Bloch, Marc (1886–1944)

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BLOCH, MARC (1886–1944)


French historian.

Marc Bloch has cut quite a figure both in the history of his discipline and the history of France in the twentieth century. This double impression that Bloch made, both scientific and political, may explain why in the early twenty-first century he is one of the authors most often cited—as an example to be followed and even as an icon—in the human and historical sciences in France and on the international scene.


Marc Bloch was born on 6 July 1886 in Lyon, to a family of Jewish and Alsatian origins. Because his father was a professor of Roman history at the Sorbonne, Bloch received his education entirely in Paris. From 1904 to 1908 he studied history and geography at the École Normale Supérieure, then spent two semesters at the Universities of Berlin and Leipzig. This "German Year," during which he attended the courses of Gustav Schmoller (1838–1917), Karl Bücher (1847–1930), and Karl Lamprecht (1856–1915), affected him deeply as might be expected. Although Bloch certainly did become one of the top specialists in German history and historiography in France, he never became a Germanophile. All his sympathies tended instead toward England, about which he did not only become an expert as concerns its history, but which he also loved to visit for both professional and personal reasons.

During World War I Bloch served as a soldier on the front and was promoted to the rank of captain. He was wounded and decorated several times. In 1919 he was appointed lecturer at the now-French Strasbourg University. He then proceeded to become associate professor and finally full professor (in 1927). It was also in Strasbourg in 1929 that Bloch founded, along with Lucien Febvre (1878–1956), the journal Annales d'histoire économique et sociale, which became one of the most important laboratories for "New History" on both the French and international scenes.

After several unsuccessful attempts Bloch managed to leave Strasbourg in 1936, as Febvre had done three years before. In 1936 he was elected to the Sorbonne as chair in economic history. Although too old to fight in 1939, he served as a volunteer during the "would-be war" ("drôle de guerre"). After the debacle was complete, he pulled no punches in his analysis of the errors committed by France's general staff, as well as the crisis in French society, which had led to defeat (L'étrange défaite, 1946; Strange Defeat, 1953). Despite an offer from the New School for Social Research to come to New York, he remained in France during the occupation. After having taught in Clermont-Ferrand and Montpellier thanks to a favor from the Vichy government, he joined the active resistance at the moment when German troops invaded the southern zone. Under various pseudonyms, he took part in the direction of the "franc-tireur" resistance movement. On 8 March 1944 Bloch was arrested by the Gestapo in Lyon. On 16 June, just a few days after the landings at Normandy, he was shot along with twenty-nine other prisoners just outside the city.


Bloch's professional works primarily concern the economic and social history of the Middle Ages, rural history, and the history of mentalities. Because of its wide intellectual scope and comparative approach, it was held up by numerous historians as the model for "total history," which draws on contributions from all the human sciences, in particular economics, sociology, and anthropology. Furthermore, in the tradition of Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), Bloch never lost interest in the evolution of contemporary societies and their mentalities, so much so in fact that he was able to formulate, based on his own personal experiences, particularly fruitful hypotheses concerning the phenomena of rumors ("Les fausses nouvelles de la guerre [False rumors in wartime]," 1921) and collective memory. In addition, his work on the French defeat of 1940 became a founding text for what is now called "l'histoire du temps present" (contemporary history).

On the epistemological level, Bloch initially adopted the scientistic critique of the French sociologist François Simiand (1873–1935) regarding the vulgar positivism of "political historians." But later, after having been deeply impressed by the intellectual revolutions fueled by the discoveries of Albert Einstein (1879–1955) and Werner Heisenberg (1901–1976), he pleaded for a certain "softening" of Durkheimism and a "history that is both enlarged and deepened," a program for which his last book, Apologie pour l'histoire (1949; The Historian's Craft, 1953), sought to outline. Though it was left incomplete, this book nonetheless represents an important installment in a work that was varied, innovative, and highly rigorous.

See alsoAnnales School; Braudel, Fernand; Febvre, Lucien; Resistance.


Primary Sources

Bloch, Marc, Lucien Febvre, et al. Annales d'histoire économique et sociale. Correspondance. 3 vols. Edited by Bertrand Müller. Paris, 1994–2004.

Secondary Sources

Atsma, Hartmut, and André Burguière, eds. Marc Bloch aujourd'hui: Histoire comparée et sciences sociales. Paris, 1990.

Dumoulin, Olivier. Marc Bloch. Paris, 2000.

Fink, Carole. Marc Bloch: A Life in History. Cambridge, U.K., 1989.

Friedman, Susan W. Marc Bloch, Sociology, and Geography: Encountering Changing Disciplines. Cambridge, U.K., 1996.

Raulff, Ulrich. Ein Historiker im 20. Jahrhundert: Marc Bloch. Frankfurt, 1995.

Schöttler, Peter ed. Marc Bloch: Historiker und Widerstandskämpfer. Frankfurt, 1999.

Peter SchÖttler