Professor Douglas Johnson

Historian of France who became an ambassador for the Entente Cordiale

Douglas Johnson made it his life's work to help the British to understand France, and the French to understand Britain. For all the talk of an Entente Cordiale, which Johnson joined in celebrating last year, this can be a tough task. In the Paris press you seldom find anything about Britain, apart from the latest royal news. In the London press, coverage usually focuses on France's supposedly anti-British machinations in Brussels. Douglas Johnson pierced all these prejudices and false suppositions with wit, unrivalled inside knowledge and erudition lightly worn.

Douglas William John Johnson, historian: born Edinburgh 1 February 1925; Lecturer in Modern History, Birmingham University 1949-63, Professor of Modern History and Chair of School of History 1963-68; Professor of French History, University College London 1968-90 (Emeritus), Head of Department of History 1979-83, Dean, Faculty of Arts 1979-82; Chairman, Board of Examiners in History, London University 1973-75; Visiting Professor, French Department, King's College London 1993-2005; married 1950 Madeleine Rébillard (one daughter); died London 28 April 2005.

Douglas Johnson made it his life's work to help the British to understand France, and the French to understand Britain. For all the talk of an Entente Cordiale, which Johnson joined in celebrating last year, this can be a tough task. In the Paris press you seldom find anything about Britain, apart from the latest royal news. In the London press, coverage usually focuses on France's supposedly anti-British machinations in Brussels. Douglas Johnson pierced all these prejudices and false suppositions with wit, unrivalled inside knowledge and erudition lightly worn.

He was a man much loved by all who knew him. His eccentricities were cherished: his Basque beret and his long cashmere scarves. His academic career was as a historian of France; he held professorships, first, at Birmingham University, then at University College London. He was a great admirer of A.J.P. Taylor. At Birmingham, his colleagues were astonished to find he matched Taylor's technique of lecturing without notes. Again like Taylor, Johnson became a prolific journalist; often, to begin with, in the pages of the weekly magazine New Society. But, whereas Taylor sought to provoke, Johnson sought to explain. There was something French, wry and succinct, about his turns of phrase, as when he wrote about a recently dead prolific novelist, Robert Merle:

There are those in France who do not accept that Merle has died, because they cannot believe they will not soon be reading a new book written by him.

His first book, Guizot: aspects of French history, 1878-1874 (1963), rescued François Guizot from undeserved obscurity. As Louis-Philippe's chief minister, at a time when the French longed to imitate Britain's economic and political success, Guizot was capitalism's ambassador to the French. His slogan - foreshadowing Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher - was "Enrichissez-vous" ("Make money"). At the same time, he pioneered public education in France. This complexity of motives appealed to Johnson, whose political stance was always sceptical and shrewd.

When Daniel Bernard was ambassador to London in 1998-2002, he learnt of Johnson's interest in Guizot, and told him that what depressed him about the embassy was the stuffily "self-satisfied" portrait of Guizot that hung in his office. But then, at a dinner for a visiting French historian, Bernard suddenly announced that he'd come round to liking Guizot, having discovered that he had a lady friend, the Princesse de Lieven. This reminded Johnson of when he met the biographer André Maurois, in his early years as an academic. Maurois' eyes glazed when Johnson said whom he was writing about; but then the great man perked up. "Bon sujet," he said, "Guizot et les femmes" - "Guizot and women, that would be a good subject". For Johnson, anecdote was always one key to the door of history.

His later books included France and the Dreyfus Affair (1966), France (for the Thames & Hudson "Nations and Peoples" series, 1969), An Idea of Europe (with Richard Hoggart, 1987) and The Age of Illusion: art and politics in France, 1918-1940 (with his wife Madeleine Johnson, 1987). From 1983 he was General Editor of the Fontana History of Modern France.

Intellectually, Douglas Johnson became a kind of ambassador for Charles de Gaulle to the British. In 2005, the French voted de Gaulle the greatest Frenchman in history. But the general used to be despised, even feared, by British politicians and commentators, especially after he destroyed much of British foreign policy in 1963 by vetoing UK entry to the European Communities (as the EU was then called), on the grounds that Britain was an American Trojan horse. In 1965, when I became Deputy Editor of New Society, I was determined to find a writer who would correct this anti-Gaullist mass hysteria. In the Chatham House quarterly journal, I read Johnson's astute essay "The Political Principles of General de Gaulle", which I reprinted. He became one of the magazine's characteristic voices. I cherish his scepticism, later, about the newly elected President François Mitterrand, whom many on the left hailed as a saviour of socialism. With his years of ideological ducking and diving, Mitterrand was more like a French version of Harold Wilson, Johnson argued.

The de Gaulle essay still stands up, 40 years later. Johnson saw merit in the right sort of nationalism. He applauded de Gaulle's concern with France's place in history: the famous "certaine idée de la France". De Gaulle, Johnson wrote, "has always impressed rather than attracted". He did this "by enunciating general principles [about unity, about nationhood, about French self-interest] to which he remains faithful". The French, also, have remained faithful to these principles.

Johnson was born in Edinburgh; but his father was a local government official and moved wherever his job took him. Young Douglas went to the Royal Grammar School, Lancaster, and then to Worcester College, Oxford, on a history scholarship. In the 1930s, state-school boys were a great rarity at Oxford. When war came, Johnson remembered being interviewed by a tutor about regiments. Others went into the Guards; he was allotted to a modest Midlands county infantry regiment, where he found that nobody had even heard of Lancaster, confusing it with Manchester. But, if he had any chip on his shoulder, he always wore it lightly. At Worcester one of his fellow undergraduates was Richard Adams, well known now for his rabbit epic Watership Down. Adams would come down to breakfast with a hangover, saying: "Johnson, make me laugh."

After the Second World War, Johnson spent some time at the great Paris college the Ecole Normale Supérieure, forcing ground of many French writers and politicians, especially on the left. At the annual ball, he met his future wife, Madeleine Rébillard, who was at the equivalent college for women. He also met Louis Althusser, Marxist philosopher and apologist for Stalin. Althusser is now notorious for having killed his wife. He came to stay with the Johnsons in London just before the murder. A sleepwalker, he already was obviously unbalanced. Madeleine - "wisely", as she said - didn't stay in the house alone with him.

In his retirement, Johnson developed a delightful line in obituaries of French public figures, the more obscure the better, written for The Independent or The Guardian: the Interior Minister who put down the student revolts of 1968, for example; the man who published Camus's first play; the last survivor of the conspirators who plotted to kill de Gaulle. Republished, they would make a fine patchwork history of modern France, a Gallic version of John Aubrey's Lives. For Johnson, history was always a humane science.

Paul Barker



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