ISG’s Sarah Frank researches impact of historic conflicts on society

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Dr Sarah Frank, postdoctoral researcher at the ISG.
Photo: Charl Devenish

History has an interesting connection with society, as we all grow up learning about our country’s history and studying it at school. However, what we learn at school is often a glorified version of events. It can sometimes be challenging for historians to come to grips with the most accurate version of a particular ‘history’. 

Dr Sarah Frank is a postdoctoral research fellow with the International Studies Group (ISG), who fell in love with history at a young age. She says, "I was very lucky to have outstanding history teachers at school who fostered my interest and curiosity." Early on, though, she experienced disappointment. "In school, there was a series of biographies of American leaders and presidents written for children. I remember feeling betrayed when I subsequently learnt that the biographies had not presented a well-balanced narrative. That is when I learnt that history could be debated and interpreted—and it is full of nuances."

Interested in conflict shaping lives

Dr Frank was particularly intrigued by the social and political history of the Second World War (WWII). She describes her interest in this way: "The Second World War looms in popular memory as much as in the historical one. I am interested in how conflict shaped people’s lives during and after the war." Being a speaker of French helped her to focus on the impact of the war on France, and having spent a few years living in West Africa, confronted with the lingering colonial past, she decided to home in on the French empire, with particular attention to colonies, captivity, and the repercussions of war experiences when soldiers returned home. Additionally, she explores the themes of decolonisation, the roots of independence movements, and the lingering ties between the former imperial powers and former colonies.

Although she grew up near Boston, Massachusetts, studied for her master's in Dublin, and has lived in far-flung places such as Guinea (while serving with the Peace Corps) and Dakar, Dr Frank says, "I have lived in a lot of places, but Bloemfontein is definitely one of my favourites!"

“I was very lucky to have outstanding
history teachers at school who
fostered my interest and curiosity.”
Dr Sarah Frank

Colonial POWs her new focus

Currently, Dr Frank is writing a book based on her PhD research, which delved into the experiences of approximately 85 000 soldiers in captivity from across the French Empire, who fought in France from 1939-1940. The Germans decided to racially separate the colonial prisoners of war (CPOWs), taking white prisoners to Germany and leaving the colonial prisoners in camps across occupied France. This created opportunities for colonial prisoners to interact with the French civilians, something which rarely occurred in the strict hierarchical colonial regime. Perhaps surprisingly, considering the racism of both the French and German regimes, Colonial prisoners fared better in captivity in France than their French counterparts did in Germany.

Dr Frank's next project will trace the return of the African soldiers who fought during the Second World War. She seeks to understand what happened to them as well as their families when they returned, and to see if their experience actually impacted the growing independence movements which arose following