Can post-war French historians be subjects of history?

In this third post in a series of reflections on the New Directions in French History Conference in London in September, Ellen Crabtree (PhD candidate in French, Newcastle University) reflects on post-war historians as a generation, and as individuals.

In his essay What is history? EH Carr famously cautioned students to ‘study the historian before you begin to study the facts’.[1] But why not study the historian full stop? Scrutinising historians as individual figures can advance new historical readings, along with a deeper understanding of the historical discipline and the agency of historians in society. My research focusses on the engagement of one particular French post-war historian, Madeleine Rebérioux (1920-2005), eminent scholar of Jean Jaurès. My thesis unpicks Rebérioux’s own militancy in a wide range of political, humanitarian and intellectual disputes and initiatives, from anti-torture campaigns during the Algerian war to debates concerning new definitions of citizenship in the 1990s.

Thinking more broadly, Rebérioux’s extraordinary trajectory was in fact shared by her ‘generation’ of historians, broadly conceived as left-wing, engaged social historians, often with some connection with the Annales. When studied in depth, these individuals’ paths uncover much about the discipline of history and the political contexts of the Fourth and Fifth Republics, as well as locating the overlap between private individual and professional historian. As explored in the NDF workshop, considering past historians’ political engagement also compels a deeper reflection on the impact of our own political, social and emotional concerns (or to put more bluntly, our “baggage”) on scholarship and how personal backgrounds can (or should?) inform historical research.

Of course, ‘historians’ are not a homogenous group, but one which covers a wide range of identities, institutions, specialisms and approaches. Drawing upon sociologist Karl Mannheim’s concept of generations as ‘units’ we can identify a cohort of leftist post-war French historians and chart the connection between their political experiences, engagement and professional careers.[2] Rebérioux’s generation offers a rich terrain for unravelling the relationship between historian, history and politics. These historians had spectacularly unique trajectories: born in the shadow of the First World War, her cohort grew up during the last decades of the Third Republic, were university-educated during the Second World War and their early careers as academics were shaped by the colonial wars of Indochina, Algeria and Vietnam. Politically-charged events of the twentieth century were coupled with significant developments in the historical discipline itself: the rise of the Annales, challenges to the Marxist orthodoxy (including the liberal revival) and the various postmodern linguistic, cultural and autobiographical turns.

Rebérioux’s generation had several identifying factors: they were ‘engagé’ and shared a desire to act beyond the confines of the historical discipline; they were interested in new ways of pushing historiographical boundaries, especially in relation to the Annales or labour history; most were on the left and those who were one-time PCF members had dramatic ruptures or run-ins with the party during the 1950s and 1960s. Rebérioux herself was expelled from the PCF in 1969 after two decades of conflict with the party line. Alongside Rebérioux one could name Maurice Agulhon, Alain Besançon, François Furet, Annie Kriegel, Jacques Le Goff, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Michelle Perrot, Rolande Trempé and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, among many others. This cohort of historians were characterised by their political arrière-pensée, a quality which could be perceived to undermine the value of historical scholarship. For these individuals, however, to be a ‘historian’ meant something far more than simply researching, writing and teaching history: studying the past was a broader extension of ideology.

Rebérioux’s interview with Marc Riglet (2001)

How can a history of historians’ engagement be written? Much has been made of the relationship between historians and their autobiographies, from Pierre Nora’s essais d’ego-histoire (1987) to the Institut National d’Audiovisuel’s filmed series Paroles d’historiens (early 2000s).[3] In the last decade French historian navel-gazing has shifted from an autobiographical approach to a more critical, dispassionate perspective, led by work on François Furet’s intellectual life (Michael Scott Christofferson, Christophe Prochasson) and research on Maurice Agulhon’s library (Jonathan Barbier, Natalie Petiteau). Such works draw upon historians’ material legacy (private papers, books, audiovisual archives) rather than personal oral histories. Whilst the benefits of an oral-based approach are manifold, using personal testimonies relies on the interviewee still being with us. As time marches on such testimonies become increasingly selective, especially as the post-war generation pass away.

Rather than relying on individuals’ memories to construct a history of historians, private archives offer an alternative route to analysing historians’ own agency in politics, society and culture. Rebérioux is one example who left a remarkable paper archive after her death in 2005, distributed between the Archives Nationales in Pierrefitte, the Musée de l’histoire vivante in Montreuil as well as her library held by the ENS. These many boxes (over 130 boxes in addition to 1,325 books) can be used to reconstruct her broad range of militant activities. Rebérioux’s papers reveal much about her militancy: her engagement as an anti-colonialist, advocate of human rights and cultural specialist, in the process illuminating the connections with her historical work on Jean Jaurès and French socialism during the Third Republic.

Whilst Rebérioux’s papers tell a story of her militancy as an individual they also reveal much about the changing social practices during her own lifetime, for example the shift from writing letters by hand to using typewriters and later faxes and emails towards the end of her lifetime. Of course, the strength of the paper archive is in itself limited to this post-war generation, as the digital age leaves increasingly fewer material traces, posing new questions about how historians uses digital sources in their research. For individuals such as Rebérioux and her colleagues, delving into paper archives can be used to understand a life lived in a way that can be complementary to oral histories and the memories of former colleagues, family and friends.

JF Maifflet and Damien Richard recently suggested that ‘l’histoire n’est pas qu’un métier c’est aussi un plaisir, une vision du monde et de la société, un engagement’.[4] Scrutinising a group of historians who blurred the lines between historical research and political engagement can help to reveal more about the place of history in contemporary politics and society. Moreover, studying individuals like Rebérioux questions the place of our own subjectivities in writing history: at what point do private individual and professional historian cross over?


[1] Edward Hallett Carr, What is history? (London: Macmillan, 1961), p. 17.

[2] Karl Mannheim, ‘The problem of generations [1923]’, in Essays on the sociology of knowledge, ed. Paul Kecskemeti (London: Routledge, 1952).

[3] Pierre Nora (ed.), Essais d’ego-histoire (Paris: Gallimard, 1987).

[4] JF Maifflet and Damien Richard, ‘Qu’est-ce qu’un historien? Essais typologiques et imaginaires sociaux’, in Le mai 68 des historiens: entre identités narratives et histoire orale, ed. Agnès Callu (Villeneuve-d’Ascq: Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2010), p. 89.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Society for the Study of French History logo