Marc Bloch
Marc Bloch; drawing by David Levine


This October the Institute for World History in Moscow held an international conference to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the French scholarly journal, Annales, which had been founded in 1929 by Marc Bloch, who was killed by the Gestapo in 1944, and Lucien Febvre, who died in 1956. A Soviet historian, once much criticized for his attachment to “bourgeois science,” spoke of how Febvre and Bloch had taught him that past societies had to be understood through their basic mental categories, not through the false distinction between material structure and superstructure. A Mexican historian recalled how Marc Bloch had taught him to look for the connections between historical phenomena instead of breaking the life of the past into fragments. A Chinese historian said with some irony that the history of his land had provided the Annales school with an example of very slow change, of what the French call “la longue durée.”

In my own case, I recalled how I decided to become a historian after reading Bloch’s Feudal Society, and there are other historians of my generation who would say the same. What is it about the work of Bloch and Febvre that continues to inspire historians and give new direction to historical interpretation?

First there is their joint project to reform the way history was studied, taught, and written about. History’s central subject, for them, was not political events, statesmen, and institutions, but “l’homme,” human beings seen through their experience. The historian found them in fields, forests, huts, craft shops, chapels, and counting rooms, as well as in libraries, courtrooms, and palaces. When the evidence was in, the historian was not satisfied, as the positivists were, “to let the facts speak for themselves.” Rather, the historian arranged the material so as to integrate, say, economic practices with social forms, and probed the evidence collected to discover the assumptions and perceptions distinctive to the age. These made up its “mentalité“—an “absurd word,” Febvre admitted in 1934, but what else could it be called?1 Meanwhile, Bloch stressed the uses of comparison: to verify and deepen one’s understanding of French rural organization, what better way than to compare it with English or German, or even West African?

With reforming zeal, Febvre and Bloch put people from different disciplines on the editorial board of the Annales. They published book reviews that were celebrated for their sharpness and raised large questions of how history should be written. The two men were not, in fact, without predecessors: their vision owed something to the sociologist Emile Durkheim, to the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne, and to Henri Berr’s Revue de synthèse historique, among others. But their collaboration was original, adding breadth to their arguments and allowing “the mission of the Annales” to grow beyond the ambition of a single person.

Second, there are their own original works of history. Febvre’s concerned the sixteenth century. He took up seemingly enigmatic figures such as François Rabelais and Marguerite de Navarre and he tried to resolve the apparent contradictions in their thought by reconstructing the cultural world in which they lived. Bloch’s published work ranged over centuries and subject matter. Les rois thaumaturges of 1924 was a study of the miraculous power of English and French kings to cure the disease of scrofula. In Bloch’s hands, old anecdotes about “the king’s touch” turned into a history of the origins, meanings, and demise of ritual kingship. Of his books, Les rois thaumaturges, which anticipates current work on political ceremonial, has stayed the freshest in its entirety.

Bloch’s next major work was Les caractères originaux de l’histoire rurale française of 1931 (translated as French Rural History in 1970). There Bloch explored the basic patterns of French agriculture—with peasants in some regions farming across open fields, and in others farming within enclosures—as well as the long history of the seigneury and collective village ownership. Inspired in part by German and English precedents, he showed that present-day landscapes could teach us about the past, and he found fresh social meanings in old manorial charters. Superseded in some details, Les caractères originaux still makes a persuasive synthesis of French agricultural history.

Finally, there were the two volumes of La société féodale, which appeared in 1939–1940 just as war broke out in Europe. Bloch’s goal was to analyze the social structure characteristic of medieval times, to portray what gave distinctness to those centuries while at the same time suggesting a social typology useful for other places and times. He found the distinctive element in lordship, the subordinating of one person to another from the top of society to the bottom, and showed its power to shape thought, prayer, and gesture into expressions of dependency. Though his chronology and other points were later to be challenged, Bloch formulated the issues in medieval studies that are central for historians today: the origins of nobility and of servitude, the relation of kinship ties to feudal ties, and the nature of collective memory and consciousness at a period when most people could not read.2



For the originality of his scholarship alone, Marc Bloch would have deserved a biography, and, indeed, studies exist on one or another book and on the Annales. But that is only part of the story. Marc Bloch was also a patriot who served in the French army in both world wars, and who wrote an account of his experiences in the first war and a book of recollections on France’s “strange defeat” in the second. Excluded from French professional life as a Jew during the German Occupation, he became an important figure in the French Resistance and was finally captured, tortured, and murdered by the Gestapo near Lyon in June 1944. If the historian’s calling has a modern saint and hero, it is Marc Bloch.

Carole Fink has written the first fullscale biography of Marc Bloch with thoroughness, sympathy, and perceptiveness. She has unearthed Bloch’s voluminous correspondence in diverse collections; she has followed his publications from the early notes he made through reviewers’ reactions; and she has reconstructed his diverse activities from archives on both sides of the Atlantic. She has sought out Bloch’s friends, relatives, and former students and, where possible, interviewed them. Carole Fink has compressed her results into an absorbing book; her balanced approach to the fiercely controversial issues of the 1930s and 1940s may come more easily to a foreign scholar than to one of Bloch’s compatriots.

Fink considers the interconnected themes of Bloch’s life—his academic career, family, political engagement, and intellectual achievement. In France Bloch was referred to as an “Israelite” (the courteous term for Jews of fairly high status who had adapted to French life) who was making his way in the cultural and political world of the Third Republic. Marc Bloch was the descendant of generations of Alsatian Jews. His great-grandfather was a rabbi of Fegersheim; his grandfather was the rector of the Jewish school in Strasbourg. His father Gustave was the first to cross the line of assimilation, leaving behind Hebraic and Talmudic learning for a career as a distinguished scholar of the history of Rome. He taught in Lyon at the Faculty of Letters and then was called to the University of Paris, where Lucien Febvre was among his students.

In the Paris in which Marc Bloch grew up in the last years of the nineteenth century the celebration of the civic and open values of republicanism provoked a narrow anti-Semitic reaction against those who, like Gustave Bloch, had made the “leap from the synagogue to the Sorbonne.” Marc Bloch was twenty in 1906 when Alfred Dreyfus was finally reinstated as an officer in the French army. The Dreyfus Affair had shown him the face of reactionary France, but its outcome confirmed Bloch’s belief in the resilience of republican democracy.

Marc Bloch’s education and academic career in most ways resembled those of other talented men of his generation: he attended the Ecole Normal Supérieure, did research for his thesis, and was granted the prestigious Thiers Foundation fellowship; he taught in Lycées at Montpellier and Amiens, was awarded medals for bravery under fire while serving in the French army during the war, and in 1919 he became a professor at the University of Strasbourg, now reopened under French control with a remarkable new staff. The career of Lucien Febvre, who also joined the Strasbourg faculty in 1919, followed much the same path, except that Bloch studied in Germany for a year before the war.

Their paths diverged in the 1930s, partly, it appears, because Bloch was a Jew. Both men hoped to move from Strasbourg to the Collège de France, so as to be nearer the center of things in Paris and to enjoy the greater freedom for scholarly action allowed to professors at that august institution. Febvre was finally elected in early 1933, and Bloch started his own campaign to be nominated at the end of the same year. Complicating the usual competition among candidates as well as among different fields of study, Fink writes, was what Bloch recognized as

a serious recrudescence of anti-Semitism, a “curious social phenomenon” that had penetrated the frontier from the east, aimed not specifically against himself but at his name and his ancestry. According to Bloch, there were two types of anti-Semites, those who wished to “exterminate” or expel the Jews, whose excessive and repugnant manner rendered them less dangerous than the second, the “numerous clausus” types, who established a fine, impenetrable quota on outsiders. This second category included many assimilated Jews, eager to guard the gate for their own self-aggrandizement and self-defense.

Bloch was basing his views here on rumors afloat at the Collège that had been passed on to him by Febvre. The worries of some of the Jewish professors may have been less self-serving than Bloch suspected. One of them, who said to Febvre that Bloch should conduct a “calm” campaign so as to avoid anti-Semitism, was Sylvain Lévi, a distinguished Indianologist but also the President of the Society for Jewish Studies in France during those years.


As Nazi strength grew in central Europe and fascist demonstrations troubled the streets of Paris, Bloch proposed himself for a chair in the comparative history of European societies; in 1935 he lost to candidates who were specialists in national antiquities and experimental psychology. A year later Bloch was elected to the chair in economic history at the Sorbonne, but he still expressed bitterness to Febvre about his defeat at the Collège de France. An unofficial understanding about a Jewish quota had in his view won out over considerations of merit. Nor was this the last time in the 1930s that Bloch had to defend his right to seek academic advancement and responsibility as a French citizen like everyone else, regardless of his name.

Exactly what it meant to Bloch to be Jewish is not fully explained by Fink. For French Jews who called themselves Israelites, religion was a private affair, a family matter, and the subject seems an intrusive one when Fink raises it. Bloch was an “absolute atheist,” according to his eldest son Etienne, an important witness throughout the biography. He introduced the Old Testament to his children, but gave them no religious instruction. Still, there was a Jewish funeral for old Gustave Bloch in 1923, and a Jewish wedding when Marc Bloch married the talented Simonne Vidal in 1920. Since Simonne’s mother was a practicing Jew, Bloch’s three eldest sons were circumcised, and until his mother-in-law’s death in 1929 his children went to eat honey at her house on the Jewish New Year.3 When Bloch came in 1941 to write a credo to be read at his own burial (reproduced in the biography in his beautiful clear hand), he explained that the Hebrew prayers would not be chanted because they did not give expression to what he truly believed. He refused to deny he was born a Jew:

In a world assailed by the most atrocious barbarism, is not the generous tradition of the Hebrew prophets, which Christianity in its purest sense has adopted and expanded, one of the best reasons to live, to believe, and to fight?

But he saw himself above all as “un français“:

A stranger to all credal dogmas as to all alleged racial solidarity, I have throughout my life thought of myself as above all and quite simply a Frenchman. Attached to my country by a long family tradition, nourished by its spiritual heritage and its history, and, indeed, incapable of conceiving another land whose air I could breathe with such ease, I have loved it very much and served it with all my strength. I have never felt that my being a Jew has at all hindered these sentiments. In the course of two wars it has not been my lot to die for France. At least I can, in all sincerity declare that I have died, as I have lived, a good Frenchman.


His right to that identity was sorely challenged after the fall of France, and one of the most interesting threads in A Life in History is Bloch’s changing relation to the politics of his country. It, too, follows a characteristic pattern of French intellectuals of political commitment to, and withdrawal from, honor, courage, and sacrifice. For Bloch to throw himself into World War I was a matter of honor, both personal and patriotic; at the end, he had been promoted from sergeant to captain and received several citations for his bravery while fighting in the forests and trenches of the Argonne. In the Souvenirs he wrote after the war he reflected not on whether the war was just or worth its cost in human life, but, in the spirit of his hero Jean Jaurès, on the courage he had observed among men of simple background, on the incompetence of many officers, and on France’s lack of preparedness.

During the next twenty years Bloch on the whole did not take part in French politics or speak out on the events of the day. To be sure, he was involved in a form of cultural politics through the Annales and other professional enterprises; and he collaborated with foreign scholars, especially German scholars, in the peaceful pursuit of truth. He wrote a critique of Nazi ideology when it began to infect the medieval history books he was reviewing. For France itself during the Popular Front government, he and Febvre published a detailed proposal to make French education less rigid, exclusive, and standardized. Along with many other scholars of the moderate-socialist left, however, he ordinarily stood apart from the organizations, popular articles, and manifestoes characteristic of the intellectuals engaged in the struggle for fascism, antifascism, pacifism, or communism.

In the agonizing months after the fall of France, he was to regret that position. Escaping with his family to his country house in the non-occupied zone, Bloch tried to account for the “strange defeat.” His manuscript spared few elements in French society. The professors were at fault for being so preoccupied with their work that they let things take their course in Germany.

We dared not stand up in public and be the voice crying in the wilderness. It might have been just that, but at least we should have had the consolation of knowing that, whatever the outcome of its message, it had at least spoken aloud the faith that was in us.4

But how could he speak now that he was in Vichy France, excluded from Paris by the Germans as “non-Aryan” and from teaching at the Sorbonne or any other French university by the Vichy Statut des Juifs? Carole Fink treats the moral and political choices facing Bloch in those years with delicacy and historical care. Should he leave the country he loved to accept an invitation from the New School of Social Research? Should he do so if it meant only taking his wife and younger children but not his two oldest sons and his aging mother? Should he try to distinguish himself from other French Jews so that he would be allowed to teach in Vichy universities? Should he make distinctions between, on the one hand, French Jews and, on the other, Eastern European Jews and Jewish refugees in France in order to make it harder for those who wanted to deprive the French Jews of their rightful citizenship and put all Jews in the same category, to be persecuted equally?

By the summer of 1941, it was clear that Bloch was not able to arrange departure for America. Slowness in granting visas by American officials and Bloch’s unwillingness to be separated even temporarily from some of the members of his family both had a part. He wrote Febvre that come what may, “at least there is not an ocean between me and my country.” By then, after having petitioned the Vichy authorities, he was included among ten professors exempted from the Statut des Juifs for their “exceptional services” to France, and given a post at the University of Strasbourg-in-exile at Clermont-Ferrand. By then, too, he had counseled an Israelite research group in Lyon not to lump all Jews together in a “homogeneous mass”; the refugees should be welcome in the country of the Rights of Man, but “their cause is not exactly our own.”

Fink points out that Bloch’s position here (like his subsequent opposition to the General Union of the Israelites of France, an organization encouraged by the Germans) was consistent with his life-long loyalty to France. When informed of his exemption, Bloch told the Vichy minister that though he was being given special status, the entire Statut des Juifs was unjust. And, challenging the censor of mail between the occupied and Vichy-controlled zones to take notice, Bloch wrote Febvre of his violent indignation at the arrest and deportation of “the so-called foreign Jews.”5

But he made none of these statements publicly, though he was busy with history notes, letters, and the growing manuscript of his book The Historian’s Craft. Only after the German occupation of the south in November 1942, when Bloch had to leave his university post and flee with his family to their country house in the Creuse, did he resolve the issue of whether and how to become politically engaged. At the age of fifty-six he joined the Resistance, finding (in Fink’s words) “the means to reclaim his maimed citizenship” and to end his exclusion. He took as his code name “Narbonne,” a city whose medieval Jewish community had caught his attention not long before. In addition to coordinating Resistance activities in the Lyon region and nationally, he published articles in the clandestine press, including one on a future “revolution” in education. “When, after the coming victory, we find ourselves once again among Frenchmen in a land returned to liberty, our great duty will be to remake a new France.”6 He wrote to Febvre only half in jest about becoming one day the minister of National Education.

In March 1944, he was arrested by the Gestapo during an extensive roundup of members of the Resistance in Lyon. He was interrogated and tortured but told the Germans nothing except his real name. Imprisoned in a military fortress “infamous for its poor food and hygiene,” he taught French history to a young résistant. On the night of June 16, ten days after the Normandy landings, he was taken with other prisoners to an open field and shot.


After Marc Bloch’s death was finally confirmed in the autumn of 1944, Lucien Febvre said that he felt like “a tree struck in half by lightning.” “It’s half my conscience as a worker I lose with him.” 7 A Life in History provides evidence of a scholarly friendship unusual among historians for its intensity and duration. It started off at Strasbourg in 1920 when Febvre and Bloch had adjacent offices and ran a joint seminar, and then made plans to found the Annales. When they could not see each other over the years, they wrote—from country houses, different cities, military camps, and zones of a divided France. Their subjects were not only the Annales but their research, writing, plans, family, academic gossip, and politics. Their last visit was two weeks before Bloch’s arrest, when Bloch came to Paris on a Resistance mission.

Fink calls this relation “a loyal and productive friendship,” but also sees it as increasingly rent by “tensions,” “differences,” and “a schism.” I have a somewhat different impression from reading their correspondence. The friendship between the Israelite Bloch and the Franche-Comtois Febvre was founded not only on common goals and experiences, but also on the differences they themselves perceived in their work, their personal manner, and their memories. They early agreed that neither would take decisions with regard to the Annales without the other’s consent; both of them believed in dealing with each other without dissembling and concealment. The result was that they often expressed divergent views, made strong efforts to persuade each other, and had their own mutually understood language of reconciliation.

These ways of getting on with each other carried them through the shift in the formal balance of power in their friendship, as Febvre, eight years Bloch’s senior, had to yield to Bloch’s growing independent reputation. Bloch’s having his own world at the Sorbonne rather than being Febvre’s younger colleague at the Collège might have been an advantage. Later Bloch’s élan in the work of the Resistance seems to have made Febvre all the more aware of impending old age. Their friendship also persisted through a bitter fight about the Annales during the first spring of the Occupation: Febvre wanted the periodical to appear as “a French voice” against the Germans, although this meant removing Bloch’s “non-Aryan” name from the cover, and Bloch found this an unacceptable compromise with the Annales’ cherished practice of freedom of expression. Bloch finally gave in and wrote for the Annales under a pseudonym; but the exchange of messages that was smuggled across the border between the two zones was wounding for both scholars, adding to Bloch’s sense of exclusion and to Febvre’s touchy defensiveness. In their efforts to contain and repair the quarrel, the two men resorted to apologies (Febvre: “I wish this letter were less painful”); self-defensive characterization (Bloch: “It’s not in my temperament to bend”); and expressions of affection (“Let’s stay united and hope, your affectionate and devoted Marc Bloch”; “I end this impossible letter in telling you—eh, oui—that I like you very much…Lucien Febvre”).8

Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre may have had easier relations with other close friends—Bloch with Paul Etard, the librarian at the Ecole Normale, his comrade since school days, Febvre with young Fernand and Paulette Braudel; but while each lived, there was no friend whose opinion the other took more seriously, no friend more important to his scholarly self-esteem.


On Bloch’s scholarship, Carole Fink gives us much valuable information. His passion for history is everywhere evident, from his youth, when he drew on the rumors he heard while he served in the Great War to increase his understanding of “collective consciousness,” to his fifties, when he used his spare moments during the Resistance to write book reviews. We get a sense of his prodigious capacity for digging in archives; his wife Simonne was evidently important to him as a research assistant and critical reader of his manuscripts. For all his principal writings, from his first work toward his doctoral thesis on the emancipation of the serfs in the Ile-de-France to his last major effort. The Historian’s Craft, Fink provides a summary of the argument, describes its method, and suggests its connections with the other scholarship of its day.

But the impulse behind this intellectual movement and its overall significance are both missing from A Life in History. What was Bloch after as he moved from serfs to kings to cultural fields to feudal and manorial dependencies; from social and legal regulations to political and cultural attitudes to technical and social processes? Were there some large social secrets that he was systematically trying to discover, as some of his projects for comparative history in the 1930s might suggest? Or were the choices he made more inspired by chance observation, an invitation to do a book, a political puzzle? His letters to Febvre during the Occupation suggest a mixture of both, as when he refers to a long-commissioned book on medieval economic history while also saying that he “dreams sometimes of a history of the First Reich” (that is, the Holy Roman Empire of Carolingian days), and especially that he wants to write on medieval religion, thereby circling back to his early interests.9

Bloch himself never wrote a historical biography (indeed, he was chided by Febvre for his lack of attention to individual people), but when he wrote obituaries he concentrated on the intellectual record—teachers, schools of thought, new directions—and left aside other aspects of personal life. Perhaps a life such as Bloch’s, in which original scholarship was combined with experiences of war, resistance, and the horrors of Klaus Barbie’s jails, will need unconventional methods of historical narration to do justice to its complexity. In the meantime, Carole Fink has given us a richly documented study both of Marc Bloch’s outward career and the inner identity behind the “decisions…which illuminate a whole life.” Her carefully sifted materials will give much assistance to further interpretations of his historical thought. The work she has done pleased Bloch, for whom history was both a fascinating story and a science always in motion.

This Issue

April 26, 1990