Georges Lefebvre

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Georges Lefebvre

The French historian Georges Lefebvre (1874-1959) was one of the major 20th-century historians of the French Revolution.

Georges Lefebvre was born at Lille on Aug. 6, 1874. His father had little money to spend on his son's education. Young Lefebvre attended the local public school, followed the "special curriculum" in the local lycée—which emphasized modern languages, mathematics, and economics instead of the classical languages— and graduated from the University of Lille. This education, he later wrote, "opened my mind to economic and social realities, and gave me the air of an independent, self-taught individual among my colleagues later on." He began research on his doctoral thesis in 1904, but as a provincial school-teacher, preoccupied by supporting a family and his aged parents, he did not complete it until 1924, when he was 50 years old.

Lefebvre's doctoral thesis, "The Peasants of the Nord Department and the French Revolution," was a detailed statistical study of the effect of the Revolution on the countryside. It was based on a thorough analysis of thousands of tax rolls, notarial records, and the registers of rural municipalities, whose materials he used to trace the effects of the abolition of feudalism and ecclesiastical tithes, the consequences of property transfers, the movement of the bourgeoisie into the countryside, and the destruction of collective rights in the peasant villages. He argued that the Revolution completed the breakdown of peasant solidarity and transformed the village community. It created a class of peasant proprietors attached to the gains of the Revolution and to the principle of private property.

After his thesis appeared, Lefebvre was named professor at Clermont-Ferrand. In 1928 Marc Bloch succeeded in having him brought to Strasbourg, and in 1935 he was named to Paris. He reached retirement age in 1941 but was invited by his colleagues to remain until the Liberation.

Lefebvre was a man of the left and called himself a Marxist. He considered Jules Guesde and Jean Jaurès to have had the greatest influence on his intellectual life. He had seen Jaurès only twice, from a distance, but the latter's Socialist History of the Revolution determined the direction of Lefebvre's research. Lefebvre's Marxism, however, was thoroughly tempered: "Marx clarified the dominant influence of the mode of production, but it was never his intention to exclude other factors, especially man … It is man who makes history."

Lefebvre showed the breadth of his views when he turned from statistical social history to social psychology. In The Great Fear of 1789 (1932) he sought the causes of this movement in the peasant mind: the fear of "brigands," poverty, and unemployment, to which 1789 added a political crisis and fear of an "aristocratic plot." He also wrote several general histories of the Revolution, integrating the social and economic history of the period with the political. The most famous are Napoleon (1935), 1789 (1939), and The French Revolution (1951). He died in Paris on Aug. 28, 1959.

Further Reading

S. William Halperin, ed., Some 20th-Century Historians (1961), includes a chapter on Lefebvre. Also useful is Arthur Marwick, The Nature of History (1970). □

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Georges Lefebvre (zhôrzh ləfĕ´vrə), 1874–1959, French historian, an authority on the French Revolutionary period. From 1937 to 1945 he held the chair of French Revolutionary history at the Sorbonne, and he founded the Institut d'histoire de la Révolution française. Lefebvre's most original contributions were the writing of history from below, particularly the French Revolution as viewed from the experiences of the peasantry, and his mastery of quantitative research. Both are evident in Les Paysans du Nord pendant la Révolution française (1924). Although influenced by Marxism, he was predominantly an empiricist and a humanist; he saw in history a complex interaction of social, economic, and political phenomena. His La Révolution française (rev. ed. 1951), considered an authoritative work, has been translated in two volumes as The French Revolution (1962–64) and The French Revolution from 1793 to 1799 (1964). Another work is Napoléon (4th ed. 1953; tr., 2 vol., 1969), a judicious study of the Napoleonic era.