Marc Bloch

Marc Bloch. ©Roger-Viollet/Albert Harlingue

Despite being a renowned historian, the resistance activities of Marc Bloch, arrested in March 1944 by the Gestapo and shot with 29 others on 16 June in Saint-Didier de Formans, are not well known. Historian Laurent Douzou tells of the undercover action of this committed intellectual, from 1943 up to his death.


"We should focus more than we do on how academics die when they do not die of illness or old age" wrote the philosopher Georges Canguilhem about Marc Bloch, whose extraordinary reputation as a historian has sometimes obscured the active role he played during the Occupation.

A Professor at the Sorbonne and co-founder of the Annals of Economic and Social History, Bloch was a scientific luminary when war broke out. As he entered into the prime of life, he already had one work to his credit. He had also come under fire during the great war that he came out of with the Military Legion of Honour and the Croix de Guerre.

Aged 53 in 1939, this father of six asked to fight. Responsible for fuel supplies for the 1st army, he fulfilled his mission but noted with amazement that the building he believed to be solid was in fact very weak. In an analysis written in the summer of 1940 and published in 1946 under the title The Strange Defeat, he dissects the levels of responsibility for this disaster without trying to exonerate himself: "I belong to a generation that has a bad conscience. It is true that we came back very tired from the last war. Also, after these four years of fighting idleness, we were looking forward to going back to our jobs and taking up the tools of our various trades, tools now attacked by rust: we wanted to go all out and make up for the lost work. Those are our excuses. I no longer believe that they are sufficient to free us of blame".

Moved by the status of the Jews in October 1940, Marc Bloch was expelled from his position as Professor seconded to the University of Strasbourg, which had fallen back to Clermont-Ferrand. Under Article 8, which provided exemptions for individuals who had rendered exceptional services to France, he was reinstated in January 1941 and assigned to Montpellier in July. He refused to use the visa he had obtained for the United States because he would not leave his friends and family. He served in Montpellier until he was dismissed on 15 March 1943.

On this date, his peaceful medievalist life of toil took a radical turn. By going headlong into the resistance, Marc Bloch became "Narbonne" by making contact with Franc-Tireur. Georges Altman, leader of this movement, told of this encounter: "I can still remember that charming instant when Maurice [Pessis], one of our young friends in the underground, his 20-year old face red with joy, introduced me to his "new recruit", a fifty year old gentleman with military decorations, a finely sculpted face under a head of greying hair, a sharp look behind his spectacles, his briefcase in one hand, a cane in the other, rather ceremonial at first, my visitor soon smiled at me reaching out his hand and said kindly: Yes, I'm Maurice's "young colt"...

This precious testimony suggested what this plunge into the underground movement might have represented for the academic Marc Bloch where starting afresh he had to prove his worth just like any other beginner. Everything he then had to do was a break with his former life Georges Altman noted: "And we soon came to see the Sorbonne Professor share this gruelling "street dog" life that was the underground Resistance in our cities with amazing composure." "Maurice's colt" was quickly entrusted with tasks to match his talents. He worked on the Political Journals for the General Studies Committee and the Free Review, published by Franc-Tireur. These publications bear his mark, in particular this methodical table of the articles from the first year of the Political Journals in issue 5 in January 1944!

In July 1943, Marc Bloch became one of the three members of the regional directorate of united resistance movements, a position that was both exposed and strenuous. Aware of the danger, effective and determined, "Narbonne" asserted himself as a legitimate and respected leader in the small but demanding world of the underground. His arrest by a well-informed Gestapo, on the morning of Wednesday, March 8, 1944, on Boucle Bridge in Lyon shocked his comrades. Tortured on the premises of the military health school, interned in Montluc prison, Marc Bloch was shot on 16 June 1944 with 29 other resistance fighters in Saint-Didier-de-Formans.


Laurent Douzou, historian, In Les Chemins de la Mémoire, 234/march 2013