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French Colonial History 5 (2004) 1-6
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Becoming a French Colonial Historian1
William B. Cohen
Some forty years ago, the American historian of France David Pinkney formed what came to be known as the "Pinkney thesis," suggesting that Americans could never rival the French in writing French history. The French were in place and had daily access to the archives, while Americans could only briefly glance at the archives and would have to depend on a lot of printed materials available in the States, and at best come up with a synthetic work that might be able to reinterpret a particular epoch or phenomenon. Not being French and living with the suppositions of Frenchmen, Americans might—Pinkney suggested—view the past in a new and different way. Many American scholars have been able to do at least as well as this, but they have also been far more in the archives than Pinkney could have imagined.
How do people become French colonial historians? Some twenty-five years ago I was assigned the task of interviewing Henri Brunschwig, the then dean of French colonial history, for the Proceedings of our society. I came prepared with questions, assuming that biographical details about Brunschwig's life would be a key to understanding why he had chosen to write about France's interaction with peoples overseas. Brunschwig was born of a Jewish family in Alsace and was a concentration-camp survivor. I assumed that this [End Page 1] biographical circumstance explained his curiosity about the relations between Frenchmen and those they might have considered as "others." This question unleashed a long monologue on how he did not see himself as an outsider, but was French—plain French, and that was that. He belonged to that distinguished group which Pierre Birnbaum was to call "the Jews of the Republic." No, Brunschwig told me, he had become a French colonial historian by serendipity. Before the war he had written a thesis on Romanticism in Prussia. Charles André Julien was editing a series on European colonial history, and told him that if he wrote the volume on German colonialism, he would find him work teaching colonial history at the École Nationale de la France d'Outre-mer, the school training colonial administrators.
Once Brunschwig was teaching there, he abandoned his interest in German history and became the premier historian of French colonialism. Later, when he joined the École Pratique des Hautes Études, he trained a whole generation of historians of French colonialism in black Africa, notably Marc Michel, Catherine Coquéry-Vidrovitch, and Elikia M'bokolo. Looking back at this interview, I wonder about the simple-minded certainty I had that scholarship must be rooted in deep biographical circumstances, and my failure to credit serendipity.
In my own experience, I should have seen the importance of chance and happenstance. In graduate school, one of my minors was in early modern European history, and one of the subjects that fascinated me was the emergence of a bureaucracy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The writings of Otto Hintze were particularly interesting to me. For the modern period, there was little on the emergence of governmental services; for France there was Raoul Girardet, La Société militaire dans la France contemporaine, but otherwise there was not much. I wanted to understand how France trained and recruited civil servants, what role politics played in their promotion or firing, what part they played in actually shaping policies. To do such a study, I would need to look at personnel files of these officials. Looking at archival rules, I discovered that personnel files were only open for those who had been dead for 150 years. That would not get me past the Napoleonic era. And I wanted to write about the more recent period, say going up to World War II, or at least World War I. Looking around, I discovered an article by Marcel Blanchard in the 1953 issue of what was then still called the Revue d'Histoire des Colonies (although at the time France claimed no longer to have colonies, but...