Halbwachs, Maurice (1877–1945)

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French philosopher and sociologist.

Maurice Halbwachs studied with both the philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson (1859–1941) and the sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917). His best-known work opened new perspectives on the concept of collective memory, understood as the social practices by which different groups of people recollect their common past.

Born on 11 March 1877, Halbwachs graduated from École Normale Supérieure , receiving his agrégation first in philosophy in 1901, later in sociology. He thus reached intellectual maturity about the time of the Dreyfus affair, which tore France in two. His outlook was cosmopolitan; Halbwachs was one of a number of French intellectuals who valued and absorbed German scholarship. His early work was on metropolitan life and living standards. In 1913 he published La classe ouvrière et les niveaux de vie: Recherches sur la hiérarchie des besoins dans les sociétés industrielles contemporaines (The working class and living standards: Research on the hierarchy of needs in contemporary industrial societies). Intellectual issues captivated Halbwachs, from the social sciences to mathematics, from philosophy to music, to such an extent that one might say he was a social scientific school unto himself. In 1914 the socialist Halbwachs, despite his usual lucidity, chose to support the French war effort and to work for social and political unity. Poor vision kept him from combat, and instead he served in the circle of civil servants surrounding the socialist minister of armaments and war, Albert Thomas.

After the war, he taught at Strasbourg University, which had been recaptured from the Germans, together with others among the French intellectual elite. Among them, the French historians Marc Bloch (1886–1944) and Lucien Febvre (1878–1956) invited him to join the editorial committee of the pathbreaking journal of economic and social history, Annales.

Halbwach's major works are his sociological analyses of memory and suicide: Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire (1925; Collective memory) and Les causes du suicide (1930; The causes of suicide). In the interwar years, he was developing a distinctive approach to sociology, halfway between Bergson and the late Durkheim. He did not share the political activism of his sister Jeanne Halbwachs, who with her husband was involved in the pacifist movement in France. Thus, Halbwachs's major work on the social construction of memory, written before World War II, makes virtually no reference to contemporary events. Despite the obsession with commemoration of World War I in interwar France, Halbwachs never refers to war and remembrance in his sociological studies. Nevertheless, Halbwachs showed how individual memory cannot exist without a social framework, and that public events imprint themselves on the contemporary public, particularly the young, who are still developing an adult identity. We are never the first person who knows who we are: others tell us what we need to remember in order to be who we are. Memories are at once individual and private and, contrary to dreams, can be shared and are collectively defined. But "personal" memory also preserves traces, unique to each individual, that combine with communal and collective memories. We adjust our own memories to fit the social groups in which we live our lives. If individuals literally remember, it is the group to which they belong that determines what is memorable. Society's power is immense and serves above all as a powerful constraint in the sense that Halbwachs's teacher, Durkheim, understood it to be.

Yvonne Basch, Halbwach's wife, introduced him to the League for the Defence of Human Rights and its president, her father, the fiery Victor Basch. She also initiated him—he was an agnostic though born Catholic—into a world of assimilated French Jewish culture about which he knew little. Halbwachs refined his reflections on memory in what would be his last and most complete work to be published in his lifetime, La topographie légendaire des Evangiles en Terre Sainte (1941; The legendary topography of the Gospels in the Holy Land).

Halbwachs, who had early studied Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and German philosophy, was a pioneer of French and German cultural exchange, most particularly by introducing the work of the German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) into France. An early antifascist, he sheltered Italian and German refugees, including the German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), joining the French Resistance together with his two sons in 1940. In 1944 a fascist militia murdered his wife's parents, Victor and Ilona Basch, and he was in ever greater danger. In the summer of 1944, with his younger son Pierre, he was deported to Buchenwald. He had just been admitted to the prestigious Collège de France but would not return for his inauguration speech. He died in Buchenwald. Although Halbwachs's contributions were largely forgotten over the next half century, they have since reentered American and European intellectual discourse. Restored to his proper place, the man who coined the term collective memory offers a variety of useful concepts toward an improved grasp of repression, forgetting, indeed amnesia—all at the heart of the processes of remembrance understood as a social phenomenon.

See alsoBenjamin, Walter; Bloch, Marc; Holocaust; Resistance.


Primary Sources

Halbwachs, Maurice. The Collective Memory. Translated by Francis J. Ditter Jr. and Vida Yazdi Ditter. New York, 1980.

——. On Collective Memory. Edited, translated, and with an introduction by Lewis A. Coser. Chicago, 1992.

Secondary Sources

Becker, Annette. Maurice Halbwachs: Un intellectuel en guerres mondiales, 1914–1945. Paris, 2003.

Ricoeur, Paul. La mémoire, l'histoire, l'oubli. Paris, 2000.

Annette Becker