David Stenner is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Christopher Newport University. Originally from Germany, David has lived in the United States for over a decade. He is the author of “Globalizing Morocco: Transnational Activism and the Post-Colonial State” (Stanford University Press, 2019.) I interviewed Dr. Stenner on his research project as a Kluge Fellow, what brought him to this point in his career, and any notable finds he has already discovered during his time here.
Q: Could you describe your project on the Second World War in Africa?
The Second World War radically transformed North Africa. Individuals from across the region experienced bombing raids, an ever more restrictive political atmosphere, and a devastating economic situation that caused widespread hunger. As a result, the colonial state apparatus began to play an increasing role in the lives of much of the population. Yet this shared historical experience did not overcome the region’s social fragmentation, but rather further accentuated it by throwing into sharp relief the divergent interests of the different communities. The defeat of the collaborationist French Vichy regime in the wake of the Allied landings in November 1942 meant liberation only for the European settlers in areas colonized by France and further oppression for native Muslims. These tensions came to a head in Sétif on May 8, 1945, when the French army massacred thousands of Algerians who had seized the opportunity presented by celebrations of the Allied victory in Europe to demand independence.
The existing historiography deals exclusively with the diplomatic and military aspects of the Second World War in North Africa. My project, by contrast, puts the region’s inhabitants front and center in order to move beyond a Eurocentric understanding of the war.
More specifically, it puts all of the Maghrib’s communities in northwest Africa––native Muslims and Jews as well as European settlers––into a single analytical framework to explain how the war years ultimately led to the spread of anti-colonial activism after 1945 that culminated in the independence of Morocco (1956), Tunisia (1956), and Algeria (1962). By engaging with Arabic and French newspapers, colonial records, private diaries, German trade statistics, US military police reports, and many other sources, my project retells this pivotal episode of North African history as a multi-sided story focused on the lives of regular women and men.
Q: What inspired you to research how the Second World War changed North Africa?
My first book, Globalizing Morocco: Transnational Activism and the Postcolonial State, details how Moroccan nationalists conducted a worldwide anticolonial advocacy campaign to delegitimize the French and Spanish protectorates during the early Cold War. While conducting that research, I realized that we know very little about what exactly happened in North Africa throughout the Second World War. This lack of knowledge is even more surprising given that the publication of independence manifestos in Spanish and French Morocco (February 14, 1943, and January 11, 1944, respectively) as well as calls for “autonomy” and “self-determination” in Algeria (February 10, 1943) and Tunisia (October 30, 1944) all took place during the war years.
Ultimately, I want to bring more attention to the history of North Africa. Whenever Americans or Europeans think about the Second World War, they think of D-Day, Stalingrad, and the Pacific War. Yet the war years had an impact on peoples as far away as West Africa and South Asia.
The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, for example, treats North Africa as the mere antechamber of the invasion of Italy. From a military perspective, this is certainly not incorrect. But it glosses over the profound transformations it caused across the region and reduces the War to the experiences of our GIs, thus ignoring the vast majority of those affected by it.
Beyond my desire to fill this gap in the scholarly literature, I also wanted to broaden my own horizon. Unlike my first book, with its focus on Morocco, I now have to conduct research in Algeria and Tunisia as well. It also means engaging much more with the existing scholarship on the entire region. I always need new challenges, and this seemed like a logical next step. It also serves me in the classroom since gaining new personal experiences in the Maghrib will certainly make me a better teacher and mentor.
Q: What notable finds have you made in the Library’s collections so far?
The Library of Congress holds a total of twenty-four North African newspapers from the war years. They were collected by the US Army as part of its reconnaissance and ultimately shipped to Washington once the war had ended. Other than the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, no other institution possesses such a detailed collection. And because scholars of North Africa do not usually consider the Library a relevant archive, the newspapers are in a surprisingly good condition.
So far, I have worked through two newspapers, Oran Républicain and L’Echo d’Alger. Because the Vichy regime, which collaborated with Nazi Germany, had abolished basic freedoms, the press does not really discuss social and political issues. Instead, hagiographic articles about Marshall Pétain and other high-ranking officials, as well as sports coverage, abound. And yet these newspapers are still precious sources of information about social conditions as official announcements about food rationing, prohibitions on driving private vehicles due to a lack of gasoline, and even information about the temporary availability of cotton cloths offer insights into the precarious lives of most people.
However, all of this changed after the Free French made Algiers their capital in the wake of the Allied landings. Suddenly, the press engaged in heated debates about the reestablishment of civil liberties, the need to purge Vichy-loyalists, and the patriotic duty to support the French army fighting beside its allies in the reconquest of Europe.
Unsurprisingly though, the crucial role played by Muslim soldiers—for example at Monte Cassino or during the invasion of Corsica—does not get much coverage. Apart from a general admiration of American technological prowess, I was surprised to see such widespread admiration of the Soviet Union in the regional press. The Red Army’s astonishing military successes on the Eastern front left a considerable impression on many French observers. Overall, these newspapers are great sources and I am looking forward to reading those from Morocco and Tunisia as well.
Q: What advice would you give to scholars who are interested in pursuing a fellowship here at the Kluge Center?
Apply! This is a great place to work and join an exciting community of scholars. On a more practical note: you need to familiarize yourself with the holdings of the Library of Congress. There are countless treasures here waiting to be discovered. As mentioned above, Maghribists generally do not consider the Library an important archive as our work usually takes us to France, Spain, and the Maghrib itself. Yet it turned out that the Library contains a precious collection of newspapers directly relevant to my work. So, spending a few days searching the online catalogue, and perhaps even a brief in-person visit, might be time well-invested as it could provide you with the means and opportunity to apply for a fellowship.