Rewriting Institutional Narratives to Make Amends: The French National Railroads (SNCF)

  • Sarah Federman
Keywords: narrative, conflict, transitional justice, reconcilation


In 1940, France, threatened with total annexation by Nazi Germany, signed an armistice agreement with Germany that placed the French government in Vichy France and divided the country into an occupied and unoccupied zone. The Armistice also requisitioned the rolling stock of the SNCFââ¬âFrench National Railwaysââ¬âwhich became a significant arm in the German effort, transporting soldiers, goods, and over 75,000 deportees crammed into merchandise wagons toward Nazi extermination camps. Between 3,000-5,000 survived. Of the roughly 400,000 SNCF employees, Nazis murdered a couple of thousand for resistance or alleged in subordination. Railway men who resisted the Germans also often has to resist their employer as well. After the liberation of French at the end of WWII, the companyââ¬ânot simply the brave individuals -- received Franceââ¬â¢s Medal of Honor for its alleged role in the ultimate defeat of the Germans. This medal, along with other postwar propaganda in the form of films and books, instilled a singular narrative about the companyââ¬â¢s heroic wartime role. This narrative continued uninterrupted until the 1980s. Those who returned, along with the relatives of many who did not, increasingly challenge the companyââ¬â¢s simplified wartime narrative. In the 1990s, lawsuits against the company began in France and continue through 2016 in the United States. In response, the SNCF made efforts to intertwine story of deportation with the company narrative of resistance. One key forum for this attempt was a colloquium held in 2000 at the Assemblée Nationale in Paris.

That colloquium is examined here through the lenses of three forms of narrative analysis: structural, functional, and post-structural. Each analytic frame illuminates different challenges to that colloquiumââ¬â¢s attempts at revising history through altering a mystified institutional narrative. Through the analysis of this case, the author establishes the power of these analytic frameworks when examining problematic discursive spaces that hold in place master narratives and limit moral work.

Author Biography

Sarah Federman
Sarah Federman, PhD graduate and Presidential Scholar from the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, completed an MA at the American University of Paris and a BA in Intellectual History from the University of Pennsylvania. Sarah's research addresses the French train company's role in the WWII deportations and the ensuing U.S. fueled today by unhappy survivors. She worked pro-bono with the House of Representatives, looking for ways to reconcile the companyââ¬â¢s past while continuing to serve as a productive contributor to society. Her dissertation explores this case through the lens of corporate accountability for mass atrocity.