Obituary: Professor Jacques Droz
Thursday 09 April 1998
It was Jacques Droz who first appeared as the French historian who could devote his teaching, in the post-war period, to the story of Germany. (It was also Droz who made thousands of students familiar with the quotation from Heine.)
Droz spent his life studying German history. A Parisian by birth and education he began his research into the Rhine area in 1934 and therefore encountered Nazism in the region of Germany that the French always considered the welcome antithesis to Prussia. He continued his research and maintained his contacts with Germany when he was teaching history in the lycee at Colmar. He built up a considerable personal library which fell a victim to the German forces in 1940 and was plundered.
Droz had been called up and when he was demobilised after the armistice, he began to teach in Paris lycees. After 1944 he went into university teaching, was appointed to the Institute of Political Studies in Strasbourg, and in 1947 he became Professor of History at the University of Clermont- Ferrand, although he continued to give lectures at the Sorbonne, to which he returned as a full-time professor in 1962.
The works which he published dealt with the great problems of German history. Thus, the French conception of a nation was political and constitutional. One belonged to a nation because one wished to. The people of Alsace-Lorraine were French because they chose to be. But the Germans had a romantic conception of the nation. One was born into a nation, one belonged to the German nation by race and by attachment to the land where one was born. The people of Alsace were German by their language.
History added a complication. Napoleon was the creator of the nations of Europe. He simplified the complications of the German states and he expelled Austria from Germany. But the satisfaction that this brought to Germany was short-lived. German writers expressed their disgust with Napoleon's treatment of their country, and they called upon Germans to fight against the French.
For Droz, this was history which brought together ideas as well as political and diplomatic facts. In this he sought to distinguish himself from a colleague, such as Pierre Renouvin, who was a master of diplomatic history. His attitude towards the 1914 war was also different from that of the Renouvin school. Whereas they sought to find out who was responsible for the war, in his book (Les Causes de la guerre, 1973) Droz tried to discover how, by a series of mistakes and miscalculations, Europe found itself plunged in a war that nobody wanted. Droz was also one of the few French scholars who studied Austrian history in some depth.
He was very much the professor of the old Sorbonne. He believed that junior lecturers should be under his authority, and that they should make a point of changing their lectures at regular intervals. He equally believed that students should attend lectures and absorb the ideas and information that was provided for them. Consequently, during the 1968 student revolts, when graffiti supposedly expressed student beliefs, Droz was one of the few individual professors to be named.
This continued when he spent a very unhappy year as Professor at the University of Nanterre from 1968 to 1969. "Droz go home" was the most polite of the inscriptions.
He was also criticised because he represented what was termed traditional history. The rivalry between the Sorbonne and the Hautes Etudes where Fernand Braudel reigned, was often bitter. Droz persisted, as chairman of the history examining board for the competitive degree of the agregation, in maintaining high and traditional standards. On the editorial board of the Revue which studied the Second World War he was also anxious to maintain these meticulous requirements.
Droz fitted the accepted picture of the Sorbonne professor by being left- wing in the Republican tradition. He edited the Histoire generale du socialisme (1972-78), where his own contributions showed a French socialism which was exceptional because of its dependence on the French Revolution.
The last of his many works was a History of Anti-Fascism in Europe (1985). This was a synthesis of the various movements which existed in different countries after the march on Rome, until the declaration of war. Although he deals with many countries, including Belgium, England and the Balkan states, the greater part of the book is devoted to Germany and to the activities of those who left Germany and who continued their struggle elsewhere. Droz shows clearly both the contrast and the link between ideas and action. Anti-Fascism was an ideology; it was also a very real activity. Between the two there could be antagonism.
It could be that once again Jacques Droz is approaching a subject in a traditional manner. But here, as elsewhere, that tradition is relevant.
Jacques Droz, historian: born Paris 12 March 1909; died Paris 3 March 1998.
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