French Historians under the spotlight: Prof. Robert Gildea

Welcome to ‘under the spotlight’, a monthly interview series which offers a snapshot from academics’ lives: their passions, interests and reading suggestions – all summarised in less than ten minutes. You can catch up with previous posts here.

Continuing with our current spotlight on speakers at the SSFH 2016 conference, this month’s subject is Robert Gildea, Professor of Modern History at Oxford. His latest monograph Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance was published in 2015; a review of the IHR seminar discussing the book can be found here.

Robert Gildea
Robert Gildea: “Never say that your work is ‘filling a gap’. Be more ambitious about its contribution and significance”

In one sentence, what is your research about?

Subjectivity, pathways and encounters in a landscape of history and memory – through a French lens but also transnational.

What was your motivation for researching French history?

  1. Discovering at school that British history was in black and white while European was in colour; 2. being sent on an exchange to France when I was 14: my penfriend lived in Versailles but had five female cousins in a small town in Champagne; 3. Doing the Cours de Langue et Civilisation Française at the Sorbonne in my ‘gap year’ (it wasn’t called that at the time) of 1971, during which I saw Mnouchkine’s 1789 and Le Chagrin et la Pitié; 4. Working as a monitor at a summer camp in Vincennes in 1972, meeting my first gauchistes among the other monitors; 5. attending the seminars of Richard Cobb and Theodore Zeldin. Reasons enough?

You’re given a time machine for one day. Where would you go? What would you do?

Go to Sarajevo, 28 June 1914, and knock the gun out of Princip’s hand. Then to the Wolf’s Lair on 20 July 1944 and move the briefcase a bit closer.

Who would you invite to your French History fantasy dinner party?

Do they have to be real people? Julien Sorel, the Count of Monte Cristo, Madame Bovary and Albertine.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

Most rewarding: being (mostly) my own boss, teaching good students. Least rewarding: committees, all the new stuff about impact, knowledge exchange and digital humanities.

What is on your desk at the moment?

Stokeley speaks, Stephen Tuck’s The Night Malcolm X spoke at the Oxford Union, and Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth ( again) for a chapter I have been asked to write on the Global 1968.

If you weren’t in your current role, what would you be doing?

A boulanger.

What key piece of advice would you offer postgraduates/early career academics?

Never say that your work is ‘filling a gap’. Be more ambitious about its contribution and significance. We are not dentists.

A few quick-fire questions… 

Archives Nationales or Archives Départementales?

Départementales – where I started in 1975 and still go when I can.

Monograph or journal article?

Monograph. I have never dared submit an article to Past & Present.

Best conference you’ve ever been to?

Vichy et les Français, Paris, 1990. The memory of Miranda Pollard storming the platform and telling the French historians they had to engage with the history of women.

Writing in silence or to music?


Pick a century?

Nineteenth, to live, though I work more on the twentieth.

Éclair or saucisson?

Unfair question. Why not Comté or Camembert? Comté every time.


Many thanks to Robert for taking part. ‘Under the spotlight’ will return in the Autumn. If you’d like to suggest someone to feature on the blog, then let us know via @FrHistNwk.



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