Principal Investigators: Pierre Purseigle
This project aims to shed new light on the reconstruction of Europe after the First World War. Based on a longitudinal study of communities displaced by military operations along the Western Front, it will first produce a comprehensive analysis of the exile of French and Belgian refugees in host nations across Europe. It will thus reveal some of the critical social implications of the emergence of total war in Western Europe. The research will also investigate the resettlement of refugees in the localities and regions laid to waste by the conflict. It will explore previously neglected aspects of the reconstruction of France and Belgium to supplement conventional approaches to the post-war stabilisation of Western Europe. This project will depart from traditionally state-centred accounts to combine local and transnational perspectives on the reconstruction and demobilisation of belligerent societies in the inter-war years.
The invasion of Belgium and France in August 1914 is not only important for military historians, but should be a significant subject for social and political historians, since in the first weeks of the First World War, the advance of the German army brought to light the civilian dimensions of the conflict and its characteristic ‘totalising logic’. The subsequent ‘German Atrocities’ have recently attracted the attention of historians, anxious to distinguish between the nature and actuality of war violence, and its cultural constructions. However, the experience of those 4 million people who fled their home before the German army remains surprisingly neglected, as if both the historiography and the collective memory of the First World War had concurred in consigning the Western Front refugees to their respective margins. Yet, the very displacement of those populations bore witness to the coming in Western Europe of the age of ‘total war’. Their experience offers a vantage point from which to study the shaping impact of wars in twentieth-century Europe. Indeed, the reconstruction and stabilisation of Europe in the post-war period entailed not only the reconstitution of the devastated areas, but also involved the rebuilding of the lives of those who had fled the combat zones.
Although military operations on the Western Front directly affected a minority of civilians, the refugee experience in 1914-1918 illustrates a defining moment in the history of warfare which thenceforth implied the submission of the enemy civilian population. Moreover, the reception of refugees in host nations across Europe highlights another critical change in the character of war emphasised during this conflict: the extensive mobilisation of the home-fronts which provided the material and ideological support essential to an industrial conflict waged on a global scale. The reception of refugees thus proved a litmus test of the type of social mobilisation inseparable from ‘total war’.
The reception of the Belgian and French refugees presents an interesting case study in this respect. The refugees initially appeared to embody the wartime system of representation and their image translated the cultural commitment of each nation to fight an uncivilised enemy to its capitulation. They occupied an eminent position in the war narratives and their ordeal vindicated a vision of the conflagration construed as a ‘war for Civilisation against Barbarity’. Their experience therefore conferred upon them a distinctive place in the midst of the home front communities, which had been spared from the military operations. As early as 1915 though, the contact between refugees and the home fronts turned, in some instances, into a paradoxical confrontation. The refugees were no longer ascribed any discriminating and dignifying quality, and host populations increasingly demanded from them a total participation in the war effort. Here, the study of the humanitarian response elicited by their situation prolongs our previous analysis and furthers our understanding of the social responses to the war.
Furthermore, the historiography of the post-war recovery of the devastated regions betrays the to date exclusive emphasis on the economic and material dimensions of European reconstruction. However important, this traditional focus on the responsibilities assumed by the Allied States and financial institutions has led scholars to underestimate the role played by a host of organisations which originated in the civil societies of the Allied nations. Yet, such initiatives prompted by local, national, imperial and international solidarities, lent its distinctive features to the reconstruction of Western Europe. In this process, spared local communities in the French and the British empires, pre-existent associations, war-relief organisations, and prominent individuals came to the fore and shaped, culturally and materially, the renaissance of the ruined areas of Belgium and France. Most significantly, the schemes then devised and implemented after 1918 to support the reconstruction of the localities laid to waste by military operations, relied, to a great extent, on the networks of solidarities first tested by the ordeal of refugees.
Based on extensive research in a number of public and private archives in France, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, the United States and Ireland, this project will scrutinize the interplay between the Allied states, and non-governmental agents of war relief at the local, national and international level. It will integrate the history of refugeedom into a larger context that saw the reconstitution of international relations. This comparative social history of reconstruction will therefore be fashioned as a transnational history to unearth an underestimated circulation of representations, people and funds as well as the international networks of sociabilities that contributed to the stabilisation of Western Europe after 1918.