The Debt of WWII Resistance Fighters to WWI Veterans, Part 4. Marc Bloch - A History Lesson
By Jennifer Orth-Veillon
On June 16, 1944, ten days after the Americans landed in Normandy on D-Day, the Gestapo massacred 29 French Resisters Among them was Marc Bloch, one of the world's most important historians. This was not the first time Bloch, a Jew from Alsace and Professor at the Sorbonne, had taken up arms against the Germans. In this post, WWrite Curator, Jennifer Orth-Veillon, discusses Bloch's incredible trajectory from Legion of Honor WWI leader to WWII French Resistance hero. Read about Bloch and the ways in which WWI shaped his pathbreaking approach to history at WWrite this week!
On June 16, 1944, ten days after the Americans landed in Normandy on D-Day, the Gestapo massacred 29 French Resisters who had been interned in Lyon’s Montluc Nazi Prison. Among them was Marc Bloch, one of France’s most important historians. Legend says that he cried “Vive la France!” (Long live France!) as he fell. This was not the first time Bloch, a Jew from Alsace and Professor at the Sorbonne, had taken up arms against the Germans.
When he was mobilized in 1914 at the beginning of WWI, he put his doctoral dissertation aside and joined the French Army as a sergeant. He fought at the Marne, the Meuse, the Argonne, the Somme, the Chemin des Dames, and also served for three months in Algeria. In 1918, he finished the war as a captain. He was awarded the prestigious French Military Cross and the Legion of Honor with four citations in 1919.
On August 17, 1918, he wrote a letter to a young woman informing her of the death of her brother, who was under his command. This was the second brother she had lost during the war:
…You brother, Corporal Bernard, died for France on July 24th during a victorious offensive that pushed the Boches back from the Aisne. He was killed by a shell and I can tell you on my word of honor that he died quickly, without suffering. Under my watch, he was buried in the military cemetery in the village of Léchelle (in the Aisne region,) near the Paris-Soissons railroad near the north exit of the Vierzy tunnel.
I will not try, Mademoiselle, to offer consolations that you do not wish to hear. This hardship has cruelly happened to you before. Perhaps it would have been better that neither of your brothers knew about the death of the other before dying. Perhaps their last moments would have calmer. What I want to say to you most of all is, that I remember Bernard with great emotion. In my line of work, I am surrounded by acts of mourning. In all sincerity, there have been few losses that have affected me the way Bernard’s has. I’ve known him for a long time and have been able to appreciate his bravery, his intelligence, and his inalterable good humor. It is sad that a man –almost a child– this young and this promising has disappeared like this. Although he often thought of danger, please be assured that he always looked in front of him and did not take one step back away from this beautiful death of a soldier that was his. I have recommended him for a citation and it will be accorded without a doubt. May the memory that his comrades and his officers keep of him bring some relief to your immense pain!...
After the war, Bloch returned to his dissertation. Perhaps it was due to his close contact with his soldiers in the trenches and his observations of the French peasant rural life that was decimated by the fighting that led him to take a new direction with his research. As a professor of Medieval History at the University of Strasbourg, Bloch founded, along with Lucien Febvre, the at-the-time controversial Annales School of History. Bloch and Febvre helped established an entirely new way of writing French history that influenced thought in Europe, Latin America, and beyond. Instead of studying history as a series of events in a school textbook, Bloch urged a more global, multidisciplinary approach that included focusing on social development and using methods from a wide range of the arts and social sciences. Sociology, sculpture, storytelling, psychology, literature, and science took on roles in writing history that were just as important as political or diplomatic events.
In 1916 during the war, Bloch contracted typhoid fever, and during his convalescence, he wrote a memoir of his experience. He felt an urgency to do so “before time erases…colors today so fresh and so vivid.” The memoir first shows the first mobilization of soldiers in Paris that he describes as, peaceful and solemn: "the sadness that was at the bottom of all hearts was visible…Men, for the most part, were not gay; they were resolved, which is better.” He also discusses the "cruel picture" of the French peasants’ exodus from the war-ravaged land, the looting, and life in the mud. Concerning the military leaders, Bloch notes that there was "only one way to persuade a troop to brave a danger: it is to brave it yourself.” “Like everyone," he adds, “I have noted the extreme inadequacy of our material preparation and our military education.” And: "I have not always been happy with all the officers. I found them sometimes poorly attentive to the well-being of their soldiers, too ignorant of the material life of men and too little eager to know it.”
In the list of books he recommends reading, he includes Belgian sociologist, Fernand van Langenhove’s 1916, The Growth of a Legend: A Study Based Upon the German Accounts of Franc-Tireurs et Atrocities in Belgium, that examines the competing propaganda resulting from the German massacre of 6,500 Belgian civilians in 1914. The Allies claimed the Germans targeted women and children in the neutral country of Belgium while the Germans claimed they acted in self-defense. In Bloch’s 1921 article, "Reflections of a Historian on the False News of the War," he seems to echo Van Langenhove when he says that, in history, false stories have always been able to convince crowds. He argues that the1914-18 war provides "a kind of vast experience" in this area. He shows that legends are only created and spread widely if society believes it needs the lie to survive. In the case of understanding legends and lies that allowed WWI to worsen and continue, Bloch claims it is necessary to take note of the following: the role of emotion and the fatigue which weakened the critical sense of people; the censorship and the brainwashing which disturbed the sense of true and false; and, most interesting, the “renewal of the prodigious oral tradition” and the importance of meeting places. He writes that places like the kitchens served as public meeting places within the small world of the trenches.
Marc Bloch was a professor at the Sorbonne when the Germans took Poland in 1939. Despite the fact that he was 53 and had six children, he wanted to take part in the fight. When Hitler’s army invaded France in 1940, Bloch was in charge of supplying the Army with fuel. While he fulfilled his mission, he knew that France was too weak to stand up to Hitler. He wrote Strange Defeat in 1940, an analysis of the disaster in which France surrendered. He did not exonerate himself from the rest. He writes “I belong to a generation that has a bad conscience. During last war, it was true, we returned very tired, and after four years of fighting, we had great haste to get back to the workbench, where we had allowed the tools of our various trades to become rusty. We wanted to make up for the lost work by working double. These are our excuses. I no longer believe that they are enough to make us innocent.”
In October 1940, France, without orders from Hitler, implemented its own anti-Jewish measures and Bloch was expelled from his post at the Sorbonne. He was sent to the University of Strasbourg in Clermont-Ferrand. Under Article 8 of the anti-Jewish measures, which provided for exemptions for individuals who had rendered exceptional services to France, he was then assigned to Montpellier in July. There, he gave up the visa he had obtained for the United States to teach at the New School because he did not want to leave his people and his country. His emigration would have not only saved his life. His wife died of undiagnosed cancer while on the run in France. He served in Montpellier until he was dismissed in1943.
By this time, he had decided to take action against Hitler in the only way he could. In the French Resistance, he became known as “Narbonne,” among other names. Georges Altman, leader of the Franc-Tireur movement, remembers meeting Bloch, who, despite his Legion d’Honneur status, was considered a newbie in the Resistance. Altman writes "I remember this charming moment where…one of our young members of the clandestine fight, whose 20-year-old face of twenty was red with joy, presented me his "new recruit", a fifty-year-old gentleman, decorated with military honors, with a thin face under silver-gray hair, a sharp look behind his glasses…”
Bloch definitively broke with academic life and, alongside Jean Moulin, was quickly entrusted with tasks commensurate with his talents in the Resistance. By July 1943, Bloch became one of the three members of the regional directorate of United Movements of Resistance, led by Charles de Gaulle from London. "Narbonne" became known as a legitimate and respected leader in the demanding world of the underground. On March 8, 1944, he was arrested by the Gestapo, in Lyon. He was brutally tortured and interned in Montluc prison, Bloch was shot three months later in Saint-Didier-de-Formans, outside Lyon.
A fellow Montluc prisoner, who shared a cell with Bloch at Montluc, writes that when Bloch entered, he was “dying, black with bruises, had difficulty breathing, his lungs full of mucus – he must have had a lung infection having been tortured in a bathtub and then left lying wet. We helped him as best as we could, piling covers on him and sitting him against the wall so he could breathe…” Bloch was taken to the prison infirmary and days later returned to the cell. “How happy I am to see my friends!” Bloch exclaimed. No one could believe he was still alive. Recovered, Bloch settled into the horrific routine of the Gestapo prison. The prisoner explains “The monotonous days passed. 6 am: wake up…7 am: a bowl of putrid juice…2 pm: soup….3 pm: a slice of bread then we waited, waited, waited…It was during these moments of waiting when Marc Bloch gave us history lessons.” Before being taken away to his execution, Block told his cellmates “to never forget this betrayal, and if we survived and came home, we had to get justice…”
In his posthumously-published book, Strange Defeat, Bloch describes the military history of his Jewish family in France: “My father was a soldier in 1870 in Strasbourg under siege;…both of my uncles and my father voluntarily left Alsace when it was annexed to the Germans during the 2nd Reich…I was raised in the cult of these patriotic traditions that the exodus of Alsatian Israelites protected the most fiercely.” A leader in both WWI and WWII, Bloch fought to protect France until the end of his life – even when France betrayed him.