The Third Republic of France: The First Phase 1871-1894

The Third Republic of France: The First Phase 1871-1894

The Third Republic of France: The First Phase 1871-1894

The Third Republic of France: The First Phase 1871-1894

Excerpt

In the preface to his selection of extracts from the Greek and Latin historians, Dr. M. I. Finley reminded us that 'history in its root sense means inquiry'. All historical writing is, or ought to be, directed to the elucidation of a problem. It is in a way a high-class roman policier. It is comparatively simple if it is limited to a short period or an incident from which nothing came. But an inquest on the body of a society is more difficult than an inquest on a human being. Evidence of substance is hard to collect, harder to verify and harder still to interpret. The problem to which this history is directed is the discovery and dissection of the events in France that led to the defeat and downfall of the Third French Republic in 1940.

This is not a straightforward narrative history of France over seventy years, though that will come later. It is neither economic nor political nor social history, but all three are drawn on. It attempts an explanation by synthesis. In every country, in every society, there are new things and old things. Renan said that nothing that happened in his day was unrelated to the Revolution. But one must go back further. Anyone who has studied Les caractères originaux de l'histoire rurale française by Marc Bloch, published thirty years ago, will know how deep are the roots. My friend and partner, the late Hamish Miles, drew from M. André Maurois the story of how he contested the rights of his local villagers to fish certain waters on his land, which is in the Dordogne. The village deputation said that they had the right. 'From whom did you get it?' asked M. Maurois. 'The English gave it to us', they cried. By the year 1500 the English had gone for ever, but the rights they had granted remained. Writing soon after the war of 1914-18 the great geographer, Vidal de la Blache, wrote: 'Le régime politique actuel met en jeu, non seulement des passions et des intérêts, mais des réminiscences plus ou moins défigurées, des préjugés, des légendes.'

It appears to me that in this dark epoch, the nineteenth century, in spite of more abundant evidence (it may not be reliable) than ever existed before (it may never exist again: the telephone is an enemy to the historian), we are faced by problems of historical writing that did not appear when the powers could dismiss a gang of Diggers with a few smacks over the buttocks with the flat of the sword, or reduce Levellers with a touch of decimation. Such minor incidents are unimportant . . .

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