A Warning From History

We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.

CS Lewis, The Abolition of Man



Too late for Bastille Day, but this reflection by Steven Hayward at Powerline on a book written by French historian Marc Bloch draws my attention.  Bloch was not only a historian but in World War I he had been an infantry combat officer, rising to the rank of Captain and earning a Legion of Honor.  In the wake of the defeat of France in 1940 he asked a simple question:  Why?

Bloch was one of the pre-war founders of the Annales school of historical analysis, which was neither exactly Marxist nor purely “social” history as we know it today, but was an early version of bottom-up meta-history.  (Think of it an the anti-Carlyle/great man school, or history without any dominant figures.  Fernand Braudel is the best-known figure of this school of thought.)

And yet when France succumbed easily to the Nazi invasion in 1940 despite superior forces on paper, a dumbfounded Bloch found he could only explain it by returning to the old fashioned style of thinking about and writing history.  The result was his classic, Strange Defeat: A Statement of Evidence Written in 1940.  His main conclusion is one that no academic historian today would dare to put to paper: France suffered an ignominious moral collapse.  The entire book—it is only 176 pages—is a thrilling read, but I’ll confine myself to just a few selections from the final chapter, “A Frenchman Examines His Conscience,” which, with due adjustments, can serve as a warning for our own intellectual flabbiness in the Age of Terror, as well as a reproach to the dessicated academic history of today:

This timidity of the nation at large was, no doubt, in many cases but the sum of the timidity of individuals. . .  Whatever the reasons, there can be no doubt that our governors, both individually and as a class, did lack something of that ruthless heroism which becomes so necessary when the country is in danger. . .

Bloch is especially hard on the pacifists (and the news media) of the interwar period:

Since the gospel they preached was one of seeming convenience, their sermons found an easy echo in those lazy, selfish instincts which exist in all men’s hearts side by side with nobler potentialities.  These enthusiasts, many of whom were not, as individuals, lacking in courage, worked unconsciously to produce a race of cowards.

And in words that ought perhaps to be emblazoned above the door to every history department in every American university (especially the third sentence), Bloch says:

I do not say that the past entirely governs the present, but I do maintain that we shall never satisfactorily understand the present unless we take the past into account.  But there is still worse to come.  Because our system of historical teaching deliberately cuts itself off from a wide field of vision and comparison, it can no longer impart to those whose minds it claims to form anything like a true sense of difference and change.

Finally (for now), Bloch warns that the consequences of an essentially nihilist culture and education will be the destruction of democracy:

A democracy becomes hopelessly weak, and the general good suffers accordingly, if its higher officials, bred up to despise it, and drawn from those very classes the dominance of which it is pledged to destroy, serve it only half-heartedly.

This is historical reflection when it really counted.  Can it be made to count again?  Not as currently “constructed” (to use the trendy terms against them) in academia today.

Bloch joined the French Resistance in 1942.  The Germans executed him in 1944. Continue Reading