Joseph Rovan

French Catholic/German Jewish historian who strove for Franco-German accord
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The Independent Online

Joseph Rovan was regarded as the doyen of Franco-German post-war friendship. He advised Presidents Charles de Gaulle and Jacques Chirac on Franco- German issues and also Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany. His books on Germany influenced generations of French students attempting to understand their country's former enemy.

Joseph Rosenthal (Joseph Rovan), historian: born Munich 25 July 1918; married; died Saint-Christophe-les-Gorges, France 27 July 2004.

Joseph Rovan was regarded as the doyen of Franco-German post-war friendship. He advised Presidents Charles de Gaulle and Jacques Chirac on Franco- German issues and also Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany. His books on Germany influenced generations of French students attempting to understand their country's former enemy.

He was born Joseph Rosenthal in Munich, in 1918, into a wealthy German Jewish family that had converted to the Protestant faith. Joseph had a happy childhood until Hitler gained power in 1933. His parents decided to leave Germany, going first to Switzerland and then to Paris. As he later said, "Hitler made me a Jew."

Despite some initial difficulties, Joseph went to school and graduated from Lycée Carnot. From there he entered the Sorbonne to study German, law and politics. All seemed to be going well and then the Second World War changed everything. His father was interned in 1939 as an "enemy alien".

In May 1940, he too was interned and told to enlist either in the Foreign Legion or in an auxiliary corps of the French army. Wishing to remain near his parents, he joined the auxiliary unit. When the French collapse came a few weeks later, he found himself in the unoccupied part of Vichy France. At the first opportunity he joined the Resistance, changing his name to Joseph Rovan, in 1941. He was soon running the factory producing all the false documents for the Resistance in the South of France.

In February 1944, Rovan was arrested because he was with another man sought by the Gestapo. He was sent to Dachau concentration camp, in Bavaria, on the last prisoner convoy before the liberation of Paris. He was lucky to survive the journey and lucky that his captors had no idea who he was. During this period he converted to Catholicism after discussions with a priest and fellow prisoner.

Rovan's knowledge of German was of great help to his French comrades and he was given an administrative job in the camp. This gave him advance warning of what the Germans were planning. But he was not working for them, he was working for Edmond Michelet, the senior French prisoner in Dachau, and an inspiring Catholic youth leader. When freedom came, in May 1945, Michelet was appointed minister for the French army by General de Gaulle. He took Rovan with him to the ministry. It was there that Rovan started his work of reconciliation with the Germans. He arranged courses for young German officers still held as prisoners.

In 1947 Rovan was appointed head of adult education in the French Zone of Germany. His job was to "re-educate" adult Germans for democracy. From 1953 to 1955 he worked for Unesco, after which he became an official in the Ministry of Justice. He returned, in 1963, to working for understanding between French and German youth, promoting exchanges and a variety of other activities. He also worked as a journalist for the Bavarian Radio.

In 1968 Rovan became a full-time academic as Professor for German History at the University of Vincennes. This appointment came in the aftermath of the student revolt. He had advised President de Gaulle on developments in Germany for some time and was close to de Gaulle politically. He moved to the University Paris III (Nouvelle Sorbonne) in 1981, remaining there until his retirement in 1986. Among his main publications were Zwei Völker - eine Zukunft ("Two Nations, One Future", 1986) and Geschichte der Deutschen: von ihren Ursprüngen bis heute ("History of the Germans from their Beginnings to Today", 1995). He received the prize of the Académie Française for this, and Geschichten aus Dachau ("Stories from Dachau", 1989), based on his experiences as a prisoner.

His last work was Mémoires d'un Français qui se souvient d'avoir été Allemand ("Memoirs of a Frenchman who Used to be a German", 1999).

In one of his final interviews Rovan expressed his pleasure at the progress made towards Franco-German understanding and European unity over the last 50 years, including the introduction of the single currency, but he was disappointed that a European army had not been created and that there was no common foreign policy.

David Childs



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