CORDIS - EU research results

Rebuilding European Lives. The reconstitution of urban communities in inter-war Europe (1914-1939)

Final Report Summary - URBAN RECOVERY 14-39 (Rebuilding European Lives. The reconstitution of urban communities in inter-war Europe (1914-1939))

This project focussed on the reconstruction of urban communities in Belgium and France after the First World War. It produced a comparative history of these communities, of their resettlement in the towns and cities laid to waste by military operations along the Western Front. It also produced a transnational history of the mobilization of urban expertise (architects, urban planners, social reformers) and of philanthropic networks across the former allied nations of France, Belgium, Great Britain and the USA.
By contrast to existing works that usually emphasize the financial and economic aspects of the post-war reconstruction of Western Europe, this project investigated the experience of the communities who devoted a great of time and energy to rebuilding their home and to resettling in cities destroyed by the war.
This project therefore mobilized a wide array of primary sources located in France, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and the United States. It also engaged with a host of disciplinary perspectives; not least of course because urban planners, architects, or geographers had hitherto paid more attention to urban reconstruction than historians.
Our work explored the return and resettlement of veterans and refugees in the devastated landscape of total war. In France alone, 91% of settlements in the 10 devastated Départements suffered some degree of destruction, with 620 communes entirely destroyed by military operations. In Belgium, few regions had been spared the devastation and the reconstruction was a truly national undertaking: 200,000 buildings, 4,000km of railway tracks had been destroyed. The devastation in and around Ypres were such that the Belgian government contemplated in 1919 that the town not be rebuilt and the ruins be left to attest to the “martyrdom” of Belgium.

This project demonstrates that the reconstruction process was not simply an attempt to deal with the urban consequences of war and is indeed better understood as the contested continuation of wartime mobilization in the aftermath of the conflict. Urban reconstruction allows us to consider the relationship between war and social change anew. The conventional focus on the nation-state and national political and socio-economic structures had indeed long obscured the specific experiences of the devastated regions. Yet, our study of urban reconstruction demonstrates that the need to consider the differentiated geography and chronology of post-war social change.
The study of reconstruction – as an idea, as experience, as public policy – therefore demonstrates a point of wider import about the history of global warfare; that it cannot be written from a single spatial perspective and along the boundaries of discrete political and administrative units. The historian must combine local, national, and transnational perspectives because belligerent societies operated metaphorically and in actuality between different spaces. An intensely local and transnational process, the process of reconstruction also called into question the nature of the post-war national community.

The process of reconstruction was construed and constructed within a broader cultural narrative which lent it significance and shaped the way in which the Allied nations came to terms with the legacy of war and its violence. Alan Kramer and John Horne have shown, the experience and memory of the 1914 German invasion of Belgium and France and of the subsequent ‘German Atrocities’ were absolutely central in the shaping of the war effort among the western allies. The evocation of ‘martyr towns’ – an image elaborated and disseminated by well-known propagandists like Gabriel Hanotaux – lay at the core of the rhetoric of social mobilization in the first weeks of the conflict. It remained central to the remobilization effort mounted in 1916-17, and of course to the process of reconstruction.
The project places the place the reconstruction in the context of post-war remembrance, for the local memory of the devastated areas’ experience interacted and sometimes clashed with national and diplomatic agendas in the inter-war years.
It pointed to the nexus between post-war reconstruction and cultural demobilization which were geared to different phases but strongly linked to the issue of remembrance and mourning. The ‘mothering of ruined churches’, advocated and organized by catholic organizations across Britain was a case in point. In the many instances where families funded the rebuilding of churches, they did so to link the memory of dead soldiers to the place where his sacrifice was offered.

Yet urban reconstruction was not simply about the immediate past but was part of wider agenda of social reforms sharpened during the conflict and actively pursued in its aftermath. Indeed, urban reconstruction focused the mind and efforts of those intellectuals, experts, and policymakers who hoped to use the war as an opportunity to implement a set of social, economic, and political reforms they had often been advocating in the years leading up to the conflict. Urban planners and architects obviously played a critical role here, as the reconstruction of towns and cities required their expertise.
At the same time, local populations set out to rebuild their lives among the ruins. They did so in dire circumstances. Basic infrastructures and housing had often been destroyed by military operations, while the supply of food and medicine remained dependent on the allied armed forces and on humanitarian organization like the Red Cross and Commission for Relief in Belgium. The refugee press and the few surviving personal accounts underline the difficulties faced by local populations. They also highlight the gap between the lofty goals of urban experts or social reformers and the mundane, domestic, yet critically important needs of the returnees.
This is where our story diverges most notably from the conventional accounts of industrial and economic reconstruction. A legitimate priority of national and local authorities, the reconstitution of the productive apparatus was achieved, to a large extent, by 1924-1925. Touted by international investors and US financial institutions in particular, this hard-earned recovery accounts for the story of linear progress, which the historiography of the period has long accepted. By contrast, the history of urban reconstruction reveals the disconnect between the economic and social history of the aftermath of war. Undeniably facilitated by economic recovery, the rebuilding of urban communities was nonetheless a highly contested process. Local populations complained bitterly about what they perceived as unnecessary bureaucratic impediments. Tensions soon arose between urban planners and populations who cared less for modernization and innovations than they pined for the restoration of their home.

This project therefore invites to reconsider both the geography and the chronology of the reconstruction of Western Europe after the Great War. It makes a significant contribution to the historiography of inter-war Europe and is therefore of great interest to museums and cultural institutions actively engaged in the commemoration of the First World War.
By placing the experience of war in the wider history of urban disasters, it is also of interest to humanitarian organizations and policymakers who regularly deal with the aftermath of urban catastrophes within and outside Europe.