Publication Date

December 1, 2012

Editor’s Note: The following is an edited (and expanded) version of the transcript of a conversation between historians . Their discussion, which was organized by and for Perspectives on History, took place during the 124th annual meeting of the AHA, held in January 2009 in New York, with Pillarisetti Sudhir serving as a moderator. A shorter version of the transcript was published in the print version of the December 2012 issue of Perspectives on History.

Lynn Hunt. Photo By Chris Hale.Lynn Hunt: Jacques, more than 10 years ago, Christophe Prochasson, in an essay he wrote for Perspectives, remarked after a quick introductory survey of historiographic trends in France—and I’m quoting him—“History is gradually losing the prestige it acquired for good or ill in the course of the 1970s thanks to the phenomenon of the new history. French historiography no longer retains its former splendor.” Since you were such a big part of the splendor of French historiography, what’s your sense? Do you have that feeling that there’s been decline, or just change?

Jacques Revel. Photo by Chris Hale.Jacques Revel: It changed.Well, it’s difficult to be part of the play andto give a view on it,but I would suggest that what my friend Prochasson was alluding to is an exceptionally favorable period for French (and probably some other) historians—the late 1960s, the 1970s, and the early 1980s. Probably never after the 19th century was there such a public demand for history or such a large consumption of history. The books of some academic historians—think of Duby, Le Goff, Le Roy Ladurie, Furet, and a number of others—seemed to match the expectations of a larger readership. More generally speaking, historical references were largely shared in the general sensibility as well as in the public debate.

Why so? On the one hand, the traditional national repertory was still, to many and contradictory investments, from the far right to the far left. More generally, the French were still largely convinced that their own history was a telling one and should be perceived as a reference to the rest of mankind. History mattered therefore as a privileged expression of the national self-consciousness. But on the other side, things were changing fast. France, like most of the old developed countries entered into a time of uncertainty. It was a crisis that began in the 1970s and which dramatically transformed our relation to historical time and experience. A time with an obscure, almost unreadable, present and a time with a blurred future; consequently, the past itself has been shaken up. It has ceased to be the secure way to our progress, as progress now was under question, but has tended to be converted into a nostalgic refuge: “the world we have lost,” to quote Peter Laslett’s title.1 Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou (1975) sold more than 200,000 copies in one season. This is an extreme but not an isolated example, and the change was certainly not limited to France. Think of the success of Natalie Zemon Davis all over the world, to take another remarkable example. History now offered an alternative to a world which was changing so fast.

So, two contradictory expectations, the traditional one to some French exceptionality, and the new one to the past as an escape way, have produced cumulative effects.

Beyond the merits of a generation of brilliant historians, history has benefited from those exceptional conditions. The “Nouvelle histoire” happened to match larger expectations and professional historians to temporarily found an unexpected audience. The result was an extraordinary season.

So there has been a change if we compare it with the present situation. What is sure is that this public enthusiasm for history was a temporary phenomenon, and that now it’s more often professional historians who read professional history than the larger audience which existed in the past.

Hunt: There would be an interesting comparison, I think, with the situation in the United States; this same period in the United States is really the period, not so much of recalling the past we have lost, but of a kind of heating up of a cultural war about what the role of history is supposed to be in national life. So in the same period in the United States, the issues really revolve around the history of slavery, women’s history, the things that have to do with American national identity and whether it’s a good idea for history and historians to be involved in these kinds of identity issues. So would it be fair to say that in France those identity issues were just not as present or that they came later on? Because right now there is a huge issue [in the United States] about how the teaching of history affects the national identity.

Revel: You are right, the situation is different in the United States. All those issues—different forms of history, different historical actors—were clearly related to the question of national identity. But for many reasons, they were less relevant in Europe. In the postcolonial period, European societies were fed up with national identity, national feeling. The issue of women’s studies and others have been largely detached from the question of national identity, as they were in the way. It’s another problem, but which probably led to the major success of the so-called “new history”, which is, in a sense, a history without the nation.

Hunt: Talk a little bit about the change in name of the Annales, always referred to in the United States in any case as the Annales, but having gone from Annales: Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations, to Annales: Histoire, Sciences Sociales. What is this about?

Revel: I hope I can explain as I was part of the move. Annales, as you may know, has changed its subtitle a number of times in its 80 years or so. When Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations was chosen right after World War II, it was sort of encyclopedic—that nothing was forbidden or that any topic would be welcome in the journal. Over time, however, it suggested as well a sort of three-story construction—starting with the most important thing, which would be economics, then the social, and finally to the superstructure, the cultural. I don’t think there was much of Marxism in it, but a lot of Braudelianism, if I may say so, the idea that the heavy things are the really important ones, and that culture is just the foam on the surface of the sea. Economies, Sociétés, Civilisations made sense when the wording was invented in 1946. We thought it could be misleading 50 years later. That was why we decided to change it. And this is why in the early 1990s we decided to change the subtitle with this wording “History, Social Sciences” to recall what had been the core of the Annales project from the very beginning: an open confrontation with the social sciences, assuming that history is one of those social sciences. No more than that, but certainly that.

Hunt: But the timing was also related to explicit discussion in Annales of whether we were at a tournant critique, at a critical turning point.

Revel: Yes. We did change the subtitle right after we opened the debate on the tournant critique. That is a decision to reflect on what had been the basic convictions of the journal and the people around it. The critical turn was a deliberate choice on our part.

Historiography in general, especially in the West, has experienced a strong period of turbulence throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and we’re probably not yet out of it. I personally feel that this turbulence has been extremely positive as it has suggested or raised some basic questions on our common practice. Paradoxically, we have decided to launch the tournant critique right in the moment when Annales was at the peak of its international recognition and success.

Hunt: So would you say the Annales is still at its high-water mark of influence?

Revel: That’s a different problem. The experience of our generation is that the historiographical market has become truly international. When Annales was “discovered” in the United States, rather late, in the early 1970s, and became fashionable for a decade or so, I assume it was because people found it interesting as such; but it was exotic as well. It came from a very different intellectual tradition; that certainly was part of its success.

Fifteen years later, scholars, students, books, journals, ideas had crossed the ocean many times, and we did so, too. That’s the experience of our generation, and in a sense the historiographical market has been deeply transformed, not only between Europe or France and the United States, but more largely within the global world of historians. What appeared as singular in the Annales phenomenon 40 years ago is partly a common good, shared and discussed and criticized in many national historiographies, and this is true for each and every national historiography, which actually is no longer national.

Hunt: But isn’t it also that the confidence in certain kinds of inquiry, which the Annales did so much to bring attention to—I’m thinking of the great demographic studies both by individuals and by teams that opened up a whole new perspective on the way history could be done, which was not just quantitative, but it was definitely systematic, going back all the way to the 1950s and the origination of the study of notarial records and how you could reconstruct whole communities from them. This required an enormous amount of confidence that after 10 or 15 years of working on this you would get something. And that if there were many such results side by side, you would begin to build a more complete picture. And that was enormously energizing, and at the same time there were within the Annales itself more questions over time about whether that was really going to work the way it was thought it might work.

Revel: Again, I don’t think it’s only a French problem. Whatever Annales was largely identified with, especially in the United States, the large inquiries and the use of numbers or measurements, could also be seen in the social science history phenomena in Britain, in Germany, and in this country as well. Historians like Charles Tilly and David Landes more or less at the same time shared the same ambitions, and in a sense in a more technical way. Think of the new economic history.

What has changed, I think, is our confidence in the fact that the production of history brings up cumulative results. In a sense, over the 1940s, the 1950s, and a large part of the 1960s, people were convinced that they were all building a wall together, and that each piece of result was a brick that could be added to the other bricks. Nobody could forecast what the shape of the wall would be, but a wall there would be at the end.

This confidence has partly disappeared for reasons which are within the discipline and for reasons that are external. Within the discipline there probably has been an abuse of quantification, and you probably don’t need to have a 98 percent confirmation of your hypothesis if you already have a 92 percent result. There is a law of declining yields in these things. Classical historical demography is a good example: after some hundreds, maybe some thousands of monographs, you only have slight variation around the one central pattern. And it’s difficult, as well, to articulate those results among themselves and to hierarchize the importance of your results. And a more basic question: if everything is important, what is really important?

But there is more. The rise and success of a quantitative, cumulative conception of history was strongly linked to an optimistic view, to the idea, that is, that we would make a larger and a more comprehensive view of the past possible, with the conviction that history, as such, was intelligible as a totality. Such convictions have been under critique over the last decades, just as the major functionalist architectures have lost their strength: this is true for Marxism, but it is true as well for structuro-functionalism, for structuralism, and for positivism as well, which has been such an enduring reference in French intellectual life. Once again, this has been true in many countries including this one.

Hunt: Going back to the original question about the public’s interest in history, as you said yourself, the public’s interest in this was actually not in the grand conception of how this would all fit together; it was more in the recapturing of a world that was definitely disappearing, especially the world of a rural peasant in France. But one could say it’s not that there is no interest in history now but that there’s much more interest in the particularly controversial moments of French history in the past. There’s been much more interest lately in what went on with the decolonization of Algeria and also with Algeria. Slavery—18th-century slavery—has become a much bigger issue. Even issues about regional integration. So it’s not that there’s no interest in history; it’s that the interest has shifted away from the world we have lost to the moments of our conflict.

Revel: It is true that over the past, in a different chronology—I would say over the past 25 or 30 years—there has been a shift toward what is controversial and I would say even more so, what is unstable in our conviction. Here it’s probably useful to distinguish the American view of France and what the French think of it. I remember a time when as a visitor to the United States, I had had a sense that French history was all about Vichy and decolonization (with all due respect to the American contribution to the knowledge of those and other episodes).

But I think conflict and uncertainty should be understood more globally. In France, as in many other countries, history since the 19th century has been a basic part of the making of citizenship. So children were taught how much they owe to their own history. This too happened to be the case with many other nation-states. There has been a dramatic change here, and especially in France: telling the traditional national narrative is no more possible. It doesn’t work any longer.

We had significant and huge crises about the teaching of history in the early 1980s when people—to begin with, our president, Mitterrand—discovered that kids were no longer interested in their national history and didn’t know it. But I think the problem is that the capacity of identification and definition in terms of citizenship, which was associated with history, has largely vanished. When France still had a colonial empire, it was able to teach schoolboys in Africa or Indo-China that their ancestors were Gauls who were living in straw huts. While this is something you cannot teach anymore, even in Paris because—well, I don’t much like that word “multicultural”—the capacity of identification provided by history has largely vanished. In a sense, sport is probably more efficient in terms of creating a sense of belonging, than history, which means that what it means to be French has become a question and no more a matter of certainty.

Hunt: In some ways it’s a surprising outcome, it seems to me, because here, in the United States, when there were the struggles about how history should be taught, this did not lead to breaking this link between history and citizenship; it meant that history had to be broadened out precisely to include the new kinds of citizens. So, much more emphasis on Native American history to say there were other people here first. Much more emphasis on slavery—to explain why the United States came to have a large African American population and why they were treated the way they were treated.

So I would say that in the long run, the introduction of women’s history, African American history, working-class history, Native American history, and, of course, the history of immigration, despite its critics, served to strengthen the tie between history and national citizenship, arguing that there had always been a multicultural nation, therefore we should not be so worried about it being a multicultural nation now. There’s some of that in France too.

Revel: But I think there are many and obvious differences between the two historical experiences. America has from the very beginning thought of itself as a country with many origins, which is exactly the reverse of the French pattern. Not that the French had any autochthony, but they used to think of themselves, and over the centuries they had seen themselves as coming from one root, which had progressively been enriched by the Romans, the Franks, and so on. You must take into account as well the French pattern of citizenship since the Revolution: it is universal and abstract, both generous and demanding, so that you are welcome but you are expected to leave any kind of further identification (of origin or religious affiliation) at the door. This has been the ground of the republican contract for almost two centuries. But recently, things have been changing dramatically.

We now have a rich history of immigration. More largely, the diversity of social experience is being explored as it is elsewhere. Let me suggest that because they have been so much delayed, those topics raise more questions about national identity and the sense of community in France (and more generally in Europe) than it does in the U.S. Ours are older countries. They are no more world powers. They are not yet fully convinced to be integrated into the European Community that also submerges our national identities. They ask about their future in a global world. This is certainly responsible for a sense of greater uncertainty.

But personally, I would think that it is a progress; that is, not to take national identities for granted is certainly more positive than to think that because we are French or American or whatever, we should be this or that.
Hunt: So is this related to Europe, to the rise of Europe?

Revel: Well, it’s related with Europe partly. Many Europeans, with the exception of the Germans, have been reluctant to accept the European idea for some time as they saw it as questioning their national identities. Over the last 50 years or so, we have slowly, difficultly, discovered, or more exactly experienced what it means to be Europeans, which for the time being is no more a matter of certainty than being French; it’s just in the making, and we actually are not able to fancy what it will mean in 50 years from now, because these are changing patterns creating new lines or faults of a fracture within Europe. For instance, this is clearly what was at stake when western European countries, with exception of Britain, resisted the U.S. policy in Iraq some years ago, while eastern Europe gathered around the American government. And Europe is not an island: it is part of a global world and worries about its place in the global world. This is certainly responsible for a sense of stronger uncertainty, whenever I think that uncertainty might be positive.

Hunt: And is the existence of Europe, even with its weaknesses and also its strengths, is it having an impact on the way history is viewed in France?

Revel: Yes and no. European countries, and France among them, have been producing a large number of European histories, most of them extremely disappointing because they are in a sense repeating the same errors, taking Europe for granted because of its past, because of the Roman Empire, because of the medieval Catholic Church, because of the Republic of Letters in the 16th and the 18th centuries, and so on, as if there were a sort of a built-in agenda in Europe which would culminate in the political construction of Europe which started 50 years ago. Such a view is obviously wrong. It doesn’t work. Europe is a system of relations with strong and weak points and where people interact. If there is a result, there will be something that we might call Europeans, but this cannot be done within one generation. In a sense, only retrospective, abusive, views create this conviction that Europe was there from the very beginning.

Hunt: Couldn’t you say that it’s there from the very beginning, but so are many other things; it’s just that there are other elements?

Revel: Many and different origins, heterogeneity, and something happens in the making. But this is true for any historical process. Isn’t that what E. P. Thompson made clear for the making of the English working class ?

Hunt: Although the key to Thompson was that there’s no working class without a class to be opposed to. So is there no Europe without something to be opposed to?

Revel: I’m sure there is no Europe without something being opposed to, and it’s obvious that the relations between Europe and the United States on the one side, between Europe and Russia on the other side, now between Europe and the Middle East on the third side, are part of the self-definition of Europe. This has been true in the Middle Ages, then in the time of the discoveries, and it’s true in different ways nowadays. But what I think we should resist is the idea that there is a sort of program within Europe which produces repeated effects but which is already there. There is no such program.

Hunt: Right. So what is the role of historians? Obviously not to find false origins, because you said most of the work that has been produced under this rubric is disappointing.

Revel: Most are, I would say, lazy views of what Europe is about. What on the contrary is interesting are the studies that show how within Europe you are confronted with a set of different experiences, different temporalities, which should be taken together; that is, instead of assuming that Europe has a unity as such, it probably would be better to ask how Europe can think of itself as a whole despite those differences. This is a question which can be raised for any nation in the classical sense of the word. Why should the German feel German or the Italian or the Indian? This is something which we easily tend to take for granted but which is a basic question for any of our countries, despite the ruling ideologies.

Hunt: And is this the kind of question that in France people are interested in, or do you think it’s more something that’s an interest for people in other countries in Europe?

Revel: I think this is now a question which is raised in France. For instance, there is a larger work on memories, the fashionable question, difference in memories throughout Europe and the kind of temporality which they refer to. Again, let me get back to 2003 and the beginning of the Iraq War. It happened to be very clear that western European countries were living in a chronology where World War II was no longer a founding landmark ; so they could think of what was at stake in the Middle East, without thinking in terms of solidarity with the United States.

For eastern European countries, well, their time schedule was still blocked on the 1940–45 period, and this for obvious reasons : because they had little confidence with western European countries, that didn’t defend them at that time and trusted much more the United States, which had demonstrated their solidarity. So it’s a different organization of time and a different argument about time, and this is part of the actual agenda of those countries, the way they can see into the future. But this could be said for a series of questions, the recent debate about the Catholic roots of Europe or others, which are raised differently between eastern Europe and western Europe.

Hunt: Let me return to something we didn’t get a chance to linger on. Why has there recently been such an issue about what the French legislators’ role is in the writing of history? Why did this come up in the various forms that it’s come up, and why has this become an issue?

Revel: As in many countries, but more insistently than in other countries, France has been confronted with aggressive negationist and revisionist movements: people, usually non-professional historians, political activist who challenged the existing knowledge about the Holocaust or even denying that it ever happened. In a sense it’s not an accident that this happened in France—not that France was especially anti-Semitic, but France has no real tradition of scholarship on this question. Raul Hilberg was an American. Robert Paxton is an American. Michael Marrus is a Canadian. There are some excellent specialists in Israel on those questions. But France had sort of a historical void on this topic, and revisionism flourished in the 1980s. Therefore, the Socialist government decided to pass a law criminalizing revisionism with the reason that it was not an opinion but a deliberate falsification and an expression of racial hate.

Since then, it happens that the legislators in the French National Assembly, decided that they should proffer a view on more historical matters. They passed a law alleging that slavery and slave trade was a crime against humanity, which is okay. So what? What is its use? Because there is no revisionism about those things: no one denies the existence of slave trade and no one wants to justify it retrospectively. A law has been passed as well, on the recognition of the genocide of the Armenians by the Turks in 1915. I have no doubt about the existence of the genocide of the Armenians. I know as well that there is an important Armenian vote in France, at least in some big cities, Paris, Lyon, or Marseilles. More generally, I’m just not convinced that it is up to the legislature to decide about the truth of a historical fact; and I would be afraid that a reverse decision might be taken by a different majority.

That’s why a group of professional historians around a society, Liberté pour l’histoire (freedom for history), decided to react and say, “Enough. It’s not up to the government to say what is true or false in history. That’s the historians’ job.” The mobilization of professional historians against political decisions about history is a sound move and maybe even more so now as Brussels wants to be part of the decision and decide what is a correct view of history and what is not. But I am afraid this is only one part of the question.

We professional historians think very often that we have the last word, and it is not true. Everyone has a view on history, while not everyone has a view on the quantum theory. What is more, over the past generation a series of new protagonists have been present on the historiographical scene: journalists, who usually react much faster than we do and do work that is not necessarily that bad; judges, who now decide on historical matters, and do so sometimes for good reasons; politicians, as we just discussed; and finally, most important of all, those who have been there, eye-witnesses.

Take Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Project, a sort of enormous database collecting interviews of all the survivors of the Shoah. And this would be put online, and there you would have the true story of the Shoah. I’ve no doubt about Spielberg’s intentions; I just think it’s misleading, because no professional historian would accept that a collection of documents would substitute for history; and it’s even more misleading because who would be courageous or insane enough to object to such a witness, and say “It’s wrong, it couldn’t happen”? Because the situation is so traumatic, it would be insulting someone to say, “What you’re saying doesn’t fit,” which we could do for the 13th century or the 19th century without major trouble. The predominance of the witnesses in first line raises a serious problem. We have numerous possibilities to enrich our documentation, but we do it with huge risks, in a sense. A witness gives a sense of reality, of proximity to the object of the study, which can be enormously misleading, just as judicial archives, which are so vivid, can be so misleading if you approach them uncritically.

Hunt: You said before that historical writing and publication has become so internationalized and that as a result, the Annales plays a different kind of role now than it used to before; but do you think there are things that are distinctive to the French historical scene that have had a particular influence on the way history is viewed in the rest of the world? There may not be a specific Annales program in the way you were talking about the 1960s and 1970s, but there are certainly distinctive characteristics.

Revel: Well, I’ve always thought of Annales not as a school but as a movement with different investments, different ways of practicing history; so I don’t want to describe too rigidly what Annales was and even less what it is today. And again, if I were to keep one definition, it would be the open confrontation of history with the social sciences, with changing social sciences over time, which still remains something as a trademark.

Some topics, I think, over the past generation can be identified with specifically French investment: the memory question, for instance. Not that other countries are not interested in memory: it’s now a large business everywhere. But the problematics of memory were developed in France in a way which has certainly to do with our own history, with the questions raised by our historiographical tradition and, as well, with the break with this historiographical tradition. The new history of immigration is certainly another one, for reasons we have been briefly discussing earlier.

More generally, my conviction is that what has been most interesting in French historiography over the past generation is a sort of self-reflexive attitude on our methods and concepts. Well, I may be especially sensitive to that because this is my own area of interest, but I’ve learned a lot from my German or Italian colleagues and at this point I’m not able to distinguish between what is theirs and what is mine. Nevertheless, I think there still are distinctive styles, and it’s easy to identify a German text and a French text, a German journal and a French journal in history because we are trained differently, because the relation between history and philosophy, history and the social sciences, or history and literature is different in each of our countries. Take the “linguistic turn,” which claims for a French rooting (the so-called “French theory”, which is largely an American artefact) but had no success in France. If you want to explain that kind of phenomena, grafts or rejections, you have to go deep into national intellectual traditions.

So the fact that there is a larger intellectual and historigraphical market where ideas and texts are shared doesn’t mean that everything is even, that everything is the same everywhere. I don’t think it is. But it is true that the kinds of questions historians can ask is much larger and varied than it used to be.

Hunt: The memory question seems to be especially interesting because I think you are right that French historians played an especially key role in problematizing the issue of memory. I suppose one could say ontologically or historically speaking, that everybody has the same memory issues because there’s the passage of time and there are events and there’s the way they’re remembered. So it raises an interesting issue about why this is so—I’m sure you’re not going to say it’s just because Pierre Nora was especially interested in this because he did, in fact, have a great influence internationally by the way he conceptualized it in Les Lieux de Mémoire, The Places of Memory.2 That is, how memory gets invested in certain kinds of places.

So this is a really fascinating question, especially given what you said about the history of the Shoah, because there’s much more history of the Shoah and incredibly much more memorialization of it in the United States, but less writing, perhaps, about the pitfalls, the traps, the false assumptions that can be made about the way this works. It’s actually only fairly recently, for example, that Peter Novick published his book on how the Shoah was not remembered the same way throughout the history of postwar America.3 There were very distinct ups and downs in the way people remembered. I know; my students are shocked when I tell them that [the Shoah] was not a big topic when I was a student in the 1950s and the early 1960s and that it only became a big topic later.

Revel: I am afraid it wasn’t a big topic anywhere, before the Eichmann trial.

Hunt: I know, but they’re incredulous, because they grew up in a world in which it’s a huge topic, and they think of it as a kind of huge topic perennially. Do you have any reflections on why this would be so?

Revel: Why memory in France?

Hunt: See, I think it’s because of the French Revolution that the question of memory and history is so vexed in France.

Revel: I’m not so sure. I think it has to do with the exhaustion of the French national narrative and the Revolution is a part of this narrative. In a sense, the memory approach became relevant around 1980 because the old and extremely strong national narrative didn’t work anymore and there was a need to revise, to ask questions, which were supposedly already answered but which re-emerged., Moreover, memory destabilized the historical narrative. This is very clear through the very construction of the Les Lieux de Mémoire, which, in a sense, is a national history that’s painted within 130 different pieces with no global chart and probably no possible global chart.

Yet this is not the only possible answer. A few years later, Braudel left his uncompleted Identité de la France, which offered a different kind of narrative about the history of France.4 André Burguière and I edited a four-volume, non-chronological Histoire de la France (1989-1993) with the same concerns. There certainly will be other proposals. Ours, I think, is a time for narrative experimentations.

It may be so because we are confronted with urgent questions about the past. A sociologist, one of the most remarkable followers of Durkheim, Maurice Halbwachs, had written during the 1920s and 1930s a series of extremely innovative texts about collective memory and how it could be approached in sociohistorical terms.5 His work had limited effects in his time and has been largely rediscovered since the 1970’s, because he had anticipated questions historians (and social scientists) were raising. Questions that now made sense to a larger audience.

Hunt: What do you mean when you say that the French national narrative was exhausted in the 1980s?
Revel: What I mean is that this narrative didn’t produce conviction anymore. Again, I’ve already mentioned this brief crisis in 1983, 1984, when the French authorities—to begin with President Mitterrand—discovered that teenagers didn’t know their history anymore and, what is worse, were not interested in it. But it is more than a problem of teaching and learning. What is expected from such a narrative is that it produces effects of intelligibility, of identification. What was still working when I was a schoolboy in the 1950s didn’t work anymore 30 years later because the nature of the French society had changed, because in the 1980s students knew they were part of a multicultural society, actually in a society that now had a sense to be multicultural. The possibility of forming a generation of students under one narrative didn’t exist anymore.

Hunt: And what form did that take? I mean, did that take the form of there not being any students taking history classes?

Revel: It started from the very beginning in primary school. Kids were certainly more interested in Asterix, which has a fancy story with qualities and defects, the stereotypes of the self-representation of the French people, but basically no historical background. So it is set in the past, but it tells us more about how the French behaved in the present. But they couldn’t anymore find in the past resources to understand the present world.

I like to quote Ernest Lavisse, who was the great official historian of the Third Republic. In the late decades of the 19th century, he wrote a book for elementary schools (Histoire de France, commonly known as Le Petit Lavisse), in which he writes, “The Gauls, your ancestors, were brave; the Francs, your ancestors, were brave; the French, your ancestors, were brave; so be brave.”6 He prepared schoolboys for the “revenge”, to behave as citizens and soldiers for the war ahead. The teaching of history was expected to create conviction and consensus. Obviously, this is something you can’t expect anymore. A sense of identification with the past has been lost.

Hunt: Does this also extend to the public’s understanding of history now? Here in the United States, for example, many families go to Revolutionary battlefields, Civil War battlefields. There are all kinds of parks with historical monuments in them. It seems to me there’s actually a pretty lively interest in historical parks, in going to Colonial Williamsburg or to Monticello to visit Jefferson’s home, and sort of somehow inhabiting those spaces of the past, and we have so few of them in comparison to most of Europe. So do you think there’s a public disengagement from that kind of thing too?

Revel: I would say that in the United States those “places of memory” still play a role in the process of integration, which is not the case in France nor, probably in Europe at large.

Hunt: But there is the relatively new museum of World War I.7

Revel: But that’s a different question. It’s a process of patrimonization that is an accumulation of signs more than with memory as such. That’s our past, but a past that is, in a sense, an absolute past. It’s not a past that helps to locate oneself in the present. It doesn’t help you to find reasons to be French or more French. Actually, we are currently confronted with an unending process of patrimonization where everything which is past is of value per se. It’s largely disconnected with a sense of belonging to a community.

Hunt: Let me now ask a really different kind of question. Increasingly in the scientific world—I’m talking about biology, neuroscience, physics—many researchers around the world, if not most researchers around the world, publish their work in English. There’s a certain pressure on them to do this, no matter what country they’re in. Is this a danger for the social sciences and history as well, or do you think that this development is going to sort of stop where it is now, which is a kind of enforcement of a universal English in the world of learning?

Revel: This is a question which has been and still is much debated. All the social sciences are not in the same condition. If you’re an economist, you are required to publish in English just as for maths, physics or biology. There is no hope without it. Sociology is halfway. History is still pretty much written in national languages but it depends which kind of readership you want to reach. If you are Italian, you better publish in English or even in French to get a larger recognition, and English is definitely the ruling language. This is the reason for which, after a long time of reflection and discussion, Annales has just decided to duplicate its printed French version with an English version online (2012). But it’s not yet mandatory. For how long, I don’t know. It’s not given either that English will last as the ruling language.

Hunt: Do you think this has effects at all on intellectual developments?

Revel: I don’t think so.

Hunt: It’s just a neutral sort of background issue?

Revel: I think it should be neutralized. On the occasion of international meetings, I personally recommend that everyone should speak her or his own language and that the others should make an effort. It’s not the ordinary situation, but it should be a reasonable solution. Yet I don’t think there is anything special in English which prevents us from thinking something that we can think in French.

Hunt: I know that the current economic crisis makes it hard to talk about what people are thinking about the future since everything seems to be so much more up in the air, but what’s your general sense of the intellectual scene for historians in France? Is there a sense of malaise that there’s no longer the relationship between history and national identity? It’s not clear how the historical field is going to be organized, and we hear that the École des Hautes Études itself might be moved outside of Paris at some time in the future [it has been moved temporarily to a site near the new Bibliothèque Nationale]. Are people worried, or is it a moment of opportunity and hope for new paths for the future?

Revel: These are many and different problems. From a scientific point of view, I think history is pretty vibrant in France, and I would take those questions and uncertainties we have been discussing as well as the problems in relation with national identity as very positive. These are questions which should have been raised earlier. It’s a critical turning point, but I find it to be extremely positive in the sense that it has convinced us to get revise some of our basic creeds.

Now, there is a second problem, which is institutional. For the time being, there have not been any serious threats to the history profession; positions have not been cancelled yet, and there has been no serious shortage of research funding. I am not able to predict if things will change in the future, but they have not done so for the times being. Remember that higher education and research are public matters in France, and therefore probably less dependent on the market. I must confess I have been impressed by the extreme reactivity of the American universities since the very beginning of the current crisis, when programs and jobs have been cut within a few months. Our system is more protected, it seems, at least in the short run.

Yet serious questions are before us. I’m not thinking of the probable transfer of the École des Hautes Études from the center of Paris, which is mostly a technical problem. We may be happy or not happy about this move, but I don’t think it bears crucial consequences. It would be ridiculous to think that you cannot produce good social sciences in the close suburbs and that you need to be in the core of Paris to do so. It may be a matter of prestige. I have known the École des Hautes Études when it was not on Boulevard Raspail, and it was certainly as brilliant, to say the least, as it is nowadays. The most important problems ahead of us are different. To take a crucial issue, what will happen with the CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique), that is with the French main research agency? Nobody knows.

Hunt: Because there are projects to cut it dramatically or even eliminate it?

Revel: Eliminate, I don’t think so.

Hunt: But to cut dramatically?

Revel: To cut it and reorganize it on a basis, which, to me, seems extremely problematic. But even that is not clear; so it’s one of those reforms which have been decided without being completely thought through. It’s now a matter of months or years. It’s a real threat not only to the historical profession, but to the social sciences in general. Whether the government will be able to implement the reforms is not given either.

Hunt: What about the job market in a kind of general sense? For years people in France have referred to it as being blocked, essentially. Is it opening up now?

Revel: As you know, in the French academic system, professors are civil servants, which means that they are settled for life in budgetary terms. They will be substituted when they retire. Therefore, you have strong generational effects; to take an example, my generation of scholars, which found positions in the early 1970s, would remain in them (not in the same institution) for 40 years. In turn, this means that they would limit new appointments because these positions are occupied. So you have a waves effect, which means that in the 1990s, there was an large influx of new jobs, of jobs which had been freed because a generation of senior professors had left and the same will happen massively when we retire in the 2010s. Between those waves, the availability of jobs is mechanically limited. That is a side effect of the system. It might be amended over the next years as new rules will make it possible to academic institutions to create (or suppress) jobs within a given budgetary allocation. Still, it remains that the academic job market in France has been rather open, if we compare it with most of its European counterparts. I see a positive sign in the fact that, after Britain, France is probably the country which hires the largest number of non-French historians.

Hunt: Let’s talk a little bit about what you think has the most exciting potential right now. You talked about the exhaustion of the national narrative. You mentioned in passing the decline of Marxism as a way of organizing the historical field. So where does a young historian go now, besides reading Annales and seeing what’s happening? What would they conclude? They’re reading the journals, Revue d’Histoire Moderne, Mouvement Social, whatever it is they’re reading, the Annales. What would they conclude about what the interesting things are that they should be thinking about, especially the theoretical influences they would have to master?

Revel: Let’s be clear first about Marxism. As I already have said many times in other venues, the influence of Marxism on French historiography is often overvalued. Just because many French historians were Communists during the 1950s and 1960s, we should not conclude that Marxism had a deep influence on French history. In fact the reception of Marxism by historians in France has been extremely limited and even poor if we compare it with what happened in Britain or even in Italy, where the Marxist intellectual reflection was much more open and fruitful, certainly less catechistic. We have had one major Marxist historian, Pierre Vilar, who has remained rather isolated in the historiographical landscape over three generations. Yet, there is another and probably more important aspect of the story: along with a variety of functionalisms, Marxism was one of the systems of understanding which offered something like a global analysis of the historical world. It is true that we are certainly less confident on such matters than we used to be 40 years ago.

Now, what is interesting for young historians? I would suggest a paradox. We all have a sense, especially people in our generation, that there has been a major shift from the social to the cultural, which is both true and misleading at the same time, because such vague terms as “social” or “cultural,” are so encompassing that you can put everything under them. My assumption here would be that young people are interested in reinventing our social understanding of the historical world.

The tradition of social history used to have rather simple ideas about what being part of the larger society is about. We used readymade categories, such as professions, wealth, incomes, and so on, and we used these categories to distribute the populations under study. This has been extremely positive as a first tentative mapping. Recently, it has been dramatically reconsidered and still remains an open debate. We all know that defining what a social identity is about is an extremely complex task. This is now I think a general concern—the reinventing of a social map; and at this point there is no real difference between social and cultural or social and economic or whatever history. The problem really is how to locate someone on a map, which is basically a map of social relationships that traverses every aspect of social life.

Hunt: Talking about reinventing the social map, how would we fit the previous debates, for example, about theory and history into this remapping? Does it mean we’re going to move into a less theoretical period in which we’re going to try to get back to the building blocks of how the social world is constructed? Does it mean we’re going to be relying more on someone like Pierre Bourdieu, who placed, after all, a fair amount of emphasis on this as a process? Maybe he was the most influential person, in a way, to talk about how we need to rethink the way the social world is constructed. Where does theory fit into it, and how does this work?

Revel: First I would suggest that those new questions about the historical social work are rooted in our present days, in our actual experience. The world we live in has more flexible identities not only in terms of nationality, but of work, of gender, of the kind of relationships we have with the others.

Second, it is obviously linked with stronger theoretical investment. But as ever with historians, theory is nothing without practice. This is, I think, built into our discipline. We’re required to test those theoretical tools, concepts, hypotheses with a specific kind of evidence we can work with, and here the parallel with the sociologist is both convincing and has limits because a sociologist is able to construct his data more easily than we historians do. We still depend on the sources past societies have left behind them.

Third, I think that there is a general sense that the way we used to imagine the social world is, if I may say, exhausted. If you read the large, comprehensive, social histories of the 1950s, 1960s, and the 1970s, which are very often great achievements in terms of knowledge, they don’t speak to us anymore. They speak of things that are largely different from the questions we now have in mind, not only because there are some major absences—women, to take a major example, and many others—but also because our representation of the social world has turned out to be so different. So we raise new questions and look for a way to secure answers, which is not always easy.

Microhistory has been one of the suggested approaches. I certainly don’t think that microhistory is the only possible one, but it is symptomatic of this kind of expectation, facilitating a different approach to the social world, “social” being taken in a larger, open sense. This should be taken seriously. The way we think of what history is about nowadays is totally different from the kind of history we learned as students 40 years ago, and it is so because the world we live in has changed, because the questions we see as more crucial have changed, and also because our research strategies have changed. And what I’ve just said about microhistory is true as well for global or globalizing history, which is usually taken as sort of an alternative and opposite move, whereas I see it rather as seeking to answer the same range of questions at different scales and stages.

Sudhir: But is it also movement of some kind of transnational histoire totale, as it were, on a global scale? History of humanity, for instance.

Revel: I am not sure I know what a “history of humanity” might mean nowadays. “Transnational” is a different matter. If “transnational” means trying to distance ourselves from our local idiosyncrasies, it is certainly welcome. We all are confronted with a multiplicity of limited local experiences, within local worlds. To take a classic example, there is nothing that resembles a “gentry” in French social, cultural and political experience, for example if we compare it with its British counterpart.

“Histoire totale” raises another range of questions., It was quite successful 50 years ago when it was seen as a sort of ultimate accomplishment. I am not sure the notion still means much nowadays. I have a sense that at best it works as a set of questions about history in general. To say the least, we shouldn’t take it for granted as an answer; it has to be debated. What, on the contrary, is important on the part of the new historical agenda is the fact that what we used to think was in the limited area of a national experience or a provincial experience or a local site is now to be thought within its relations with a variety of larger scales. But this is no more the program of a holistic, histoire totale; we now see it as a problem of connected histories or crossed histories (histoires croisées), a series of interrogations about why and how, through which complex mediations, a local event or phenomenon is not only local. From this point of view, I think there is no basic distinction, even less a crucial choice, between a microhistory and a global history. They’re two ends of the same spectrum and we must imagine as well a multiplicity of intermediate histories.

Now, the question here is how we might be able to reconstruct those webs of interrelation. In my view, this is where history is so challenging and active nowadays. No doubt it has to do with actual globalization. The semiofficial reading of globalization is that all the world is getting to be the same, which seems absurd to me. What is true is that there is a denser and more accelerated circulation of common goods, of common science, and symbols. But the answer to such powerful forms of unification is a stronger, renewed claim for identities. At the same time the same “global” world is both more unified and more singular, and that’s exactly what historians are trying to understand when they look into the past nowadays.

Hunt: Do you not think it will also be greater interest in something that I have spent very little time on myself but which seems to cut across these issues, and that’s the issue of religion? Because when you were talking about reinventing the social map, the way the late 19th-, early 20th-century great social theorists, Durkheim, Weber, Marx, thought of the social was in entirely secular terms, for the most part.

Revel: I’m not sure. Marx, probably, less so the Marxist tradition (think of Furet’s Le Passé d’une illusion,1995). Weber, certainly not.

Hunt: Well, Weber not, but Durkheim—

Revel: And even Durkheim.

Hunt: But Durkheim, in a sense, gave the ultimate secularization of the sacred by showing how it could all have secular roots. I raise this question because postcolonialism, it seems to me, is really focused on the difficulty of understanding religion in Western historical terms as they have come to be, as just a social expression, as reducible to its social and cultural meanings. So from the French perspective, since the veil became such a big issue in French politics, does it mean that historians are going to have a new look at religion and what it might mean or not?

Revel: Well, I’m not sure there is one single answer to your question. On the one side, we may find works which can be taken as examples of what you just said about this secular reading of religion, and this, in a sense, would be what Bourdieu suggests. You look for religion as a resource, as a building path of your collective and singular identity, but not religion as such. Religion with other elements. What is true is that we are not equipped to think massive phenomena as the contemporary outburst of diverse fundamentalisms. But this is a problem that, I suspect, is by no way specific to France. It remains that the French notion of “laïcité”, a pillar of our democratic and republican creed, has shown its limits and  needs some kind of reformulation.

To get back to the historians’ proposals, I don’t think that in the name of some specific cultural experience the religious aspects of social life are less studied in France than anywhere else. On the contrary, there is a solid and diverse historiographical (and sociological and anthropological) tradition of studies, which ranges from the historical sociology of practice (Gabriel Le Bras, Louis Pérouas and many others after them) to the analysis of mystical experience (Henry Corbin, Michel de Certeau, Jacques Le Brun). Think as well of the discrete but enduring influence of someone like Alphonse Dupront, the author of a legendary work on Le Mythe de Croisade, whose inheritance is nowadays embodied in scholars like Denis Crouzet, with the conviction that religion creates a condition of its own specific experience.8 Think of the impressive work in progress of the philosopher and historian Marcel Gauchet. If I were to oversimplify this rich field of research, I would suggest two main approaches, which are certainly not specific to French historiography. On the one side, religion is taken as one of the multiple elements which are part of building collective identity, and this, in a sense, is a more refined formulation of an old sociological question. On the other side you have exploration of what might only be thought through religion, that is an anthropological approach to religion.

Hunt: So do you think historians are more interested in religion or not really?

Revel: I think they are more interested because religion is a major and sometimes an urgent question in contemporary societies all over the world—certainly much more than was the case 50 or 60 years ago. Even a country which had limited the presence of religion in daily life to the private sphere, as was the case for France, is now confronted with new questions: not only the claim for fundamentalisms, not only in religious conflicts, but even more possible forms of religious coexistence. Those many historians who try to understand what it meant to have a city where Catholics and Protestants were living together in the 16th century, or Jews and Christians in the 13th century, or now, are obviously concerned with what is our most common experience, the coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims, in a country like France.

Hunt: So it seems to me that one of the issues that has come up, though, is obviously related to the resurgence, or at least the politically increased importance, of Islam, and that is that Republicanism in France and Republicanism in the United States, Republicanism in most of the West, in fact, has relied on the notion that politics is a secular activity and that religion is a private choice in the world in which religious differences are tolerated. This is very different from the Europe of the 18th century, of course, but in the 19th and 20th centuries, religion increasingly became a private choice and in the private domain. Politics is public and it has to do with secular questions. The challenge that’s posed by Islam, it seems to me, is to say that in Islam this is not the way the world is organized. Politics is a religious question and religion is not private.

Revel: Well, it’s not that simple.

Hunt: Of course, it’s not that simple, but to put it schematically.

Revel: There are many Islams, if I dare to say, or more exactly many and diverse ways to be a Muslim (or a Christian, or a Jew, or an atheist). They are associated with different forms of practice, different views on how the sphere of the sacred is articulated with social life. Again, there is nothing here which is specific to France, where (and this is a major difference with the United States, for instance) for a century, public life was strictly secular and religion was not supposed to be part of it. Things are changing. We almost automatically think of the very visible minority of people who think that Islam demands a religious law which should potentially be extended to the whole of society; that is, who see other forms of social life as a threat and an insult to Islam. These are minorities, but they don’t consider themselves as minorities. But in some ethical or societal issues, some Christian or Jewish groups might express similar views. On such points, I think we should be very prudent. Take the question of the veil you mentioned. There are many and different reasons for a girl to be veiled. One is the pressure of the family, of the parents, of the brothers, of the neighbors. Another one is to escape forms of harassment within the French society. Another is fashion, imitation, and so on. Sociologists have demonstrated that the veil may be invested with many different significances within the French society. The reasons for which people get back to radical Islam can be very different as well. It is well known that Islamist movements, many of them funded by Saudi Arabia, have provided a series of services which the public authorities or the lay society at large were unable (or not willing) to provide, not only moral training, but social control, professional training, forms of solidarity, and so on. So the reason for which you join radical Islam may differ as well and be flexible over time.

Hunt: But my question is, do you think that this has any impact on the way historians think about history as a field?

Revel: It certainly does. The current experience demands new readings of the past experience. It suggests that historians not look at religious choices, affiliations, practices, as the element of some fixed identity, but to try to understand them as pieces of a larger social game in which different agendas, rationales, different forms of agency are confronted with each other. And this is why I suggested that the most interesting part of the historical research on religion has to do with religious coexistence and diffracting. No hazard if the historical approach to religion has been largely renewed by the study of heterodoxies.

Hunt: I want to go back to something that you just mentioned and press you a little bit on it, and that is the relationship between the microhistorical and the transnational. You, I think, put it very well; the connections between different parts of the world. Isn’t it possible that there’s more—you seem to see a happy coexistence between these two perspectives, but I wonder if it’s quite as happy a coexistence necessarily, because the virtue of the microhistorical as you have laid it out is that it enables you to get a different view from the national view on the construction of the social world. It’s a completely different perspective on the construction of the social world. When you raise the scale beyond the nation to the connections between regions, not even between nations, but between regions, isn’t there the possibility that bigger scale is actually just going to completely overwhelm what you can find out from this microhistorical, that there’s actually a tension, in other words, between them?

Revel: The question here is what and where in the past are the dimensions of experience. At a microlevel you see things that you wouldn’t be able to see from elsewhere, but this doesn’t mean that the experience of the people you are observing is limited to this closer frame; they happen to be connected with other experiences. In a sense, playing on different scales gives you an opportunity to understand what the system of relation is and how far it goes, which has no unique or unified answer. You can see it as a series of maps which are discontinuous, which are not clearly superposable. But that is how social experience works.

Fifty years ago, Witold Kula, a Polish historian, wrote a fascinating book, which, I’m afraid, is largely forgotten with the title TheEconomic Theory of the Feudal System. He reconstructed there the complex linkages existing between the local production of wheat in Poland and the larger world (that means European) market in the 16th and 17th centuries.9 These distant worlds were connected. What happens in the world nowadays in a much more diffused and complex way is exactly of this kind. So, while the confrontation between microhistory and global or transnational history may sometimes seem to be an uneasy one, I don’t think they exclude each other. On the contrary, I see them benefiting from each other.

Let me suggest that we don’t need to have an absolute vision of what is micro and what is macro. These are relative notions, and what is interesting is what is in between; in a sense, the whole range of relevant scales, which are the heart of any major social process.

Hunt: The worry, it seems to me, though, or at least one of the issues that comes to my mind when I think of what motivated the great social histories, at least some of the great social histories of the 1950s, 1960s, and the 1970s, the great wave of labor history, let’s say—I think, for example, of E. P. Thompson, who wanted to combine the experience of individuals and get at their class relationships because he had a vision of what was needed to change the world; that is, organization for change. What worries me is that with the combination of the transnational or the interconnected and the microhistorical, the vision of the world will be simply to appreciate the differences in individual experiences and lose any sense of how individuals can get together to actually transform the social world.

Revel: Must it be so? Let us keep E. P. Thompson’s example in mind. The Making of the English Working Class, it seems to me, is a convincing demonstration of how a variety of local experiences with different social and religious backgrounds, converge at a time within a larger, shared, experience. The “making”, the ways and forms of a social process is exactly what is at stake. It works and becomes understandable—first of all to the historical actors—at different scales that Thompson needed to reconstruct so as to have a sense of the whole.

Hunt: Yes, but also in a sense it would be the way the human rights dilemma is today, which is that there is a much stronger emphasis on appreciating suffering of other people. Exactly how you’re going to get them out of their suffering is less clear.

Revel: We live in multicultural societies that are currently obsessed with the problem of identity or more exactly with identities. Why so? Because in fast changing societies, the social chart is blurred and individuals and groups want therefore to locate themselves somewhere on a map they apprehend with difficulty. It is not the first time in history this has happened: it has been the case for instance in 16th-century Europe and again in the 19th century. Actually, this is probably the case with every century, but with more or less violence and intensity. Yet, it is a different matter to experience it first hand and the shift is certainly more powerful and diffused, more conscious nowadays than ever before our time. Historians transfer those concerns to their own agendas and they approach the past with new questions, and with new conceptual tools as well. Let me stress this last point. I don’t think historians define by themselves alone the historical agenda. What is relevant, what is sensitive, what is at stake refers to a larger social experience we share with multiple and different protagonists—which certainly doesn’t mean that we necessarily share the same understanding of it.

Sudhir: I was just wondering whether maybe—I don’t know if you want to follow up as a sort of winding-up question. If I were to ask you maybe the grand question, too, how do you see the future of history? You talked about the porosity of the historical profession and how a large number of other kinds of historical representations of the past, whether it’s memory or eyewitness stories and so on coming into the field. What do you see, in light of those developments, in light of globalization, the future of history as a discipline, as a practice, both in France and around the world from your general sense?

Revel: That’s a difficult question and probably a tricky one. If we measure how far the historiographical scene has changed over the past decades, the time of our personal and professional experience, we better be prudent with any forecast. The scene has changed. Historians have never been isolated. Yet, with the development of erudition and later scientific history our profession has tended to forget it for the sake of objectivity, “that noble dream”. Such certainties appear to be challenged nowadays. Many historians regret it but this is the situation we are confronted with. New protagonists are present on the scene and they demand attention: media, courts of justice—and even, in France, the Parliament through a set of recent “memorial laws” as I mentioned earlier on in our discussion.

Witnesses are competing and often required to compete with the historians’ views; they were “there,” they are moving, they are often respectable, they are much more “real” than we may pretend to be. History is certainly more a public matter than it used to be. We have to take it seriously. Not that we should feel besieged because our views are being challenged more than they used to be. It’s up to us to make clear what is specific in what we are doing and the way we do it. I am not claiming here for the defense of our privileges but for a correct appreciation of each singular contribution.

We may agree on the fact that history and our collective relation to history has changed. But we are probably not able—or at least I don’t feel able to predict what the future of our discipline might be 50 years ahead. This said, I doubt that any society can live without relationship to its own past. Whether historians will be in charge of it is a different problem.

Hunt: That’s a great ending.

Sudhir: Thank you very much.

Revel: You’re most welcome.


1. Peter Laslett, The World We Have Lost, 1965.

2. Pierre Nora, Les Lieux de Mémoire 1984-1992

3. Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life, 2000.

4. Fernand Braudel, L'identité de la France (in three volumes),1986.

5. See, inter alia, Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, 1992 (translation of Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire).

6. Ernest Lavisse, Historire de France: Cours Elementaire, 1884.

7. Historial de la Grande Guerre, Péronne.

8. Alphonse Dupront (1905–1990), early-modern historian, author of Le Mythe de croisade (1997).

9. Witold Kula, The Economic Theory of Feudalism: Towards a Model of the Polish Economy, 1500–1800, London, 1976.

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