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Conference Report – Changing Landscapes: The Environment of the Second World War

Updated: Jan 8, 2019

By Dr Jadwiga Biskupska

Editorial Note: On 23-24 September 2018, the North American Regional Group of the Second World War Regional Group held its first workshop at Mississippi State University. Here Dr Jadwiga Biskupska, a Director of the North American Regional Group, provides a report on this successful event.

The first annual workshop of the Second World War Research Group, NA (SWWRG-NA) was held on 23-24 September at the Mitchell Memorial Library on the campus of Mississippi State University (MSU) in Starkville, MS. Hosted and principally organised by Professor Mary Kathryn Barbier, professor of history at MSU, the workshop turned on the theme of ‘Changing Landscapes: The Environment of the Second World War.’ The workshop aimed to continue the success of our international parent organisation, the Second World War Research Group, which was created in 2014 in the UK, by launching a North American scholarly community devoted to the study of the war, with a focus on new work and new angles of research.

Dr Conrad Crane discussing 'Alternative Avenues of Approach: New Directions and Questions in WWII Airpower History.'

The one-day workshop featured the work of seven scholars taking different approaches to the study of the war and its aftermath, with questions and discussion from the participants and audience. The presenters, who hailed from the United States and Canada, were current (and former) military practitioners and civilians and ranged from junior faculty to senior scholars in the field. There was expertise in air and land combat, European, Asian, East African and Pacific theatres of war, gender and race, and politics and espionage. Arranged in three thematic panels with a session for graduate students, the day was capped with a keynote by Professor Robert Citino, Samuel Zemurray Stone Senior Historian at the National World War II Museum on ‘The Accomplices: Hitler’s Officer Corps at War.’ The paired session papers included selections from completed projects and work in progress and ranged from considerations of the development of air power history and the contentions of alliance warfare, to biographical studies, examination of the politics of occupational policing, racialized treatment of disease in the British army, and the creativity of African-American cultural innovation aboard ship in the South Pacific. A continual discussion evolved across the panels on new research and new methodological approaches to the study of warfare and occupation, with frequent suggestions for underused archives and possible comparative work. Each panel engaged questions that expanded the geographical and chronological scope of the papers, forming a larger workshop-wide conversation about trends and developments in the field and what ‘military history’ does and could mean. Among a series of rich papers and engaging discussion that continued across the day, there were a number of highlights. The first paper of the workshop set the tone, sending the audience into gales of laughter as Dr Conrad Crane, Chief of Historical Services at US Army Heritage and Education Center demonstrated the riches of still-untapped sources on the war by indulging his listeners with the tale of Project X-Ray, the United States Navy’s contentious and hastily-abandoned project to train Mexican free-tailed bats to firebomb Japan.

The roudtable chaired by Dr Jonathan Fennell of King's College London.

Before lunch, more than a dozen doctoral students from Mississippi State University had the opportunity to pose questions to the assembled presenters and chairs. They asked about the contours of military history and incorporating the study of war into other research projects, framing good historical questions, the nitty-gritty details of archival research, and the academic job market and non-academic career possibilities. They received a series of lively and differing answers from the panel and encouragement in their continued work.

Professor Citino’s final keynote on the role of German officers in supporting Hitler’s Third Reich expanded on his numerous publications on the Wehrmacht and its combat performance, investigating why and how Germany’s officer corps continued fighting in the last stages of the Second World War, and the consequences of their loyalty. Abandoning simple explanations and Cold War stereotypes, Citino teased out a multifaceted set of motivations for the behaviour of Germany’s military elite in both war and genocide, revealing their complete intertwinement with the politics of the regime they served.

The first workshop of the SWWRG-NA was a resounding success and is intended as the first of a series of annual workshops and conferences on different aspects of the global war. The workshop’s papers will be the basis of a forthcoming volume co-edited by Robert Engen, Jadwiga Biskupska, and Mary Kathryn Barbier with McGill-Queens University Press, and the group’s next annual workshop is currently being planned for fall 2019 to be hosted at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

‘Changing Landscapes: The Environment of the Second World War’ was supported by the SWWRG-NA, the Department of History at Mississippi State University, Mississippi State University-Meridian, the National World War II Museum, and the Society for Military History. Special thanks go out from the SWWRGNA to the MSU graduate student assistants for their efforts. A copy of the conference programme can be found here.

Dr Jadwiga Biskupska is an Assistant Professor at Sam Houston State University and a Director of the Second World War Research Group’s North American regional group. A historian of war and violence in modern central Europe, her research focuses on the way that war changes national identities and political possibilities in Germany and Poland in the 19th and 20th centuries. Her current book project is a study of the Warsaw intelligentsia under Nazi occupation during the Second World War.

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