In a ruined country: the memory of war destruction in rural Argonne (France)
Paola Filippucci (Cambridge University)
Paper short abstract:
I discuss the relationship between social memory and trauma in the case of the destruction of places in war. In two French villages destroyed in the Great War, I show how such violence is today incorporated into ideas of place and history primarily by non-verbal means.
Paper long abstract:
My paper seeks to illuminate the relationship between social memory and violent trauma by focusing on the trauma experienced through the violent destruction of places in war. I base my paper on ethnography that I conducted in two villages in Argonne (Eastern France) in 2005. Both villages were completely destroyed during the Great War, and reconstructed and resettled in the 1920s. Almost a century after their reconstruction, I ask what remains in these villages, if anything, of this arguably traumatic experience. In particular, I compare narratives and material traces in order to analyse the respective roles of words and things in producing memory of this event three generations after it happened, and in incorporating it into representations of history and place. By this I show that while physical reconstruction occurred relatively quickly, the symbolic 'reconstruction' of these villages is still incomplete, in the sense that they continue to be seen as 'ruined' places. In explaining what appears like evidence of the long-term effects of violent trauma on the local population, I argue that the image of a devastated, war-torn place is maintained alive by factors and mechanisms from beyond the village, that keep this image alive and continually reinscribe it onto this area. Firstly, it is perpetuated by the national (and international) memory of the Great War that requires the former battlefields to be perennial material figures of trauma, as monuments to the brutality and violence of the conflict. Secondly, it is kept actual and poignant for locals by their current fears about the loss of places and presence through economic and demographic decline. These wider cultural and material factors must be taken into account in the analysis of the long-term impact of violent events on places and collectivities.