Afterlives of Resistance in Postwar Europe

AHA Session 33
Thursday, January 3, 2019: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Williford B (Hilton Chicago, Third Floor)
Leora Auslander, University of Chicago
Michael Geyer, University of Chicago

Session Abstract

Europe in the years after 1945 is often understood as an exhausted continent, where the utopian visions of social transformation that fueled the radical ideologies of decades prior faded before mundane preoccupations: acquiring food and shelter, rebuilding bombed-out cities, locating missing family. In the West, socialist hopes for large-scale nationalizations gave way to the reconstruction of capitalism, under the guise of Christian morality; in the East, doctrinaire Stalinists, with the backing of Soviet troops, consolidated political control and crushed local democratic movements. Yet politics was hardly expunged from postwar Europe, and European nations were not the ideological monoliths that champions of both sides of the Cold War claimed. This panel argues that the making of postwar politics involved as much the extension of, as the departure from, wartime conflicts. To do so, we examine one of the most divisive legacies of National Socialism and the Second World War for the postwar era—the concept and practice of resistance against state authority.

While underground activists no longer plotted the overthrow of fascist states, debates about resistance remained ubiquitous in postwar Europe. Survivors of opposition movements against Nazi Germany and its allies sought to reconstitute their networks under transformed circumstances, invoking narratives of wartime resistance as a legitimating tactic in postwar politics. Covering France and both West and East Germany, the panel investigates the postwar reconstruction and reimagining of wartime resistance organizations of Catholics, Protestants, Communists, and conservatives. This transnational and cross-ideological comparison demonstrates that narratives of resistance could be invoked to support diverse political projects that did not easily conform to Cold War categories. Precisely because it evoked a period before the Cold War, when mutual opposition to the Nazi order fostered unorthodox connections among political adversaries, the concept of resistance could be deployed to contest the ideological binaries of the postwar era.

The panel proceeds chronologically, moving from the reconstruction of politics in the immediate postwar years through the turmoil of decolonization and the generational upheavals of the 1960s. While investigating distinct political networks and national contexts, the papers pose shared questions linking the construction of memory to the forging of new political coalitions. To what extent were postwar invocations of resistance rooted in falsifications or distortions of wartime experiences? How did postwar Europeans distinguish between resistance, disobedience, and treason, and toward what political ends? How did cultural tropes long predating the Second World War—whether Christian understandings of legitimate authority or Communist notions of social revolution—shape the self-understandings and self-representations of postwar political actors?

By situating resistance as a lens to perceive continuities across 1945, the panel responds to recent calls to study twentieth-century European history as a transnational whole and to conceptualize the "transwar" as a period of ongoing political crisis extending from the 1930s through 1950s. Moreover, with the reemergence of "resistance" as a pervasive, though hardly unambiguous category of contemporary politics, historical perspectives on an equally fluid political moment may shed light on the possibilities and limitations of resistance discourse today.

See more of: AHA Sessions