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Conference Report – New Directions in Global Second World War History

By Dr Jadwiga Biskupska

The second annual workshop of the Second World War Research Group's North American Regional Group (SWWRG, NA) was held on 12-13 September 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana at the National World War II Museum. Organised by regional group co-directors Jadwiga Biskupska (Sam Houston State University), Mary Kathryn Barbier (Mississippi State University), and Robert Engen (Canadian Forces College), the workshop focused on new research trends in the long global Second World War. The workshop aimed to continue the success of its first gathering in September 2018 in Starkville, MS, and to expand its scholarly community across the United States and Canada devoted to the study of the war, with a focus on new work and new angles of research.

Admiral William D. Leahy, USN (Retired), United States Ambassador to France (right) Pays a farewell call on French Chief of State Marshall Henri Pétain, at Vichy, 27 April 1942. (Source: Wikimedia)

On Thursday evening before the day-long Friday workshop, the National World War II Museum hosted Michael Neiberg, inaugural Chair in War Studies at the US Army War College (Carlisle, PA), in their General Raymond E. Mason, Jr. Distinguished Lecture Series. Neiberg spoke on his newest project, ‘Vichy and the United States: New Findings in Scholarship,’ which reassesses the developing American relationship with the Vichy French state and its consequences for the emerging Grand Alliance. Neiberg’s new work asks how American foreign policy from 1940-1942 might be better understood if Vichy were more fully considered as a point of reference for American hopes and fears. A dialogue with Robert Citino, Samuel Zemurray Stone Senior Historian and Executive Director at The Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at the National World War II Museum, followed the research presentation. Neiberg’s and Citino’s conversation ranged across a range of topics relating to the role of France in both world wars, and then they took questions from the extensive audience.

On Friday, the workshop featured the work of nine scholars arranged in four thematic panels presenting their latest research on the war. The panels highlighted emerging thematic subfields of Second World War studies and deliberately crossed traditional geographical and chronological boundaries to create new conversations about the war. They ranged from graduate students to senior scholars in the field teaching at a variety of institutions. The first panel paired the work of Claire Cookson-Hills (Queens University) and Vojin Majstorovic (University of North Texas), discussing sexual exploitation of civilians and other deviant behaviors by Allied soldiers – on the one hand Canadian infantrymen in Germany in 1945 and on the other Red Army soldiers in the Balkans and Central Europe – and how this criminality was received by their commanders, the NKVD, and their postwar national communities. Allison Abra (University of Southern Mississippi) commented, drawing attention to the variety of soldiers’ motivations and the importance of location and the deep history of civilian-combatant interaction as a template for civilian exploitation.

American prisoners escorted by Japanese soldiers on the Bataan Death March, April 1942. (Source: © IWM (NYP 60749))

The second panel, ‘Reimagining the Pacific Space,’ linked the work of Robert Engen (Canadian Forces College) on venereal disease and British morale in Hong Kong with a study of American hunger on Bataan by Phillip Rutherford (Marshall University), who described in frightening detail how the troops, facing dwindling supplies, ‘ate the jungle.’ Commentator Robert Citino underscored the ways that logistical failure drove strategy in the Pacific theatre as problems of hunger and disease management paved the way for Japanese victories.

The third panel on ‘Occupation, Race, and Exploitation’ featured papers by Eden Knudsen-McLean (Auburn University) from her new project on South Tyrol and the Nazification of its German-speaking population under fascism, and a chapter from Jeff Rutherford (Xavier University)’s reassessment of the Wehrmacht on shifting military occupation strategy on the Eastern Front in the summer of 1943. Jadwiga Biskupska provided a comment on these treatments as differing (and ineffective) counterinsurgencies. Though they took a variety of approaches ranging from Cookson-Hills’s bicycle-stealing rapists to Rutherford’s re-consideration of the Wehrmacht’s flirtation with a ‘hearts and minds’ strategy around Kursk, the panels encouraged an evolving conversation by workshop participants on various forms of wartime violence, military strategy, source availability, and the flexibility of identity during the ‘long’ Second World War – with numerous contributions from workshop presenters and the local audience.

The final panel of the day, ‘The Latest Ideas: In-Progress Graduate Work,’ featured three graduate students – Alexis Laguna (University of New Orleans), Cameron Zinsou (Mississippi State University), and Jennifer Popowycz (Louisiana State University) – presenting their ongoing and recently completed projects to demonstrate the range of emerging work. Michael Neiberg commented, and the workshop presenters provided questions and further feedback, extending previous discussions on evolving occupation strategy in Zinsou’s work, the importance of biographical approaches in Laguna’s thesis, and the variety of German exploitation of the Eastern Front in Popowycz’s presentation.

The second research workshop of the SWWRGNA was a resounding success and is intended to continue a series of annual workshops and conferences on different thematic aspects of the global war. A selection of the workshop’s papers will be expanded for publication in a forthcoming volume co-edited by Jadwiga Biskupska and Robert Engen with McGill-Queens University Press, and the group’s next annual workshop is currently being planned for 2020 in Canada.

‘New Directions in Global Second World War History’ was supported by the SWWRG, NA, the National World War II Museum, and the Society for Military History. The participation of scholars from surrounding universities, including Sam Cavell and Allison Abra, and those on staff at the museum, including Kristen Burton and Jason Dawsey, were essential to the richness of the evolving conversation. Special thanks go out from the SWWRG, NA to Michael Neiberg and Robert Citino for their engagement, and Jeremy Collins, director of conferences & symposia at the National World War II Museum for his organisational support.

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