Élise, you received your PhD in history from UCL in 2020 with a PhD dissertation on the German secret police forces in occupied France and Belgium during World War I. Soon after, you joined us to work on the Postwarex research project.
What appealed to you in this project, which relies on sources of military courts for its study of the death penalty and capital executions in the aftermath of World War II?
What immediately attracted me in this research topic are the exceptional, taboo and obviously somewhat dramatic characteristics of this period, the executions and their practice. I also like the institutional approach: by organising all these documents, we can understand the functioning, the changes, the practices, and the logic of an institution. And finally, what I also value in this project is that it will culminate in a book for the public, which will focus on the work of the Chief Military Prosecutor’s Office (Auditorat général) that carried out the repression of the collaboration. It will help us understand why some death row convicts were executed and others were not. How does the decision-making process for royal pardons work? What are the issues surrounding the practice of execution, in terms of places, actors, etc.?
How did you imagine your profession as a historian when you started your studies, and did reality meet the dream?
When I started studying history, I had no real expectations. I chose history because I was interested in the discipline, the methodology and the science of history. In fact, I didn't really know what it meant to be a historian. When I was studying for my exams in high school, I thought that history was something which simply made sense. And then there were the skills of synthesis, writing, comparison, which called for a rigor I liked. Early on during my studies, I told myself I wanted to do research. After writing history papers and a thesis with pleasure, I started a PhD dissertation and I think it is great to be able to develop my skills as a historian. I have organized conferences, built networks and I tried to make the research process more dynamic so that it wouldn’t just be "me in front of my computer".
After I finished my PhD, I was undecided: opportunities were rare... I couldn't just tell myself, I am going to become a university professor... there are so many steps to take before getting a permanent position, which made me think, why not try something else... and then, the position at CegeSoma became available, an opportunity to do research in a different context, 'project-based'. The biggest difference between my dissertation and this project is that this time, I am not in control of the outcome. There are four of us collaborating on the project, and we only have two years to finalise it. We are required to make choices. Nevertheless, I have a lot of freedom in the way I proceed, in the way I decide to write, to highlight the results.
When I first arrived at the research centre, I was looking forward to the dynamic interaction and exchanges between researchers... In the end, this was less the case than I had imagined because of the pandemic. Fortunately, everything is now going in the right direction.
What advice would you give to young people who want to launch their career?
It's not that easy to answer because it's very individual. You need to be able to believe in yourself and not question yourself all the time, with the risk of limiting your imagination when looking for sources, in your ability to draw conclusions, etc. At the same time, I believe that good researchers must remain humble and know how to question their certainties. Because one day, everything we write will be questioned by others anyway: history is constantly in motion, and it is always easy to misinterpret something.
My advice to young people who are eager to get started, is first of all, to be passionate. To do research, you should first of all be curious. Have a passion. Not just for history, but a desire to understand the world. To be a good researcher, one must also have a good methodology and be organised. You need to be pragmatic too, avoid getting overwhelmed by your curiosity, by the temptation of always wanting to do more. You also need to be able to handle the frustrations that emerge and tell yourself that, just because you stop at one point doesn't mean you can't continue afterwards. You have to be able to tell yourself: "I have reached a point where what I am going to postulate is coherent and not untrue. What I say is fully documented and if I have hypotheses, I formulate them as such and not as assertions".
P.S A find in the archives that really surprised you?
My archives are not particularly sexy: they include circular letters, exchanges between ministers and the Chief Military Prosecutor’s Office, they are institutional archives. On the other hand, in the archives of the General Prosecutor's Office itself, there is an entire series of archives on the operational functioning of the offices, which are a bit more light-hearted: conflicts between staff members, recommendations directed to the young female secretaries and typists, accused of interacting too closely with other employees! These sources allow us to understand the daily functioning and the difficulties of running such an administration. In a way, this illustrates the mentalities of the time.