Balancing Historical Scales of Analysis in France, 1914–39: Local, Regional, National, and Transnational

AHA Session 128
Friday, January 6, 2017: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Room 503 (Colorado Convention Center, Meeting Room Level)
Judith G. Coffin, University of Texas at Austin
Herrick E. Chapman, New York University

Session Abstract

This panel will discuss connections among different spatial scales of analysis in early 20th-century France: local, regional, national, and transnational. As a result of the unprecedented mobilization and devastating impact of the Great War, the years after 1914 saw many states in Europe take financial obligation for more aspects of their citizens’ lives. The destruction of the conflict, and particularly the effect of violence on civilians, also produced a surge in activity among international aid organizations, in France as elsewhere in Europe. The political structures of a mass democracy, moreover, made elected state officials beholden to local opinion, meaning that the impact of national decisions on local conditions intimately concerned figures in Paris. Democracy and citizenship were particularly at stake in an era following a total war fought by a citizens’ army and during the growth of rightwing movements that questioned the viability of democracy itself. The decades from the First World War to the Second in France, then, placed notable emphasis on the connections among national or transnational figures and the local actors impacted by regional, national, or world events.

The three papers of this panel all take a methodological approach exploring braided narratives that link local events to broader regional, national, and transnational concerns. This methodology allows them to address questions arising in France in this period about responsibility for local conditions when individuals were drawn into larger historical processes.

Michael McGuire of Salem State University will discuss linkages among relief efforts by Europeans, Africans, Asians, and Americans to address the needs of internal French refugees who fled the Western Front during the Great War. Nicole Dombrowski Risser of Towson University will investigate the impact of national agricultural subsidies on local farming capabilities after a devastating frost in 1929. Mattie Fitch of Tarleton State University will examine cultural decentralization efforts of national figures during the Popular Front movement and how they interacted with local cultural groups.

These papers study the complex negotiations between local and national or transnational bodies about public responsibility for the local impact of events. They highlight the attempts of national or transnational actors to mitigate crises that dwarfed the local and yet had a disproportionate impact there, be it war, cold, or fascism. All actors involved were driven by a sense of justice to concentrate attention on the local scale. Individuals in the affected localities appreciated the financial largess of larger entities, and yet asserted their local autonomy, expertise, or rights, which sometimes converged but at other times diverged with the broader vision. The panel addresses competing or overlapping motives of local, national, and transnational actors, and the impact these had on projects to address a simultaneously broad-reaching and local issue: refugees, weather, or the growing power of the right. All three papers chart the interaction of actors from these different levels, from international relief workers, to national French officials, to local activists, and recognize the importance of the convergences or conflicts that occurred within these discussions for the goal at hand.

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