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La reconstruction en Normandie et en Basse-Saxe

après la seconde guerre mondiale

Histoire, mémoires et patrimoines de deux régions européennes


Sous la direction de Corinne Bouillot


Mont-Saint-Aignan : Presses Universitaires de Rouen et du Havre, 2013

Broché.  512 pp. ISBN 978-2877755757. 37 €


Reviewed by Hugh Clout

University College London



After a long period of relative disinterest, academics from various disciplines have focused their gaze in recent years on the material reconstruction of European towns that experienced devastation during the Second World War. In several cases, reconstructed buildings, neighbourhoods or whole towns have not only been recognised as distinctive elements in recent urban history but have also been endowed with some form of ‘heritage’ status. It was in this spirit that French and German scholars convened in October 2010 for a conference devoted to ‘Reconstruction in Normandy and Lower Saxony’ that was held at the University of Rouen as part of the activities of the Centre de recherche sur l’Autriche et l’Allemagne (CR2A). The cities of Rouen and Hanover have been ‘twinned’ since 1966, and the meeting formed an important contribution to the continuing cultural exchanges that involve Haute-Normandie and the Land of Niedersachsen. The present volume contains re-worked versions of many of the presentations made in 2010, together with additional papers that extend the range of material and ensure a more even balance of French and German themes. After an introduction by Corinne Bouillot, maître de conférences en études germaniques at the University of Rouen, the volume is organised into four parts.

The first explores the dual context of destruction and permanent reconstruction, linked by a long transitional phase of temporary accommodation. An overview is provided by Danièle Voldman, who has written extensively about rebuilding in France and elsewhere in Europe, and case studies then discuss the economic revival of Lower Saxony, and the material reconstruction of Hanover, Rouen, and Sotteville-lès-Rouen. Part II focuses on contrasting readings and representations by considering how planners, politicians and ordinary citizens reached consensus about the rebuilding of architectural monuments in Hanover and Brunswick, and how the reconstruction of Rouen was debated and reported in the pages of the Paris-Normandie newspaper. Further essays explore how specialist journals described the contribution of new furniture designs and labour-saving devices to everyday life in post-war apartments in Le Havre. Attention then shifts from print to film with a review of the pictorial depiction of rubble clearance and rebuilding in Hanover. A final essay in this section traces how French and German academics and students have investigated the theory and practice of rebuilding in their home region and in the territory with which they were twinned.

Social questions and the construction of identity are at the heart of Part III. During the 1950s, Rouen changed its structure and appearance as industrial sites on the left bank of the Seine were replaced by housing and administrative buildings, and designation of ‘compensation zones’ brought new housing to outer areas around the city. However, permanent reconstruction in Normandy was preceded by a long phase in which many sinistrés lived in constructions provisoires, exemplified here by a study of Gonfreville-l’Orcher near Le Havre. Others lived for a decade or more in overcrowded inner-city buildings that survived wartime fires and bombing and remained inhabited until slum-clearance policies were implemented. In Germany, women played an important role in the removal of rubble and the implementation of material reconstruction, as well as caring for traumatised families and assisting refugees from sections of the former Reich that had been incorporated into Poland or the USSR. Issues of memory and heritage are confronted in Part IV that also introduces evidence from Basse-Normandie. The rebuilt city of Caen – like many other reconstructed places – formed a kind of ‘forgotten heritage’ for several decades. Even now, tourist publications give much less attention to the achievements of reconstruction than to the Landings, the Battle of Normandy, and the Liberation of France. Allied bombing of Rouen lived on the memory of older Rouennais but not until the fiftieth anniversary of the Liberation was commemorative attention paid to those voices. By contrast, the museum of cultural history in Osnabrück provides a lieu de mémoire for destruction and reconstruction, and a forum where the recollections of eye-witnesses have been painstakingly recorded and interpreted. In Hanover, the built environment of the immediate post-war years has received a mixed reception. Some ‘flagship’ buildings have been designated for conservation, others have undergone planned demolition, whilst the remainder have been left to deteriorate gently.

As a reader who was born right at the end of the war, and a citizen of the nation whose bombers contributed to the destruction of towns and cities in Normandy, Lower Saxony and elsewhere, I was very moved by the essays in La reconstruction and by the oral histories found in Annexe I. From my time as a very young researcher in Rouen in 1966, I recall wooden huts in certain parts of inner Rouen, two decades after the end of the war. A visit to Caen early in 1967 revealed that the city was not entirely restored. I also remember stories told by several civil servants (ladies of a certain age) alongside whom I worked, who contrasted the relative accuracy of RAF bombers with apparently indiscriminate bombing by their American counterparts. La reconstruction provides ample testimony of the challenges faced by two war-torn regions and the heroic ways whereby reconstruction was achieved, and in recent years has been recognised as ‘heritage’. French and German contributions rarely form a perfect match but they are sufficiently complementary for cohesion and balance to be achieved in the book. The text is accompanied by 115 illustrations, mostly photographs, of which an important proportion are in colour. Particular praise is due to Corinne Bouillot, who translated the essays written by German contributors and shaped the whole volume. She also provided two chapters, one on the role of women in the reconstruction of Lower Saxony, and the other on memories of wartime bombings among the citizens of Rouen. In so doing, she broke the general pattern whereby French scholars described Normandy and their German counterparts considered Lower Saxony. The Presses Universitaires de Rouen et du Havre must be congratulated for this impressive publication in their ‘Histoire et Patrimoine’ collection, which is on sale at a very reasonable price.


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