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War, Occupation, and Empire: Interview with Guest Editor Jean Elisabeth Pedersen


Historical ReflectionsThis is the fourth in a series of posts dedicated to celebrating the 40th volume of our journal Historical Reflections/Reflexions Historiques.


A recent issue of Historical Reflections/Réflexions historiques is devoted to the special topic of “War, Occupation, and Empire in France and Germany.” This post is the transcript of an electronic interview between Berghahn blog editor Lorna Field and the Guest Editor of this special issue, Jean Elisabeth Pedersen.


Lorna Field: What drew you to the comparative study of war, occupation, and empire in France and Germany?


Jean Pedersen: In 2010, Julia Roos invited me to comment on an especially interesting group of papers in French and German national, imperial, and colonial history for the annual meeting of the Social Science History Association in Chicago. Krista Molly O’Donnell explored the different ways in which German settlers responded to a case of interracial rape in the Namibian town of Omaruru in 1912. Richard Fogarty spoke about how the leaders of the Ottoman Empire tried to recruit French African soldiers from the Allied to the Axis side of the First World War by appealing to their Muslim religious identity in the period from 1914 to 1918.[1] Julia herself analyzed shifting German government attitudes towards the German women who had had children with French African fathers after the French government used colonial troops to occupy the German Rhineland beginning in the period from 1918 to 1919.[2]

I was fascinated by the ways in which these three very different papers overlapped and intersected with each other in their discussions of topics as diverse as sex and sexuality, gender and honor, race and empire, and war and peace – and I was not the only one. The conversation between panelists and audience participants moved out of the conference room and continued in the coffee shop downstairs for over an hour after our session ended. When I heard that the 2011 meeting of the German Studies Association was going to be devoted to the theme of “Germany and the French Empire,” I saw the perfect opportunity to further our investigation into these issues by organizing a panel of additional papers. This time Molly compared French and German imperialism by focusing on the cases of two important colonial lobbying groups and the work of their associated women’s colonial settler organizations in the early years of the twentieth century.[3] Julia contributed a paper on the ways in which the local Rhenish residents of the Rhineland ultimately rejected the racism of German propaganda campaigns against the so-called “black horror on the Rhine” by pressing for alternative forms of German national identity under the Weimar Republic.[4] I took the opportunity to explore the apparently paradoxical ways in which an especially important group of progressive French intellectuals had been able to reconcile their criticism of the German occupation of Alsace and Lorraine with their support for certain forms of French colonial expansion in Africa and Asia during the first half of the French Third Republic.[5]

By the time Linda Mitchell, the senior editor at Historical Reflections/Réflexions historiques, invited me to join the HR/RH editorial board, I knew that we had more than enough material to develop an innovative special issue that would focus on the complex history of the alternately competitive and cooperative relationships between and among France, Germany, and different areas of the French and German empires in Africa in the key period from the Franco-Prussian War to the Second World War.


Field: Did any of your perceptions on the subject change from the time you started your research and compiled the contributions of your fellow authors to the time you completed this special issue?

Pedersen: As I have worked on the issue as a whole, it has been tremendously exciting to see how our six independent research projects have led us to certain shared conclusions despite our many differences in individual topic, argument, and approach. While I analyze French reactions to the German occupation of Alsace-Lorraine after the Franco-Prussian War and Brian Newsome analyzes French reactions to the German occupation of the Nord during the First World War, for example, we have both discovered the remarkable extent to which French observers of these separate periods connected their discussions of German occupation to their discussions of French empire in especially interesting ways. While Julia Roos focuses on French and German interactions in the Rhineland and Jennifer Boittin focuses on French and German interactions in French West Africa, similarly, both Roos and Boittin have highlighted the significance of the international controversy over the French use of African troops to occupy German territory in the period after the First World War. While Jens-Uwe Guettel is more interested in the continuities between French and German colonial lobbying groups and Krista Molly O’Donnell is more interested in the contrasts, Guettel and O’Donnell both emphasize the extent to which nineteenth- and twentieth-century imperial politics could appeal not only to conservative nationalists but also to socialists, feminists, liberals, and other political progressives.

Thinking more specifically about my own article on French attitudes towards politics and culture in Germany, Alsace-Lorraine, and Africa in the years from 1900 to 1914, I would say that I remain most intrigued by three discoveries in particular: the ways in which French intellectuals justified the expansion of the French empire by comparing it to the earlier work of the Roman empire, the extent to which figures such as political economist Charles Gide could become not only supporters of colonial expansion but also critics of colonial abuse, and the ways in which Young Algerians and Young Tunisians such as Ali Bach Hamba established networks not only across North Africa but also in Paris itself.


Field: What aspects of editing this special issue did you find the most challenging? The most rewarding?

Pedersen: The most challenging aspects of this project have also been some of the most rewarding. As a French historian with a persistent interest in the ways in which the history of the French nation has intersected with the history of the French empire, I typically work in French and English, attend the meetings of the Society for French Historical Studies and the Western Society for French History, and share my ideas with colleagues in French and French colonial history. Working on this project, it has been a pleasure to exercise my German, update and expand my knowledge of both German and German colonial history and historiography at the German Studies Association and the American-Canadian Conference in Modern German and European History, and find new comparative, international, and transnational topics to explore with colleagues in German, German colonial, and Austrian history.

The very most rewarding aspect of editing this special issue, of course, has been the chance to work with my fellow contributors: Jennifer Boittin, Jens-Uwe Guettel, W. Brian Newsome, Krista Molly O’Donnell, and Julia Roos. I have invited all of them to reflect on their own experiences of participating in the project, and you can read some of their responses here, here, and here.


Field: To what extent do you think “War, Occupation, and Empire in France and Germany” will contribute to debates among current and future academics within the field?

Pedersen: Our special issue of Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques is distinctive because it brings together the results of the very latest work in French history, German history, French colonial history, and German colonial history. While these fields initially evolved as four separate specialties, each of our authors considers the connections between and among them instead. I hope that this unique combination of articles will inspire new work in the comparative national, international, transnational, colonial, and post-colonial history of nation and empire not only for France and Germany but also for many other combinations of countries around the world as well.



[1] Since published as Richard S. Fogarty, L’identité en question: l’Islam et les soldats nord-africains pendant la Grande Guerre, Migrance 38 (2011).

[2] Since published as Julia Roos,“Nationalism, Racism, and Propaganda in Early Weimar Germany: Contradictions in the Campaign against the ‘Black Horror on the Rhine,’” German History 30, no. 1 (March 2012): 45-74.

[3] Now available as one of the six articles in our new special issue on “War, Occupation, and Empire in France and Germany” in Historical Reflections/Réflexions historiques 40, no. 1 (Spring 2014).

[4] Since published as Julia Roos,“Racist Hysteria to Pragmatic Rapprochement? The German Debate about Rhenish ‘Occupation Children,’ 1920-1930,” Contemporary European History, 22, no.2 (May 2013): 155-180.

[5] Now available as one of the six articles in our new special issue on “War, Occupation, and Empire in France and Germany” in Historical Reflections/Réflexions historiques 40, no. 1 (Spring 2014).



The latest issue of Historical Reflections has been published by Berghahn! You can access Volume 40, Number 2 here. This special issue is devoted to Religion(s) and the Enlightenment.