Marc Bloch, strange defeat, the historian's craft and World War II: Writing and teaching contemporary history

The European Legacy 10 (3):179-195 (2005)

The roles of small and great books, and passionate yet well-considered writings in the general education of a “college” or “university” trained teacher are questions which should be turned back upon the historian as teacher and writer. Where resides the historian's classroom? Who are the students and how do teachers come to be? What subject matter should be used to prod and provoke an often dormant humanity awake? Professor Marc Bloch's work, his passion for history's rôles and its voices from the past speaking to the present, had a Renaissance in the cauldron of World War II. Bloch's commitment to teaching and writing history, teaching about the forceful, or surprising and shocking, “presences” of history's supposed past-tense experiences, remains seminal to the historian's craft. Bloch's own voice from the past was forged in an intensity of present-time experience. Reflection was searing experience. Memory was “now” and remembrance was an accident of preservation for futures then unknown. These futures need to know of the experiences of former, fragile, personal and generational memories if the very same futures were to be lived more surely and securely. Marc Bloch's The Historian's Craft, remains a vindication of the human-centred, purposive roles of history in a general education. Moreover, this general education can now be said to cover the broad sweep of “secondary schooling” experiences. This sweep of schooling and post-schooling experiences is beginning, however tentatively and problematically, to extend itself into worlds of work, the futures of work and the academic futures or courses of higher education: the arena of tertiary and university education. In a not dissimilar fashion but in an even more intense spirit, Bloch's work, L’étrange défaite, examines the explosion and implosion of France and, in effect, Western Europe in the years, months and days leading up to the German offensive in the West of 10 May 1940. Bloch recognized that education and the failures to harness intellect, true intellectual freedom and innovative teaching weighed heavily upon the disastrous course of events in 1940. Professor Bloch's texts can serve two complementary purposes. First, his works, Strange Defeat and The Historian's Craft remain as significant, contemporary records of personal thoughts, argumentative methodologies, and recollections of world-shattering events. They constitute, quite literally, an historian's craft in action. Second, Bloch's texts can serve an equally valuable role where the writer seeks to take his reader through and beyond the immediate historical question, methodology or series of unravelling events into an intellectual duel which stands upon the historian's engagement with worlds, past and present. Questions and actions, makings and doings matter in this world. Understanding is not only a prime responsibility of the historian; it is a duty which might well prove dangerous. Given the above observations, this essay will seek to emphasize that world history and the teaching of broad histories of humanity recognizes few, if any, borders which seek to block or hold at bay the presentation of the “passport” known as understanding. Teaching history is much more than teaching civics or recognizing civilizational variety and its barbarous opposites. Teaching history is an act, however imperfect, of recognizing ourselves in time. My brother “schoolmasters”—when it came to the point, you did, for the most part, put up a magnificent fight. It was your goodwill which managed to create in many a sleepy secondary school, in many universities—prisoners of the worse routines the only form of education of which, perhaps, we can feel genuinely proud. I only hope that a day will come, and come soon, a day of glory and of happiness for France, when, liberated from the enemy, and freer than ever in our intellectual life, we may meet again for the mutual discussion of ideas. And when that happens, do you not think that, having learned from an experience so dearly purchased, you will find much to alter in the things you were teaching only a few years back? Strange Defeat, 142).1 What was at stake was a geological upheaval of thought …2
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DOI 10.1080/10848770500084820
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