The Great War and the pitiable blind: Thinking about emancipation in Interwar France and Belgium, 1914-1940

Pieter Verstraete  


Soon after the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 both Belgian as well as French military authorities were confronted with the problem of invalid soldiers in general and blinded soldiers in particular. In order to solve this problem rehabilitation centers were erected where the wounded men would be re-educated to become – among other things – economically fit again. In this presentation I will zoom in on the re-educational efforts towards the blinded soldiers during the war and ask the question to what extent these war-initiatives – looking at both the official discourses as well as (if possible) the actual experiences – impacted upon the emancipation of blind persons in general in the Interwar period. Although already some studies do exist that focus on the history of the rehabilitation of blinded soldiers (e.g. Austria, Canada, Great-Britain) none of these really has focused on the impact these educational initiatives had on the way blinded persons in general were looked at and the emancipatory processes/actions that were given shape for them and/or by themselves in the Interwar period. In order to answer our research question I’ll analyze the so-called ‘blind journals’ that existed in between 1914 and 1940. I in particular will 1/try to find out whether attention was being paid to the blinded soldiers and if so how these were portrayed and 2/zoom in on the emancipatory processes that were suggested and realized in practice – and to what extent blinded soldiers can be connected to these. By closely reading the historical documents through the lens of ‘embodiment’ I do hope to find out what kind of role was attributed to the bodies of the blind themselves in order to realize their emancipation.