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The Annales School and the History of War

From: The Journal of Military History
Volume 73, Number 4, October 2009
pp. 1289-1294 | 10.1353/jmh.0.0449

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Among the hard knocks military history in this country suffered in the late 1950s and ’60s was the criticism by American historians who had come under the influence of the Annales School. The sophisticated, powerful theses of French academics, who had created a quasi-institutional movement under a common label borrowed from the title of the review originally named Annales d’histoire économique et sociale, were soon imported into the United States, where their new adherents, linking up somewhat haphazardly with Marxist and other scholars pursuing the new interest in social history, criticized accepted historical approaches and proposed new ones. In an academic climate poisoned by the war in Vietnam, military history almost inevitably became a major target. The rejection of narrative history by followers of the Annales School struck at one of military history’s most representative forms. The coupled assertion that history was not to teach adherence to a set of political principles or foster pride in a movement or tradition—Lucien Febvre, one of the founders of the group, declared, “A history that is of service is a servile history”—denied a perspective that guided important segments of this country’s vast enterprise of official service histories and accounts of the wars in which American forces had fought. In the clash of opinions, the more enthusiastic partisans on both sides could forget that the program of the Annales was not, after all, a monolithic doctrine, and that not every one of its proposals for doing history was necessarily new, but belonged to the broad recognition after the First World War

That an exclusive concentration on political history was rather misleading, that. . . to understand an epoch the historian had to analyze its religious beliefs and intellectual values and movements, the economic conditions, and the structure of social life. [S]uch views. . .were not original, but it was significant that in the period after World War 1 the advocates of such a broadened concept of history became the acknowledged leaders of historical scholarship.1

Not only the intentions themselves but also the intellectually and rhetorically impressive manner in which they were combined gave the Annales School its impact on various, sometimes conflicting, trends toward a “new” history.

The publication in English of André Burguière’s The Annales School: An Intellectual History provides an occasion to consider the influence the movement’s ideas had—and continue to have—on military history in this country. Translated into clear if at times deceptively abstract English by Jane Marie Todd, with an informative, evenhanded foreword by Timothy Tackett, the book does not give a detached analysis of the Annales’ intellectual program. Rather it is an account by one of its members, a historian of the French ancien régime, of the group’s ideas and writings, from the founding of the journal in the 1920s by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre to recent days. As Professor Tackett writes, although “a very personal history. . . [its author] retains a remarkable detachment and balance in his assessments.”2 He enables the reader to trace the development of core ideas of the Annales School, and to note how individual scholars adapted them to suit their own interests and concerns. As always, the unity, even uniformity, that some followers of intellectual movements seem to want and need, unravels on closer inspection into various opinions and styles—a many-faceted composite that with its complexities and occasional contradictions is entirely appropriate to the discipline of history, which however scientific its methods may have become, remains a discipline in the humanities.

Whatever the variations and changes in thinking of the Annales’ adherents over time, the group’s greatest impact in this country followed its founders’ demand that not only theoretically but in questions posed and interpretations developed historians should recognize “the close relationship between political order, social structure, mentality, feelings and ideas.”3 At first glance these words seem fairly innocuous, but what does “close relationship” mean if not that historians should take account of the many different elements that the programmatic statement identifies? And the group went further by arguing that historical synthesis should be given precedence over historical facts.4 It regarded l’histoire événementielle—the...



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