Marc Bloch, the Partisan Professor

On June 16, 1944, the German Gestapo brutally murdered Marc Bloch, an eminent French historian and later a partisan leader in clandestinity. His life, ideas, and work have never been forgotten.

In a passage from his most famous book, The Historian’s Craft, tragically left unfinished, Professor Marc Bloch, to explain how to interpret a past event, used a suggestive Arab proverb: “Men resemble their times more than their fathers.” This “oriental maxim,” in his view, conveyed an important concept: “A historical phenomenon is never fully explained without studying the moment it occurs.” Understanding the context in which individuals are placed and the social framework within which they move was essential for Bloch to piece together knowledge about a given period or a particular event to then reassemble a broader picture.

To a large extent, this lesson of method—if not merit—applies to Bloch himself. That is, to the extraordinary experience of an extremely stubborn and curious man who, in love with books, became passionate about history and its enigmas and lived deeply within the 20th century. A valiant soldier in his youth and later a reserved professor always divided between archival papers and university classrooms, Bloch made the most arduous choice: now over fifty, he sacrificed everything to join the French Resistance and, as a secular man from a Jewish family, defied Nazism.

Books, the Front, and the Classroom

Marc Bloch was born on July 6, 1886, in Lyon, into a Jewish family of intellectuals. His father, Gustave Bloch, was a respected professor of ancient history and undoubtedly influenced his son, steering him towards the study of history. A passionate reader, from theoretical essays to detective novels, Bloch grew up in an intellectually rich environment, receiving a solid education. He attended the prestigious Louis-le-Grand High School in Paris, where he excelled in intelligence and dedication, and then continued at the École normale supérieure (ENS).

Beyond his avid reading, it was his front-line experience that irreversibly marked him. World War I, which broke out in 1914, left a deep impression on him, not only due to the traumatic events he witnessed but also for the lessons learned about the nature of conflict and society. Entering the army as a volunteer, Bloch demonstrated skill and courage, earning the rank of captain in intelligence services and receiving the Legion of Honor for military merit and the War Cross after France’s victory. Above all, it reinforced his conviction of the importance of historical analysis that considered the deep structures of society rather than merely superficial events.

Bloch then embarked on an academic career with great ambition, eager to make his mark and sometimes engaging in heated historiographical debates. He began his teaching career at the University of Strasbourg, where his ability to integrate history, sociology, and economics soon distinguished him. He specialized in the social and cultural history of the Middle Ages, focusing on individuals’ mentalities, forms of power legitimation, and the most appropriate investigative tools to explore the course of centuries.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Bloch produced some of his most influential works, redefining the boundaries of historical research, such as The Royal Touch (1924), a pioneering analysis of the healing powers attributed to medieval kings, and French Rural History (1931), focused on medieval agrarian structures. The founding of the Annales d’histoire économique et sociale in 1929, alongside his colleague and friend Lucien Febvre, marked a turning point in his career. Bloch defended and promoted an innovative approach that drastically evolved French and global historiography over time. In 1936, he achieved his goal of returning to the Sorbonne in Paris as a professor.

A Historian in the Storm of the Twentieth Century

The retreat of democracy and the rising tide of fascism in Europe, with Nazism being the most intense wave, led Bloch to engage more deeply with political struggles, abandoning superficially detached positions and seeking the reasons behind ongoing events. This occurred precisely as Hitler’s hegemonic plan took shape, and European leadership outside Germany showed little sensitivity to the need to halt German maneuvers early. Hitler’s central idea of the Third Reich, based on reorganizing the continent on racial grounds, deeply frightened Bloch, particularly the plan to exclude, subjugate, and eliminate those deemed inferior. Yet, both as a defeated soldier and an alarmed professor, Bloch reinvigorated his intellectual, civil, and political commitment, refusing to back down. The onset of World War II changed everything.

Despite his age (he was fifty-three in 1939) and fragile health, Bloch requested and obtained remobilization, serving in military logistics. However, France’s rapid capitulation following the German attack in June 1940 was a genuine turning point for him. The north of the country was invaded, remaining under the heel of Nazi domination, while the southern part saw the rise of the Vichy Republic: a formally neutral state in a so-called free zone but heavily influenced by the Nazis. The defeat, collective disorientation, and dark future prospects led Bloch to confront himself and the strength of his ideals thoroughly.

At that time, and not coincidentally, he wrote a valuable volume for understanding France’s impressive defeat and the possible consequences of the German victory on national and international scales: Strange Defeat (in French, L’étrange défaite). This unpublished book, later published posthumously, offered precise critiques of the highest military leaders for failing to defend the country adequately against Hitler’s warlike ambitions and a significant portion of the French bourgeoisie, which seemed weak, if not willing to compromise with Germany in the name of anti-communism.

In one passage of the book, Bloch also delved into the roots of anti-Semitism and its spread in Europe. In this sense, the rise of Nazism revealed, according to the historian, a powerful force for unearthing, strengthening, and relaunching a racist culture already present in the continent’s heart, including France. While asserting that he took neither pride nor shame in being Jewish, partly because he did not practice the religion, Bloch defined the notion of race as “absurd” and did not renounce his identity, meticulously contesting one of the most regressive myths of his time. He noted, “I never claim my origin except in one case: when I am confronted with an anti-Semite.”

The Time for Struggle

Bloch was initially stunned, gripped by deep anxieties, and returned to his work, suffering the weight of discrimination. He was first expelled from the Sorbonne and then, as a marginalized figure, ended up teaching in Clermont and Montpellier, later becoming a target of the racial laws introduced in France aimed at Jews and other minorities. This period was challenging, with severe limitations on his research activities (he was, for example, denied access to his vast personal library).

The situation worsened in November 1942 with Operation Anton, the Nazi German and Fascist Italian invasion of Vichy France aimed at taking full control of France in anticipation of the confrontation with the United States and the United Kingdom, then very active in the Mediterranean and North Africa. For France, this meant total subjugation at the terrible crossroads of history. Thus, at the end of that year or the beginning of 1943, Bloch once again chose to shed the observer’s role. Excluded from holding any public office, he refused to emigrate and seek refuge abroad, joining the Resistance, particularly the armed movement Franc-Tireur, active in the Lyon area.

Bloch became a prominent figure in the Resistance at the local level, not only for his advanced age, which contrasted sharply with the young anti-fascist fighters, but also for his great resolve. He used various names in the underground to conceal his true identity—such as Narbonne and Marc Fougères—and took on responsible roles, including strategy and document formulation.

Bloch’s story ended just months before the Allied landing in Normandy and France’s liberation in March 1944. As a partisan leader, he was captured by the Gestapo, the Third Reich’s secret police, and methodically and brutally tortured—similar to many partisans—without revealing compromising information. On June 16, after a period of detention in terrible conditions, he was shot along with twenty-six comrades near Saint-Didier-de-Formans, a small town in the Ain department of central-eastern France. According to some accounts, his last words were: “Vive la France!” His body, ravaged by torture, was later found and identified in one of the mass graves the Nazis left behind as they fled.

Many of his works were published or republished posthumously, and over time, Bloch has become a true classic of historiography, a guide for navigating the darkness of history. To him—and those who followed in his footsteps—we owe a progressive recalibration of the discipline so that teaching history provides a “rational classification and progressive understanding, rather than a mere enumeration of facts without connections and almost without limits,” as he wrote in The Historian’s Craft.

Today, his body is buried in Le Bourg-d’Hem, in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of central France, a place where Bloch had lived during the tumultuous time of the Second World War. On the tombstone that commemorates him, there is an inscription in Latin: “Dilexit veritatem.” Translated: “He loved the truth.”

Simone Cosimelli

Storica National Geographic, June 16, 2024, 07:00


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