Rebuilding European Lives. The reconstitution of urban communities in interwar France and Belgium (1914-1939).
Paper presented at the “Recreating historical cities after WWI” Conference, Kalisz (Poland), 16-17 April 2015
In July 1998, in Noyon, a medium-sized town in northern France, construction workers pulled down the decayed community hall and chopped down the acacias which had stood there since the 1920s in order to make room for a brand new leisure centre. The street sign was also taken down; until then, the plaque indicated:
“Place de Béziers, marraine de guerre de Noyon”
(« Béziers square, to the war god-mother of Noyon »)
This was the last testimony of the particular bond that used to tie Noyon and the town of Béziers, in southern France, that in March 1920 had decided to “adopt” her in a spectacular move designed to state its commitment to the recovery of a town which had been entirely destroyed after the German invasion of 1914. In that way, the “ville-marraine” had pledged its financial aid towards the recovery of the town and to foster the link between the two towns by organizing charity fêtes and civic rituals.
The acacias were not replanted and the plaque never put back in place. 80 years after the Armistice of 1918, the memory of a distinctive feature of the post-WWI reconstruction had faded away as collective memory and historiography seem to collude in oversight.
At the end of 1920, the President of the French Republic awarded its highest distinction, the Legion of Honour, to J.P. Morgan, Jr., senior partner of the American finance company, J.P. Morgan & Co., in recognition of services performed for the French government during the First World War. Indeed, the importance of J.P. Morgan & Co that was regarded as the main commercial and financial agent of France and Britain in America has for long been acknowledged by contemporaries and historians alike. They have stressed the major role played by the New York firm in the funding of the war effort and economic reconstruction which followed the Great War. In the very same year, the American Committee for Devastated France, founded and chaired by Anne Morgan, the sister of J.P. Morgan, Jr., received the Gold Medal of French Reconnaissance for the work being done in favour of the ruined areas of northern France. This work had previously won her the Croix de Guerre in 1918. In 1932 Morgan even became the first American woman to be appointed a Commander of the Legion of Honour.
The fact that the latter distinctions and the work done by Anne Morgan, is usually passed over in silence in the historiography of reconstruction betrays how exclusive an emphasis has been put on the financial and economic dimension of the post-WWI recovery of the devastated areas in Belgium and France. However important, this traditional focus on the responsibilities assumed by the Allied states and financial institutions has actually led scholars to overlook the significant role played by a host of initiatives and organizations which, originating in the civil societies of the Allied nations and prompted by infra-national, imperial and international solidarities, lent its distinctive features to the post-WWI reconstruction of western Europe.
Relatively neglected the social history of the reconstruction of France has not been wholly ignored of course. While the French countryside and its agriculture have been meticulously researched, the reconstruction of urban communities has mainly been studied from a local perspective, thanks to the efforts of local historians, archivists and museums intent on preserving the memory of a key episode in the modern history of their regions. Likewise, Anne Morgan’s contribution might indeed have been forgotten without the efforts of local historians and of the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. Historians are also dependent on the efforts of other social scientists who, from the fields of geography, architecture, urban planning or heritage studies, have studied the urban reconstruction from their own, often technical and professional, perspective. Tellingly, the few historians to have published on the matter have done so in other disciplines’ journals. There remain, therefore, significant gaps in our knowledge that this project proposes to address.