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April 17, 2011

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» Tour de France (5) – Sharif Gemie

Presentation - Photograph

Miles of Aisles

To Albi, way down in the south of France and a twelve-hour train journey from Nancy. I’m going in order to attend a meeting of the EXILIO network: a small research project which links researchers in Britain, France and Spain who are studying refugee history. Ideally, we’d just like to get together and chat, but in order to get funding for a meeting, we have to do something more spectacular, so we’ve organised one day of public papers, to be followed by a morning of private debate.

Albi University is gaining quite a reputation in France: it’s one of France’s newest universities, one of its smallest universities and – as all French academics comment – probably also one of its cleanest. It’s based in a converted barracks, dating from 1880: big, symmetrical, three-story buildings, typical of Third Republic (1870-1940). Today, the sun is shining, and the University certainly seems to be gleaming in order to meet the EXILIO network.

There’s an unpleasant shock as we arrive: the – for want of a better word – ‘leader’ of the EXILIO network, Scott Soo, has sprained his ankle very badly, and is unable to attend. The organisers of the conference are unwilling to just drop one paper, and so they ask me to provide a paper in French. I have just given one paper twice in Nancy and Rennes, but it’s not really on the conference theme: Anti-Fascist Refugees. I spend the day before the conference tinkering about with my powerpoint presentation, setting myself the question of considering whether UNRRA could be considered as ‘official anti-fascism’. I think I’ve got enough material to last twenty minutes.

The conference starts: Laure Humbert, who was my research assistant in 2007-10, gives one of the first papers. Her title suggests that she is going to talk about Displaced Persons in the French zone of Germany: in practice, she talks at some length about UNRRA, asking whether this organisation could be considered as anti-fascism in practice. Although she approaches the topic from a different angle, and although she doesn’t show illustrations, I can’t help thinking that her paper is quite similar to mine. Over the lunch hour, I look again at my paper, and decide that I could say more about The Search, a film produced in 1947-48 with the help of UNRRA. I speak last, and most of the conference audience is not looking for a long paper at that point. I feel quite nervous at the beginning. Afterwards, everyone is very polite about my paper at the end: Laure herself comments that I sound more confident in French. I’m not entirely convinced.

Albi University, France: Photograph

The conference as a whole seems to suggest some problems with ‘anti-fascism’ as a concept. Many refugee groups were positively attracted towards elements of Nazism in the 1930s, and many turned anti-communist after 1947 or 1948. Even those who were motivated to become anti-fascists had very varying motivations. I find myself thinking that there seem to be two interpretations present: a political analysis of refugees, and a social analysis of refugees. How can the EXILIO network survive?

By the next morning we’re all tired. There’s a certain amount of administrative formalities to complete, but we finally get on to discussing the main themes. We all like each other, and nobody is going to say anything openly critical of anyone. Normally, discussions are tri-lingual (English, French and Spanish), but as I’m the only Brit present, and as everyone can speak French, we tend to speak in French most of the time, with a few comments in Spanish. I do comment that I think we had all been rather naive before the conference in assuming that the concept of ‘anti-fascism’ would be a simple, unproblematic term. There seems to be some agreement that we could look again at the term. Things look up as the delegate from Santiago de Compostela (in Galicia) says that he thinks he could obtain funding for another conference, with Spanish as the principal language.

We’re all keen to meet again: we leave with the firm intention of meeting in the City of the Way in summer 2012.

Sharif, 16 April 2012

April 14, 2011

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» Tour de France (4) – Sharif Gemie

Five years ago I visited the Chateau of Lunéville, located in the east of France. It was an extraordinary sight: this wonderful eighteenth-century building had been devastated in a fire in 2003. We walked through enormous, high rooms, with cinders and burnt timber on the floor and no roofs. Although the fire had taken place two years ago, we could still smell the smoke in the air. Well over half the chateau was ruined. Walking through this fine, elegant building, built in 1730, and seeing the evidence of recent destruction was a bizarre, striking experience.

I went back to the Chateau yesterday to give my lecture on UNRRA. It has been transformed. Five years have been spent in trying to re-create an eighteenth century building: the original plans have been located, and there has been a sustained effort to follow these in the re-construction. Once again, it’s a striking sight: an authentic eighteenth-century century building, but now looking as if it was built yesterday. Lunéville was built after the great royal palace at Versailles, which it closely resembles: the same vast scale, the same symmetry, and same sense of space in its rooms. The chateau is now once again open the public.

Although such buildings were the preserve of immensely wealthy aristocracy, I can’t help admiring them: I particularly like the formal French gardens, which present such a contrast with the gardens of the British aristocracy. While our national myth is rooted in the organic, natural and spontaneous. Eighteenth-century British gardens attempt to present an idea that they ‘just happened’: that they grew almost by themselves, as part of the natural world, the French aristocracy operated to a quite different code, in which they wanted their gardens and their houses to demonstrate the control over nature.

While the chateau was being restored, my friend Didier Francfort created a centre for European Cultural History in its building: he invited me to give my lecture. We were not in one of the vast rooms which were designed for entertaining crowds, but in a small, purpose-built lecture theatre. I think that I probably spoke as well as I did in Rennes, but this time the audience was more mixed, and while they were interested in UNRRA, they had less to say in response – although one woman did say that she would definitely buy our book when it was published.

Sharif, 13 April 2011

April 9, 2011

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» Tour de France (3) – Sharif Gemie

Tour de France: Blog 3

Speaking in French

I’m in the Breton capital of Rennes, enjoying an unexpected heatwave. I’m here to give a lecture in French on some of the research carried out by myself, Fiona Reid, Laure Humbert and Louise Rees for Outcast Europe. Despite the fact that I’ve been learning French for 45 years, I still find speaking French in public very difficult. The golden rule seems to be that about half your ability to speak a foreign language in an approximately correct manner disappears once you stand up in front of an audience. I’ve also learnt that the idea of just reading out a written text absolutely does not work: I just get more tongue-tied. So, my current strategy is to come with lots of pictures and almost no notes. I’ve rehearsed the paper three times, and I do know the material well: I’m going to discuss UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (1943-47), arguably the great-grandfather of all international relief agencies.

I’m attending a small research workshop, organised by Ronan Le Coadic, an old Breton friend of mine. The first speaker talks about Aimé Césaire, a theorist of Black culture in the Caribbean. There’s then a two-hour lunch break, with wine (this is France). Then it’s my turn. Surprisingly, I’m not really nervous. There’s a slight hitch when I realize that the powerpoint images will be projected via an Apple not a PC, but even this only takes a few seconds. As I speak, I do stumble frequently: sometimes I just forget words, and I have to think quickly of different ways to say the same thing. Quite often I forget how to say words, even though I’ve got a type of mental record of their pronunciation. But the idea of using pictures works well: while I stumble, the audience looks at the pictures.

The discussion afterwards is surprisingly positive and very long (over an hour). None of the audience has ever heard of UNRRA: they’re intrigued by my stories of earnest middle-class idealists arriving in Germany to solve all the problems left by the Second World War. They’re particularly interested in the contributions by the Quakers. It’s all over by 4.15pm; we pack up and then I walk round Rennes with Ronan.

On Monday, I’ll be doing the same thing again in Lunéville, right on the other side of France, way out east.

I’m now off to catch a TGV, one of France’s 30-year-old high-speed train network, which is thankfully air-conditioned.

Sharif, 9 April 2011

April 6, 2011

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» Tour de France (2) – Sharif Gemie

Tour de France: Blog Entry 2

At Chateaubriand’s Tomb


I like Chateaubriand. I’ve got three copies of his post-humous memoirs, Mémoires-d’Outre-Tombe : a cheap paperback edition, a luxurious two-volume Pléaide leather-bound edition, and a rather erratic electronic edition on my e-reader. It’s the last one I’m reading now.

François-René Chateaubriand was a Saint-Malo boy. Born in 1768, he expected to enjoy a privileged aristocrat’s life. Then along came the Revolution, and his life was shattered. He spent years in exile (in Germany, in East Anglia, then in America), made his peace with Napoleon, but then thrived as a Catholic writer during the Restoration of the monarchy (1814-30). He belongs to a uniquely French generation of conservatives: like his contemporary, de Tocqueville, he understood that the old order was gone forever, and – without ever being in any way a progressive thinker – this made him more interested in the new society that was emerging. He was able to study it closely, without bitterness.

His Mémoires are a bewildering mixture of historical narrative, autobiography, religious and political speculations, travel-writing and score-settling. He really did intend that they would only be published after his death, but he ran into debt in the 1840s, and hence his posthumous memoirs were then published while he was well and truly alive.

He made a deal with the Saint-Malo town hall, and arranged to be buried on a small island just outside the old city, where – as he put it – he would only hear the wind and the sea. You can still walk out to this tomb at low tide, and it’s interesting to hear successive French tourists ask each other ‘But who was he?’. No one seems to remember. Today, the tomb was looking a bit grubby, so I’ve attached one long-distance view (that doesn’t show the bird-droppings). The weather today was bright and sunny: like the first day of summer. I doubt if Chateaubriand noticed.

April 5, 2011

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» Tour de France (1) – Sharif Gemie

Tour de France: Blog Entry One

The Ship that Carried a Quarter of France

The Zenith : Photograph

The Zenith

I had meant to make several short trips to France this year. I wasn’t able to arrange these, so instead I’m making one fortnight-long journey to the four corners of France. I’m starting, of course, in Saint-Malo in Brittany, where most British tourists arrive. As I’m going to be giving two lectures in French, I need to remember how to speak French, and a couple of days wandering around what is still a very pleasant Breton port is as good a way of doing this as any.

I haven’t been here for a year. One thing that has changed is the re-construction of the Zenith. This little fishing boat played an important political role in June 1940. Following the German invasion and victory, Charles de Gaulle made a speech of the BBC, telling French people that the struggle was not over, and that they should re-group under his command to fight the German occupation. Most historians tend to argue that very few French people actually heard this speech: few people owned radios, and in the confusion of defeat, fewer were listening to the BBC. One little group who was listening were the people of the Breton island of Sein, out to the west of Brittany. Following his broadcast, 95 men crowded onto the Zenith. Another 33 from the island travelled on other boats.

When De Gaulle conducted his first review of his five hundred soldiers, he found that a many of them came from the Sein. Then, according to legend, he uttered the immortal words that ‘the Sein is a quarter of France’. Fifteen years ago, the Zenith was a wreck, but year by year it is being remade into the boat in was in 1940.

August 18, 2010

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» Easy Writing?

Stevie Davies: Into Suez: Parthian Press, Cardigan 2010

<image class="right" src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2010/8/17/intosuez.jpg" alt="Photo - Book Cover">

Usually, historians are unwilling to recommend historical novels: we tend to see them as ‘easy writing’, and we’re quick to point out their anachronisms and errors. However, occasionally, an exceptional novelist writes a work which not only seems to get the historical detail accurate, but also adds a dimension of its own.

Into Suez concerns the quest by a daughter (living in Church Stretton in 2003) to understand more about her recently deceased mother. This leads to her to investigate events in Ismailia (in Egypt), on the Suez Canal, in 1949. Her mother followed her father here, as he was working for British army. Much of the novel is a vivid re-creation of the lives of ordinary soldiers and their families in ‘Wogland’, as they term it. The relationships between mother, husband and daughter pulse and rock together: at times there are strong, loving feelings, drawing them together into a sense of shared human community, despite their differences. But the strange context in which they live throws up new tensions. Davies is extremely observant about the micro-processes: the tiny unwritten laws, the daily manoeuvres, the small decisions which make up the texture of daily life. We anticipate from the start of the novel that there will be a tragedy: as the chapters go by, each of the characters faces decisions and chooses options and, gradually, we realize that often despite their essential decency, they choose badly. Within this spectrum of decisions, attitudes to the ‘Gyppos’ (Egyptians) and to the rising tide of Egyptian nationalism become more and more important.

Into Suez is a rich, subtle, intricate novel, writing with a type of imaginative power that is capable of transporting the reader into a world that is at once very far away and yet still very close.

Reviewed by Sharif Gemie, whose research and teaching interests include Israel and Palestine and nationalism

March 15, 2010

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» History Cinema: "The Search"

Introduction and Screening: Thursday 18th March

<image src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2010/3/15/search.jpg" />

By the end of World War II, Europe faced a refugee crisis involving seven million people. This was a major challenge for the allied victors. Their response can be reconstructed through the memoirs and official records, but what can historians learn from the way their work shown to the wider public?</>

‘The Search’ (1948) is a unique example of a film concerning post-war refugees. Filmed on location in still war-devastated Germany, it depicts relief workers, American soldiers and Displaced Persons. Some of its child actors came from refugee camps, and the film was made with cooperation from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), one of the subjects of Glamorgan's Outcast Europe research project. But 'The Search' was not just an obscure docudrama; it was a box-office success, a classic Hollywood film which triumphed at the Oscars.

Sharif Gemie invites all students and staff to a screening of "The Search" on Thursday 18th March 2010, 5.00-7.00pm, Room J132.

Contact sgemie@glam.ac.uk for further details.

 

 

 

March 6, 2010

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» Refugees - whose responsibility?

History Workshop: Women and Refugees

University of Glamorgan, G.304 and G.305: Saturday 13 March 2010, 10.00-14.00

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There have always been refugees but in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s there were some of the most monumental and severe refugee crises in the history of the world. Throughout the inter-war years democratic regimes collapsed and were replaced by authoritarian models in Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain, France and many other countries. These regimes characterised many individuals and groups as ‘the enemy’, whether they were political opponents – such as the Spanish Republicans – or racially defined ‘others’ – such as German Jews. These were some of the first refugees of the long Second World War.

During the Second World War, there were vast, forced population movements, and more spontaneous movements as people fled from the fighting or from attempts at political persecution. By the end of the war displacement was clearly a tremendous problem and by the summer of 1945 approximately 7 million civilians were on the move in Western Europe. Some wanted to go home, some, especially those from Eastern Europe, were determined never to return.

What should be done with all these itinerant people? Who was responsible for them, and who should look after them? We will discuss the way in which key individuals and groups answered those questions. Susan Cohen will talk about the life and work of Eleanor Rathbone, an Independent MP who championed the rights of the refugees fleeing from Hitler’s Germany. Despite political and popular opposition she argued that they should be given a home in Britain. After the war, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) was responsible for the care of a large number of refugees and displaced people. Sharif Gemie describes the role of UNRRA and Laure Humbert will talk about one woman’s experiences as an UNRRA worker. Alongside UNRRA there were numerous voluntary organisations, many of whom had a far wider remit for relief work. Fiona Reid will describe the work of the Friends’ Relief Service and will consider the extent to which the Friends offered a distinct approach to welfare work.

The morning will finish with a brief look at an UNNRA film, The Search, which will be introduced by Louise Rees. This will form the basis for a group discussion about the themes raised during the day.

This event is free and all are welcome. There will be an opportunity to buy Susan Cohen’s book, Rescue the Perishing. Eleanor Rathbone and the Refugees. (2010). Contact: freid1@glam.ac.uk for more information

March 5, 2010

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» History Cinema: "Waltz with Bashir"

The Israeli "Apocalypse Now"

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Introduction and Screening: Tuesday 9th March

In 1982, Israel launched "Operation Peace for Galilee" and invaded the Lebanon. There followed one of the worst atrocities of the Arab-Israeli conflict: the massacre of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of men, women and children at the Shateela Refugee Camp.

How did the massacre happen? Who should be blamed? For historians, these are difficult, controversial questions about a event with continuing repercussions, and still in living memory. For Israeli soldiers who fought in the Lebanon, finding answers must surely be more straightforward? Ari Folman, director of "Waltz with Bashir", suggests not. He uses powerfully animated sequences of nightmares and fantasies, amnesia and confusion, to reconstruct his and his generation's experience of a campaign fought and forgotten.

Sharif Gemie, Glamorgan's expert on refugee history and the history of the Middle East, invites all students and staff to a screening of "Waltz with Bashir" on Tuesday 9th March 2010, 4.30-6.30, Room H126. Contact sgemie@glam.ac.uk for further details.

April 27, 2009

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» Study Day: Women, Work, and Memory

In Response to War: Women, Work, and Memory in the Twentieth Century

<image title="Women's Study Day" src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2009/4/27/womens_study_group_edit.jpg" alt="Photograph of participants">

The South West and Wales Women’s History Network and the Outcast Europe research centre held a study day on Saturday 25 April. This day was also part of a wider initiative in which University of Glamorgan historians aim to develop broad discussions on war, violence and society.

Study days are an ideal opportunity to discuss new projects and to present work in progress. Gill Abousnnouga (University of Glamorgan, English) presented a multi-modal analysis of war memorials. This is one of the many areas in which inter-disciplinary research can be fruitful and we hope very much to hear more about this project in the future. Sharif Gemie (University of Glamorgan, History) discussed the work of UNRRA in the Displaced Person’s camps of post-Second World War Europe. We were also pleased to welcome colleagues from the universities of Cardiff and Swansea. Tracey Loughran, (University of Cardiff) who has done much work on First World War shell shock, spoke about gendered interpretations of hysteria; Helen Steele (University of Swansea) talked about her research into the everyday lives of women in National Socialist Austria.

We hope that these study days promote greater collaboration both within and between university departments. The Women’s History Network Annual conference will take place on Saturday 4 July at the University of Wales, Newport. See the South West and Wales Women's History Network for further details.