Rereading German History: From Unification to Reunification, 1800-1996

By Richard J. Evans | Go to book overview

5

THE VIEW FROM FRANCE 1

The French do not have a very good track record when it comes to writing German history. Over the decades, relatively few historians in France have concerned themselves with the internal history of their neighbours across the Rhine, and the contribution of the French historical profession to modern research on the German past has been disappointing in comparison to that of its British and American counterparts. Those Frenchmen who did attempt to tackle the subject generally took a strongly anti-German line, from writers like Camille Bloch, who devoted themselves between the wars to trying to pin the exclusive blame for the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914 onto the Central Powers, to historians such as Edmond Vermeil, who thought Nazism was a degenerate form of a specifically German intellectual tradition, and sought the ultimate roots of Hitler’s dictatorship in what he regarded as Germany’s unfortunate abandonment of Western, Catholic ways of thinking for Lutheran doctrines of subordination to secular authority in the Reformation.

On the other hand, those French historians who were committed to Franco-German reconciliation in the 1950s often went to the opposite extreme, and sacrificed historical accuracy to political correctness. In 1951, for example, a delegation of French historians headed by Pierre Renouvin met with a group of German colleagues to hammer out an agreed version of the origins of the First World War for incorporation into the two countries’ school textbooks, and concluded, unsurprisingly, that no country was to blame for the débâcle of August 1914; it was all a big mistake. Balanced and well-informed treatments of German history, such as can be found in Georges Castellan’s L’Allemagne du Weimar, for instance, or the more detailed researches of younger historians such as Etienne François, are still regrettably uncommon.

If anybody of the older generation in France is in a position to deliver such a balanced treatment, it must surely be Joseph Rovan. Born into a German-Jewish family in Bavaria in 1918, he emigrated to France with his parents on the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 and became a French citizen. He returned to Germany in 1942 under an assumed name, which he has

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