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Narrative and Conflict: Explorations of Theory and Practice

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Peace and Conflict Studies


In 1940, France, threatened with total annexation by Nazi Germany, signed an armistice agreement with Germany that placed the French government in Vichy France and divided the country into an occupied and unoccupied zone. The Armistice also requisitioned the rolling stock of the SNCF—French National Railways—which became a significant arm in the German effort, transporting soldiers, goods, and over 75,000 deportees crammed into merchandise wagons toward Nazi extermination camps. Between 3,000-5,000 survived. Of the roughly 400,000 SNCF employees, Nazis murdered a couple of thousand for resistance or alleged in subordination. Railway men who resisted the Germans also often has to resist their employer as well. After the liberation of French at the end of WWII, the company—not simply the brave individuals -- received France’s Medal of Honor for its alleged role in the ultimate defeat of the Germans. This medal, along with other postwar propaganda in the form of films and books, instilled a singular narrative about the company’s heroic wartime role. This narrative continued uninterrupted until the 1980s. Those who returned, along with the relatives of many who did not, increasingly challenge the company’s simplified wartime narrative. In the 1990s, lawsuits against the company began in France and continue through 2016 in the United States. In response, the SNCF made efforts to intertwine story of deportation with the company narrative of resistance. One key forum for this attempt was a colloquium held in 2000 at the Assemblée Nationale in Paris.

That colloquium is examined here through the lenses of three forms of narrative analysis: structural, functional, and post-structural. Each analytic frame illuminates different challenges to that colloquium’s attempts at revising history through altering a mystified institutional narrative. Through the analysis of this case, the author establishes the power of these analytic frameworks when examining problematic discursive spaces that hold in place master narratives and limit moral work.


Original publication information: Federman, S. (2016). Rewriting Institutional Narratives to Make Amends: The French National Railroads (SNCF). Narrative and Conflict: Explorations in Theory and Practice, 3(1), p. 44-65