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Maastricht University

The Age of Metamorphosis: An Introduction

Camilo Erlichman and Félix Streicher, Maastricht University

In Italo Calvino’s first novel, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (The Path to the Spiders’ Nest), published in 1947 and set in Liguria during the Second World War, Pin, a young, orphaned boy, steals a gun from a German officer and subsequently joins a local partisan group in search for a new home and community. Calvino, who had joined a Communist partisan brigade himself in Liguria in 1944, uses Pin’s boyish eyes to draw a bottom-up portrait of a band of mostly uneducated, peasant and working-class partisans who had joined up to fight both the Fascist state and the German occupier. Rather than portraying the partisans as heroes, committed to the high values of the Resistance, Calvino produces a murkier picture that got him into much trouble with post-war public opinion in Italy. In Calvino’s narrative, it is not always quite clear why the partisans are fighting and different motivations seem to be at play. For some, the simple accidents of life during the war have led them to the Resistance. For others, part of the motivation seems to have been sheer adventurism. It is therefore not surprising that one of the key characters of the story, after an argument with the partisan commander, ends up deserting the band, and quickly finds a happy home amongst local Fascist militiamen. In mid-twentieth century Europe, roles and identities, as Calvino reminds us, were not set in stone, but could mutate and reverse rapidly at a time when power relations were in a constant state of flux.

This was, therefore, an Age of Metamorphosis. The fundamental transformations that affected the lives of individuals reflected the evolution of political rule. During the Second World War and its immediate aftermath, nations, societies, and territories around the world fell under various forms of foreign rule. Some of these ruling regimes came into being as a direct result of the conflict, such as the various military occupations that were established as the frontlines of the war shifted. Others were embedded within longer-term structures of domination and were entangled with projects of imperial rule. All these forms of rule, however, were rarely permanent. Owing to the combination of the changing tides of military fortune, domestic circumstances, and geopolitical contexts, many people around the world suddenly found their role reversing from occupied to occupier; from living under a foreign occupation to being citizens of a state that carried out an occupation of its own.

This fundamental reversal in roles turned power relations on their head: survivors of genocide, refugees, and ‘displaced persons’ returned as occupation officials to rule over the population of states where they had earlier been persecuted; prisoners of war and those who had been penalised under foreign rule turned into judges and prosecutors adjudicating over those who had previously governed and administered the country; resistance fighters who had fought against an occupier were recruited into armies suppressing movements of national liberation in imperial contexts; civil servants who had collaborated with the occupier mutated into military occupation administrators themselves or into upholders of imperial rule. In this world turned upside-down, they found themselves navigating a challenging situation that confronted them with difficult choices and ethical dilemmas about the use of their newfound powers, after having been subjected to much suffering in the past. Such choices were often tied to specific emotions, such as conceptions of honour, hatred, revenge, shame, and empathy. They were also embedded within wider struggles for legitimacy in post-war societies, where the role one had had in the past was a fundamental source of legitimation for one’s social status and political power in the present. Not everyone, however, emerged as a winner from this process of socio-political transformation. Many, such as most notably the victims of racial and political persecution, often struggled in vain for proper recognition during the first post-war decades and largely failed to gain any political or socio-economic benefits from their victimhood.

Others found themselves on the losing side of the overall shift in fortunes, turning from victors into vanquished, from occupiers into occupied. They too had to adapt to the ways in which the balance of political, social, and economic power had been upended, and find ways to navigate a new world in which the certainties of the past no longer obtained. For many, this was therefore a moment of existential crisis that threatened both their individual livelihood and the broader survival of the nation. Yet for some who seemed to be on the losing side, shifting circumstances could also create a range of new opportunities and possibilities for upward social mobility. National economies subjected to severe pressures and restrictions under war and occupation, and the resulting privations faced by the wider population, provided local opportunists with chances to make significant material gains by benefitting from the ubiquity of shortages. This, of course, attracted the ire of their contemporaries, and such opportunists consequently came to personify the ‘evil collaborator’ that became a central trope of post-war popular culture. Yet despite the public prominence accorded to them, these were comparatively fringe cases. Of more fundamental importance were those amongst the occupied who, in the wake of military defeat or the establishment of imperial rule, managed to position themselves as social intermediaries between the local population and their new foreign rulers. This was the often less visible world of local notables, mayors, civil servants, clergymen, industrialists, and trade union leaders who managed to expand their socio-political influence through the function they assumed as go-betweens between the occupiers and the occupied.

Role reversals were, therefore, not exceptions, but wide-spread phenomena in a period in which national boundaries were in flux, central state authority was in crisis, and imperial projects were both reinforced and fundamentally contested across the globe. Such radical changes in the lives of individuals and in their relative position of power complicate our understanding of the mid-twentieth century by pointing to the moral ambiguity and intricate dynamics that accompanied the upheavals of the era. There were few areas ravaged by the Second World War where the fine dividing lines between moral rectitude, accommodation, and full-blown collaboration had not been transgressed.

More generally, the phenomenon of role reversals also suggests that instances of foreign rule were never isolated, but interwoven and connected events. How did having lived through a situation of foreign rule influence those who then moved on to themselves become part of an occupation regime? This often depended on which role was acquired or lost. The transfer of experiences ranged, for example, from the circulation of knowledge on the ruling techniques of the occupier, to the gestation of attitudes on violence, repression, and retribution. Such ‘learning processes’ can be identified at different levels, including most notably in the spheres of economic planning, public administration, law, policing, and military strategy. For others, the experience of occupation simply furnished them with a range of tools of survival that they used in their daily lives to cope with the ‘state of exception’ produced by the logics of foreign rule.

While scholars have hitherto explored some of these role reversals, mostly in the context of national histories, they have rarely explored the phenomenon as a subject in its own right. This neglect is to be regretted, as it obscures the extent to which different military occupations can be approached under a unifying theme, rather than being treated as individual and largely separate cases. For too long, historians of occupations have limited their conceptual horizon to that which they could grasp from within their own archival paper walls, resulting in yet another variant of ‘methodological nationalism’. The purpose of any comparative approach is, however, not to reduce the highly context-dependent experience of role reversals to a simplistic formula about the general functioning of occupations. It is rather to emphasise the multifaceted nature and shared quality of such experiences, and to point to the ways in which occupations during and after the Second World War had transnational effects that were common across different geographical spaces, both across Europe and more widely. Occupation, in this reading, is therefore to be approached less as a single event than as process; as a deep, structural dynamic that produced durable and connected socio-political legacies across the globe that extended well beyond the moment of occupation.

This Blog post series, and the accompanying workshop on The Age of Metamorphosis: Role Reversals in Foreign Occupations during and after the Second World War put role reversals in and around the conflicts of the mid-twentieth century centre stage. The workshop and articles cast light on different aspects of role reversals and, in doing so, offer a first step in raising the subject on historians’ agendas, while inviting others to approach occupation and the manifold political, social, economic, and cultural dynamics that it generates, in a more holistic manner.


Photo credits:

Cover picture: Germany under Allied Occupation. A member of the Hanover Police is given an armband to show his official status.
Source: Imperial War Museum. © IWM BU 9661

Camilo Erlichman is Assistant Professor in History at Maastricht University, Netherlands.

Félix Streicher is a PhD Researcher at Maastricht University, Netherlands.