1. Paving the way for world history in France

The interwar situation in French academic history directly followed from developments that had been unfolding since the turn of the twentieth century. Therefore this section makes a small step back in time, tracing trends in French academics from about the early 1900s up to the middle of the century. Among the “four historiographical centers of the West”, France stands somewhat out from the other three. There cannot be pointed out a prominent French author of popular world history during the interwar years as there can for Germany (Spengler), the United States (Van Loon), and the United Kingdom (Wells and Toynbee). At the same time, the devotion to Prussian-style scholarship in French academia, although still the establishment position during the interwar years, was not as widespread as in other countries.

In the early 1900s, the Sorbonne was the epicentre of France’s historical instruction. Its main professors were Charles Seignobos and Charles-Victor Langlois (1863-1929), who together had authored the Introduction aux études historiques (1898), which became the standard manual of historical training in France. Despite his critique of German scholarship in 1881, Seignobos now defined the focus of history as individual action and political events, which had to be studied by the minute examination of political documents.[1] But around the turn of the century, alternative perspectives reared their heads. The Dreyfus Affair may have been a key-event in this respect.[2] Some may have considered this episode in French history as the sad outcome of narrow nationalist focus in scholarship. There emerged pleas for focusing on the social, cultural, and economic processes that formed the foundation of the mere incidental political events.

In 1903, France got its own Methodenstreit when debate erupted between representatives of the fields of history and sociology, lasting until 1908.[3] Seignobos made the case for history, while the most prominent advocates of the sociologist argument were Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) and his student François Simiand (1873-1935). Durkheim, who is often hailed as the founder of the discipline of sociology, believed that the (moral) behaviour of individuals could be traced back to the “collective conscience” of its respective social group. A science of societies must operate with typologies that – in a Weber-like fashion – did not correspond to social reality, but could be used to construct a system through which social reality could be understood. Durkheim pleaded that history, which in its Prussian form was concerned with the isolated actions of individuals, could not be a science because it was not systematic.[4] History could serve as an auxiliary discipline to sociology, in order to bring a historical perspective into the sociological study of societies. But beyond that subordinate position, historical scholarship was irrelevant for getting knowledge about the world.

Simiand was a proponent of economic history. The student of Durkheim regarded this branch of historiography to be compatible with social science because it worked with models and quantities.[5] Yet he firmly rejected the ‘Seignobosian’ form of historical scholarship. In a fierce attack on the scholars centred on the Sorbonne, Simiand distinguished history’s “three idols”.[6] The first was politics: conventional historians were obsessed with political events. The second was the individual: the course of history was wrongly equated with the actions of a couple of prominent persons. The last was chronology: historians had a misguided preoccupation with the notion of “origins”. Durkheim and Simiand strived for the primacy of the social sciences over the historical craft. But not everyone that sought an alternate path from the Prussian-style research of the Sorbonne historians desired to relegate history to a supplement of sociology.

Around the turn of the century, the philosopher Henri Berr (1863-1954) launched a plea for a new approach to historical research. Berr was educated in philosophy between 1881 and 1884 at the École Normale Supérieur in Paris, where he was a student of the philosopher Émile Boutroux (1845-1921). Boutroux was concerned with the growing specialization of knowledge and aspired to revolve this tendency.[7] After Berr graduated from the École Normale, he became a lecturer and professor in rhetoric, first in Douai and Tours, and from 1896 at the Lycée Henri IV in the French capital. In his doctoral dissertation from 1899,[8] Berr explored the possibilities to materialize the ideas of Boutroux, with the field of history as his testing ground.

Berr used his dissertation to announce that a “supreme doctrine of life” was within grasp of the contemporary generation of European intellectuals.[9] In an argument against Comte’s philosophy of positivism, Berr stated that philosophy and science did not succeed each other in the progression from the ‘metaphysical’ to the ‘scientific stage’, but needed to come together in the truly progressive ‘synthetic stage’. Thought (the realm of philosophy) had to mix freely with science, and science had to stimulate thought. Berr rejected positivism and empiricism, for he subscribed to the Neo-Kantian position that it was impossible to divide between object and subject; that is, between the mind and what the mind perceives. At the same time, Berr criticized previous philosophers of historical synthesis – such as Vico and Hegel – for being unscientific. Those philosophers had formed truth in their mind themselves, while truth should be established in the mind according to (knowledge of) history. Hence there was required a two-phase process in order to come to a grand synthetic theory of life. In the first phase the past had to be studied by the method of conventional, ‘Prussian’, scholarship: minute critical research of primary documents. In this stage, research was uncoordinated and as a consequence, knowledge was scattered and chaotic. In the second phase philosophy would enter the stage. In a partnership between philosophers and historians, knowledge would be coordinated to produce a philosophy of humankind that was both universal and scientific.

In 1900, Berr established the Revue de synthèse historique.[10] It appeared every other month up till the eve of the First World War, but new issues became less frequent in the interwar years. Berr envisioned the journal to become the platform where his proposed union of history and philosophy could come to life. Not only historians and philosophers were welcome to contribute, the journal was open to scholars from all fields in the human sciences. Berr hoped that together they would work toward the synthesis of knowledge, under the guidance of history as the ‘master-science’.

In the introduction to the series, Berr identified the goal of its program to construct a “psychology of history”.[11] He did not elaborate upon the content of this concept, but what becomes clear is that Berr sought historical development primarily in the realm of ideas. In his dissertation, Berr had already introduced the notion of ‘the Human Mind’,[12] suggesting a collective conscience that could be mapped through the contribution of different human sciences. The emphasis on ideas distanced Berr from the field of sociology. In the introduction to the journal, he praised Durkheim for introducing the notion of “the social” into history, as well as for recognizing that social solidarity could be the object of historical explanation.[13] However, Berr was critical of sociology’s complete omission of the individual in scientific analysis. He claimed that, at times, also the study to the individual could deliver useful knowledge. In particular, he pointed out that sociological analysis was inadequate to the study of the history of philosophy and the realm of ideas. He wrote: “Ce n’est pas, à vrai dire, que l’évolution de la philosophie échappe à toute action sociale; mais c’est, sans doute, que l’histoire des idées dépend des individualités pour une large part, et peut-être aussi a des caractères speciaux qui la rendent peu accessible au pur sociologue.”[14]

When looking at the mere content of his ideas, Berr took a middle position in the polemic between Seignobos and Durkheim. However, in the reality of social and institutional relations in French academics, Berr was forced into to the same circle as Durkheim. His ideas about interdisciplinary synthesis and the role of ‘Durkheimian’ collective phenomena in historical analysis, as well as his background in philosophy rather than history, placed him firmly outside of the camp of conventional academic history. In 1904, Berr got minimal response to a survey that he had sent out to solicit the views of French historians on methodology, and in 1905 he was overlooked for a position that he desired at the Collège de France. Mainstream French historians also mostly ignored the Revue de synthèse historique. Durkheim and Simiand, however, were among its contributors. Other notable authors publishing in Berr’s journal were Émile Boutroux, Karl Lamprecht (who published in the very first issue), the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce (1866-1952), Marc Bloch (1886-1944), and Lucien Febvre (1878-1956). Febvre was one of the most frequent contributors in the first years of the journal. He would later state that in 1902 the Revue synthèse had restored his enthusiasm for history at a time he had become disillusioned with his “banal” historical training.[15]

Although Berr’s alternative approach to history was marginalized, the camp of conventional ‘Prussian’ history, as practiced at the Sorbonne, was not able to isolate its opponents to the extent as had happened with Lamprecht in Germany. After Strasbourg had returned to France following the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the proponents of alternative history were able to establish their own stronghold at the city’s university, which became one of the largest in France. Berr (who worked in Paris) hailed the University of Strasbourg in 1921 for its “spirit of synthesis”.[16] He noticed a staff with commitment and time for research, due to the size of the staff and the low faculty-student ratio. Multiple faculties housed in the same building, promoting interdisciplinary cooperation. Strasbourg professors did not follow the solitary habits of most of their colleagues elsewhere in the country, but attended each other’s classes and gave lectures together.

Two of Strasbourg’s most prominent professors were Febvre and Bloch, who both came to the university in 1919. Febvre had stayed closed to his childhood home; he was a native of Nancy in nearby Lorraine. Berr’s hometown, Lunéville, was just a couple of miles to the East, and also Durkheim’s native Épinal was in the Lorraine. Simiand had a connection to the Northeast as well; after the First World War he served some time as French government official in Alsace-Lorraine. The ties of multiple scholars from the ‘anti-Prussian’ camp to the Northeast might be significant because of the region’s close political involvement with Germany. After the war of 1870, Strasbourg was incorporated into the German Empire, and Nancy, Lunéville, and Épinal became border towns that experienced the nearby German presence by the arrival of refugees and French garrisons. Berr’s academic career took place in Paris, but his publications on the issue of Alsace-Lorraine demonstrated a lasting interest in the affairs of his home region. The relation between the German occupation of Alsace-Lorraine and the anti-Prussian attitudes towards history of the French scholars from (nearby) that region is largely speculation. Yet, the works of Febvre demonstrated a lasting relation between French-German wars and ideas about history.[17] After the First World War, during which Febvre had served in the French army, he denounced many German ideas, such as the nationalist geography of Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904) whose notion of soil-bound races Febvre found disturbing after four years of fighting in a nationalist war. He replaced it for a more dynamic geography based on historical development. It thus seems likely that the association of political history with Germany (Berr called it “la science allemande”),[18] maintained a small opening in French academics for other perceptions of historical study.

The French opposition to nation-oriented political history cannot be equated with world history. The resistance against Sorbonne-based political history did not install world history in French academics, but created the conditions in which world historical research could (but not necessarily would) emerge. Historians that opposed interdisciplinary scholarship remained confined to the sources and methods that were typical to the historical métier: the minute study of documents about national politics. Widening the scope of research beyond these sources and methods allowed for new directions in historical research. These could be towards a wider geographical scope, but might as well move towards small-scale regional analysis instead. Changes could also take place in another realm than geography; by studying social or economic aspects of national societies the subject of historical study was renewed, but the old national focus was retained.

Consequently, scholars in the circle around the Revue de synthèse historique had different geographical interests. The historical studies of Febvre and Bloch mostly concerned national and regional topics, but Berr aspired history on a grand geographical scale. In his 1899 doctorate he declared: “Truth is certainly not national, but it is sometimes national because of particular circumstances.”[19] In 1920, Berr announced a new project in his Revue.[20] He believed that contemporary developments in the world asked for the production of a universal history. Berr observed that faster means of communication had reduced the size of the planet. Through the process of colonization, the “civilized nations” and the “inferior peoples” had become part of the same organism. There had emerged world politics, a world economy, a world civilization, and a global solidarity among all people that lived on the surface of the Earth.

Berr named as its inspiration the German practice of “Weltgeschichte”, which he said had been going on for about twenty years – thus commencing around 1900.[21] According to the Frenchman, the Germans had produced multiple of such world histories, but he did not name any specific works or authors. The books of Breysig and Helmolt fit into Berr’s given timeframe. The first volume of Helmolt’s Weltgeschichte (1919) had been published one year prior to Berr’s announcement of the universal history project, and it is likely that Berr was aware of this work through his connection with Lamprecht. It seems remarkable that Berr mentioned German inspiration for his project so shortly after the war, but two things should be kept in mind. Firstly, the German tradition of Weltgeschichte was marginal to mainstream German historical scholarship, which was based on the teachings of the Prussian school. German motivation for the First World War could be contributed to the political movement that was associated to the latter, not to the alternative scholarship with a more integrative understanding of history. Secondly, German intellectual efforts were often used as a mirror for academic development in France, in order to incite French academics to undertake certain efforts. After introducing German Weltgeschichte, Berr wrote: “On pouvait se demander pourquoi la France, à son heure, n’emploierait pas les resources en hommes de science dont elle dispose, elle aussi, n’utiliserait pas surtout son génie propre, ce besoin de clair et profond savoir, pour une vaste enterprise qui embrasserait l’Humanité, depuis ses origins, et la Terre, dans toute son étendue.”[22]

Berr declared that – regarding the contemporary state of knowledge – it was not possible for just one author to produce such an ambitious and comprehensive work. Therefore, Berr announced that his universal history would become a series of books. Contributing authors could write their own work, which very well could be read in isolation from the series, but which together would compose an encyclopaedia of history that showed the evolution of humankind. Berr distinguished two spheres of universal historical development.[23] The first took place in collective enterprises such as society, art, and science; the second was the growing emancipation of the individual. The evolution of the human species was centred on the notion of reason or “esprit”. Traces of this development could be denoted among numerous societies throughout history, but the process culminated into contemporary Western civilization. By combining the notion of collectives with idealistic development, Berr once again integrated focus points from both sociology and history, and thereby did not conform to either discipline.

However, Berr’s central notion of universal history found little expression in the series, which was published under the title L’évolution d’humanité (1920-1965). The first issue, Edmond Perrier’s La Terre avant l’histoire: les origins de la vie et de l’homme from 1920, started at the very beginning of life, but soon numerous monographs let go of the series central chronology and described their specific subject from antiquity to present. The unity of the series suffered from the fluidity of the program’s guiding principle. Berr, who wrote the introduction to all contributions, kept redefining his notion about universal history, and also allowed the series to be used as a testing ground for new ideas.[24] Berr was not able to direct the series away from traditional historical subjects, and the whole project ended up more conventional than Berr had intended. European history dominated and few authors were concerned with the concept of global synthesis that lay at the root of the project. When Berr died in 1954, 52 of a planned 100 volumes had been published. The series ran for another decade and was abandoned in 1965, when 65 books had appeared under its title.

The difficulties and resistance that Berr faced in promoting history of a world-scope may explain why Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre did not follow in his footsteps. In 1929, Bloch and Febvre founded the Annales journal.[25] It expressed an understanding of history that was deviant from that of the Prussian school.[26] Annales scholarship focused on social and economic topics, and perceived historical time as consisting of multiple layers rather than existing as one-dimensional linear development. Just as the approach of Berr, Annales-style scholarship was interdisciplinary; integrating methods from (amongst others) the fields of economy, sociology, anthropology, and geography into historical research. In the 1920s and early 1930s, when Bloch and Febvre were both based at the University of Strasbourg, Annales scholarship held a rather marginal position in relation to the historical school of the Sorbonne. It has been suggested that venturing into general world history was too risky for the promotion of Annales scholarship in France as long as it still held a subordinate academic position.[27]

The Annales historians did revise the traditional geographical subject of historical research. Rather than the nation-state, numerous scholars involved in the journal studied smaller ‘cultural regions’. Bloch promoted a comparative approach to historical study, which Berr had already briefly touched upon in the first issue of the Revue synthèse historique.[28] But during the interwar years, Annales scholarship was not yet world history. In the mid-1930s, both founders of the Annales journal transferred to universities in the French capital. Bloch was murdered by the Nazis in 1944, but under Febvre’s guidance, the Annales became the dominant direction in French historical scholarship after the Second World War. After the war, the Annales historians did embrace a world historical scope, most notably in the work of Fernand Braudel (1902-1985).

The Annales had a predecessor in Henri Berr’s Revue de synthèse,[29] and although the former journal did not yet promote world history during the interwar period (taking a step back from Berr’s earlier world historical perspective) it created the conditions in which world history could flourish after the war. The survival of a relatively strong alternative to Prussian-style history in France in the first half of the century, explains why world history made a relatively early comeback in French academics in the latter half of the twentieth century.

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[1] Charles-Victor Langlois and Charles Seignobos, Introduction aux études historiques, 3rd ed. (1898; repr., Paris: Libraire Hachette et Cie, 1905).

[2] Such is suggested in: Carole Fink, Marc Bloch: A Life in History (Cambridge, etc.: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 30. Yet Fink neglects to clarify the exact relation between the Dreyfus Affair and trends in French academics.

[3] Fink, Marc Bloch, 33.

[4] Iggers and Wang, A Global History of Modern Historiography, 161.

[5] Iggers, Historiography, 34.

[6] Fink, Marc Bloch, 33.

[7] Martin Siegel, ‘Henri Berr’s Revue de Synthèse Historique,’ History and Theory vol. 9, no. 3 (1970): 322-334, at 322.

[8] Henri Berr, L’avenir de l’histoire: Esquisse d’une synthèse des connaissances fondée sur l’histoire (Paris, 1899).

[9] Siegel, ‘Henri Berr’s Revue’, 323.

[10] In 1931 the journal’s title was shortened to Revue de synthèse. It still appears today under that name.

[11] Henri Berr, ‘Sur notre program,’ Revue de synthèse historique 1 (1900): 1-8.

[12] Siegel, ‘Henri Berr’s Revue,’ 324.

[13] Berr, ‘Sur notre program,’ 3-4.

[14] Berr, ‘Sur note program,’ 5.

“It is not so, to be fair, that the evolution of philosophy defies all social action. But the history of ideas, without a doubt, depends for a large part on individuals, and maybe also on special characters, which makes it hardly accessible to pure sociology.” [My translation]

[15] Fink, Marc Bloch, 34-35.

[16] Ibid., 90.

[17] Michael Bentley speaks of an “anti-Teutonic backlash” in the works of Febvre after the First World War. See: Michael Bentley, Modern Historiography: an Introduction (Londen and New York: Routledge, 1999) 108.

[18] Berr, ‘Sur notre programme,’ 3.

[19] Cited in: Siegel, ‘Henri Berr’s Revue,’ 325. The translation of Berr’s quote is by Siegel.

[20] Henri Berr, ‘Introduction a une histoire universelle,’ Revue de synthèse historique 30 (1920): 17-34.

[21] Ibid, 18.

[22] Berr, ‘Introduction a une histoire universelle,’ 18.

“One can ask why France, at its time, is not employing the pool of scientists that it has to its disposition. She too, does not use its full genius, which is needed for clear and profound knowledge, for a vast enterprise that embraces humanity since its origins, and the Earth in its full extent.” [My translation]

[23] Lutz Raphael, ‘The Idea and Practice of World Historiography in France: The Annales Legacy,’ in: Benedikt Stuchtey and Eckhardt Fuchs, Writing World History: 1800-2000 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003) 157.

[24] Ibid., 158.

[25] The title of the journal has been changed multiple times, and currently is known as Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales. Yet throughout its lifespan the journal has always been briefly referred to as Annales.

[26] In 1908 and 1909, Bloch had studied in Berlin and Leipzig, and the work of the Annales historians demonstrated some influence from Lamprecht. See: Iggers, Historiography, 52.

[27] This is suggested in: Raphael, ‘The Annales Legacy,’ 160.

[28] Berr, ‘Sur notre program,’ 5.

[29] The Revue de synthèse historique is denoted as the “prehistory of the Annales” in: Iggers, Historiography (2005), 52.