Obituaries: Professor Rene Girault

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The Independent Culture
RENE GIRAULT distinguished himself as a historian by his ability to bring together the historical approach of his elders at the Sorbonne and the ideas and methods of a younger generation, those of his students at the Sorbonne.

It was in the early 1950s that he began studying in the University of Paris; the great figure in the study of modern and contemporary history was Pierre Renouvin. Like hundreds of other students Girault was fascinated by Renouvin's famous lectures, meticulously organised and delivered with an unequalled sense of drama. Girault was always to possess the gift of dominating his audiences and impressing them with his conceptions of the subject in ways that were reminiscent of his former master.

But his research took him away from the influence of Renouvin. It was true that he wrote his thesis on French investments in Russia between 1887 and 1914, which involved a detailed study of diplomatic history in a crucial period. But he considered the economic history of both countries. He collaborated with Fernand Braudel, the enemy of the Sorbonne, in a volume of social and economic history and went on to study the impact of the economic situation at various moments in diplomatic history.

Girault wanted to move away from the traditional diplomatic history that Renouvin had taught. He wanted to see what lay behind the vocabulary of the despatches and the carefully preserved records of conversations. He claimed, for example, that the French press during the 1930s was notoriously corrupt. It was possible to find the most outrageous allegations in newspapers and periodicals. Girault claimed that there were allegations of Czech or Polish money finding its way into the pockets of certain politicians; and there were suggestions that French national opinion was influenced by the flow of subsidies coming from German or Italian sources. It was therefore possible for a diplomat to quote some newspaper source, either innocently, not realising that it was suspect, or, more often, as a means of supporting an argument.

To understand international relations Girault maintained that it was necessary to study certain characteristics of the cultural life of the nations involved. Thus, in the inter- war years, it was natural that in England and France there should be a strong fear of Communism and of the Soviet Union. This was felt very strongly by the political personnel who, by social class and generation, could not believe otherwise. Hence they naturally adopted an attitude to Hitler, the supposed enemy of Communism, that appears surprising to later generations.

Much of the culture of France, with its historical preoccupations, was naturally attracted to forms of pacifism. The French reliance on England during the 1930s, its dependence upon "la gouvernante anglaise" (to use the phrase that has become customary) should not be seen as an example of innate weakness, but rather as the result of a realistic appraisal of French inferiority vis-a-vis Germany and the necessity of having Britain as an ally.

This preoccupation with finding the essential aspects of international relations was best expressed in Girault's book, written with Robert Frank, Turbulente Europe et nouveaux mondes 1914-1941 (1998). But it also meant that Girault was called upon to explain international affairs as they took place, particularly such events as the break-up of the Soviet Union and the re-unification of Germany. This caused him to have contact with a wider public.

Another issue with which Girault became directly involved was that of how history and geography were being taught in French schools. The debate was a serious matter, although sometimes considered very superficially, as when there were protests that French children were leaving school without knowing the date of the battle of Marignan (which happens to be 1515). The Minister of Education, Alain Savary, asked Girault to prepare a report (published in 1983) in which he faced the problem of what history and geography should be taught to children towards the end of the 20th century.

Girault was well placed to conduct such an enquiry. He had taught history in lycees, then had taken part in the foundation of the new university at Vincennes in 1968, before becoming Professor of the History of International Relations at Nanterre in 1973, and 10 years later at Paris I (Pantheon- Sorbonne).

He believed that national history has to be taught. He respected the French passion for history but he believed that nationalities, including the French, should be studied in their origins and in their growth. "European identities" was a natural subject for Girault, who was left-wing in politics and European in convictions.

Rene Girault, historian: born 12 December 1929; Professor of International Relations, University of Nanterre 1973-83; Professor of International Relations, University of Paris (Pantheon-Sorbonne) 1983-94 (Emeritus); twice married (two sons, and one daughter deceased); died 8 July 1999.