Albert Sorel

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Albert Sorel

The French diplomatic historian Albert Sorel (1842-1906) was distinguished for his major work, Europe and the French Revolution, which influenced profoundly the interpretation of the French Revolution.

Albert Sorel was born to a wealthy industrial family of Honfleur. Although his father wanted him to join the family business, he showed from a very early age an interest in literature and history, and by the age of 18 he was publishing numerous poems in local journals. By 1863 Sorel published a series of articles in which he argued that a general history of France could not be written without previous histories of the villages and cities of the country, allowing the picture of the whole to be built up by a mosaic of parts. These interests were to appear later in his most famous work.

After finishing his studies, Sorel received his father's permission to seek work in Paris. With the assistance of François Guizot, he was attached to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1866. While at the Ministry, between 1866 and 1871, Sorel proved himself an astute diplomat. At the same time, he composed poetry and music and published two novels. During and after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 he served as chief assistant to France's primary negotiator and assured himself of a brilliant future as a diplomat.

Sorel's career was not to be as a diplomat, however. Because he felt that his German wife, whom he married shortly after the war, would be put in a difficult position because of strong anti-German feelings in France, he retired from political life, took a position as a professor at the newly established École des Sciences Politiques, and devoted the rest of his life to one work, Europe and the French Revolution.

After a series of detailed preparatory studies, Sorel published his masterwork in eight volumes between 1885 and 1904. His object was to study the struggle between the Old Regime (ancien régime) of Europe and the Revolution. The Revolution was neither a perversion of the past nor a totally new creation. Alexis de Tocqueville had discovered that much of the internal policy of the Revolution had been a continuation of that of the Old Regime, and Sorel argued that the foreign policy of the Revolution was a natural outgrowth of that of the European Old Regime.

As the "Enlightened Despots" had ruthlessly partitioned Poland under the guise of establishing natural frontiers, so the Revolution's foreign policy was based on might rather than right, and the noble ideas of rational reform were lost in the struggle for alleged natural frontiers. In the later volumes, Sorel even argued that Napoleon's expansionist policies were a continuation of practices common in a morally bankrupt Europe.

Sorel's work, particularly the early volumes, placed the Revolution in a general European context and contributed to an understanding of the most general and most fundamental forces affecting the entire course of 19th-century European history.

Sorel died one of the most respected and most influential of modern historians, his work forcing men to study the quality of the most basic structures of a society rather than simply placing blame or credit on individuals or groups.

Further Reading

There are brief accounts of Sorel in G.P. Gooch, History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (1913; 2d ed. rev. 1952), and James Westfall Thompson, A History of Historical Writing (2 vols., 1942). For Sorel's place in French historiography see Paul Farmer, France Reviews Its Revolutionary Origins (1944). Stanley Mellon, The Political Uses of History (1958), is a provocative study of the role of French historiography itself. □