Conference report: A Century Later

By Ludivine Broch (Pears Institute/Birkbeck, University of London).

On 21-22 June 2013 the French History Network held its first workshop at the Maison Française in Oxford. The topic was ‘A Century Later: New Perspectives on French history 1914-45’, and the call for papers was aimed at early career scholars who are either doing their doctoral studies, working as post-doctoral researchers or in the early stages of their academic careers. The French History Network is interested in creating new opportunities for intellectual exchange and engagement for early career historians interested in this period. In regards to research, we are hoping to promote the works, methods and theories of early career historians by creating a network which encourages us to reflect on and engage with each other’s work. The gap between French and Anglophone historians of France is not an easy one to bridge, as the works of our predecessors have shown but ultimately we hope to create an international network.

In a one and a half day workshop, we presented our most recent research and discussed it in relationship to the work of our peers. So not only did we engage with this critical period in the history of modern France, but we thought about our place within the broader field of French studies: What are the pressing concerns in modern French studies? What contributions are young scholars making to the field? Do non-French scholars make a unique contribution to French studies? How far should French history take account of the ‘transnational’ turn?

Fourteen researchers attended this conference, all of whom were specialists in French history during the 1914-45 period.  This is relatively rare in the academic circuit: generally, one attends larger conferences, often with an open-ended topic and with several panels occurring at the same time. Whilst such conferences are generally hugely varied and stimulating, offering us the opportunity to dip into new areas of history which we had not previously considered, more focused workshops offer a completely different kind of intellectual stimulation. First, the narrow topic allows you to address very specific concerns you have about your field, ones which you could only realistically talk about with other experts in your area. Second, the small size of the workshop allows you not only to talk to all of the participants, but also to hear all of the papers. Thus rather than choosing the panels you are presumably interested in, you are have to sit through all the papers, making yourself open to unexpected discussions and topics. Third, the intimacy of a closed workshop is a welcome addition. A friendly, laid-back approach makes an ideal background for a constructive and lively exchange, and this is possibly the greatest aspect of the closed workshop. Whilst big conferences can put pressure on participants, especially those in the early stages of their career, a closed workshop provides a more relaxed and comfortable framework in which they can interact with their peers on intellectual and also personal levels.

The conference ended with a concluding paper by Professor Robert Gildea, who discussed his own intellectual trajectory when examining this period, and then reflected on the contributions made over the past two days. Gildea commented on how the papers challenged traditional chronological and geographical interpretations of the 1914-45 period. He also pointed out that for a long time the interwar period was understood in terms of the ‘rise of fascism’ and the ‘victory of the left with the Popular Front’. However, many of the papers delivered encouraged us to nuance these political myths and showed more complicated and multifaceted political events and communities.

A productive and insightful round-table discussion then finished off the workshop. We picked up on several points raised by Gildea, not least that certain topics were not mentioned in great depth: gender, generations, and visual cultures were left out, and the trenches and the Holocaust were not mentioned. These omissions were part-random, part-worrying, part-representative of approaches to French history. Nonetheless, if one were to come away from this conference, one could surely underline the importance of the interwar period.

By being so small in size and scope, this closed workshop allowed us to pull our works together and draw some real conclusions. As result, there are several outputs which will hopefully emanate from it. First, a collected edition in which we rethink current approaches to the 1914-45 period. Second, a network in which will allow people to meet, interact and exchange not only then but in the future. For example, some of the papers were so complementary that the speakers are considering co-writing papers. Finally, this workshop allowed the French History Network to materialise, and we hope that this will be the first in a long line of events used to help and promote international exchanges between early career researchers.

Click here to see the conference programme

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