I wrote this essay in the summer of 2016, and spent the ensuing year revising it. Yet I never hit publish. Partly, I felt (and feel) like an imposter; neither Bloch’s work nor WWII are within the purview of my own historical research. Additionally, I’m not sure I entirely agree with my conclusions about the role historians must play in this current moment.
However, I just read the following piece (“The Medievalist Who Fought Nazis with History”) on Forbes.com, and I decided to share this because I do believe that Bloch was telling us more than “the point of history [is] to have something to say about the present.” So I offer my own thoughts for debate.
Recently, I found myself reaching for my well-worn copy of Marc Bloch's The Historian's Craft, a 200-page meditation on the meaning and value of history and a primer on how to do it well. The book has a tragic backstory. Marc Bloch was a French Jewish historian who was well known and respected for his scholarship on medieval and early-modern French feudal society. After Nazi troops invaded France in 1940, Bloch went underground and began to work on two manuscripts. He wrote the first, Strange Defeat, during the summer of 1940 to chronicle how and why France failed to rout the German invasion. Bloch then began writing The Historian's Craft. In late 1942, while working on the manuscript, he became active in the French Resistance. Vichy police eventually captured him in March of 1944 and he was turned over to the Gestapo for interrogation. He was tortured, imprisoned, and then murdered by a firing squad in June 1944. Bloch's colleague, historian Lucien Febvre, took up the task after the war of assembling the unfinished text into a draft for publication.
Why did Bloch choose to write a book on historiography and methods, of all possible topics, while a war raged around him? The introduction to The Historian’s Craft provides some indication of his motives. Bloch wrote that because Western civilization “has always been extremely attentive to its past,” it was only natural that “whenever our exacting Western society, in the continuing crisis of growth, begins to doubt itself, it asks itself whether it has done well in trying to learn from the past, and whether it has learned rightly.” [i]
The Historian's Craft thus begins with a quote from Bloch's son, who as a young boy asked of his father, "Tell me, Daddy. What is the use of history?" Bloch explained that buried in this simple question posed by his child lay a deeper question, "no less that of the legitimacy of history.” [ii] From the outset, then, Bloch devoted The Historian's Craft to explaining the "usefulness" of history as an intellectual discipline devoted to understanding human lives. Bloch emphasized that “useful” history portrays people, events, and decisions in the past as complex and dynamic, the product of coincidences and contradictions just as often as of logical choices.
Bloch emphasized, however, that "this question of use must always come second in the order of things, for, to act reasonably, it is first necessary to understand.” [iii] He believed that explanation was paramount—interpretation and judgment were by necessity secondary. "If the judgment only followed the explanation,” he wrote, “the reader could simply skip it. Unfortunately the habit of passing judgments leads to a loss of taste for explanations.” In the context in which Bloch was writing, when the “loss of taste for explanations” had allowed European fascists to persecute Jews and other minorities whom history had judged unfavorably, Bloch’s appeal was not for objectivity. Rather, he desired for historians to write history that was so rich and penetrating that politicians could not easily flatten it for their use as evidence of a group’s defectiveness or as a justification for action against a group. Indeed, Bloch continued, “When the passions of the past blend with the prejudices of the present, human reality is reduced to a picture in black and white.”[iv]
Bloch thus concluded the introduction to The Historian’s Craft by describing it as “the memorandum of a craftsman who has always liked to reflect over his daily task.” [v] Indeed, “reflective” perfectly describes the book. It is quiet and wise. In a time of chaos, Bloch bored down to examine the nature of history and the essential mechanics of historical research. And yet by focusing on the foundations, Bloch also challenged historians to think more broadly about the judgments they built atop it.
Are historians to blame for the ease with which politicians flatten history? We must ask ourselves how and why history is so easily dismantled and rewritten by politicians, while our scholarship is dismissed. Have our attempts to prove our contemporary relevance led us to pass too many judgments and ironically led us to undermine our own legitimacy?
If so, the consequent question is not whether or not to be an activist historian. I still believe the answer to that question is yes. The question is how we can be activist historians without cutting our legs out from underneath us. Bloch would be the last person to say that this means ignoring the needs and interests of the present. Rather, he urged historians to be more understanding. “Even in action,” he wrote, “we are far too prone to judge. ... A little more understanding of people would be necessary merely for guidance, in the conflicts which are unavoidable; all the more to prevent them while there is yet time.” [vi]
I think there is another reason, however, that Bloch wrote this book in the midst of the war, and it’s for the same reason that I turned to his book in the midst of this political moment. The rigorous evaluation of methodology grounds the historian in the present without effacing the infinitude of history and the constant evolution of historiography. There is an inertia created when these contradictory forces are balanced against one another, providing a moment for the scholar to pause, catch their breath, and “ask himself with a sudden qualm whether he has spent his life wisely?” [vii]
These moments of inertia are when it’s most tempting to assert our usefulness by putting judgment before explanation. Bloch urges us to look inwards at our own methodological practices. Not because it will challenge the new regime, or instantly make American society more empathetic, but because it is a balance against the loud, the chaotic. It’s a forceful assertion of the importance of reflection and humility.
[i]Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft: Reflections on the Nature and Uses of History and the Techniques and Methods of Those Who Write It (New York: Vintage Books, 1953), 4-6.
[ii]Bloch, Historian’s Craft, 3-4.