University of Vermont: History Review vol. 6, December 1994

Marc Bloch: Isralite de France

By Hal Goldman

Marc Bloch was one of France's greatest historians. Born in 1886 to an upper middle class Jewish family of Alsatian origins, Bloch followed in the footsteps of his father, becoming a professor of economic history at the Sorbonne. Excluded from public life as a result of the racial laws of the Vichy Regime during the Second World War, Bloch joined the resistance and was executed by the Nazis in 1944. His pioneering inter-disciplinary approach to history helped lay the ground work for many post-war historiographical trends, including the history of collective mentalities, la longue dure, and social history.

Bloch was also an Isralite, the name given to assimilated Jews in France. The Jews had been emancipated folllowing the French Revolution one hundred years before. As a result, the Isralites, including Bloch, identified strongly with the revolutionary tradition. This identification manifested itself in super-patriotism and a rejection of Jewish identity. This paper speculates on some of the consequences this had for Bloch's life and work.

In 1918 Marc Bloch had been fighting the Germans for more than four years. He had taken a bullet in the head and suffered all the privations characteristic of trench warfare including bouts with dysentery and typhoid fever.[1] He had received four citations for bravery, been awarded the Legion d'honneur, and the Croix de Guerre[2] and had risen from sergeant to captain.[3] In awarding him his fourth citation, the army had said that he was a "remarkable officer" whose daring reconnaissance missions had set a "beautiful example of courage and resolution in the accomplishment of his missions."[4] He was a hero.

One important lesson Bloch the historian had taken away from the war was the power of false belief. While serving as an intelligence officer Bloch had interrogated a German prisoner from Bremen. At the time, Bloch's unit was stationed near the French town of Braisne. A rumor quickly spread among the French soldiers who, confusing "Bremen" with "Braisne," marveled at the cunning of the Germans who, they believed, had stationed troops in France many years before the war. According to Bloch, an error of hearing alone could not explain the rumor or "fausses nouvelles." Mistake or mis-perception, when wedded to "the prejudices of public opinion" took on a life of its own to fulfill a need or belief among a people.[5]

Bloch's first post-war work, The Royal Touch, reflected his wartime observations. The work examined the belief in the ability of French and English monarchs to heal the disease of scrofula by the laying on of hands. Clearly the monarchs had no such ability, yet the practice continued for eight hundred years. How did it begin, why did it begin, and how could it continue? To answer these questions, Bloch critically examined the origins of this fausses nouvelles, then sought to find the deeper psychological needs that were being met by its perpetuation.[6] A fausses nouvelles was simply a reflection of deep psychological attitudes or needs that were already present, and which simply waited to be unleashed by some accident of ignorance or deceit.

Of course, Bloch did not need to go back eight centuries to find good examples of fausses nouvelles. Bloch had been a witness to the Dreyfus Affair which had raised the issue of fausses nouvelles and had shaken France to its foundations only twenty years before.

Alfred Dreyfus was a captain in the French army assigned to the general staff. He came from a wealthy Jewish family of Alsatian origins. Dreyfus had been accused of passing secrets to the Germans. Lacking evidence of motive or material proof the investigating officers had simply fabricated it and produced a what became known as the "secret file." Because there was no legal proof and because of the political sensitivity of the case, Dreyfus was tried in camera. When the seven military judges expressed their doubts, the "secret file" was shown to them, but withheld from the defense. The judges unanimously found Dreyfus guilty and sentenced him to perpetual deportation. Refusing to confess, Dreyfus was ordered confined to Devil's Island. Prior to his exile and imprisonment, Captain Dreyfus was publicly degraded, his rank stripped from his uniform and his sword broken in two. The ceremony of degradation had been accompanied by shouts from the gathered crowd of "Death to the Jew!"[7]

A false report that Dreyfus had confessed was published in one of the many French tabloids. It soon passed from journal to journal, acquiring "the force of an official statement [which] satisfied the public."[8] Immediately following the verdict, the Dreyfus family and a few others began campaigning for a retrial or "revision." However, each time more evidence of his innocence was uncovered, the army simply fabricated more showing his guilt.

The question of revision left France bitterly divided. Because of the singularly important role of the army in French society, any doubts as to Dreyfus's guilt were translated by the right into a condemnation of the army. Therefore, anyone who was "for" Dreyfus was "against" the army. Thus was France polarized. Egged on by a partisan press, people had only two choices.[9] In the middle were the Jews.

Right-wing papers representing nationalists, the church, and professional antisemites repeated the lie that a "Syndicate" was behind the forces advocating revision. The "Syndicate" was a conspiracy of Jews, bankrolled by Jewish bankers and directed by the Germans. It was bent on destroying the Church, the Army, and France itself. Evidence of the Army's forgeries was itself forged by agents of the "Syndicate" which had spent ten million francs "for corrupting judges and handwriting experts, suborning journalists and ministers." Earlier clerical and royalist newspapers had accused the Jews of secret plots and malignant powers. "All the arguments which the Jew had inspired as the perennial stranger who persisted in retaining his own identity were revived. Jews were not Frenchmen; they were aliens within the French body, probably conspiring against France, certainly against the Church; they were promoters of the anti-clerical movement and enemies of Catholic bien-pensants."[10]

Opposing the right were the Dreyfusards including Bloch’s father Gustave. Gustave was a Professor of ancient history at the École Normale Supérieure when the Dreyfus affair exploded over France like a bomb. He became a Dreyfusard and a member of the Ligue des Droits de l'homme .[11] Like his son Marc, Gustave had been a prodigy who attended the École Normale and also like Marc, Gustave later obtained a chair in history at the Sorbonne after failing in his candidacy for the Collége de France .[12] Of Jewish-Alsatian origins, Gustave was a member of the first generation of assimilated Jews to make the "leap from the synagogue to the Sorbonne."[13]

Jews had played a role in French life since at least Roman times. Their presence there preceded that of the Frankish invaders who would give France a large measure of her identity .[14] They were made citizens of the Roman Empire in 212 A.D. This status was reaffirmed by Theodosius in the fourth century and was the law as late as 438 A.D. They played a substantial role in French life, particularly in Provence where they maintained a few large communities. As time wore on however, Jewish status and security eroded in the face of increasing Christian militancy. Jews served as a convenient foil in an unstable and insecure environment until they were expelled from royal lands for good in 1394 .[15]

The centrality of the place of the Jews in the French mentality is perhaps best shown by two sculptures in the architectural centerpiece of French feudalism, Notre Dame. The central portals of the cathedral contain two statues, Ecclesia and Synagoga. Ecclesia is triumphant. Synagoga, carrying a broken spear and blindfolded by a serpent is defeated and pitiable. The portrayal of this balance between right and wrong belief, between French and alien, indeed, between good and evil itself was already six hundred years old in France when Notre Dame's facade was completed in 1240 .[16] Thus, we see that by the time of the French Revolution, the relationship between France and the Jews was already 1500 years old.

French Jews had been emancipated by the French Revolution only one hundred years before the Dreyfus Affair. Nevertheless, Jews such as Dreyfus and the Blochs saw themselves first and foremost as Frenchmen whose ancestors happened to be Jewish. They were not "les Juifs," but "Israélites," the courteous term for Jews of fairly high status who had adapted to French life .[17] The Revolution had transformed them "[B]efore, there was humiliation and servility; after, there was almost a physical transformation - backs straightened, shoulders squared, eyes lifted."[18] Judaism, which they assiduously avoided practicing, was "a relic of the past, a sign of separation and obscurantism that had been overcome by a century of citizenship and progress since the Revolution."[19]

Marc Bloch was eight when Dreyfus was first arrested for treason. He was nine when General Picquart began his investigation, and ten when a pamphlet setting forth the evidence of Dreyfus's innocence was first issued sparking the Dreyfusard cause. Marc Bloch was twelve when Zola published "J'accuse," Esterhazy fled, and Henry committed suicide. "J'accuse" led to antisemitic riots in the Latin Quarter and throughout France and Algeria. He was thirteen the year of the retrial at Rennes and twenty when Dreyfus was finally vindicated .[20]

Bloch's biographer, Carol Fink, argues that the Affair was the "pivotal event" of Bloch's youth and that it had a profound impact on him. His later fascination with the use of fausses nouvelles and testimony as historical tools clearly had their origins in the Affair .[21] Bloch would refer to the Affair repeatedly in later work, including his incomplete work on historiography, The Historian's Craft.

In the false privileges of the See of Canterbury, in the false privileges of the Duchy of Austria - signed by so many great sovereigns, from Julius Caesar to Frederick Barbarossa - and in the forgeries of the Dreyfus affair which spread like a genealogical table (and I cite but a few examples), we seem to perceive a growing gangrene. By its very nature, one fraud begets another .[22]

Bloch's reference to genealogy is instructive. Whether consciously or unconsciously, it perhaps symbolizes the taint of treachery with which all French Jews had been brushed by the forces of the right during the Affair.

Fink says that the outcome of the Dreyfus Affair reassured French Jews of the security of their position in French life:

[T]he outcome of the Dreyfus Affair reinforced the conviction of assimilated French Jews that their legal emancipation of a century earlier could not be reversed by the counterrevolution: by the church, the royalists, and their supporters in the army, the towns, or the countryside. According to the principles of 1789, they were not a Jewish nation residing in France but were "French citizens of Jewish origin" whose rights had been affirmed by the law and by the political process. In return they were willing to pledge their complete loyalty to the nation in which they had eagerly merged themselves. Marc Bloch during his crucial adolescent years had witnessed the trial and vindication of these ideas and emerged exceptionally confident of their endurance .[23]
If Fink's statement is correct, one wonders how someone of Bloch's extraordinary analytical powers could have come to the above conclusion. The Dreyfus Affair had not shown the security of the Jews in France, but to the contrary, the extreme fragility of their position. The Dreyfus Affair had exposed the collective mentality of the people vis--vis the Jews and that mentality was an ugly one. In no time at all, a well-educated Captain on the General Staff, from a long-established Alsatian Jewish family, had gone from being an "Israélite" to "le Juif."[24] This was a lesson apparently lost on Bloch whose constructed identity was so firmly bound up with that of France that it would, in my opinion, later cloud his personal and academic judgment .[25]

After the war, Bloch returned to Strasbourg, a city he had helped liberate from the Germans. He assumed a position as a member of the faculty at the newly reopened University. Forty years before, his father Gustave had become caught up in siege of the city by the Prussian army. Gustave had immediately enlisted in the civilian militia which fought fires and rescued victims of the Prussian bombardment. The "debacle" of the Franco-Prussian war culminating in the French defeat at Sedan, led to the cession of Alsace and large parts of Lorraine to the Germans. Gustave, like thousands of other natives of the area left for the interior of France rather than relinquish French citizenship. Thus it was with both fatherly and patriotic pride that Gustave took part in the reopening ceremonies as the representative of the Sorbonne .[26]

Initially, postwar Strasbourg was an extremely fertile ground for Bloch who was joined on the faculty by such luminaries as the psychologist Charles Blondel, the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs and Lucien Febvre. The eclectic faculty members would meet in the weekly reunions du samedi. The cross-fertilization that characterized these sessions clearly encouraged the development of the interdisciplinary approach that Bloch and Febvre would later espouse in their journal Annales d'histoire economique et sociale.

In 1931, Bloch published French Rural History, a study of the development of rural institutions in France from the time of the invasions up to the Revolution. The book is important for several reasons. For one thing, it concentrated on the long neglected role of the peasants. In his book, Bloch characterizes them, not as invisible, oppressed thralls, but as active players in their own lives who fight attempts by the upper classes to usurp their perceived rights in the courts and through sabotage and rebellion. The book was a clear break with the traditional political histories which ignored the vast majority of the French people.

Bloch's empowerment of the peasants was directly related to his experiences during the war. Bloch was positively astonished by the qualities of the common men with whom he had fought for four years. "From having seen at first hand how he lives, from having once fought at his side, and from having much pondered the details of his history, I know the true worth of the French peasant, the vigor and the unwearied quickness of his mind."[27]

The book also relied on non-traditional sources. Rather than looking at the traditional documents that were the stock and trade of medieval historians up to this time, Block looked to different forms of evidence .[28] In researching the work, he traveled around France talking to farmers, inspecting their fields using not only his sense of sight, but of hearing and smell. In so doing, what Bloch realized was that the historian had been left as evidence what he would later call "tracks."[29] By examining the fields, methods, and practices of the peasants of the 1920s, he could peel back the layers of time one by one to find the causes that created the institutions of French rural agriculture .[30] This was a revolutionary idea. Rather than engage in a fruitless quest for "origins "[31] and then work forward, as most historians did, Bloch argued that a historian should start with what he knows, with what he can hold in his hand, or smell with his nose. Then, one works backwards towards the uncertain:

Let us agree, since we have no choice, to follow the trail backwards, one careful step at a time, examining irregularities and variations as they come, avoiding the all too common error of trying to leap at a bound from the eighteenth century to the Neolithic age. If we use our common sense, we shall see that the picture presented by the recent past is not an image we merely need to project over and over again in order to reproduce that of centuries more and more remote; what the recent past offers resemble rather the last reel of a film which we must try to unroll, resigned to the gaps we shall certainly discover, resolved to pay due regard to its sensitivity as a register of change .[32]

In addition, Rural History relies heavily on the notion of "la longue dure." Tied into the notion of "tracks" is the idea that important change, in many cases, happens over long periods of time. Because of this, the changes are often imperceptible, but historians cannot allow themselves to be blinded to these changes as a result of the long time it takes for them to occur. Indeed, Bloch's definition of history depends upon it. "History" he wrote, "is above all the science of change."[33]

Bloch also personalized the work by inserting himself into the history of France:

When one considers all the patient observation, practical intuition and willing co-operation, unsupported by any proper scientific knowledge, which from the dawn of our rural history must have gone into the cultivation of the soil, one is filled with feelings of admiration . . . .

. . . But our sense of gratitude to those remote forefathers of ours who discovered corn, invented ploughing and joined arable, woodland and pasture in a fruitful union, should not blind us to the imperfections of their labours. . . .

. . . In France, however, the solution could not take this crude form. It will be simplest to ignore Eastern Germany and Poland, whose institutions were so very different from our own monarchical structure [at the end of the twelfth century]. . . . [34]

He has joined himself, consciously or unconsciously to the French people. He has subsumed himself into the French character despite the fact that it is clear his "forefathers" could not have been involved in these developments even if they had been physically present in France during this time. Given the expulsions of the thirteenth and early fourteenth century, even mere presence seems unlikely.[35]

During the mid-1930s, Bloch turned his attentions toward a return to Paris. Lucien Febvre had already left in 1933 to assume a chair at the Collége de France, and Bloch hoped to follow. For the first time, however, Bloch's Jewish heritage became a factor in his professional advancement. The faculty was already fifteen percent Jewish when Bloch formally announced his candidacy in 1933. One Jewish professor at the Collége counseled Bloch to conduct a "calm" campaign and avoid aggressive politicking of the Collége's electors. Some of the Jewish faculty were clearly edgy. In the election in early 1935, Bloch received only one vote.[36]

In April of that year another vacancy opened up. In order to keep his options open, Bloch also began to work to obtain a chair at the Sorbonne in economic history. When it became clear that the Sorbonne chair was his for the asking, he withdrew his candidacy for all time from the Collége. In July of 1936, he received his official appointment. Thus, like his father before him, Bloch, denied admittance to the Collége, would have to settle for the Sorbonne.

Bloch's failure to obtain a chair at the Collége left him bruised and depressed. It was the first failure in what had been up to that time a series of unqualified successes. The proceedings had also been tainted by antisemitism. It would be a mistake to blame anti Jewish feeling completely for his failure. Bloch was in the vanguard of a revolutionary way of doing history. The system for electing scholars to the Collége imposed certain structural difficulties on his candidacy. Lucien Febvre had had to try three times before he was elected to the faculty.[37]

However, had Bloch not been a Jew he would ultimately have prevailed. Febvre had to wait, but he knew he would eventually receive a chair--not so Marc Bloch. The other issues which stood in his way could through patience be overcome, but he would always be Jewish. Febvre admitted to Bloch that antisemitism figured in the deliberations and Bloch had been made well aware of the unease his candidacy caused among the Jewish faculty.[38]

Despite this, in a blistering attack on the French academic world and its role in the defeat of 1940 Bloch avoided this issue, focusing instead on its refusal to reward innovative thinking:

The universities, through the medium of a complex arrangement of counsels and committees, filled any vacancies there might be in their teaching-staffs by a system of co-option which was not without its dangers when the need for new blood arose . . . . The Institute of France, entrenched in its wealth and in that prestige which the glitter of a title can always impose even on those who pass for being philosophically minded, still retains, for good or ill, the full dignity of its intellectual pre-eminence. If the Academy might occasionally be influenced in its election by political considerations, it can scarcely be maintained that these have been of a Left-Wing kind. "I know of only three citadels of Conservatism," said Paul Bourget on one occasion, "the House of Lords, the German General Staff, and the French Academy."[39]

And yet, for all this, Febvre had been elected despite the fact that he was as much a "radical" as Bloch was. In fact, he had seen his election as a vindication of the work he and Bloch were doing.[40]

In 1939-40 Bloch published Feudal Society.[41] The work was a product of the "total history" he and Febvre had been promoting since the first issue of Annales.[42] He utilized mentalities, la longue dure, and an interdisciplinary approach. The title Bloch chose is instructive. It signaled his intention to study feudal society, not feudal history.

The work opens with an examination of the European environment at the beginning of the Middle Ages. It then explores the mental "climate" of feudal man, before moving on to personal and political institutions that bound people together. In many ways, the book anticipates the work of Fernand Braudel and Robert Darnton.[43]

The work, like Rural History, was almost totally impersonal. Bloch would be criticized for leaving the individual and the specific out of his work.[44] This criticism is hard to fathom. Bloch's life work was the creation of a history that departed from the traditional political histories. La longue dure and mentalities do not lend themselves to such history. Criticizing Feudal Society for its de-emphasis of the individual and the specific is like criticizing an abstract painting because it lacks figurative images - that is after all, the whole point.

Feudal Society is filled with small details which not only serve as examples of Bloch's tremendous erudition, but also illustrate the differing mentality of feudal people. For example, Bloch points out the feudal inability to be precise by relating a story concerning a judicial duel. Only one champion appears at dawn. At nine o'clock, which marks the end of the prescribed waiting period, the champion requests that the failure of his adversary to appear be noted for the record. Legally he is correct. Unfortunately, no one can be sure it is exactly nine o'clock. The judges consult with the clergy who are more attuned to the hours of the day due to the requirements of the daily prayers. After some time the hour of "none" is declared. Commenting on this Bloch writes "[H]ow remote from our civilization seems the society in which a court of law could not ascertain the time of day without discussion and inquiry!"[45]

Later, describing the orality of feudal society, Bloch describes how contracts would be witnessed by children, who, presumably would be around the longest to remember their making. In order to combat the "heedlessness" of childhood, memory would be reinforced by "a box on the ear, a trifling gift, or even an enforced bath."[46]

Another fascinating aspect of the work is what it does not mention. In all of its four hundred and fifty-two pages, this master work, this "total history" of feudal society in England, France, and the Empire, contains not one substantive mention of the Jews.[47] Two questions are raised by this omission. First, is it significant? Second, if so, how is it significant?

Because there is one mention of the Jews in the work, it is safe to assume that the omission was not the result of some gigantic unconscious faux pas on the part of Bloch. Thus, Bloch consciously left them out. Is this significant? Some corresponding works of the period make little or no mention of the Jews. For example, neither Paul Vinogradoff nor Johan Huizinga mention the Jews in their seminal works on the Middle Ages.[48] However, Bloch's idol, Henri Pirenne discusses them extensively, in terms of their role in the slave trade, finance, trade, and contact with Spain and the Mediterranean world.[49] Summerfield Baldwin points out that the Jews were the only literate people in Western Europe other than the clergy during most of the feudal period and discusses their development of instruments of credit and ties to the Levant.[50] Ernst Kantorowicz discusses, among other things, the impact of Jewish philosophy on Catholic theology.[51] Articles in the Cambridge Medieval History discussed the recruitment of Jews in Germany by the nobility, their protection in German charters, and the impact of their thought at the University of Paris.[52] Even Pollock and Maitland, in a work cited by Bloch in Feudal Society spend eight pages on the Jews in Angevin England alone.[53]

How could one do a "total history" of the feudal period and leave out the Jews--particularly given their status as the only religious and racial aliens in Europe during the entire period? Marc Bloch, who was always lobbying for comparative history missed an opportunity.

It can of course be argued, that the peculiar position of the Jews as outsiders made it difficult for Bloch to fit them within his feudal paradigm. The on again, off again vicissitudes of medieval Jewish life may have been difficult to fit within a construct espousing la longue dure. On the other hand, their relationship with Christian Europe would have made for a fascinating study of mentalities. Jews were unquestionably part of the feudal society Bloch seeks to describe. Bloch was not the kind of person to shrink from the intellectual challenge the Jews presented to his work. Why did he exclude them? Several hypotheses present themselves.

First, he may have felt their role to be too insignificant to include in his work. Henri Pirenne, who so strongly influenced Bloch, argues that the role of the Jews in trade was much overstated.[54] Perhaps Bloch agreed.

Second, Bloch may have been uncomfortable with the role the Jews did play in feudal society. Rather than portray them as "buyers and sellers," Bloch simply chose not to treat them at all. Inclusion of the Jews would have made a fascinating study of mentalities.[55] The Jews' absence from Feudal Society represents an opportunity missed.

Related to this idea, is the notion that the Jews' perpetual outsider status, the constant insecurity of their lives, and their vilification by gentiles may have threatened Bloch's carefully constructed self image of himself as "a good Frenchman" who simply happened to be of Jewish descent.[56] This may have been particularly true in the Thirties as Bloch watched Nazism rise in Germany and brushed up against rising antisemitism at home.

While Bloch was writing Feudal Society, elections in France resulted in a Popular Front majority led by Prime Minister Leon Blum. Open antisemitism of the kind not seen since the Dreyfus Affair was again on the rise. At the opening session of the Chamber, a right wing deputy addressed Blum:

Your arrival in office, M. le President du Conseil, is incontestably a historic date. For the first time this old Gallic-Roman country will be governed by a Jew. I have the special duty here . . .of saying aloud what everyone is thinking to himself: that to govern this peasant nation of France it is better to have someone whose origins, no matter how modest, spring from our soil than to have a subtle Talmudist.[57]

In 1939, Bloch was mobilized and sent to Strasbourg, the city his great grandfather had marched through on his way to fight the Germans at Mainz in the Year II.[58] Bloch was fifty-four years old and the father of six children. Yet he refused to take advantage of French policy which would have excused him from duty. Instead, he fought all over the French front for the next year with characteristic gusto and a seeming lack of concern for his personal safety. He was again decorated.[59]

Finally, after having been evacuated at Dunkirk and repatriated at Cherbourg, he found himself in the Breton city of Rennes. The Germans took the city completely by surprise. Having stripped off his uniform, Captain Bloch became a civilian, checking into a Rennes hotel under his own name and laying low until he could make his escape. Writing later about this experience, Bloch described it this way:

In this way I spent about a fortnight at Rennes. I was constantly running up against German officers in the streets, in restaurants, and even in my hotel. My mind was torn between the agony of seeing the cities of my native land given over to the invader, a sense of surprise at finding myself on peaceful terms with men whom, a few days earlier, I should never have dreamed of encountering save at the revolver's point, and the malicious pleasure of pulling a fast one on these gentlemen without their having the slightest suspicion that I was doing anything of the sort. Not that this satisfaction was wholly unmixed. I have always felt a certain discomfort in living under false pretenses. . . .[60].60

Bloch returned to Fougres, his country home in the Creuse in Vichy France. He had obtained a provisional appointment to the University of Strasbourg in Exile in Clermont-Ferrand. However, in October 1940 the Vichy government passed the Statut des Juifs which excluded Jews in Vichy from most areas of public life. The Statut was not the creation of the Germans, but was a result of Vichy’s own persecutorial initiative. Suddenly, Marc Bloch, world famous medievalist, hero of two world wars, son of a defender of Strasbourg and great grandson of a veteran of the wars of the Year II was just another Jew. He was forced to petition Vichy for an exclusion under the Statut which permitted exceptions for those who had rendered "exceptional services" to the French state. In order to qualify, Bloch had to show that his family had been in France for five generations. Having explicitly to prove his worth to France was a bitter blow to Bloch.

In the citation granting Bloch an exclusion and signed by Petain, Bloch was praised for his work on France's kings, rural history and feudal society, but not for his work on comparative history, economic history or the Annales. Bloch's adulation of France and its ancient institutions had impressed even Vichy and won for him a reprieve as an honorary Christian. His military service was ignored. Only ten exclusions were granted .[61]

At the same time, Bloch received permission from the Vichy government to leave for Martinique accompanied by his wife, his mother and six children. A position was waiting for him at the New School for Social Research in New York. He had been assured by the U.S. State Department that he would have no difficulty obtaining U.S. visas once he arrived on the Island. Incredibly, Bloch refused to leave .[62]

Sympathetic officials in France and in the United States performed yeomen duty to help Bloch flee France. Each time plans had been arranged, Bloch made new demands which became increasingly difficult for anyone to realize given the deteriorating situation. Despite this, Bloch had an opportunity to flee France with his entire immediate family and yet he refused. His act does not appear to be wholly rational.

Bloch had repeatedly shown a lack of concern for his own personal safety in both world wars. In fact, he had often described his experiences during the first World War in terms that seem inappropriately cavalier. "Uncanny and contradictory for a war commentary, 'pleasant' and 'peaceful' were frequent adjectives."[63] Bloch had a "splendid" war .[64].64 Bloch's need to show his patriotism seemed to manifest itself as self-destructiveness. "I speak frankly: I hope that we shall have still blood to shed, even though it may be the blood of those dear to me; I say nothing of my own, to which I attach no importance."[65] Of his work in the resistance it would later be said that he was "incautious about his own safety."[66] His comrade in the resistance, Georges Altman, would say of him "I know that I am not running counter to his deepest feelings when I say that he loved danger, that he had, in Bossuet's words, 'the soul of the fighter that rules the body of its possessor.'"[67] If Marc Bloch's bravery rose to a level of self destructiveness that was one thing, but his obsession with service to the "fatherland" placed his family in grave danger.

His actions in jeopardizing and later abandoning his family so he could fight in the resistance would create great bitterness in at least two of his children .[68] In fairness to Bloch, he did believe that it was better for fathers to die in defense of the country rather than sons ,[69] but it is all a matter of degree. Very few prominent academics fought in the resistance and Bloch was the only one to die .[70].70 Was the intensity of his patriotism simply the product of his generation's bourgeois sense of honor ?[71] Or were his actions a classic case of over compensation for the emotional disabilities posed by his ancestry? All of the evidence points to the latter explanation.

Active in the resistance, Bloch had to select code names for himself from time to time. His first name was "Arpajon" after a small town outside of Paris. His second was another French town "Chevreuse." Having removed his name from the Annales at Febvre's insistence so the journal could present an "Aryan" face to the Germans, he contributed to it under the pen name "Fougres."[72] It is not insignificant that all four names are geographical locations .[73] It is as if Bloch had attempted to subsume himself physically into the soil of France.

As his likely arrest grew imminent, he selected the name "Narbonne," a city in southern France whose medieval Jewish community had recently caught his attention .[74] Betrayed by a woman living downstairs from him, "Narbonne" was arrested by the Gestapo in March 1944. Beaten and tortured repeatedly, Bloch apparently told the Germans nothing. In June, Bloch, along with twenty-seven others were taken by truck to a field and shot. Bloch reportedly fell to the ground crying out "Vive la France."[75]

In Strange Defeat Bloch wrote: "I was born in France. I have drunk of the waters of her culture. I have made her past my own."[76] But had France made Marc Bloch its own and if not, why was he so blind to that fact? Marc Bloch simply felt that his family had earned the right to be Frenchmen. But this belief drew on a tradition that was only one hundred years old. It ignored the centuries-old relationship between the French and the Jews that really formed the basis for French attitudes. Did this brilliant pioneer of la longue dure, collective mentalities, and "tracks" really believe that five generations was long enough? Or, drunken with French patriotism had he wilfully deceived himself?

Marc Bloch believed that if he and his forefathers before him had fought hard enough, served long enough, and endured privation enough they too could be Frenchmen. In so believing, he ignored the very dynamics of history he himself had been instrumental in discovering.


1) Carol Fink, Marc Bloch: A Life in History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 78, 56, 62-63.

2) Eugen Weber, "About Marc Bloch," American Scholar 51 (1982): 74.

3) Fink, 55, 77.

4) Fink, 77.

5) Marc Bloch, The Historian's Craft, trans. Peter Putnam (New York: Vintage, 1953), 106.

6) Marc Bloch, The Royal Touch, trans. J. E. Anderson (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961).

7) Michael Burns, Dreyfus, A Family Affair 1789 1945 (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 111-153, 175-176; Barbara W. Tuchman, The Proud Tower (New York: Bantam, 1967), 198-199, 212.

8) Tuchman, 200.

9) Tuchman, 202: "Resistance to Revision was grounded in the belief that to reopen the trial was to discredit the Army and a discredited Army could not fight Germany. "Revision means War," proclaimed the royalist Gazette de France and a war fought with a disorganized Army is "la Debacle," the name given to the defeat of 1870. How could soldiers go into battle under officers they had been taught to despise? asked the royalist Comte d'Haussoville. Although he thought the idea of an innocent man in prison "intolerable" and the campaign against the Jews "revolting," nevertheless the Dreyfusard campaign against the Army was worse because it destroyed confidence in the officer corps. It was this fear of what would happen if the Army were weakened by distrust that intimidated the Chamber and turned the populace against Revision. The Army was their guarantee of peace. By casting doubt on the infallibility of the General Staff, Revision was equivalent to sacrilege against la gloire militaire and anyone favoring it was pro-German if not a traitor." See also, Burns, 256.

10) Tuchman, 209, 211. Spurred by Zola's famous "J'accuse," the suicide of the original investigating officer and the resignations of others, a revision was ordered and a cruiser dispatched to Devil's Island to retrieve Dreyfus. During the retrial held in the Breton city of Rennes, Dreyfus's attorney was shot by a young man who ran away yelling "I've just killed the Dreyfus! I've just killed the Dreyfus!" illustrating the tie between the fraudulent conviction and a deeper French need to excise the perceived failure and rot in French society. Dreyfus was no longer an accused spy, but to many, the incarnation of the "Syndicate" and the forces of darkness.

Dreyfus was again convicted, this time with "extenuating circumstances." The anti-Semitic paper, L'Intransigeant proclaimed "what ecstasy there is in all French hearts, and what rotten luck for the hook-nosed Yids." Burns, 256. The nationalist paper Le Gauloise wrote of the verdict "Since 1870 it is our first victory over the foreigner."Seven years later, the Cour de Cassation [Court of Appeals] overturned the Rennes conviction and Dreyfus was later restored to rank and promoted to major. Tuchman, 260 262.

11) Fink, 9.

12) Fink, 5, 9.

13) Natalie Zemon Davis, "A Modern Hero," rev. of Carol Fink, Marc Bloch: A Life in History (Cambridge), New York Review of Books, 26 April 1990: 27.

14) Bernard S. Bachrach, Early Medieval Jewish Policy in Western Europe (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1977), 44-45. Solomon Katz dates the earliest Jewish presence in what is now modern day France to 321 A.D., though it seems clear that they were probably there before this date. Solomon Katz, The Jews in the Visigothic and Frankish Kingdoms of Spain and Gaul (Cambridge: Mediaeval Academy of America, 1937), 9.

15) Kenneth R. Stow, Alienated Minority: The Jews of Medieval Latin Europe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1992), 21-23, 41, 231-280.

16) Stow, 8-9.

17) Davis, 27; Michael R. Marrus, The Politics of Assimilation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 3, n. 1.

18) Marrus, 95.

19) Fink, 17.

20) Fink, 20.

21) Fink, 20-23. In Strange Defeat, Bloch described the conditions in France before World War Two that led to the debacle of the German invasion. The book is set out in chapters entitled "Presentation of the Witness," "One of the Vanquished Gives Evidence," and "A Frenchman Examines His Conscience." Marc Bloch, Strange Defeat, trans. Gerard Hopkins, (New York: Octagon, 1968). back

22) Bloch, Historian's Craft, 97.

23) Fink, 24.

24) Theodore Herzl, a young Jewish reporter for Vienna's Neue Freie Press witnessed Dreyfus's degradation ceremony. Describing what he had seen he wrote "Where? In France. In republican, modern, civilised France, a hundred years after the Declaration of the Rights of Man." Recognizing that Jews could only be free in their own homeland, he would organize within eighteen months the First Zionist Congress. Tuchman, 212.

25) Bloch's response was hardly unusual among assimilated Jews. But there were those who saw the dangers of attempting to "out French the French." Marrus, 285.

26) Fink, 5.

27) Bloch, Strange Defeat, 148-149.

28) Marc Bloch, French Rural History, trans. Janet Sondheimer (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1966), xxvii.

29) In his forward to Rural History, Bloch relates how the great British medievalist Frederick Seebohm wrote Fustel de Coulanges to ask whether the open field system so common to England had ever been utilized extensively in France. Fustel de Coulanges replied that he had found no trace of it. Bloch wrote: "I intend no disrespect to a revered memory if I point out that Fustel de Coulanges was not a man on whom the external world made much impact. It is quite probable that he never took any special notice of the characteristic pattern of the ploughlands visible all over northern and eastern France which so irresistibly call to mind the open-fields of England." Bloch, Rural History, xxvii. In other words, all an historian utilizing "tracks" has to do is open his eyes. Bloch, Historian's Craft, 55.

30) As he would write later of his sojourns: "I can feel as vividly as anybody else the modest charm of our old market-towns, and I am well aware that they served as the mold in which, through long ages, was formed all that is most active in the French character." Bloch, Strange Defeat, 149.

31) Later, Bloch warned historians against worshipping before the "idol of origins." Bloch, Strange Defeat, 29.

32) Bloch, Rural History, xxx.

33) Bloch, Rural History, xxv.

34) Bloch, Rural History, 26, 127 (emphasis added).

35) Stow, 281.

36) Fink, 175, 184

37) Fink, 185, 186, 172-173.

38) Fink, 184.

39) Bloch, Strange Defeat, 159.

40) Fink, 173.

41) Marc Bloch, Feudal Society, trans. L.A. Manyon (London: Routledge & Kegan, 1961), 74.

42) Fink, 141-142.

43) Bloch treats mentalities, folk memory and the epic. Bloch, Feudal Society, 88-102.

44) Cantor, 143-145; Fink, 196 (on Febvre’s criticism).

45) Bloch, Feudal Society, 74.

46) Marc Bloch, Feudal Society, 114.

47) They are mentioned once, lumped together with "bastards, strangers, or 'foreigners'" in a brief discussion of French serfdom. Marc Bloch, Feudal Society, 261.

48) Paul Vinogradoff, The Growth of the Manor (London: S. Sonnenshein, 1905); Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages, trans. F. Hopman (London: E. Arnold, 1924).

49) Henri Pirenne, Mohammed and Charlemagne, trans. Bernard Miall (New York: Meridian, 1960) 18, 82-86, 174, 253, 255-261; Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe, trans. I.E. Clegg (London: Routledge 1949), 11, 23-24, 133-135.

50) Summerfield Baldwin, Business in the Middle Ages (1937; reprint, New York: Cooper, 1968), 74-77, 81.

51) Ernst Kantorowicz, Frederick the Second (London: Constable, 1931), 121, 130, 268-269, 343-345, 413.

52) M. Postan, ed., Cambridge Medieval History, 8 vols., (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1926), 5: 120, 329, 817.

53) Frederick Pollock and Frederick Maitland, History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I, 2nd ed., 2 vols., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1899), 1: 468-475.

54) "Society lost nothing essential by their disappearance." Pirenne, Social and Economic History, 12.

55) Asked to participate in the organization of a research center for Jewish studies in Vichy in 1941, Bloch refused to join formally, but did provide several suggestions. He suggested a three-fold plan to counter the notion that "all Jews form a solid homogeneous mass, endowed with identical traits, and subject to the same destiny." First, one must apply critical analysis to the primitive widely disseminated abstraction of the "wretched Jew." Next, one must comprehend a complex historical reality. Finally, one had to recognize two separate Jewish communities - the assimilated (French) and the unassimilated (foreign). Bloch was also concerned with the Vichy appellation "Isralites de France" instead of "Isralites Francaise" thus lumping the foreign and French Jews together as one administrative entity. This threatened the position of French Jews like Bloch. In issuing a manifesto on the subject Bloch wrote: "We have no concern which exceeds our attachment to France. We are French . . . . We cannot conceive another destiny than a French one." Speaking of the foreign Jews in France Bloch later stated that "their cause is not exactly our own." Fink, 271-274.

56) Bloch, Strange Defeat, 178.

57) Fink, 188. Blum’s family, like Bloch’s, was from the Bas Rhin region of Alsace and also like Bloch’s traced its French heritage back to the eighteenth century. Jean LaCouture, Leon Blum, trans. George Holoch (New York: Holmes, 1982), 5.

58) E. Bloch, 9; Bloch, Strange Defeat, 6.

59) Bloch, Strange Defeat, 3-4.back

60) Bloch, Strange Defeat, 23.back

61) Fink, 250-54.

62) Fink, 255-56.

63) Laura Krawitt, "The Historiography of Marc Bloch" (master's thesis, University of Vermont, 1983), 74.

64) Etienne Bloch, Marc Bloch: Father, Patriot, and Teacher (Vassar, N.Y.: Vassar College Department of History, 1987), 10; "He thoroughly enjoyed the war." Weber, 74;

65) E. Bloch, 9-10.

66) Fink, 312.

67) Bloch, Strange Defeat, xv.

68) His son Etienne's lecture at Vassar is a fascinating example of obfuscation on this point. It is clear that he has a great deal of anger towards his father, but he attempts (vainly) to disguise it. For example, on the topic of fleeing France Etienne said: "Though not wishing to become an expatriate, he was willing to do so for his children. Witness for example that in a letter to Lucien Febvre on June 22, 1942, he wrote: 'In any event I am happy to be here, and not where I almost went. Despite these terrible past months, I wish to live in my own country, and not in safety abroad.’" Etienne Bloch, 10. Of course, Bloch did not become an expatriate for his children's sake, and the letter to Febvre hardly supports the conclusion Etienne is apparently advancing. E. Bloch, 10. Another son characterized his father not as a hero, but "as someone who had selfishly neglected his children and left them destitute and defenseless." Cantor, 123.

69) "In a few years from now I shall be too old for mobilization. My sons will take my place. Am I, therefore, to conclude that my life has become more precious than theirs? Far better, on the contrary, that their youth should be preserved, if necessary, at the cost of my grey hairs." Bloch, Strange Defeat, 130.

70) Cantor, 120-121. "Many French intellectuals and academics after 1944 claimed to be heroes of the resistance but actually joined late and did little."

71) Weber, 74.

72) Fink, 303.

73) Other resistance members had code names like "Francois," "Drac," "Bourdelle," and "Bertrand." Fink, 312-314.

74) Davis, 30. Jews in the area had held allodial lands, owned slaves, and provided military service. There is a story, more a myth really, of a Jewish Prince during the time of Charlemagne. In battle against the Moors for control of the city, Charlemagne's horse had been killed. A Jew fighting beside the Emperor gave up his own horse thereby saving Charlemagne and forfeiting his own life in the process. Charlemagne, in gratitude for the Jew's loyalty and valor gave one third of the city to his family and made the Jews' chief rabbi a prince. The role and rights of the Jews of Narbonne were gradually eroded through the constant efforts of the Church which encouraged oppressive measures by a nobility often sympathetic to the Jews. The most notable oppressor of the Jews was Agobard, the Bishop of Lyons. Commenting on the status of Jews in the city, Agobard protested bitterly at the mixing of the "sons of light" with the "children of darkness." Katz, 160, 39, 55.

75) Two victims of the shooting survived and later crawled away. Our knowledge of the shooting is based on their accounts. Fink, 320-321.

76) Fink, 3.

UVM History Review vol 6., December 1994