Workshop Report: Informal Communication in Occupied Societies
Caroline Mezger, Institut für Zeitgeschichte, Munich
Between November 23 and 25, 2022, the INFOCOM Project (based at the Leibniz Institute for Contemporary History in Munich) held its third international workshop, hosted by the German Historical Institute Paris (GHIP) in cooperation with the Centre de recherches historiques (EHESS). Entitled ‘Informal Communication in Occupied Societies: World War II, Postwar Transitions, and the Search for Meaning in Societies at War’, the conference was dedicated to ongoing research on the role of informal communication in the sense-making processes of populations negotiating military occupation and conditions of war.
The Second World War gave rise to profoundly altered communicative landscapes. In Europe alone, perhaps 200 million individuals were confronted by military occupation, which — in diverse ways — devastated established sources of information and public spheres, introduced regimes of censorship and repression, and implemented surveillance and propaganda to constrict and (re-)direct public opinion. Verifiable, trusted information became sparse. As a result, the Second World War and its immediate aftermath became a breeding ground for alternate, informal information channels, in which rumours, gossip, and tall tales helped shape individuals’ actions and sense of reality.
Taking a multidisciplinary and transnational approach, the workshop’s participants examined the complex communicative conditions of societies under occupation from various angles. Focusing on diplomatic channels of communication on the eve of the war, Alexandre Bibert and Till Knobloch showed how intricately entwined ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ types of communication became even among elite political actors as they initiated — or reacted to — the outbreak of hostilities and establishment of occupational regimes. Louis Fortemps and Manuel Mork offered original insight into the establishment of Nazi German propaganda and surveillance apparatuses in occupied France and Belgium, demonstrating how even dictatorial propaganda reacted to occupied populations’ perceived moods, narratives, and evaluations of credibility. Most of the contributions, however, focused primarily on views ‘from below’, thematizing informal communication and sense-making under conditions of occupation and war along three main axes: agency, historical continuities, and sources.
One of the workshop’s most significant recurrent themes revolved around conceptualizations of agency. On the one hand, finding, interpreting, and spreading information became a means to assert one’s own agency under conditions of violence and oppression. On the other hand, as several contributions showed, the information gathered could in itself open new avenues of knowledge and possibilities for action. Several contributions thus thematized Jews’ own communicative practices as they faced persecution, deportation, and murder. Occasionally, as Johanna Lehr argued, Jews in Western Europe could draw from a reservoir of informal knowledge (a savoir-persecuté) to probe options for escape and survival. Such knowledge, however, was always susceptible to frameworks of interpretation and personal parameters for (dis-)belief — as illustrated by Damien de Santis and Jan Burzlaff. This lent information gathered through informal means an ambivalent character, as Jews negotiated their ever-vanishing options. Particular contexts mattered. As Izabela Paszko indicated, possibilities for agency shrank even further during Germany’s very violent occupation of Poland, as rumours and false promises were implemented by Nazi officials to lure Polish Jews to their certain death. Questions of forced mobility, too, became crucial. As Caroline Mezger argued, it was only through the forced displacement of millions across war-torn Europe, and the interaction of different communicative milieus, that a truly transnational understanding of the Holocaust emerged.
Questions of informal communication and sense-making in times of upheaval continued well into the postwar period. A second recurrent theme at the workshop thus revolved around continuities beyond traditional historiographical caesura. Wartime realities, several papers showed, were frequently interpreted according to personal and collective experiences of prior, usually First World War era and interwar, experiences. However, rumours, prophecies, denunciations, and attempts to curb these also played an important role as postwar societies grappled with urgent questions of survival, retribution, rehabilitation and reconstruction. Felix Berge illustrated how Germans navigated conflicting official messages and personal feelings of culpability as they chose to flee incoming Soviet or American troops. Valentin Bardet used judicial sources to show how both verbal and non-verbal communication were used to negotiate power imbalances in French-occupied Germany, while Félix Streicher revealed how postwar borderlands became particularly rife for rumours that reflected questions of self-victimization, nation-building, and the establishment of new political realities.
The workshop, finally, also offered opportunities to discuss the theoretical and methodological repercussions of studying an object as fleeting as informal communication. A third recurrent workshop theme consequently revolved around questions of source production and analysis. Renée Poznanski, in a contribution on the French underground press, reflected on the meaning of silences and how to interpret what is not said. Milan van Lange and Ismee Tames, in presenting digitized judicial and epistolary source collections, parsed the many levels at which meaning-making occurs: at the time of a source’s creation by the historical subjects themselves; in the postwar period by the sources’ preservation, destruction, and repeated archival rearrangement; in the present by historians’ own interpretations; and in the future by readers’ reconstruction of archival and historiographical realities. Finally, a workshop session at the Centre de documentation juif contemporain at the Mémorial de la Shoah allowed participants to analyse original sources produced both by the German occupying forces and the underground resistance in occupied France, opening questions related to the materiality, production, distribution, and preservation of historic sources under conditions of military occupation.
Overall, the workshop opened fruitful avenues of discussion on the lived experiences of societies under occupation, highlighting how the way people interpreted and navigated ‘from above’ and ‘from below’ communications became central both to the articulation of social realities and to assertions of personal agency and subjectivity. Informal communication, the contributions underlined, offers a highly constructive lens for understanding the past, as it reflects not only the sense-making practices of historical actors from the smallest to the largest of scales, but also throws into relief pressing questions of factuality, verifiability and truth. Such themes will be explored in a larger, international conference towards the end of the INFOCOM Project, in a final event projected for late 2024.
The workshop was organised by Caroline Mezger and Manuel Mork (IfZ), Alexandre Bibert and Jürgen Finger (DHIP), and Florent Brayard (CRH/EHESS).
Tatjana Tönsmeyer, ‘Besatzungsgesellschaften: Begriffliche und konzeptionelle Überlegungen zur Erfahrungsgeschichte des Alltags unter deutscher Besatzung im Zweiten Weltkrieg,‘ Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte (18.12.2015)
Caroline Mezger, ‘“Man hört, man spricht“: Informelle Kommunikation und Information “von unten“ im nationalsozialistischen Europa. Ein neues Forschungsprojekt des Instituts für Zeitgeschichte München‒Berlin‘, Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte, Vol. 68, No. 3 (2020): 481-490.
The project ‘”Man hört, man spricht”: Informal Communication and Information “From Below” in Nazi Europe’ (INFOCOM) is funded by the Leibniz Association under its Leibniz Junior Research Groups scheme, project number J47/2018.
Cover picture: A group of Polish Jews converses in a reading room in front of a large map of Poland.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Dr. Anna Wieteska
Copyright: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Provenance: Dr. Anna Wieteska
Source Record ID: Collections: 2006.213