already had a strong sense of the importance of international communities. By studying the history of the twentieth century, and the movement of people, ideas and materials before, during and after the Second World War, I became even more convinced that breaking down national(ist) borders was essential for the future of a peaceful and tolerant society.

I was able to continue my studies at postgraduate level at Oxford because I was an EU citizen. At Oxford, I met a boy. One of the first things we talked about was how he had gone to live and study in France for one year during his undergrad degree – a year he described as being the best time of his life. He is now my husband, and we have a son.

I obtained a doctorate from a UK university ; I was a postdoctoral fellow at various British universities as well as the European University Institute ; I now have a permanent job in a British university ; I own my home in North London ; I teach dozens of students each year about the history of Europe in the twentieth century. The opportunities to live, work and settle in the UK allowed me to build a life here. My home, husband and baby are the living proof, as are the many wonderful friends I have made here. These opportunities also allowed me to develop intellectually and politically, to live a life based on tolerance and exchange and openness. The idea that many of my colleagues, and my own son, will not be able to enjoy these opportunities breaks my heart.

The discourse on immigration is tragic, and the idea of British ‘independence’ reeks of insularity and a dated nationalism. I feel unwelcome ; I would not be surprised that many young Europeans planning to study in Britain feel unwelcome, too. The idea that they might not come to Britain as a result of Brexit makes me fear that the rich social diversity that makes the British university system so attractive to European and international students alike is at risk.

I try to make sense of a Leave win. (1) People feel disempowered, and a referendum gives them the illusion of taking back that power. The idea that people think that exiting the EU means pay rise and better healthcare makes me think that they feel isolated from the opportunities that I was able to benefit from. It is a tragedy they could not see that low salaries and an ineffective NHS have nothing to do with EU membership. It is a tragedy that they could not see that the exchange of languages, cultures and ideas is not only deeply enriching but also fundamental for our future. (2) We should have done more. There should have been hardened, dedicated campaigns across the country, and not just London. There should have been more emphasis on languages and European, transnational history in school. There should have been more efforts to show the fundamental benefits of the flow of goods and peoples and ideas.

I do not identify with the rhetoric that Britain can be ‘Great’ again. I find this a chilling and dangerous refrain. I only feel reassured by the fact that this decision is the tyranny of a small majority ; that so many of my friends and colleagues on social media share the sense of desperation and tragedy I feel today.

I’m going to sit on my couch for a while. Then I’m going to apply for British citizenship because I need to get a fucking vote in this country. And I’m going to finalise the paperwork for my son’s French passport so that he can hopefully have a future in the EU.

Sartre, Antisemitism and Brexit

In my attempt to read around the topic of race in Vichy France – one of the two main projects I am currently working on – I recently picked up my dad’s highschool copy of Sartre’s Réflexions sur la question juive. Originally published in 1946, this edition was re-printed by Gallimard in their ‘Idées’ collection in 1954.

The first part of his essay explores the inner-workings of the antisemite. First, antisemitic sentiments are not opinions which merit the platform of free speech. The idea that the antisemite is allowed to his own antisemitic opinions, and that democracy protects his right to free speech, is false and dangerous. The antisemite manipulates democratic values in order to spew hatred. Antisemitism is not an opinion because it is a passion, grounded in neither reason nor experience. It covers suppressed sexual fantasies and criminal desires. But who is this antisemite ? According to Sartre, antisemites are part of a bourgeois economic background : ‘On ne trouve guère d’antisémitisme chez les ouvriers.’ – ‘We don’t find antisemitism amongst workers.’ The antisemite is also someone who is afraid to think. He wants order, not republican values. He accepts a certain idea of ‘Good’ without ever asking any questions, and spends his time identifying and reinforcing ‘Evil’. The antisemite is ‘l’élite des médiocres’ – ‘the elite of mediocracy’.

Not all of what Sartre says rings true or relevant. First, antisemitism is a lot more complicated than his Marxist interpretation suggests. Second, his definition of antisemitism – amongst other things – is limited. As David Feldman has written in his Sub-Report Commissioned to Assist the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism, the definition of antisemitism is hugely complex and merits much careful consideration.

That being said, Sartre’s text has real resonance. Indeed, Réflexions sur la question juive is not just about antisemitism. The Jew, Sartre says, ‘n’est ici qu’un prétexte’. ‘is only a pretext’. He argues that ‘ailleurs on se servira du nègre, ailleurs du jaune.’ ‘elsewhere it is about a negro, elsewhere a yellow man.’ These few words immediately catapult his essay into a much bigger sphere. Exploring how notions of antisemitism and racism intersect is part of my bigger project, so I am very interested by the way in which Sartre juxtaposes these three words – Jew ; negro ; yellow. Beyond the antisemite and the Jew, Sartre’s text helps us to think about the persisting fear and hatred of the ‘other’.

To pick up Sartre’s own words, elsewhere, it is the immigrant, the refugee, the European, the European Union. Indeed, for months – and years, in fact – the debate of ‘in or out’ has been raging on. I have often belittled the reality of a potential Brexit, believing that the British people do not have it so bad that they would seek – and risk – radical change. And yet, over the past few weeks, my stomach has gotten tighter. First, because as a French person who cannot vote, the result of this Referendum could radically change my life. Second, it is because I am hearing more and more British people – being interviewed in a pub in Yorkshire, or in some (and I cringe here) academic settings – say that the European Union, Europeans and the immigrants who come with it, threaten their identity, their security, their society. The EU and its citizens become scapegoats for Britain’s problems. Of course not all Brexiters hate immigrants, and not all Bremainers like them ; yet the rhetoric around immigration is part of the Brexit campaign. And I find this terrifying.

Sartre’s text, read 70 years later, is a chilling reminder of how hatred based on religion, race and nationality continues to bubble along in the 21st century. (Although granted, you don’t need to read Sartre to be reminded of that. Sadly the evidence is everywhere.) I am not saying that Brexiters are dominated by passion, sexual frustration and criminal desires – these are arguments which I do not care to step into too deeply. But ignorance (which is not only to do with education) and fear seem to be driving factors behind the scapegoating of the ‘other’ which is laced throughout the Brexit campaign. When reading the following sentence I got chills up my spine: ‘…les mesures qu’ils proposent et qui, toutes, visent à son abaissement, à son humiliation, à son bannissement, sont des succédantes de cet assassinat qu’ils méditent en eux-mêmes : ce sont des meurtres symboliques.’ ‘…the measures they {the antisemites} propose, all of which aim towards his {the Jew’s} belittlement, his humiliation, his banishment, precede this assassination they are all thinking of within themselves : they are symbolic murders.’ Again, I do not want to discuss suppressed criminal and murderous desires ; but taken out of the context of the antisemite and the Jew, Sartre’s point that the belittling, humiliation and/or persecution of a minority group is not a democratic right, but a step in the wrong direction, is a very important one.

This blog post is off the cuff – it is spontaneous and lacks full reflection and I apologise for inconsistencies. But on the day of the Referendum vote, I cannot help but read my research through the eyes of today. And lets hope that the society which we started to build in 1945 will still be here tomorrow morning.

Strikes, Archives and Maternity Leave – rethinking relationships to academic work

One of the main arguments I make in my first book is that, far from being willing strikers, French railwaymen – cheminots – were hesitant to strike. Even in the late-nineteenth century when they endured terrible working conditions, they were reluctant to strike, down tools or sabotage their machines. The fact that the cheminots loved ‘their’ machines was a major reason behind this reluctance which endured for decades. Until the Second World War, they largely preferred to use alternative means to advance their professional situation. But even after the war, the ‘unanimous support’ for strikes within this professional milieu was anything but certain. Involvement or abstinence from strikes has been a deeply fractious topic throughout cheminots’ long history, showing the rifts and tensions within this community.

Cheminots’ historic attitudes to strikes reminds us of the complexity of the relationship between workers and their work. Jonathan Saha recently blogged about this, reminding us that the affection workers can feel for their work (which, in this case, involved elephants) can seriously effect their approach to and attitudes during strikes.

Academics experience a similar tension between them, their work and the politics of academia. There is a tension between the passion many of us feel for our research, and the conditions in which we work on a day to day basis. Indeed, the latter were the subject of strikes on 25-26 May. These strikes were about addressing fundamental problems within our profession, problems linked not only to salaries but more importantly attitudes to both work and workers. Pay gaps and the casualisation of academic work are serious and glaring issues. Pay gaps continue to affect women and minorities, whilst short-term, casual contracts exploit post-doctoral researchers who often have to forego a lot of personal, familial and/or financial stability for no promise of any job security.

I therefore fully supported the strike – but I did not go on strike. Why ? The short answer is : I was on maternity leave. So I couldn’t ‘strike’ as such. The long answer is more complicated, however, because I was actually working on 25-26 May. Indeed, after almost 10 months of taking care of my son, and on the verge of going back to work full time as of 1 June, I had found a few days where I was able to guarantee childcare and fit in time in the archives in Paris. On the Monday night I was giddy with excitement. On the 5h40am Eurostar the next morning, I was still too excited to sleep and worked all the way to Paris. The trip lived up to its expectations: already on the first day I found some amazing photographs and speeches linked to the Friendship and Merci Trains. I scrolled through boxes relating to Colonial Prisoners of War to keep gathering material on race in Vichy France. I enjoyed dinner with old friends in the evenings to wind down from intense work days.

But as I was having a grand old time in the archives, my thoughts kept wandering back to my colleagues, in the UK, on strike. The issues at stake were very important to me, but here I was, in the archives, doing research work. And then it really hit me: not only am I still working during a strike I support, but I am actually working WHILST STILL ON MATERNITY LEAVE.

Why I organised this research trip whilst on maternity leave is an important point to explain. (1) I was going back to work on 1 June and needed to spend my annual departmental research allowance by July 2016 (2) the week of 24 May was the only time where I could organise fulltime childcare for 3 days (3) I love research, so is it really ‘work’?

I wish this was the only time I had worked on maternity leave, but it wasn’t. Between 25 July 2015 and 1 June 2016,  I found myself working between my son’s nighttime feeds because my proofs and index needed to be done. I worked with my French editor who was managing the French translation. I accepted a job as reviews editor for a prestigious journal, which was a great opportunity to work with great colleagues and a great journal. I gave a lecture and supervised dissertation students as part of my Keeping In Touch Days. Anyone who has a baby will know these things were no small feat.

No one forced me to finish my proofs or write my index on maternity leave. No one forced me to do a research trip. The fact that I have a permanent job and am no longer on probation makes me one of the lucky ones. But the constant, intense pressure to produce as a doctoral and post-doctoral researcher hovers over you at all times. Whilst in the archives I realised just how much I had internalised – and normalised ­– this pressure. How it had led me to think it was OK to still do work whilst on maternity leave. How it had made me think that ‘doing what you love’ is not really ‘work’.

I want to underline that doing work-related activities whilst on maternity leave helped me to maintain a sense of normalcy in this crazy new life that is being a parent and a mother. It was a choice that I accept and often enjoyed. But the amount of effort I put in to work around my son, around my carpal tunnel syndrome, around our new family life, was also an extraordinarily difficult thing to do – and this part of my work will never, ever get recognised or valued.

As such, there is a huge risk of working on mat leave : by doing it, I was also silently accepting a system where our work repeatedly and regularly gets undervalued. As the strikes were going on in the UK, and I was having fun in the archives, I became painfully aware of this fact. Our work culture is deteriorating, and our work as individuals and as a community is de-valued. By working on mat leave, I was contributing to this.

So my first archive trip to start my new research projects was as much about the projects themselves as it was about re-discovering my relationship to my work. The complicated tensions between the personal, the professional and the political in academia became intimately entangled. Whilst I do not regret anything, I realised that, sometimes, downing the tools you love is important to show what needs to change.

the end of a project

On 13 July 2011 I sent a book proposal to a university publisher. It was based on my doctoral thesis about French railwaymen (cheminots) in the Second World War, but I was going to add lots of cool new things. I was full of excitement and enthusiasm. ‘I will have the finished manuscript by July 2012.’ *insert raucous laughter*

I got the contract – hurrah – and unsurprisingly, July 2012 went by. So did my next deadline. And all the other ones. Almost three years later, in a Pret-a-Manger in Washington D.C., I rejoiced: I had finally finished my manuscript!

Oh no – wait.

I still had to re-write the Introduction. And then check up those few little references. And then get the copyrights for the photographs. And then have a baby. And then read the first proofs. And then read the final proofs. And then do an index. And then teach the baby how to sleep through the night. And then double-check the index.

When I sent off the *final* finished proofs it was April 2016. It was pretty underwhelming – probably because I had celebrated my book being finished at least four times in the past two years, never fully appreciating all the work that remained to be done. And so the *final* send off went totally unnoticed, uncelebrated, no cheap champagne in sight. I did not even share the news on social media. I was so over it.

But as the days passed I began to feel a little lighter. Flutters of excitement took me by surprise on the tube. Not because I had an upcoming book, but because I was thinking about.. my next project. How was I going to get stuck into my archives again? When was my next research trip? Should I go to Aix, to Paris or to Indiana? How would I time it with childcare? What about my annotated bibliography? Too. Much. Excitement.

And I suppose that this is what this blog is about: the thrill of starting my second big research project.