Obituary: Professor Jean-Baptiste Duroselle
Tuesday 20 September 1994
FRENCH historians have been so praised for the innovations and experiments of the so-called 'New History' that in Britain one sometimes forgets that there are French scholars who maintain the erudition and the skills of the traditional historian. Jean-Baptiste Duroselle was such a historian - a specialist in the study of international history and a prolific writer. His two large books surveying French policies in the world from 1932 to 1944, La Decadence (1980) and L'Abime (1985) are classics of diplomatic history.
The Sorbonne was a fine place in the period after the Second World War when Pierre Renouvin lectured on modern diplomatic history with Duroselle as his assistant and then, from 1964 to 1983, as his successor as Professor of History. The biggest amphitheatres were crowded and the students fascinated. Duroselle did not have the same pedagogical rigour as Renouvin, but his lectures were remarkable in their presentation and perceptions. In seminars he was particularly impressive, with questions, suggestions, criticism flowing from his vivacity.
Vivas are public in France, and it was well worth attending one when Duroselle was in charge and was asking the questions. In 1946, Duroselle asked a candidate for entrance to the Ecole Normale Superieure which was the monument in Paris that was built for the centennial celebration of the French Revolution. The candidate was furious. 'It's not fair to ask me that question,' he complained. 'I'm not a Parisian. You're deliberately favouring Parisians. I'm from Marseilles.' But, 'Voyons, monsieur,' said Duroselle jovially. 'You know the monument perfectly well. It's the Eiffel Tower.' Laughter replaced indignation. (The candidate was successful and eventually became a Professor at the Sorbonne.)
Duroselle had himself studied at the Ecole Normale and had taught at a number of universities. Even when lecturing at the Sorbonne he had obligations elsewhere. He was well known in the United States and did much to arrange co-operation with Italian historians. Britain interested him less, although he was always ready to help British postgraduate students. I once asked him why British history was so neglected in France, but he replied that Belgian history was much more neglected.
He published about 20 books, some of them very large. Biography attracted him and he greatly enjoyed writing a life of Clemenceau (published in 1988). Clemenceau had left no collected papers, and to write on him was to search amongst the many people to whom Clemenceau had written. But he claimed to find such research amusing as well as considerable. As he put it, it was better to discover all the archipelagos, islands and atolls of the Pacific than it would be to explore the melancholy plains of the Middle West or Siberia (Duroselle was punctilious in his acknowledgement of the work of other historians, and for Clemenceau he stated the heavy debt that he owed to Dr David Watson, of Dundee University).
His last book, to be published shortly, is an account of the First World War, replacing his earlier volume on the subject. At the time of his death he was working on a biography of Foch. His books were concerned with great moments in French history, but he was in no way a nationalist. An energetic, dedicated historian, he has left many admirable works.
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