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Matthias Buschmeier | European Literatures of Military Occupation

12th June, 2024 in Author’s corner

Matthias Buschmeier is an associate professor (Akademischer Direktor) for German Literature in the European Context at Bielefeld University.

To my surprise, these narratives did not center on combat or the war itself; instead, they depicted life alongside the occupiers.

What does it mean to live under occupation? How does it shape the culture and identities of European nations? How does it affect the way we write and read literature? Focusing on the literary works of writers from various European countries that were occupied by Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union or the Allies during and after World War II, the editors of European Literatures of Military Occupation seek to unravel the complex interplay between historical circumstances and literary expression. A Q&A with one of its two editors, Matthias Buschmeier

Briefly and concisely explain in plain language what the book is about.

The book stands out for categorizing ‘occupation literature’ as a unique genre and for showing how this literature reflects the complex relationships between occupier and occupied, and how these relations affect European identities through remembrance and representation of these historical events up to our very present.

Our book explores the impact of military occupation on Europe’s cultural and national identities, particularly through literature. It investigates how living under the control of foreign powers during and after World War II—be it Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, or the Allies—has influenced the way European writers express themselves, and asks why the topic of military occupation is still and again very present in our contemporary literature. The contributors offer a mix of theoretical insights and specific examples from many European theatres of occupation in the 20th century, and how they are represented in literature.

What or who inspired you to choose this topic?

I came across a photograph depicting the occupation in Paris, which appeared to be staged for propaganda purposes, as were many such images. It portrayed a Parisian café where German soldiers were seen sipping coffee, perusing newspapers, and conversing with, supposedly, Parisian women. Shortly thereafter, I immersed myself inseveral novels from different European literatures, anticipating examples of ‘war literature’. To my surprise, these narratives did not center on combat or the war itself; instead, they depicted life alongside the occupiers.

As a German, I was struck by the absence of stark dichotomies portraying German occupiers as wholly evil and the occupied in constant open resistance (although there certainly was at least one evil SS officer in each novel). It became evident that living under occupation meant navigating a complex social and moral landscape, one that defied the simplistic narratives prevalent in many post-war European countries. It also became clear that the very distinct experiences of German occupation in Eastern Europe and among the European Jewish population led to different modes of representation and literary techniques. Eager to deepen my understanding of these dynamics, I sought insights from scholars across Europe, recognizing that military occupation was a collective European ordeal spanning from 1938 to 1953, extending beyond just the German Occupation.

Do you have any reading suggestions to share (books, blogs, journals, …) for anyone who wants to know more about the subject?

I can highly recommend the website and blog of the “Occupation Studies” network which is hosted by network convenors Camilo Erlichman at Maastricht University and Christopher Knowles from King’s College London. Furthermore, the “Societies-under-German-Occupation” network offers on its website a unique collection of sources about the everyday experience of military occupation during World War II from various European contexts, translated into English. In fall 2024, Tatjana Tönsmeier, one of the leading scholars in the field of Occupation Studies, will publish her book Unter Deutscher Besatzung [Under German Occupation], and I am sure that will also be a milestone of reference.

How did the writing process for this book go? Did you experience anything surprising, amusing or strange?

Having previously conducted comparative and international research with authors from diverse backgrounds, it’s always fascinating to witness the unique perspectives that emerge from varied academic and intellectual traditions. Honestly, my familiarity with Georgian authors’ thoughts and writings on their experiences under different occupational regimes was quite limited. As an editor, this meant placing my trust in the accuracy of quotations from original sources, despite not understanding their content. It’s a bit like assembling a jigsaw puzzle in the dark, hoping that each piece is correctly shaped and trusting that the image will eventually come together to reveal the big picture.

 What would you like readers to remember about your book?

It would be gratifying if readers could retain the essence of Jeroen Olyslaeger’s chapter, which deals with the intellectual journey and concepts of a literary author who wrote his compelling novel as a profound exploration of the German occupation of Antwerp. Furthermore, it would be immensely satisfying if the methodical reflections presented in the introduction serve as a catalyst for other scholars to further investigate this subject. This volume is intended to be a springboard, initiating discourse rather than presenting conclusive remarks on the matter.

Your book is published open access thanks to the partial support of the KU Leuven Fund for Fair Open Access. How did the open access publication process go? What makes open access so attractive for you/your book? Have you thus far noticed that your book reaches a wider audience?

We are very happy and grateful that the book can be published Open Access with the support of the KU Leuven and Bielefeld University Fund. Furthermore, the University of Luxembourg also helped immensely to bring our results to the public. All the institutions made it very easy to apply for funds, and the whole publication process was handled very professionally, but still in a very short time, which is becoming more and more important for scholary careers these days.

Do you have any plans yet for another publication? What will it be about? Would you consider publishing the book open access?

Currently, I am in the process of negotiating a Ukrainian translation for  my book titled “Guilt: A Force of Cultural Transformation.” This endeavour is only possible with the support of Open Access funding, which ensures that the work is accessible to readers who may be isolated from their academic resources. As far as I am concerned, the synergy of a printed edition for archival purposes, coupled with the electronic Open Access format for immediate, effortless, and unrestricted global reach, aligns seamlessly with the contemporary academic requirements.

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