Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
James E. Connolly, ‘Notable Protests: Respectable Resistance in Occupied Northern France, 1914-1918,’ Historical Research, vol. 88, issue 242 (November 2015), pp. 693-715.
It can be accessed online here
This article is based on a chapter of my PhD thesis (and planned monograph) about French behaviours under the German occupation of the French département of the Nord during the First World War. Beyond simply wanting to know more about this under-studied and somewhat forgotten occupation, I initially wanted to examine whether there were precursors to the well-known and much-studied behaviours associated with the more ‘infamous’ occupation of the Second World War. In doing so, I also wanted to consider the specificities of the experience of occupation in 1914-1918. That meant spending a lot of time in local French archives, but also considering the conceptual and theoretical categories scholars use to understand the phenomenon of military occupation.
When in the archives, I was struck by the number of letters written by French notables – Prefects, mayors, municipal councillors, sometimes industrialists or clergymen – to protest against German policies or refuse German demands. Not only were these some of the most frequently preserved documents, the contents of which were celebrated in occupation diaries or memoirs, but many of these letters followed a similar pattern. What became clear was that this was a shared form of opposition to the Germans, albeit one that occurred in different communes that were cut off from one another. These protests seemed to be born of a similar sense of patriotism and/or moral and legal injustice. For example, many letters cited international law, especially the Hague Convention, to highlight that German orders breached this and thus reinforce the legitimacy of opposition. Furthermore, the content and linguistic composition of these letters was repetitive, which was in itself interesting: all protests were extremely polite, preserving an air of bourgeois respectability – hence why I term this ‘respectable resistance.’
However, a key question the article considers is whether we can actually classify this opposition, which was not particularly transgressive even if it was potentially risky, as ‘resistance.’ Scholars of occupied Europe in the Second World War, for example, often distinguish between opposition, protest, and resistance. I argue that we can describe these protests as resistance, and I use a sociological and theoretical understanding of the phenomenon to do so. This forms part of my wider research interest in categorising and better comprehending behaviours under occupation, but in particularly considering how occupier and occupied themselves understood such behaviours and, by proxy, the general experience of occupation.
The finished article is therefore a study of a form of opposition perhaps controversially labelled as resistance, an example of how notions of resistance are always fluid. It also considers the extent and success of notable protests. As such, I suggest a new conceptual and analytical category whilst also assessing the evidence for and effectiveness of this type of resistance, hopefully making a convincing argument that resistance is not always armed or organised.
I hope that readers find this article interesting and thought-provoking. A word of warning, though: it contains a lot of untranslated French text, given the centrality of the language of protest to my argument!