France, the French & the Second World War

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

Category: Being Black Under Vichy

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.

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.

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.