European Literatures of Military Occupation 1938–1955
April 4-7, 2022
German-Italian Center for European Dialogue,
Lake Como, Italy
Conveners: Matthias Buschmeier (Bielefeld) / Jeanne E. Glesener (Luxembourg)
Europe as a political entity is deeply connected to the experience of occupation. Likewise, the history of Europe in the 20th century is deeply marked by the experience of military occupation during and after World War I and World War II. The Third Reich’s expansive imperial policy confronted millions of European citizens with the experience of an enduring occupation, forcing states and individuals into the dilemma of deciding between collaboration or resistance. This traditional dichotomy does not however do justice to the lived reality of everyday life in the occupied societies as recent historical studies have shown (Tönsmeyer/Dieckmann/Quinkert 2003; Tönsmeyer 2014, 2015). Beyond their radical opposition on the battlegrounds, the experiences of occupiers and of occupied were considerably more intertwined and complex as hitherto thought, especially considering the lasting temporal character of the occupations in Europe in the 20th century. Each occupation opened a contact zone that also led to exchange and permanent communication, transforming the military front into a selectively permeable membrane of contact. While occupation was a “social process of everyday life” on the one hand (Dlugoborski 1995, 15), for millions, the contact zone turned into a death zone on the other.
The experience of military occupation fundamentally shaped the conception of communities and individuals throughout Europe. Every European citizen has lived and still lives in an “implicated community” (Morris-Suzuki 2005). Literary representations play a major role in negotiating the meaning of this experience. It is important not only to look at these negotiations from national perspectives, which have become more and more prevalent today, but also to analyze them as manifestations of a heterogenous but still conjointly experienced “harmful lesson” (Habermas 2001) of the “Europeanization of Europe.”
Living under occupation means to find oneself in a situation of accelerated historical change and social pressure. Literature both affects and is affected by this process in very different ways. It can provide heroic narratives of resistance, it can incriminate collaboration and complicity, it can give insight into the often complex, tragic, and desperate situation of persecuted groups and individuals, but it can also provide the perspective of the occupiers and it can portray human encounters in inhuman situations.
Imagining life under occupation, in literature, often challenges or fortifies widespread assumptions about a nation’s identity and its collective cultural memory. More importantly still literature on occupation also displays the occupation of European minds and reveals their history as an intricate bundle of interwoven rather than separated and separating stories.
While comparative historical research has led to an extensive analysis of the political, military, and social reality of occupation, the comparison of the cultural and, more specifically, the literary responses to this experience has not yet been given the same attention however. True, there is an immense research output on specific aspects of literature and on individual literary texts; especially in French Studies, the French literature of occupation has attracted intensive research (for an overview, see Atack and Lloyd 2012). In Germany, however, although quite a few authors were themselves employed in the Wehrmacht and participated in the occupation, the corpus that resulted out of this experience has rarely been examined (but see O'Keeffe and O'Keeffe 2013). The literature on the Shoah in general and the devastating experiences in the Nazi concentration camps in particular has also been investigated in great detail. However, even in the field of concentration camp literature (Lagerliteratur), a comparative perspective that conceives of the camp as a place where Jews, Sinti and Roma, intellectuals, politicians, so-called criminals, and many others from all over Europe, were tortured, exploited, and killed together, and thus formed a shared European history of suffering that found its articulation in literary and artistic expression, has only been broached very recently (Pabst 2019). For the more general experience of the military occupation — which, of course, includes but is not limited to the experience of pursuance and extinction — such a perspective is almost entirely absent in the field of cultural studies.
This conference aims to shed new light on the literary and cultural representation of occupation as a European experience. We intend to bring literary scholars from Eastern, Western, Northern, and Southern Europe together to discuss the outlines and implications of a comparative perspective on the topic. Since we enter almost-uncharted territory, the conference is intended as a first step for mapping the literary representation and articulation of the experience of occupation.
In the research context of the conference, the term “occupation” is understood as an enduring presence of military forces in a territory that technically belongs to another political entity. The situation of occupation is characterized not only by military conflicts on the battlefield between armies and resistance fighters, but also by the intention of the occupiers either to incorporate the occupied territories into or associate the occupied territories with their own. Regardless of the type, any occupying state, beyond military intervention and suppression, requires political, administrative, and cultural actions that, to a certain degree, need to involve and are dependent upon parts of the occupied population. Complicity and collaboration are essential to any form of occupation.
This said, we seek to differentiate occupation from other forms of restructuring of the political landscape, such as public votes for independence or voters’ voluntary connection with a specific state. Nor do we consider the re-bordering of states at the conference table as forms of military occupation, although history shows that these strategic policies have very often led to further conflicts that resulted in military occupations.
Materials covered at this conference should be limited to fictional literature, travel literature, and autobiographical expressions of the experience of military occupation from either side, the occupied or the occupier (or both).However, as some of these texts may have appeared in sources funded, published, and run by the occupying powers, it is also necessary to consider not only different types of genres but also different types of media. Occupiers seek to control the cultural life of occupied territories, and thus the socioeconomic conditions of the production of “cultural goods” is an important topic to scrutinize
For our conference, we differentiate between two periods of occupation:
- From 1938 to 1945: The (heterogeneous) German occupational regimes established throughout Europe
- From 1945 to 1955: A time characterized by the allied presence in Germany and Europe after the war; Dutch, Belgian and Luxembourgian plans to annex German regions to their territory; the foundation of the two German States in 1949; the death of Stalin in 1953, which changed the occupational regime of the Soviet Union in the Baltic States; and the official end of the time of occupation in Western Germany through the “General Treaty” in 1952/1955.
Since the experience of occupation differs considerably between and within these periods one aim of the conference is to highlight the specificities of each. This can only be achieved by means of comparison which will enable us to answer the leading research questions: whether there is something common and shared in the representations of the experience of various types of occupation and, more importantly, whether literature of military occupation qualifies as a genre.
The sources that we think most likely to yield new insights could be categorized in a synchronic temporal order. We can differentiate between texts that:
a) have been written under the experience of occupation, whether authored by occupiers or occupied
b) have been written after the occupation ended, by authors who had experienced it firsthand
c) have been written after the occupation by authors who did not live under nor participate in the occupation but return to it by means of historical documentation and fictional imagination. Consequently, these texts may come from our very present.
At the conference, participants are welcome to question the interplay between historical plot and its literary arrangements and to showcase how the time portrayed and the time of portraying are connected via literary representation.
Presentations at the conference may address some of the following questions:
- What were the social, political, and economic conditions for the production, distribution, and reception of literature under occupational regimes?
- How did the occupier’s cultural policies and politics in the occupied territories affect the production, distribution, and reception of literature?
- How do texts about the occupation circulate within Europe? Which texts have been translated into which language(s), and when? How were they received?
- Can we identify and explain why certain genres used more often than others for the representation of occupation?
- How are these texts constructed? What type of narrator do they feature? What is the focus? Which metaphors are used, etc.?
- How was literature ‘used’ by the occupiers and by the occupied for political aims?
- How do literary texts figure the complex relationship between complicity, collaboration, and resistance? What insights can be gleaned from this relationship?
- Do such texts support or challenge other narratives about collaboration?
- Do literary texts transform into other media (cinema, television, radio)? Does such a transformation affect their public impact?
- What role do ‘fantasies of occupation’ play before or after a military conflict?
- Do the historical differences in the reality of occupation in various countries throughout Europe mirror the way literary texts represent them?
- Did the racist ideology of the Third Reich, which segregated Europe into Germanic, Romance, Baltic, Slavic (East and West) races and was an important aspect of the concrete occupying practices, have an effect on the way the occupation was/is represented?
- Can we observe changes in the representation according to the dynamics of the occupying regime? For instance: how did the intensifying repressive policies in Western and Northern European territories affect the corresponding literary representation? Can we observe, as the historians did, a move from a ‘tendency to accommodate’ towards a homogenization of opposition within the social strata of the occupied territories?
- What role did certain representations in literature play in the reconstitution of the occupied countries?
- How do these representations relate to the emergence of national myths and the historiography of trauma about the occupation?
- What role did narratives by the occupiers play in their self-conceptualization as guilty perpetrators or as courageous soldiers?
We welcome brief proposals of no more than 250 words that answer any of the provided research question. In order to guarantee a comparative perspective, we strongly recommend that presenters include sources from at least two European Countries. The conference will be held in English.
Please submit your abstract and a short CV by July 15, 2021 to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. Cost of travel and accommodation will be reimbursed. The conveners are at your disposal for any further questions. For a more detailied version of the call and an extended bibliography please the link provided.