History Heroes: Marc Bloch

Scholar created a whole new way of looking at history, but found time to fight in two World Wars–latterly, aged 60, as a leader of the French Resistance

Marc Bloch: Historian. French Resistance leader. Hero.
Marc Bloch: Historian. French Resistance leader. Hero. Wikicommons

At eight on the evening of June 16, 1944—dusk on the tenth day after the Allied invasion of France–the Gestapo dragged 28 French resistance fighters from the cells where they had been incarcerated, tortured and interrogated at Montluc prison, Lyon. Handcuffed in pairs, the men were thrust onto an open truck and driven to an empty field outside a little village kn0wn as Saint-Didier-de-Formans. Along the way, a German officer bragged to them that the war would still be won, and that London was about to be destroyed by V1 flying bombs.

London would, of course, survive, and the war would not be won by Nazi Germany, but that was scant consolation to the resistance men as they were taken four by four into the field for execution. The accounts of two men among the prisoners who miraculously survived being shot in the back at close range allow us to know something of their final moments. There were no pleas for mercy. Some of the men shouted out last words as they were led into the field—”Adieu ma femme!” one of them called—but most remarkable was the brief scene that played out between the oldest and the youngest of the prisoners.

The younger man was really a boy, 16 years old and terrified of what was about to happen. The older was small, balding but distinguished-looking, and, at 58, he wore round glasses and the haggard look of a prisoner who had survived repeated torture. As the execution party cocked its guns, the boy groaned, “This is going to hurt.” “No, my boy, it doesn’t hurt,” the older man assured him. He reached out to enclose the child’s hands in his own and held them, shouting “Vive la France!” as the first volley of machine-gun fire rang out.

So died Marc Bloch, arguably the most important and influential historian of the 20th century, and without much doubt one of the greatest men among historians. It is given to very few members of any academic profession to revolutionize the way in which it is studied, but Bloch did that, helping to create the hugely influential Annales school, which argued compellingly in favor of the study of “history from below”—of everyday life, that is, studied in the context of geography and the social environment and over la longue durée, the long term: typically a thousand years or more. Even fewer men combine careers of such distincti0n with success in other fields. Bloch, though, fought in two World Wars, receiving four citations for bravery and winning the Légion d’honneur—the French equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor—in the first, and sacrificing his life to free his country from totalitarian dictatorship during the second. It is hard to think of any man who better deserves the tribute paid by L’Association Marc Bloch, the society set up to preserve his memory: “Historian and man of action.”

Marc Bloch
Marc Bloch as a sergeant in the First World War. He later rose to the rank of captain and was awarded France’s highest decoration for bravery. Public Domain

Born in 1886, Bloch was the son of Gustave Bloch, a noted historian of Rome who lectured at the University of Lyon and believed firmly in the then-radical notion that history should be framed as a series of investigative questions rather than as little more than a mere narrative. The young Marc owed much of his early training to his father, who, like his mother, was the child of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe—but it was perhaps one episode, during what was a predominantly idyllic childhood, that most influenced his way of thinking. For almost a dozen years, Bloch’s family campaigned for Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer falsely accused of spying for Germany, and whose arrest and wrongful conviction for treason in 1894 split France into two warring camps. The Dreyfus affair convinced the young Bloch that even apparently objective searches for “factual” information could result in dangerous distortions. His rejection of the idea that the “scientific” gathering of facts was the best way to approach history was a first step to the formulation of the radical and influential abandonment of event-led history that came to identify the Annales school.

This acuteness of mind—luckily combined with his privileged upbringing—gave Bloch the opportunity to pursue a stellar academic career, which took him through some of the finest schools and universities in France and culminated in a series of groundbreaking books. Although best-known in the English-speaking world for his The Historian’s Craft—a book packed with still-valid advice for would-be practitioners of the art of reading history—Bloch’s major academic works also remain widely read. Only one deals with a modern subject—L’Etrange Défaite (The Strange Defeat), a remarkably insightful study of the reasons for the catastrophic French collapse in 1940, written in the first months of the Nazi victory—but, in Bloch’s hands, even the most esoteric subjects were made to yield useful insights. Thus the figures that Bloch painstakingly compiled for his first book, Les Rois Thaumaturges (translated into English as The Royal Touch and dealing with the ancient belief that kings had the power to cure the painful swellings caused by scrofula) show that 2,400 sufferers assembled to be “touched”–and cured—at the coronation of Louis XVI in 1774, while a mere 120 mustered half a century later for the restored Bourbon monarch, Charles X. This, as Eric Hobsbawm points out, is the most vivid and compelling sort of evidence for the complete collapse of French belief in divinely appointed kings.

The ideas of the Annales school, which Bloch founded and led with his friend, the early modernist Lucien Febvre, are so ingrained in the way that historians work and write these days that it is hard to realize how revolutionary they seemed in the 1920s and 1930s. Not even the most devoted proponent of “great man” history, which looks at a period or problem from the top down, would now suggest that there is no point in also studying what the mass of people were thinking and doing at the time, or would claim that there is nothing to be learned from the study of village life over the course of centuries. Yet these ideas, which Bloch did so much to promote, took long years to establish themselves. By 1940, when war returned to France in the shape of a German blitzkrieg of unparalleled ferocity, he was still struggling to popularize them as Professor of Economic History at that most revered of all French universities, the Sorbonne.

Jean Moulin
Jean Moulin, the greatest hero of the French Resistance, worked alongside Bloch in Lyon. His capture in 1943 began the unraveling of the local resistance network that culminated in Bloch’s own death. Illustration: Wikicommons

Bloch viewed the collapse of France with undisguised dismay, and he was among the first to volunteer his services to the French Resistance as it stumbled into life. Bloch was too well-known and, to some resistance men, too old to be of obvious use, and for the first few months of his involvement he uncomplainingly took on mostly menial tasks, delivering messages and newspapers. Returning to his hometown, Lyon, and adopting the identity of “Monsieur Rolin,” he lived a lonely, dangerous life in a series of furnished flats and experienced the pain of being separated from his family.

As a Lyon resistant, Bloch worked alongside the celebrated Jean Moulin, whose betrayal and murder in 1943 marked the beginning of the end for the local resistance movement. Although Moulin refused to talk, even under vicious torture, the Gestapo placed his known associates under surveillance. They then began a series of arrests that culminated in the detection of Bloch.

For the rest of 1943 and much of 1944, however, the historian evaded them. Promoted to head of the Franc-Tireur resistance group in the Rhône region, and recognized at last for his quiet but inspirational qualities of leadership, he set up an office on the outskirts of Lyon and there coded and decoded Allied messages and saw that they were delivered to his agents on the city’s streets.

“There were of course,” his biographer Carole Fink observes,

long periods of unaccustomed solitude. Bloch spent his fifty-seventh birthday alone. Through contacts he anxiously followed the fate of his two exiled sons, from their long internment in a Spanish prison camp to their release and escape to Free French in North Africa. He was constantly worried about the safety of his elder daughter, Alice, who was guardian of some eighty four- to twelve-year-olds at a children’s home… During their long periods of separation he found his life “heavy,” and he was chagrined at having “abandoned them.”

Bloch’s way of making up for the loss of his family was to adopt a paternal role within his resistance group. Though nominally protected by a code name—”Narbonne”—his fame as a scholar was such that he was easily and dangerously identifiable to many of the members of his group, who found him remarkably egalitarian, smiling and affable—”one of the more practical, penetrating, and articulate elders of the movement,” in Fink’s description. Perhaps remarkably, considering his circumstances, the historian also passed time in thinking of the future. Bloch dreamed of applying for the post of head of the Ministry of National Education after the war, and decided, his biographer says, that he would “abolish all special schools, end the servitude to examinations and the tyranny of Latin and Greek, introduce global studies, encourage innovation in teaching methods, and reorganize research.” Indeed, even while actively involved in planning for “Jour-J,” or D-Day, Bloch “dreamed,” writes Francine Michard, “of an academic world without borders, where geographical, chronological and disciplinary boundaries could be broken down and human history approached from a global perspective.”

Klaus Barbie, the war criminal notorious as “the Butcher of Lyon,” personally interrogated Bloch.
Klaus Barbie, the war criminal notorious as “the Butcher of Lyon,” personally interrogated Bloch. Public Domain

Bloch was an ardent patriot. “I was born in France, I have drunk the waters of her culture. I have made her past my own,” he wrote in L’Etrange Défaite. “I breathe freely only in her climate, and I have done my best, with others, to defend her interests.” As such, he ignored the pleas of colleagues to take greater precautions for his own safety when he felt that they would interfere with his effectiveness as a resistance man. “Despite the many privations,” Fink adds, “he generally had a jaunty air, and seemed to relish the personal freedom and physical and material austerity of an underground activist.” Yet he anticipated death, knowing that, after a full year as a resistance leader, he was by now too well-known to far too many people to survive. Any one of several hundred resistants who recognized him could break down and confess under torture.

A further wave of arrests began in March 1944, prompted by the detection and interrogation of “Drac,” a resistance leader who was part of the Franc Tireur movement and whose adjutant was Jean Bloch-Michel, Marc Bloch’s nephew. The historian was picked up the next morning, betrayed by a baker who pointed him out to the Gestapo as he walked across the Pont de la Boucle at 9 a.m. In all, 63 members of the resistance were picked up in the swoops, leading the Vichy French minister of information, Philippe Henriot, to crow: “Lyon, the capital of the Resistance, is destroyed.” Henriot ordered the collaborationist press to focus on Bloch, who was labeled the captured leader of “the terrorist general staff” and dismissed as “a Jew who had taken on the pseudonym of a French southern city” and had been living off funds made available to him “by London and Moscow.”

Of more immediate concern to Bloch was the fate that awaited him in grim Moulet Prison, where an infamous Gestapo officer, Klaus Barbie, was in charge of interrogating prisoners. “Looking back,” one of Barbie’s victims, Raymond Aubrac, recalled, “I sometimes even think that he wasn’t that interested in getting any information. Fundamentally he was a sadist who enjoyed causing pain and proving his power. He had an extraordinary capacity for violence. Coshes, clubs and whips lay on his desk and he used them a lot…Contrary to what some others say, though, he wasn’t even a good policeman, because he never got any information out of me. Not even my identity, or that I was Jewish.”

A surviving female resistant, Lise Lesevre, recalled that Barbie had tortured her for nine days, beating her, hanging her up in spiked handcuffs, ordering her to strip naked and get into a tub filled with freezing water and then half-drowning her, and finally beating her with a rubber baton and a form of mace–a spiked ball attached to a chain, which shattered a vertebra and left her in pain for the rest of her life. Bloch was subjected to similar interrogations at least twice, and he spent four weeks in the infirmary recovering from his second encounter with Barbie. His ailments—he was suffering from double bronchial pneumonia and serious contusions—suggest prolonged exposure to the ice-bath treatments and the rubber club described by Leserve.

During this “long agony,” Fink concludes,

Bloch remained calm and stoic…. He told the Germans nothing but his real name, perhaps in the hope of outside intervention, perhaps out of pride or a desire for better treatment. After his release from the infirmary, he was interrogated twice again, on 22 and 25 May, and again refused to give information.

Even after this brutality, Bloch retained sufficient strength and intellectual curiosity to begin teaching French history to the young resistants imprisoned with him, one of whom recalled being given an advanced lecture on the significance of field patterns during the feudal period. But the historian’s fate, like that of those around him, was sealed by the Allied invasion and the German retreat. The Gestapo decided to leave as little evidence of their activities as possible, and most of the occupants of Moulet Prison were shot.

On the morning after Bloch’s execution, his body was found among those of his companions by the schoolmaster of Saint-Didier-de-Formans. “The scene of carnage,” Fink notes,

was brutally chaotic–bodies resting on their backs, stomachs, or sides, and some curled up. Among them was a blind man holding his cane, another had an artificial right arm, and there was a corpse wearing the insignia of the Legion of Honor.”

This may have been Bloch. Because none of the bodies could easily be formally identified, however, they were gathered together and buried in a mass grave in the village cemetery.

Today the execution site stands empty but for a solitary monument positioned at one end of the field, close by the spot where Marc Bloch died. His memory, however, still lives on–all the stronger because he is celebrated both as a fighter against Nazism and as one of the greatest, and most original, historians that France has ever had.


Marc Bloch. Memoirs of War, 1914-15. Cambridge. CUP, 1988; Marc Bloch. The Historian’s Craft. Manchester: MUP, 1992; André Burguière. The Annales School: An Intellectual History. Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 2009; Carole Fink. Marc Bloch: A Life in History. Cambridge: CUP, 1989; Astma Haratmut and André Burguière. Marc Bloch Aujord’hui. Paris: Editions de l’EHESSS, 1990; Eric Hobsbawm. On History. London: Abacus, 1999; Bruce Lyon. “Marc Bloch: historian.” In French Historical Studies, 1987; Francine Michaud. “Marc Bloch 1886-1944″. In Philip Daileader & Philip Whalen (eds). French Historians 1900-2000: New Historical Writing in Twentieth Century France. Oxford: Blackwell, 2010; John Warren. History and the Historians. London: Hodder, 1999; Renée Poznanski. Jews in France During World War II. Hanover : University Press of New England, 1992.

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