This spring and summer, the workers of the Société nationale des chemins de fer français
(SNCF) staged a series of rolling strikes, slowing and shutting down the country’s major lines of travel and transport. It wasn’t the first time that France’s cheminots
(railway workers) have taken a stand, and it certainly won’t be the last. Another major strike is scheduled for early October of this year.
In Ordinary Workers, Vichy and the Holocaust: French Railwaymen and the Second World War
(Cambridge University Press, 2016), Ludivine Broch
examines the history of railway worker resistance and collaboration during the Occupation years. The project departs from a fundamental question about the role the national railways (and their personnel) played in the Holocaust in France. The resulting book is an in-depth labour history that considers class struggle and wartime economic pressures, complicating moral questions about what the cheminots
did and didn’t do to enable and/or impede persecutions, deportations, and genocide during the Second World War.
In the chapters of Ordinary Workers
, readers will find a rich history of the social and political consciousness of railway workers in France that reaches back to the nineteenth century. Considering Vichy a turning point for cheminot
political engagement and activism, the book accords an important place to the question of the resistance of railway workers to the transport of French Jews and other victims during the war. Ordinary Workers
also shows that questions of integrity and commitment were paramount for this distinct labour group of thousands of men (and very few women) whose sense of professional identity was intimately tied up with the trains and rail lines they served. Their increased resistance during the Occupation included theft and protest. Sabotage, however, remained an extreme action for these workers who loved their machines and held colleague and passenger safety as high priorities.
Drawing on a range of materials, including company archives, memoirs and postwar testimonies, as well as interviews the author conducted with cheminots
throughout France, Ordinary Workers
poses serious questions about the beliefs, everyday lives, and actions of a professional group whose experiences, choices, and stories connected French national spaces and politics during a most difficult period of the nation’s history.
Roxanne Panchasi is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Simon Fraser University. Her current research focuses on the representation of nuclear weapons and testing in France and its empire since 1945. She lives and reads in Vancouver, Canada. If you have a recent title to suggest for the podcast, please send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
*The music that opens and closes the podcast is an instrumental version of “Creatures,” a song written by Vancouver artist/musician Casey Wei (performing as “hazy”). To hear more, please visit https://agonyklub.com/