Source: Annales d’histoire sociale. 1945, Vol 8, no. 1;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2009.
For a long time we hadn’t wanted to believe that the beasts had extinguished that light.
It was already too much to know that they had beaten him, tortured him; that this thin body of so natural a distinction; that this intellectual, so refined, so measured, so proud had been plunged into the icy water of a bathtub, trembling and suffocating, slapped, whipped, and yet ferociously silent.
We couldn’t, no we couldn’t bear that image: Marc Bloch, our “Narbonne” of clandestine life, turned over to the Nazi beasts; this perfect exemplar of French dignity, of exquisite and profound humanism, this spirit become a prey of flesh in the vilest hands. We were there, a few of us, in Lyons, his friends, his comrades in the clandestine struggle, when we learned of the arrest, when we were immediately told that, “They tortured him.” A detainee had seen him in the offices of the Gestapo, bleeding from the mouth (that bloody trail in the place of the last malicious smile he had left me with on a street corner before being caught up in the horror). I remember: at those words, “He was bleeding,” we broke out in tears of rage. The most hardened lowered their heads despondently, as we do when things are just too unfair.
For months we waited, hoped. Deported? Still in Montluc? Transferred to another city? We didn’t know anything until the recent day when we were told, “There’s no more hope. He was executed at Trévoux on June 16, 1944. His clothes and papers were recognized.” They killed him, alongside a few others who he inspired with his courage.
For we know how he died. A kid of sixteen trembled not far from him. “This is going to hurt.” Marc Bloch affectionately took his hand and simply said, “No, my boy, it doesn’t hurt,” and fell first, crying out: “Vive La France!”
In the both sublime and familiar turn of these last words, in this antique simplicity, I see the admirable proof of the serene unity of a life where the powerful and new discovery of the past served to prop up faith in the eternal values of man; an activated faith for which he knew died.
Until the Resistance I only knew him through his books, his European reputation as a great historian. Through his peers I knew what his works contained of a vision that was profound and original; of discoveries in that new branch of history that March Bloch made illustrious: economic history.
One of our dearest comrades, a young philosophy student who for a long time was, in the heart of the clandestine struggle, the key player in our movement and clandestine newspaper, “Franc-Tireur” in the Lyons region, spoke to me one day about Marc Bloch: “He absolutely wants to make contact with the Resistance. You’ll see what a terrific guy he is!”
I can still see that charming moment when little Maurice, his 20 year-old face red with joy, presented me his “new recruit,” a gentleman of fifty. Decorated, his fine features beneath silver gray hair, his sharp gaze behind his glasses, his briefcase in one hand, a cane in the other. A bit ceremonious at first, my visitor soon smiled while extending his hand and said with kindness: “Yes it’s me, Maurice’s protégé.”
It was thus, with a smile on his face, that Professor Marc Bloch entered the Resistance, and it was with this same smile that I left him for the last time.
Immediately, in our breathless, hunted, necessarily bohemian life I admired the concern for method and order that our “dear teacher” brought us. (This academic term made us laugh, he as well as us. As a vestige of a real but already distant past, so irrelevant to our concerns, like a top hat with machineguns.) The dear teacher learned with zeal the rudiments of illegal action and insurrection. And we soon saw the Sorbonne professor share with amazing composure that exhausting life of “stray dogs” that was the clandestine Resistance in our cities.
I know that it doesn’t mean going against his spirit to say that he loved danger and that , as Bossuet said, he had “a warrior’s soul, master of the body it animates.” He had refused the armistice and Pétain; he continued the war in the post where destiny placed him. But to our clandestine tumult, to our rendezvous, our meetings, our missions our imprudence, our perils, he brought a taste for precision, for exactitude, for logic that gave his calm courage – I have no hesitation in saying this – a strange charm which, for my part, enchanted me.
“Come come, let’s not get carried away; we have to limit the problem...”
The problem was that of having the regional leaders of the Mouvements Unis de Résistance (the MUR) follow the orders to organize arms transports, to produce clandestine tracts, to put clandestine authorities in place for D-Day.
When I saw Marc Bloch on a street corner during our secret meetings, with the collar of his overcoat turned up against the chill, his cane in his hand, exchange mysterious and compromising bits of paper with our young men in sheepskin jackets or sweaters with the same unworried air that he would have returned papers to students, I would say to myself – and I say it still – that no one except those who lived it could imagine the exalting aspects of the civilian and underground Resistance in France.
Soon the entire Resistance knew him. For he saw, he wanted to see too many people. He had maintained from his legal and academic life the idea that when it comes to work, if you want to get something done you had to do it yourself. And he wanted to do as much possible, by himself. Fascinated by organization, he was legitimately haunted by the concern to perfect all the complex gears of that vast underground administration by which the MUR commanded the maquis, the groupes francs, propaganda, the press, sabotage, attacks on the occupier, and the fight against deportations. A warrior’s, but not a military soul, in the professional meaning of the term. He often joked: “In World War II never got a promotion. Did you know that I was the oldest captain in the French army?”
Like all of us, he had had to abandon his true identity for a double, triple or quadruple name: one on his fake card, one for the comrades, another for correspondence. Why had he at first wanted to choose the strange pseudonym of Arpajon? It amused him to evoke that small city in the southern suburbs of Paris and the picturesque steam train that once puffed in the night from the Halles through the Latin Quarter, its neighborhood of schools. When the name of Arpajon was “burned” as we would say, he decided to remain along that line and chose Chevreuse. Chevreuse burned in its turn, we judged it more reasonable to have him leave the Ile-de-France, and he called himself Narbonne.
It was Narbonne who soon became the delegate of Franc-Tireur to the regional directorate of the MUR in Lyons; it was Narbonne who, with the delegates from Combat and Libération was to lead the Resistance in Lyons until the tragic dragnet that led him to his execution.
Narbonne for the Resistance, for those who lodged him he was M. Blanchard. It was under this name that he made his clandestine voyages to go, for example, to Paris to meetings of the CGE. He had accepted that life of risks and illegality with a nearly athletic liveliness; maintaining a youthfulness, a physical health that I admired when I would see him running to catch the tram that took him to his lodgings in Lyons behind the Croix-Rousse, makeshift lodgings whose main furniture was a stove, which he periodically used to burn too numerous papers.
I often called for him on that calm and rural rue de l’Orangerie in Cuire. It was agreed that I wouldn’t go upstairs and, to have him come down, I had to whistle from the outside a few noted of Beethoven or Wagner; in general it was the first notes of the Ride of the Valkyrie. He would come down with an amused smile and every time, without fail, he’d tell me: “Not bad, Chabot, but still a little bit off, you know.”
During his clandestine missions he always had a book in his hands, not only to read, but to mark his rendezvous in them in a mysterious cryptography, a system all his own which he was quite proud of. But he chose his authors so as not to waste his time: the last book I saw in his hands was a Ronsard.
So imagine this man, made for creative silence, for the studious calm of an office full of books, running from street to street deciphering with us, in an attic in Lyons, the clandestine mail of the Resistance.
And then the catastrophe occurred. After a year of efforts, the Gestapo succeeded in laying its hands on a part of the leadership of the MUR. Marc Bloch was arrested, tortured, imprisoned. And that admirable end that we spoke of.
The other morning, in the great amphitheatre of the Sorbonne the French university solemnly received General de Gaulle. The Marseillaise broke out; professors in robes, enthusiastic students acclaimed the symbol of our re-conquered freedoms. Marc Bloch had often spoken to me of this day, which he hoped to see. For he loved his craft, as much as he loved is family, as much as France.
“And then afterwards,” he said,” “I’ll take up my courses again.”
His place is empty in the rooms where an entire generation listened to him with respect. May the name of the great professor Marc Bloch, of Narbonne, martyr of the Resistance, live forever under the galleries of that Sorbonne that he so loved. And may we soon, for his family, for his friends, for France, solemnly honor his heart and his combat.