Investigating political violence: ‘Physical’ sources



A selection of canes, clubs, truncheons and knives at the Museum of the Police, Paris.

In December I took part in the Swansea European History Research Workshop.  The workshop provides an informal setting for staff and postgraduates in the department to discuss their current and future research.  It allows all those involved in Swansea’s history research community to exchange comments and ideas on each other’s work.  Past workshops have concerned policing in Mussolini’s Italy and the memory of 1968.

My session was entitled ‘Investigating Political Violence in Interwar France’.  Rather than presenting specific outcomes of my research so far, I spoke to colleagues and students about methods for investigating violence.  In particular, I was keen to tell colleagues and students about a discovery I made during the summer spent researching in Paris.

This discovery concerned the ‘physical’ nature of my sources.  My project on political violence relies in the main on archival documents and newspapers from the period.  These sources can provide useful information, such as the details of an incident and the statements of witnesses recorded within hours of the violence.  Such documents are certainly useful given that my approach involves the detailed examination of violent incidents in order to interpret and explain the behaviour of protagonists.

Yet over the summer I began to question whether written sources such as archival papers were sufficient for understanding what were essentially physical acts.  This thinking was in part informed by two French historians of the First World War, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker.  In their study of battlefield violence, Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker have argued that, when it comes to violence, historians are too often cut off from the physical nature of their object of study.  A historian might know the caliber of a firearm, how many were produced and how this affected a battle – but the historian is likely less familiar with the feel of a weapon, its weight, how it operates and the damage it can inflict.  Consequently, when it comes to weapons, ‘tactile contact is not a superfluous historical experience.’[Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker, 14-18: Understanding the Great War, p.19]

How might this approach inform my own research?  While working in the archives of the Prefecture of Police in Paris, I decided to visit the museum there.  The museum holds a collection of weapons seized by police. During my visit, I saw a collection of weapons including firearms, clubs and truncheons, knives and knuckledusters.  Seeing these weapons changed the way I understood the violence I had read about in the archives.  For example, I had consulted many reports about political activists who suffered gunshot wounds.  More often than not, these victims survived the injury- it seemed that only a shot to the heart could kill.  When I saw the revolver on display in the museum, the first thing that struck me was its size – it was small, about the size of the palm of my hand.  The size of a weapon was an important consideration to political groups:  police could only stop and search a suspect if they could see the weapon.  The size of the revolver meant it was ideal for being concealed, yet it was perhaps not as lethal (or accurate) as I had initially assumed it should be.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Revolver circa. 1890-1914.

Of course, at the museum I was not allowed to handle a weapon.  Yet the visit taught me that physical encounters with sources are far from useless.  I was prompted to ask new questions of my research.   Did practical considerations, such as concealment, inform the choice of weapon, or were smaller, non-lethal arms simply intended to intimidate?  Did groups who employed such small weapons really intend to kill?

I thank the staff and postgraduate students at Swansea for their comments.  I thank the staff of the Museum of Police in Paris for their assistance.


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