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.

What Steve Earle can teach us about the Annales school of historiography

October 2, 2014 § 4 Comments

I’m teaching a course on Historiography this semester.  This week, we’re dealing with the Annales school of history, as  a sort of background before we read Marc Bloch’s  Strange Defeat.  While this book isn’t really an annaliste work, Bloch’s theories of history still impacted his evisceration of his country after the Fall of France in 1940.  We’re reading an excerpt from Fernand Braudel’s magnum opus, La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen à l’Epoque de Philippe II, published in 1949.

In it, Braudel talks about the mountain regions of the Mediterranean world, and argues that the culture and civilisation of the plains didn’t reach into the mountains.  The hills, he claims “were the refuge of liberty, democracy, and peasant ‘republics.'”  And he mentions bandits.  One of my favourite history books of all-time, and one which was massively influential on me as a young scholar, is Eric Hobsbawm’s Social Bandits and Primitive Rebels, which, despite Hobsbawm being primarily thought of as a Marxist, was deeply indebted to the annalistes, and to Braudel in particular.

But, as Braudel goes on and on about the freedom of the mountains, I kept thinking about hillbilly culture, about the Hatfields and the McCoys, about hillbilly culture, and so on.  And it occurred to me that the mountains are no longer this mythical place beyond the reach of modern society.  The coercive power of the state has caught up to the mountains.

And then I thought of my favourite Steve Earle song, “Copperhead Road.”  In this song, Earle sings of three generations of a family who live in the ‘holler’ down Copperhead Road. In the American Civil War era, copperheads were northern Democrats who opposed the Civil War and called upon President Lincoln to immediately come to peace with the Confederacy.  Braudel argues that

The mountain dweller is apt to be the laughing stock of the superior inhabitants of the towns and plains.  He is suspected, feared, and mocked…The lowland peasant had nothing but sarcasm for the rude fellow from the highlands, and marriages between their families were rare.

At any rate, Earle sings of John Lee Pettimore III, named after his “daddy and his daddy before.”  Granddaddy John Lee made moonshine down Copperhead Road.  Daddy John Lee ran whiskey in a big black Dodge, which he bought at an auction.  Meanwhile, John Lee III is a Vietnam vet growing marijuana in the holler down Copperhead Road.  He signs the song in a good ol’ boy twang, and sings of white trash.

Granddaddy John Lee hid out down Copperhead Road, only came to town twice yearly for supplies, and successfully dealt with a “revenue man” from the government.  Daddy John Lee was doing alright for himself before he crashed that big, black Dodge and the whiskey he was running burst into flames, killing him, on the weekly trip down to Knoxville.  Meanwhile, John Lee III wakes up in the middle of the night with the DEA and its choppers in the air above his land.

In other words, as we move through the 20th century, from Granddaddy in the 1940s to John Lee III in the 1980s, we see the mountains lose their allure and mystique.  What was once the badlands is now under the control of the government. In the early 21st century, it is even more so.

The Spanish Civil War: On Memory and Forgetting

March 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

photoI have just finished reading Jeremy Treglown’s fantastic Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory since 1936.  Treglown is a literary critic, so he approaches history and memory in a manner rather different than a historian, nonetheless, there is definite overlap in methodologies.  I must say, I was originally concerned when I picked up the book and read this on the dust jacket: “True or False: Memory is not the same thing as History.”  Um, yeah, true. No kidding.  But, the whims of publishers are rather different than the arguments of authors.

Treglown does a fantastic job of dealing with the complexities of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-9 and then the long Francoist dictatorship from 1939 until the Generalisimo’s death in 1975 and the transition to democracy that followed.  Treglown works very hard against the myth that Republicans = Good and Nationalists = bad during the Civil War.  He also works hard against the myth that Franco’s régime was purely repressive and oppressive vis-à-vis art and artists, noting that a great amount of art (film, literature, music, visual art, sculpture) emerged in Francoist Spain.  This is not to say that Treglown paints a rosy picture of Francoist Spain.  He doesn’t.  He doesn’t glorify Franco, but he seeks to complicate the dictator and the community of artists in Spain during and since the Civil War.  He also deals with the complexity of characters like Camilo José Cela.

Cela was a nationalist soldier during the Civil War, and later worked as the censor for the Francoist state.  And yet, he was also himself a novelist, and remarkably blunt and sensitive in his work. He began a literary journal in 1956 “as a way of countering cultural officialdom and giving space to the ideas of Spanish writers living abroad.” A noble sentiment, given that most of those expat Spanish writers were expatriates due to the Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship.

Treglown points to Cela’s most famous work, San Camilo, 1936.  While San Camilo, 1936, has been criticised for a lack of morality, both due to the amount of time the characters spend in brothels and Cela’s avoidance of the larger issues of the war, it is in the details that the novel works.  Cela shows the moral and actual ambiguity of war, in Treglown’s words:

Above all, San Camilo, 1936 grieves for Spain, gazing at a graveyard full of flowers of all colors, ignoring the shouts of “¡Viva la república!” and “¡Viva España!” because “it is no use being too enthusiastic when melancholy nests in the heart.

But what mostly interests me about Treglown’s discussion about San Camilo, 1936 is the intersection between memory and forgetting.  As Cela writes, “No one knows whether it is better to remember or to forget.  Memory is sad and forgetting on the other hand usually repairs and heals.” Nevertheless, as Treglown notes, San Camilo, 1936, is essentially a “puzzled, angry act of commemoration.”  In other words, Cela and his characters remain ambivalent with what is to be done with trauma, history and memory.

I find Cela’ claims about the virtues of forgetting to be interesting.  We live in an era that seems to believe the opposite in many ways.  In our times, cultural historical memories have been exhumed and examined in public.  Sometimes this takes the form of commemoration, (such as in Cork, Ireland, in the summer of 1997, marking the 150th anniversary of the Famine) or commissions of Truth and Reconciliation (such as in South Africa after Apartheid).  Treglown himself recounts attempts by the caretakers of Franco’s memory to maintain his dignity, three decades later at the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen), a huge monument outside of Madrid to honour the Nationalist fallen of the Civil War.  Meanwhile, since the end of the dictatorship in 1975, the Spanish have attempted to exhume the bodies of massacred Republican soldiers and sympathisers.  Indeed, the balance of power has tipped in favour of the Republicans, to the point where the atrocities committed by them during the Civil War have been whitewashed, just as the Francoists whitewashed the Nationalist atrocities.

Cela’s words, however, led me to think about Marc Bloch’s blistering Strange Defeat: A Statement of Evidence Written in 1940, about the quick Fall of France at the start of the Second World War.  Bloch, a captain in the French Army and the country’s most famous historian, wrote this on the run from the Nazis (who eventually killed him).  Strange Defeat is a searing book, almost painful to read, written by a fierce French patriot stunned and shocked his nation collapsed in defeat at the hands of the Nazis.  Bloch blames France’s political and military leaders for failing to have prepared for modern warfare.  And while Bloch remains an annaliste (the school of historical scholarship Bloch pioneered) in writing Strange Defeat, the immediacy of the events he’s describing and his anger and fury are clear.

Bloch was too close to the events, and too involved, to provide a long-view analysis of the Fall of France (nor, for that matter, did he wish to).  The same can be said of Cela, a Nobel laureate.  San Camilo, 1936 was published in 1969, thirty years after the end of the Civil War, while Franco was still alive and in power.  Cela, like Bloch, was involved in the events his novel attempts (or doesn’t attempt) to deal with, and his view on the past, memory, and forgetting is perhaps not surprising.

My grandfather, Rodney Browne, was 17 when he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1943. He was a tail gunner, which meant his chances of survival were pretty slim. And yet he did survive, and he came home to Montréal in 1945 with the conclusion of the war.  But he was traumatised, deeply.  He suffered silently, primarily by drinking.  And he was restless, unable to settle into a job or family life, until his late 40s/early 50s, nearly thirty years after the war.  By the time I was born, Rod was settled, married again, and he was a good grandfather.  It is from him that I gained an historical consciousness about the Irish in Montréal.  He didn’t talk about his past much, and he never talked about the war.  I later found out that this was pretty common for men of his generation who served in the Second World War.  He didn’t want to remember, which is why he drank when he got home, trying to obliterate those memories.

So maybe, it is the generation who lives through the worst of the trauma that wishes to forget, to never have to think of the atrocities they saw or committed.  It is their descendants who feel the need to excavate these memories.  Either way, these are not complete thoughts on memory, commemorations, and forgetting.  Memory and forgetting remain incredibly powerful tools in historical scholarship.

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