The Wisdom of Marc Bloch

October 8, 2014 § 5 Comments

10724719_716131381768977_171791364_nMarc Bloch is one of the most influential historians ever.  An historian of mostly medieval France, he, along with Lucien Febvre, founded the Annales school of historiography in the late 1920s.  The Annalistes preferred examining history over the long durée, and across various periods of time.  They also advocated a more complete history than one of generals, presidents, prime ministers, and other so-called Great Men.

Bloch met his end at the hands of the Gestapo on in Saint-Didier-des-Champs, in France, on 16 June 1944, ten days after D-Day, as the Nazis realised they were going to lose France.  Bloch had been a member of the Résistance since 1942.  He was captured by the Vichy police in March of that year and handed over to the Gestapo.  He was interrogated by Klaus Barbie, and tortured.  It was a sad end for a great man.

Bloch had served in the French Army during the First World War, and remained a member of the Army reserve in the interregnum between the two wars.  He was called up into action during the Second World War and was on hand for the baffling collapse of France in the face of the Nazi blitzkrieg attack in May 1940.  That summer, he wrote his blistering and searing account of the Fall of France, Strange Defeat, not knowing if his words would ever see the light of day.  The book was published in 1948, four years after his murder, and three years after the war ended.

Bloch is unflinching in his critique of French High Command, and France in general, for the collapse of its Army in 1940.  In part, he blames the High Command’s over reliance on a false reading of history, that led it into a state of pathetic stasis, incapable of recognising that 1939-40 was not 1918, and that the Second World War was a different war than the Great War.  In this passage, he makes a passionate argument for what the study of History is.

History is, in its essentials, the science of change.  It knows and it teaches that is impossible to find two events that are ever exactly alike, because the conditions from which they spring are never identical…the lesson it teaches is not that what happened yesterday will necessarily happen to-morrow, or that the past will go on reproducing itself.  By examining how and why yesterday differed from the day before, it can reach conclusions which will enable it to foresee how to-morrow will differ from yesterday.  The traces left by past events never move in a straight line, but in a curve that can be extended into the future.

I assigned this book for my historiography class, and was deeply struck by this passage.  I’ve re-read it four times now, it goes against what our culture thinks history is.  Our culture thinks history is exactly what Bloch says it isn’t, that it can teach us to avoid the same mistakes over and over again.

I was thinking about this in light of my Irish history class dealing with The Liberator, Daniel O’Connell last week.  O’Connell led the movement for Catholic Emancipation in Ireland, succeeding in 1829.  He the turned his sights on the Repeal of the Act of Union (1800), which created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.  In this, he failed.  He failed because times had changed, and attitudes were different.  In the early 19th century, many in Britain, and even some amongst the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland, had come to the conclusion that the denial of civil rights for Catholics in Ireland was not a good thing, and that Emancipation was necessary.  Three of the staunchest opponents of Emancipation came around to O’Connell’s way of thinking: Sir Robert Peel, the Home Secretary; The Duke of Wellington, the Prime Minister, and King George IV).  In the 1840s, though, when O’Connell’s Repeal movement reached its apogee, he did not have a groundswell of support in Britain (or amongst the Protestant Ascendancy) for Repeal. Thus, he failed because O’Connell failed to learn the proper lessons of History.

We would do well to remember Bloch’s maxim. Even we historians.

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§ 5 Responses to The Wisdom of Marc Bloch

  • Brian Bixby says:

    Along with this comes the deification of the past, at least the parts of the past that we want to remember. Our ancestors were noble and always right, so we must always live as they lived. I’ve heard too many Americans treat the Founding Fathers that way, even though at least one of them, Tom Jefferson, acknowledged the simple truth that times change and the new generations have more experience to draw upon.

  • ekoti says:

    I’m increasingly irritated by passionate wails of “this is how it’s always been” or “this is how it’s always been done”. Because if there’s one sure thing in the world, it’s that things change – not whether, but “HOW to-morrow will differ from yesterday” [emphasis mine] in Bloch’s words, or “Only what changes can remain” in Wei Wulong’s. Getting old and curmudgeony. 🙂

  • ejensen says:

    I find myself increasingly irritated by wails of “it’s how things always were” and “it’s how things have always been done”. Because if there’s one basic thing, it’s that things change – not a matter of whether but “HOW to-morrow will differ from yesterday” [my emphasis] in Bloch’s words, or “Only what changes can remain” in Wei Wulong’s.
    Must be getting old and curmudgeonly. 🙂

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