Those Americans for whom the name Marc Bloch has meaning probably first encoun tered it in the mid-1960s; it was then, some twenty years after the French historian’s death, that his more successful books began to appear in English. The Historian’s Craft (1963) is a charming, if regrettably unfin ished, account of what historians do (or should try to do); Strange Defeat (1967) is a personal reflection on the causes of France’s sudden collapse in 1940; Feudal Society (1961)—a hefty, initially rather forbidding tome—proves that vast, even massive learn ing can be worn (as well as absorbed) lightly and well. Carole Fink’s masterly biography now reveals the unsuspectedly dramatic details which shaped and determined the man’s life and work.
Born in Lyon in 1886, Bloch was the scion of a family of Alsatian Jews who had become assimilated into French life after the eman cipation decrees of the 1790s. His father, Gustave Bloch, was a scholar of ancient history who taught at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, and subsequently at the Sorbonne. As Fink explains it, “Gustave Bloch was one of the group of assimilated Jewish savants who, encouraged by the liberal, reformist at mosphere and institutions of the Third Republic, entered disciplines once alien to their people.” Marc Bloch followed a similar trajectory, rising to even higher achievement but—this is perhaps the point of Fink’s book—under far less propitious circum stances.
A normalien like his father, Bloch went on to teach history at lycées in Montepellier (1912) and Amiens (1913-14) until the out break ofWorld War I. After four years of dedi cated military service (during which he was wounded and twice decorated for conspic uous performance on the batdefield) Bloch resumed his academic career at the Univer sity of Strasbourg, in a region which had been wrested from France after 1870 and re stored to it by the Treaty of Versailles. There he wrote some of his most important works on medieval history and French rural history, and, together with an older colleague, Lucien Febvre, founded Annales, “a national review with international spirit,” the most un usual and creative historical journal of its day.
After a dozen years at Strasbourg, Febvre went to the College de France in Paris, and Bloch—bored with the provinciality of Al sace and frustrated by his distance from France’s most important libraries and ar chives—sought to follow him there. A com bination of circumstantial misfortunes, in cluding academic politics and budget cuts (and also, for the first time in Bloch’s career, a rising tide of anti-Semitism), prevented him from doing so. Eventually, however, he was appointed to the Sorbonne, only to see his career once again interrupted by war (1939-40). Though exempt from service be cause of the large number of his dependents (a wife, five children, and an aged mother), Bloch voluntarily returned to the army in which he had served nearly twenty years before.
Demobilized after the armistice, he sud denly found himself an outsider in his own country, as the collaborationist Vichy regime sought to placate its German overlords by imitating Hitler’s racially exclusionary legisla tion. Nonetheless, thanks to his scholarly repute, as well as to the personal esteem in which he was held by certain highly placed ideological adversaries (including the Vichy minister of education), Bloch was able to win specific exemption from the anti-Semitic laws and to continue teaching, first at Cler mont-Ferrand, then at Montepellier.
Meanwhile, friends in the United States successfully won a place for him at the New School for Social Research, a visa, and finan cial support from the Rockefeller Founda tion. At first Bloch seemed ready to emigrate, but decided against it when it became clear that he would have to leave behind his sons and also his aged mother. Fink’s account of the tortuous, ultimately fruitless negoti ations between Bloch, the New School, the State Department, and the Rockefeller Foun dation makes for a frustrating, melancholy read. Fink argues, however, that to some de gree Bloch purposely raised obstacles be cause, in the final analysis, he did not really wish to leave France.
As the fortunes of war turned against the Axis, Bloch’s professional situation began to deteriorate. The relative autonomy of the Vichy regime had been premised on Hitler’s sense of self-confidence, and once this was threatened by Allied landings in North Africa, the regime was pressured to purge its more “moderate” elements; Catholic traditionists were replaced by rabidly racist Germanophiles, who in turn promptly abolished the exemptions which made it possible for Jews to teach. Thus at the relatively early age of fifty-six, Bloch found himself unem ployed; the only outlet for constructive, patriotic work was the Resistance, so it can not be surprising that he eventually found his way into its ranks. In 1943 Bloch moved to Lyon, where he led a double life as a traveling businessman, “M. Blanchard,” and as the in spector of Resistance operatives in the region. Bloch’s great hope was that the Allies would win the war faster than Petain’s secret police could find and arrest him; it was a gamble he lost. Apprehended in 1944, he was shot a mere ten days after the Allies had suc cessfully landed in Normandy.
Such are the bare bones of a much more compelling tale: to tell it, Fink plunges deeply and authoritatively into the history of the Alsatian Jewish community; the Byzan tine world of French academic politics; the triumph and unexpected reversal of the secular ideals of the Third Republic; above all, the creation of an entirely new school of historical research. And then there is the evocation of the figure of Bloch himself: a thoroughgoing bourgeois in taste, manners, and dress; a family man; a tireless researcher and a generous teacher; an intense if idealistic patriot. (One must suppress the question of whether the New School would be quite so eager today to offer a chair to a man with these characteristics—leave aside Duke, Stan ford, or Yale, or, for that matter, any major state university in this country.)
Fink also reminds us of the truly revolution ary contribution of Bloch, Febvre, and their associates to European historiography. Be fore the First World War, the entire profes sion of history in most countries was re garded as an extension of civic education. Historical journals in one country were often reluctant to accept articles by scholars in another. In both Germany and France ter ritorial disputes were read back into ancient times, with much emphasis on the supposed “Germanic” or “Gallic” characteristics of premodem peoples who could not possibly have imagined themselves as such. Likewise, political and diplomatic history was often nothing more than special pleading for con temporary policies or aspirations. The rise of Marxism merely added another grand theory to distort the past, replacing the abstract con cept of “nation” with another, equally imagi nary construct, “class.”
What Bloch did was to break up the exist ing boundaries of the profession, reinvigorating it through the introduction of “better tools, more erudition, fewer rules and restric tions, more breadth and curiosity.” He also expanded its disciplinary range to encompass the newer sciences of psychology and cul tural anthropology. Above all, Bloch urged upon his students an entirely new attitude toward the past. “Exceptions, mutations, lag and precocity—untimely, unplanned, un even development” were the things which particularly fascinated Bloch and his col league Febvre, and which through the Annales they urged upon historians, French and foreign. Bloch also possessed a highly developed sense of irony, a kind of mature, critical perspective which Americans tend to associate with the European temperament (but which in fact is found in that part of the world less often than one might expect).
In spite of a final chapter in which Fink traces Bloch’s enduring influence on French historiography, one cannot be certain that the advances which he and his associates achieved during their lifetimes have been fully consolidated. The Annales I knew as a graduate student in the 1960s was pompous, pretentious, and dull—certainly nothing at all like Fink’s description of that journal in the days when it was edited by Bloch and Febvre; as for Fernand Braudel, whom she ap parently regards as the intellectual successor to this tradition, it is clear that whatever else he might be, he is not a historian. More to the point, the historical profession seems to be rapidly backsliding into the vices from which Bloch worked so hard to liberate it: deterministic theories of history have re turned to the academy with renewed force—this time under the rubric of “race-” and “gender-specific” categories. In fact if a recent advertisement in The New Republic is correct, nowhere is this trend stronger than at the New School itself.
What makes Marc Bloch: A Life in History particularly memorable is, in fact, the author’s uninhibited methodological tradi tionalism. Written in a sober, elegant style by a writer with a sure grasp on a vast range of materials, it represents a major contribution to several fields, including (perhaps surpris ingly) French military history. It is an elo quent tribute to a life lived fearlessly in the service of intellectual integrity. And it demon strates something which cannot be repeated often enough—that the life of the mind can be the greatest adventure of all.
Mark Falcoff is
Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute
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