This post aims to serve as a brief introduction to the digital archives available to people interested in the history of the French left in the 20th century. These archives have formed the backbone of my own academic projects, but have just as often served as sources of entertaining related, and sometimes unrelated, reading. This list is hardly comprehensive, but provides an introduction to the archival sources I know to be digitized.
Needless to say, the vast majority of the documents held in the archives I list here will be in French, though in many of them one will frequently find documents written in other languages, most often the languages of immigrants to metropolitan France. These include Italian, Arabic and Yiddish.
It was these kinds of digital archival resources that first got me interested in studying French history, and helped me learn some of the vernacular of the people and periods I study. I hope that this list can help guide people towards resources that can do the same for them.
My knowledge is biased towards the 20th Century, particularly the interwar period, and copyright laws mean that the majority of the documents available will be from before the early 1950s.
My descriptions of each archive reflect my own experiences with them and sense of them, and my impressions of where they might be most useful. I will add to this list whenever I find new digital archives. If you have any suggestions, my email address is my name (with no spaces or periods) at gmail.com.
Ciné-Archives holds all of the film archives of the French Communist Party. Nearly all of their holdings are digitized, and range from triumphant Popular Front and immediately post-war newsreels to 80’s attempts to salvage the party’s base and reputation. I particularly enjoy this film from the 50’s attacking cultural Americanization. Ciné-Archives has dozens of hours of fascinating video archived.
Gallica is the digital wing of the French National Library, and contains millions of documents. For historians interested in the history of the French left, its collections of newspapers are likely to be of the greatest interest. Gallica’s holdings, though, extend well beyond those solely covering left-wing movements and organizations. Interested readers should poke around its (somewhat clunky) site in search of any documents relevant to their particular interest. Cursory searches about any given topic will often reveal fascinating documents. Just the other day, I was wondering how the French public and press reacted to German resentment of the presence of soldiers from France’s colonial territories in Africa. In just a few minutes research, I found a book covering the topic in addition to dozens of newspaper articles.
Some of the most interesting sources in Gallica are daily newspapers, which are often archived completely (and entirely word-searchable) through the late 1940s. These extend well beyond the publications of left-wing groups, though those are what I’ve listed here. Gallica’s own list of the main daily newspapers is a useful guide to the papers that it archives. I’ve included here some of the sources I browse, but Gallica’s holdings, both in time and ideology, are much broader.
The left-wing publications that Gallica holds include:
- L’Humanité (1904-1950): L’Humanité was the official newspaper of Jaures’ SFIO and then the PCF after the split at the Tours Congress in 1920. The paper still exists, and its modern iteration can be found at humanité.fr . In my experience, this paper is often referred to as a simple source of an official party line, and it certainly can provide that, but the breadth of its coverage also points to the outward and often humanistic focus of life within the party. Several clandestine editions from the Vichy period are archived under different headings.
- Regards (1934-1939 + 1945-1946): Regards is one of the sources on Gallica I find myself browsing for fun most frequently. Reminiscent of TIME Magazine, Regards was a (mostly) Popular Front era magazine aimed at intellectuals and the French middle classes. With its striking graphic design and range of coverage, Regards is a fascinating source to look through.
- Mon Camarade (1935-1939): Mon Camarade was one of the PCF’s official publications for children. A product of the Popular Front era, it contains both articles covering things like politics and the manufacture of clothing for dolls, and comic strips portraying politically relevant subjects like the Spanish Civil War.
- Cahiers du Bolchevisme (1924-1944): The official theoretical organ of the PCF, Cahiers du Bolchevisme provides in-depth explanations of party policy and summaries of its relationship with the international Communist movement. If you were interested in the something like the debates over Trotskyism in the late 1920s, this would be a useful source.
- In addition to those listed here, Gallica contains dozens of regional papers, some transcripts of party congresses, posters and many relevant historical photographs.
- Le Populaire (1918-1944): The daily newspaper of the SFIO after its split from the PCF (it’s funny how often people portray the split as going the other way). It includes the typical trappings of an interwar French newspaper (serialized novels, accounts of grisly crimes) as well as in-depth political coverage that tended to follow the line of the right-wing of the SFIO.
- Le Peuple (1921-1946): This is the daily newspaper of the CGT after the CGTU split from it. For my money, the interwar CGT is one of the most interesting political organizations of all time. It was a kind of mass-political vanguard for the kinds of reformist politics that animated liberal planning/corporatism nationally and internationally.
- La Voix du Peuple (1919-1940): This was the monthly journal of the CGT, it contains some summaries of the meetings of the organization’s governing bodies as well as longer analytical and strategic articles aligned with the CGT’s interwar political posture.
- Gallica also holds transcripts of many CGT and SFIO congresses, as well as some other pamphlets and documents they published. More party pamphlets and publications are available through the PAPRIK@2f project.
The University of Burgogne’s PANDOR portal is probably the most underappreciated digital resource in 20th Century French history. Much of the archive is managed by the Paprik@2f project, which mainly deals with many of the so called “fonds de Moscou.” These documents, mostly microfilm, were initially seized by the Nazis after the fall of France, subsequently seized by the Soviets after the Battle of Berlin, and finally repurchased by the French. This particular archive includes a large percentage of the internal records of the French Communist Party from the interwar period, including items like correspondence over disciplinary matters, and copies of propaganda from individual PCF cells in specific factories and army units.
The PANDOR system contains several collections, they include:
- Fonds de la Section Française de l’Internationale Communiste: This collection is internal documentation from the PCF. This is a rich and unique base of documents, which could be of use to people researching dozens of different topics. It includes materials related to the PCF’s work with workers from colonial populations, discussions of party policy, and comparatively unguarded correspondence written by Party members who were subject to disciplinary procedures.
- Fonds Patrick Kessel: This collection archives the pamphlets collected by Patrick Kessel (1929-2008), a researcher and militant who was affiliated with the PCF and several other left-wing groups during his life. This archive contains hundreds of left-wing pamphlets from the postwar period, covering decolonization, 1968 and nearly every other political situation in postwar France.
- The archive also includes the French files of the Comintern (many of these are reproduced thrice, once in Russian, once in German and once in English).
The departmental archives of Seine-Saint-Denis include two digitized collections that could be of interest.
- A collection of political posters, mainly covering left-wing groups, but also including many issued by local and national governments.
- L’Humanité’s collection of photographs. These provide a fascinating archive of images,
These are the official archives of the French Parti Socialiste (formerly SFIO). Most of the digitized holdings, including party congresses, posters and pamphlets are from the postwar period.