“The whole picture”: Dr. Rachel Chrastil on civilians in war

The storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution. This painting, by Jean-Pierre Houel, captures the vastness of the historical forces at work but also depicts the tiny individuals who experienced these forces. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons
The storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution. This painting, by Jean-Pierre Houel, captures the vastness of the historical forces at work but also depicts the tiny individuals who experienced these forces. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.

By Matthew Gibson

Dr. Rachel Chrastil is a scholar of modern Europe and a history professor at Xavier University. Her research interests focus on civilian experiences during and after international conflicts. Dr. Chrastil’s published works include Organizing for War: France, 1870-1914, The Siege of Strasbourg, and her forthcoming book, Childless: A Historical Companion for the 21st Century. She is also interested in historical quantitative data. I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Chrastil and ask her a few questions about her research. An edited transcript of our conversation is below.

Q: Why did you choose to research civilian experiences during conflicts?

A: To me, it’s more interesting to think about how ordinary people encounter these massive changes, which led to my dissertation[‘s]…central question of ‘To what extent did ordinary French people see themselves as responsible for France’s fate in war?’”

Q: What are some challenges that you face when researching common civilians?

A: It’s a challenge if you find one source and you’re trying to figure out what kind of claim [you] can make about [it]. You obviously can’t say that this one document applies to everyone but at the same time, this isn’t just the only person whose experience is difficult. So, finding the right words to convey that is the biggest challenge.

Q: As an educator, what do you want students to learn from your classes?

A: I want students to understand that there are arguments about the past, and that history is not just concrete facts. I also wants to teach historical empathy through [having] students [read] primary documents so that they experience something that is foreign to them.

Q: What is the significance of your research?

A: I think what I have tried to capture in all of my projects is a sense of people’s lived experiences. I try to think of how I can use primary sources creatively to get a better sense of the whole picture.