Twenty years ago I wanted to write my dissertation on the Resistance but everyone from professors to archivists told me it could only be done as an oral history. My French couldn’t stand up to that, so I found another topic (the Liberation). I think everyone was right at the time, but it wasn’t that the documents for the Resistance didn’t, in theory, exist; it was that you couldn’t get at them if they did.

Back then, any document having to do with the period 1940-1945 in any French archive could only be consulted by permission of the prefecture of the department, the ministry of culture and the police. You had to request such permission for each individual dossier by its inventory number. The inventories, such as they were, were kept under lock and key in the archivists’ offices. You had to gather your credentials, preferably affixed with a large seal, and beg. One departmental archivist told me that I couldn’t see the inventories because there was already a book about the war in the department. Apparently she didn’t think there was any need of another. I said thank you and moved on to the neighboring department where the (younger) archivist let me see the inventories, but warned that the topic was “un peu délicat” (a tad delicate). In the course of time, I was granted the permissions I sought, with various restrictions such as not making any copies.

After careful study of the departmental archives’ websites a few weeks ago, I couldn’t quite tell if the same regime was still in place or not. So I planned accordingly and prepared a little speech about the scientific nature of my research meant to impress the head archivists. Imagine my delight when I walked into the departmental archives in Lyon to find a helpful brochure on researching the second world war and the inventories sitting out in plain view. Without even talking to anyone (although I did) I could see documents that were so delicate twenty years ago that they didn’t even have inventory numbers. And, to complete my amazement, there was even a computerized database of a series of police records, prison records and reports on war crimes. It’s hard to read the digitized versions of the war crimes reports, but there they are for anyone to see. And you can print them out. In fact, you can take a digital photograph of any of these once forbidden papers.

What’s changed? Time has passed, as it’s wont to do. Most administrative documents enjoy a 60 year delay for consultation, which has now gone by for the war. Privacy laws still protect personnel and justice records, but those are not absolutely necessary and one can still apply for permission to see them. In addition, France passed a new archival law in 2008 reducing the delays for consultation of several categories of documents. It’s been long enough now for inventories to be collated, copied and placed on the shelves. I also suspect that the archivists who were guarding the secrets of the war have been replaced by a generation of archivists who want to know what happened.

Another thing that’s changed, mysteriously, is the name of the war. It used to be called the deuxième guerre mondiale (second world war) as in the Comité d’histoire de deuxième guerre mondiale. Now it’s called the seconde guerre mondiale (second world war).

But somethings never change. Each archive still has its own little quirks about how many dossiers a researcher may see at a time or in a day. The fastest and cheapest lunch is still the baguette and ham sandwich at the boulangerie. And as I sat in the archives in Lyon I could hear two protests down the street at the prefecture. The first one featured hymns; the second had a more carnavalesque sound. But I wasn’t about to stand on a chair to look out the windows. I couldn’t quite shake the sense that I was getting away with something by seeing those wartime police reports less than an hour after I’d copied down their inventory numbers.