Marc Bloch - France Came First
This entry was posted exactly one year ago today - June 8, 2006. Recently the commemoration of D-Day revived memories of those lives so gallantly given for their country, of the blood spilled and the tortures endured. And today we wonder if it was all in vain. A reader mentioned Marc Bloch in his comment to my article on Guy Môquet, and I thought it fitting to review this story of a gifted French historian who watched as the country he loved and died for betrayed him.
Marc Bloch is a great name among French historians. Born to an Alsatian Jewish family in 1886, captured and tortured by the Nazis, he died in 1944. Despite his Jewish origins, he felt himself to be a Frenchman first and foremost. He is in some ways the antithesis of what we see today: refusal of nationhood, rejection of ancient European cultures, multi-cultural indoctrination, capitulation to violent forces such as Islam and its corollary, terrorism. Marc Bloch is of another time, almost another dimension. He is closer in spirit to the men who died on the beaches of Normandy than he is to the community of writers and historians, who too often revise the truth to suit an ulterior purpose.
Recently the Figaro Littéraire published a homage to Marc Bloch and suggested his remains be moved to the Panthéon in Paris. I'm taking the text of the article as it appeared in Vox Galliae.
The memory of the great historian and great resistance fighter that was Marc Bloch (1886-1944) continues today to affect our thinking and our love for France. Through his teaching, his writings, through the renewal of history and the world-wide influence he gave to this discipline, through his heroic actions and death, this man who is still today a model of the citizen, the soldier, the intellectual and the hero merits a special recognition from France and a choice place in the Panthéon of our national glories.
A hero Marc Bloch was, several times over, and it came to him naturally. In World War I , Marc Bloch exhibited bravery in the 72nd Infantry Division. He was awarded the militray Legion of Honor, the "Croix de guerre", and four citations, one per year from 1915 to 1918; he received another one in 1940. His military service clearly demonstrated his "disregard for danger", his "audaciousness and his cool-headed determination".
But Marc Bloch always remained modest: "My military service in 1914-1918 was normal".
He had a sense of simply doing one's duty, or to borrow his superior's expression, he demonstrated a "humble heroism" that is common to the best patriots.
At no time, even while others were questioning the worth of the fierce endless combat, did he stop believing in his country.
In 1918, he did not hide his joy when victory came. For this intellectual was never tempted by the sirens of pacifism, even in the worst moments of privation and the dreadful hand-to-hand combat with bayonets, that left so many of his comrades on the sides of the trenches.
He shared with them what Jules Isaac called "a community of suffering" - for him the individual did not count before the group or the nation. What does it matter if one person suffers, he thought, when the fate of the national community in its entirety is at stake. "You taught me to put certain things above life itself," he wrote in 1915 to his parents.
He was speaking there of his country, for he knew that there could not be any democracy without a national community. Sternly raised and educated, he had a faith in his country that people today would have difficulty understanding.
In his letter of farewell, written in 1941, when he foresaw the possibility of his capture, he declared: "Attached to my country through a long family tradition, nourished on its spiritual heritage and its history, truly incapable of being able to breathe freely anywhere else, I have loved it and served it with all my strength".
Mr. President of the French Republic, it is not just because Marc Bloch is certainly one of the greatest French historians, a man whose name still contributes abroad, more than 60 years after his death, to the reputation of French research, that he has his place in the Panthéon. But because his very life as a citizen is exemplary, a life in the service of the nation.
In 1940, when he found himself confronted with the "most atrocious collapse in our history," as he wrote in Strange Defeat, an analysis of the collapse of France, written with an astonishing lucidity as he was living it, Marc Bloch had only one thought: resist.
Even though he could have escaped to the United States, he preferred to stay in France after the debacle and despite the regulations on Jews. His international reputation allowed him to be "rescued from disgrace" as far as his profession as a teacher was concerned. But that did not prevent him from going underground, along with his three sons.
The resistance, that he undertook most notably under the pseudonym of Narbonne, constitutes the logical continuation of the past life of this patriot. On December 29, 1943, he affirmed his determination to fight until liberation: "All those who deserve the great reward, may not be here to see it. It will nonetheless be the one they hoped for and fought for."
A member of the Franc-Tireur (special forces) movement, he was arrested on March 8, 1944, tortured and executed in a camp on June 16, 1944.
Mr. President of the French Republic, undeniably Marc Bloch leaves behind the image of a fervent patriot, of a committed republican, but above all, of a great Frenchman.
Communicating with the past, he was, so to speak, in osmosis with it. Here is his famous statement:
"There are two categories of Frenchmen who will never understand the history of France: those who refuse to be moved by the memory of the consecration of Reims, and those who read without emotion the story of the celebration of the Federation.(1) It doesn't matter very much what their principles are. Their impermeability to the most beautiful outpourings of collective enthusiasm is enough to condemn them" (Strange Defeat, p. 646).
He had understood the specific nature of the French nation, founded on history, culture and language, and not on some racial or religious characteristic.
This republican was, through birth, of the Jewish faith. He had never been worried about that until the anti-Semitic Vichy legislation reminded him of it. He never stopped affirming that "Jews are Frenchmen like any other".
He was suspicious of clannish reactions. "Let us avoid giving justification to those who would like to cut us off in some ghetto". (Letter of April 2, 1941 to Jean Ulmo).
As a dedicated republican, he refused to define himself as a Frenchman "of Jewish origin". "I am Jewish", he used to say, "if not by religion, since I'm not at all practicing, any more than any one else is, at least by birth. I feel no pride or shame at being, at least I hope, a good enough historian to fully realize that racial pre-dispositions are a myth". And he would add perceptively: "I never make claims with respect to my origins, except in one case: when confronted with anti-Semitism" (Strange Defeat, p.524).
The man who fell, martyred, beneath German bullets, after being tortured, had believed for his whole life that the commonality between men was their nationality. The basis of his identity, and of his commitment as an historian, was his love of France.
Mr. President of the French Republic, is it not time for this very Republic to celebrate, as he so richly deserves, the memory of this son who does us such honor?
(1)The consecration of Reims refers to the crowning of the Kings of France in the city of Reims. The coronation had the blessings of the Pope, and was a sacred event.
The "Fête de la Féderation" took place on July 14, 1790, one year after the storming of the Bastille and was an enthusiastic gathering of citizens and "federates" celebrating loyalty to the Constitution.