François Bédarida

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François Bédarida, historian: born Lyons, France 14 March 1926; Director, Institut d'Histoire du Temps Présent 1978-92; married (one son, two daughters); died Fontaine-le-Port, France 16 September 2001.

François Bédarida, historian: born Lyons, France 14 March 1926; Director, Institut d'Histoire du Temps Présent 1978-92; married (two sons, one daughter); died Fontaine-le-Port, France 16 September 2001.

François Bédarida was one of Europe's most eminent historians.

A lifelong anglophile and expert on British social history, he was also at the forefront of the French re- evaluation of its recent past. His rational dedication to the profession of history at the head of France's leading body of contemporary historians was combined with commitment to Christian humanism. He brought morality and the duties of citizenship within the compass of the historian and framed the past as locked in a permanent dialectic with the present. He ended a distinguished academic career with 10 years as general secretary to the International Committee of Historical Science.

Born in 1926 in Lyons, Bédarida grew up in the university circles of Paris, where his father was appointed to a chair of Italian studies. During the Nazi occupation of France, as a pupil at the prestigious Parisian lycée Louis-le-Grand, he joined other students, including his future wife Renée, in the resistance activities of the movement Témoignage Chrétien.

The movement was created in Lyons in 1941 by a small group of Catholics and Protestants, and its Cahiers du Témoignage Chrétien made the moral and religious refutation of Nazism one of the cornerstones of the French Resistance. It had a decisive impact on a minority of young religious minds which had not been seduced by the effusive ecclesiastical praise for Pétain and the Vichy regime. Students and lycée pupils were the foremost distributors of the clandestine Cahiers, and this active commitment remained a formative but modest presence in the historical activities of both François and Renée Bédarida. Together they had just published the texts of the movement, a few months before he died.

Graduating to the Ecole Normale Supérieure after the Second World War brought Bédarida into the orbit of the impressive young historian René Rémond, whose Catholic values and Resistance experience buttressed his own, and who encouraged him in his subsequent choice of specialism, the social history of 19th-century Britain.

He came to London as a researcher and teacher at the Institut Français, where in six years, 1950-56, he emerged as a shrewd and sympathetic observer of British society and historian of its Victorian past. From 1966 to 1970 he was Director of the Maison Française in the leafy Betjeman area of north Oxford, but he then returned to France and in 1978 was appointed Director of the Institut d'Histoire du Temps Présent, located at that time in the 14th arrondissement of Paris. Under Bédarida's guidance the IHTP became the centre of a European-wide programme of scrupulous research into every aspect of war and contemporary history.

State-funded, the IHTP was the indirect heir to the Comité d'Histoire de la Deuxième Guerre Mondiale where Henri Michel had established the political and military history of resistance as a major academic project with correspondents in every part of France. The IHTP under Bédarida and his successors eventually moved the emphasis into a more social, ethical and relativist analysis of resistance, but before that it embarked on a massive investigation of the Vichy regime.

This brought the young historical avant-garde face to face with the history of collaboration. It transformed the relationship of France to its recent history, probing all the sensitive issues of state collusion with the Nazi occupiers, but also revealing the plurality of Vichy which reflected so many different aspects of French society.

Bédarida orchestrated the new research which penetrated the national archives for the first time, but also built on the watershed study of Vichy by the American Robert Paxton. The collective interpretations were made available to the widest audience in two volumes of La France des années noires (1993), co-edited with Jean-Pierre Azéma and reissued in paperback. His left-wing Catholic values made him an unrelenting critic of Catholic compromises with Nazism and anti-Semitism, evidenced in his exposé of the role of the Church in sheltering the collaborator Paul Touvier. In his critical writings, as in all his work, he never departed from a rigorous respect for objectivity.

His years as doyen of the IHTP were those of the great debate over the role of memory and commemoration in French history and culture, associated primarily with the work of Pierre Nora and Henry Rousso. Through prolific introductions and conclusions to books and conferences, Bédarida expressed the intellectual passion of the debate but also his suspicion of individual memory. He rarely, if ever, used his own recollections as evidence, and in his reservations about the memories of resistance he could be over-insistent on the primacy of professional history, a position contested by several close friends and colleagues.

His research into British history brought him a reputation for brilliant use of primary social data. His perceptive social history of England, translated from La Société anglaise 1851-1975 (1976) and updated to 1990 ( A Social History of England 1851-1990, 1991), is still widely used by British students, and Sussex University celebrated his cross-Channel eminence with an honorary doctorate.

He and Renée, their son and two daughters, nurtured close English friendships and were generous and welcoming hosts in their Parisian home in the rue Jacob and their country house in Fontaine-le-Port, south east of Paris. Very proud of his children and enjoying his country garden, he valued Marcel Proust's definition of literature as "the joy of the real regained" and argued that it could be equally applied to history.

He sought to promote an erudite philosophy of history which stressed scientific method without losing the sense of the epic and the heroic. In British history his study of Will Thorne, Will Thorne: la voie anglaise du socialisme (1987), gave a voice and image to a little-known pioneer of trade unionism; his short history of the Battle of Britain, La Bataille d'Angleterre (1985), registered its epic quality; and almost his last work was a scholarly biography, Churchill (1999), of Winston Churchill in heroic mould.

In French Resistance history he and the IHTP pursued a detailed defence of Jean Moulin's claim to greatness, reducing to fantasy the absurdities of his various detractors ( Jean Moulin et le Conseil national de la Résistance, 1983). In a wealth of trenchant observations on the historical profession he described it as "both exciting and perilous". His wisdom, insights and integrity will be missed.

Roderick Kedward