Alain Colignon has been CegeSoma's librarian for over thirty-five years. Passionate about history, he has read almost everything about everything. In fact, asking him questions is often more effective than consulting Wikipedia. So you'll understand that sticking to the 'three questions to' principle for our column wasn't an option ... many thanks for your comprehension!
What was your background? Why did you choose to study history?
I graduated in history from the University of Liège in 1981. My thesis dealt with the world of veterans in the Province of Liège. I chose this discipline for one simple reason: I loved listening to stories told by the elderly, starting with those of my grandmother, who came from a small village in the Hannut region. She used to talk about her younger days before 1914.
History has always been a refuge for me, because I didn't really like the society in which I had to evolve in the '70s and '80s, any more than the one that succeeded it, which became more and more technocratic and less and less human, with growing pressure on the workplace.
Originally, the idea was to become a secondary school History teacher. But finding a teaching job at the time was very difficult. So I first worked at the Lierneux Provincial Psychiatric Institute, which was celebrating its centenary. I was recruited to write its history, produce an exhibition, and finally to carry out a study on social medicine in the province of Liège. My agrégation only lasted 15 days as a moral education teacher in Visé. I was then hired by the 'Centre'* on 1 February 1989, under the direction of Jean Vanwelkenhuysen.
What did you do at CegeSoma?
At first, I did a bit of everything: answering occasional correspondents, selecting and classifying Belgian brochures, etc. It wasn't until 1991 that I became a librarian in collaboration with Kathleen Vandenberghe and Hilde Keppens.
As such, I select books I consider interesting, and contribute to seminars, study days and colloquia. I have collaborated extensively on RTBF Charleroi's 'Jours de guerre' series, writing numerous contributions. I took part in specific productions by the Centre, notably for the commemorations of the fiftieth anniversary of the Liberation, when with Dirk Martin we analyzed the semiological content of these commemorations. I contributed to various one-off publications, such as 'Hitler, Haider: même combat?' with Emmanuel Debruyne, and later on 'Le rexisme, un pré-poujadisme', ...
I also took part in conferences for local history societies and others. Then I collaborated with Fabrice Maerten and Mélanie Bost on the 'Villes en guerre' series published by La Renaissance du Livre. A new book with Mélanie Bost is to be published by Éditions Aparté in March this year. For the past 6 or 7 years, I've also been answering questions from regular or occasional correspondents about the two world wars. I act as an intermediary for researchers and the general public, especially now that CegeSoma has been integrated into the National Archives of Belgium [AGR/ARA]. More and more people are interested in what their ancestors lived through during the two world wars.
How do you go about supplying the CegeSoma library?
Initially, the Centre's library didn't want to step on the toes of the Royal Military Museum, so it had little or no interest in "militaria" or military history in the strict sense of the term. The hallmark of our Centre was to study the impact of the 'war' phenomenon on civil society in Belgium and surrounding countries. From 1997 onwards, our chronological scope expanded. We no longer focused exclusively on the 1930-1950 period. We moved on to the concept of the "Second Thirty Years' War". So, still in the spirit of "the impact of war on civil society", I collected everything to do with cultural, political, socio-economic history, mentalities and collective representations, but now for the 1914-1950 period. In 2005, we decided to embrace the entire short 20th century, from 1914, with the outbreak of the First World War, to 1991, when the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc collapsed. The focus was on the consequences of radicalism in politics, and the impact of war on culture, art and collective mentalities, as well as on massacres, ethnic cleansing, Judeocide, genocide and so on...
I scoured numerous bibliographies and publishing house catalogs for works that might be of interest to us. From 1993 to 2015, we had a substantial budget to supply the Library. Since then, budgets have been reduced, as in all federal scientific institutions.
I also add to the collections thanks to other colleagues who are specialized and suggest titles to me. I also 'salvage' antiquarian items, because I personally love to read, it's my guilty pleasure ... or I visit large bookshops. So I proceed partly by browsing specialized bibliographies and partly by 'guesswork', on the understanding that my intuition can be wrong. If I have any doubts about the interest of a book, I use the computer to obtain one or more critical reviews of the work in question. The smaller the budget, the more rigorous my selection process.
Today, the library holds over 80,000 books (not including brochures). Of these, 70% are purchased and 30% are either bequeathed or donated. Unfortunately, many donations are made of books we already have. Our library is currently 35% in French, at least 30% in English and 20% in Dutch (Flanders and the Netherlands). The rest are in German, Spanish and Italian. Books in English and German are unfortunately much more expensive, and are therefore subject to a stricter selection process given our budget.
What are the gaps in CegeSoma's library?
There are still gaps in certain academic and university works from the days when the Centre didn't yet exist. The Centre's library came into being with the creation of the Centre itself in 1969. Initially, we received a collection of books from the National Archives [AGR]. It was a remnant of the Belgian World War Museum (embryo of a research center devoted to the two world wars) initiated by a ULB professor, Suzanne Tassier, in 1944-1945. She had begun accumulating books, but the project was interrupted. We benefited from a second collection of books, also from the AGR. It was made up of works from collaborationist publishing houses that had been confiscated in the aftermath of the war by Resistance organizations or by the judicial authorities of the Belgian state, and were deposited at the AGR after legal proceedings. When I became librarian at the Centre, there were around 13,000 titles.
About ten years ago, it was estimated that in all the major international languages plus Dutch and Italian, some 300,000 works dealt with the Second World War. In recent years, the number of books published on WWII has been steadily declining.
What have been the major changes in historiography over the years in the subjects dealt with by CegeSoma?
When I took over the library, it was still a very socio-economic history, with a great deal of politics too, and already in the wake of the French historian Nora, and his studies on places of memory, a marked interest in collective representations: the image of history. This was accentuated by post-modernism, which really emerged at the Centre around 1995 and proliferated until 2000-2010. From that point onwards, it became a kind of post-post-modernism that slipped into a form of accentuated relativism, with a marked revival of minority groups that had hitherto been poorly studied or forgotten, such as women's history, gender history, the history of immigrant communities or ethnic minorities persecuted by the political rulers of the day, that of homosexuals, colonial populations dominated and/or minoritized in their host countries, etc. Postcolonial studies have been flourishing since 2010-2015, and now we're into decolonial studies. But they still account for a relatively small proportion of all the works collected and of recent bibliographic production.
What changes do you see in the questions you are asked?
Up until 2000, there were still contemporaries of World War II who wanted information about events in which they or their families had been involved. Many journalists and students came to us. At the time, universities were focusing on the period before or after the Second World War, or on WWII itself, for their seminars, thesis and doctorates. It was also a popular topic for the television media. Afterwards, the actors and witnesses of World War II began to disappear. Their children came along. Journalists and students continued to show an interest, but often in connection with major commemorations: D-Day, the Liberation, the Battle of the Bulge. From 2015 onwards, the children of WWII witnesses or actors became rarer, journalists and universities showed less interest and gradually became more interested in the concept of the Cold War, but also in the '50s and even the '60s. In the last ten years or so, a new 'clientele' of young retirees has taken an interest in their ancestors' past. There are a few erratic questions from people who don't really know what the Centre is. I've been asked more than once what 'cousin Jules' or the glorious ancestor Jules did during Napoleon's reign ... or even during Louis XIV's wars ... Some people, obviously distraught, have even asked me if there was going to be a third world war ... These are just oddities, not representative of the majority of questions.
What would you consider to be the three key works for studying the Second World War in Belgium?
Three doesn't seem like very many ... The first would definitely be 'L'an 40. La Belgique occupée' by José Gotovitch and Jules-Gérard Libois, followed by Etienne Verhoeyen's 'La Belgique sous l'occupation', as an essential complement. For the Royal Question and the attitude of Leopold III and his court circles, Jan Velaers and Herman Van Goethem's 'Leopold III: de Koning, het land, de oorlog' is a must. For the collaboration, Martin Conway's work on Léon Degrelle has been translated into French and Dutch, and on the VNV, Bruno De Wever with 'Greep naar de macht'. There are others, of course... Most of the good works in Dutch have unfortunately not been translated to French. We have good historians of the Resistance, but they only ever study one specific aspect of it. For a true synthesis of the Resistance as a whole, I think you have to go back to Henri Bernard's little book 'La résistance belge', which dates from the late '60s, but is still partly relevant. For intelligence and action services, I recommend Fernand Strubbe, 'Service secret, 40-45'. We have José Gotovitch for the Communist Resistance, we have Emmanuel Debruyne with 'La Guerre secrète des espions belges', Jacques Wynants too, who has looked into this or that groupuscule... With 'Papy était-il un héros', recently produced by Fabrice Maerten, we come close to a synthesis full of interesting information and suggestions for new directions. But there is no truly up-to-date synthesis.
What are your greatest antiquarian finds for the institution?
I found something quite curious while I was antiquing: a book by Henri de Montherlant dedicated to the exodus of 1940, illustrated by Masereel and published a few years after the exodus. I've only ever seen it once in the dozens and dozens of bookshops I've visited. It must be 'quite rare'. Then there's Fernand Baudhuin's 1945 book on the Belgian economy under the Occupation 1940-1944. It's a very old work, yet still relevant today. I'd say it's a gem, even if it's still found fairly regularly. I think these are the two best 'finds' of my early career.
What future do you see for the CegeSoma library and what are your plans?
She will share CegeSoma's future as part of the AGR, in conditions that I hope will be ideal for book conservation, and there will undoubtedly be, if we want to maintain a certain modernity, a digitalized sector that will grow in importance. If I'm to believe the publishers, this will be between 25% and 30% of book titles, as some titles are not intended for a wide audience and will no longer be published in paper form. But that will concern my successors.
Today, the Centre has to adapt to new times, while retaining its human aspect. That means listening to people and trying to provide them with what they expect from us. A public service must be at the service of the public. You can get history wrong, but you mustn't cheat history.
In a few months' time, I'll be retired, and for my own intellectual, moral and physiological well-being, I'll continue to cooperate on an ad hoc basis with the Belgium WWII project, but I don't yet know how I'm going to do it. I won't be the happy returnee, because my time is past, and by family tradition and paternal advice, you should never return to where you've been...
* The 'Centre de Recherches et d'Etudes historiques de la Seconde Guerre mondiale', ancestor of CegeSoma and founded in 1969.