Marc Bloch: “Réflections d’un historien sur les fausses nouvelles de la guerre”
Marc Bloch, “Réflections d’un historien sur les fausses nouvelles de la guerre”, in: Revue de synthèse historique, vol. 7, 1921, pp. 13–35.
“Items of false news, in all the multiplicity of their forms – simple gossip, deceptions, legends – have filled the life of humanity. How are they born? From what elements do they take shape? How do they propagate themselves, gaining strength as they pass from mouth to mouth or writing to writing?” – In 1921, three years after the end of the First World War, the historian Marc Bloch posed these questions in his essay Reflections of an Historian on the False News of the War.Bloch had finished his university studies in 1908 and started work on his first research, when he was drafted into the French army in 1914. He served until 1918, finally as an intelligence officer responsible for communication and reconnaissance.After the war, he took up his first university post in the Alsatian city of Strasbourg, where he worked on his book Les rois thaumaturges, a study of the legends of miracle healings by French kings, published in 1924. In 1929, still in Strasbourg, he co-founded the journal Annales d’histoire économique et sociale, through which he innovated the research and choice of objects of a universal writing of history. In his article on false news, Bloch writes on recent events, but their reflection also changes the perspective on history.
Reflections of an historian
Bloch structured his article in three short chapters, beginning with an introduction on the significance of false news for the understanding of history. While earlier historians had tried to eliminate all false information in their search for facts, the former are, as he goes on to show, no less relevant to understanding human events. It is in false news, he goes on to state, that “people unconsciously express all their prejudices, hatreds, fears, all their strong emotions.” Secondly, he gives an overview of the literature on false news of the First World War. Thirdly, he presents his own experiences and reflects on them and this is what will be discussed in greater detail here.
Bloch opens the third part by means of an example he witnessed himself in 1917, when he was stationed close to the village of Braisne in Northern France. Bloch’s regiment had captured a German scout, interrogated him and then transferred him to a prisoner camp behind the lines. The soldier was from Bremen, “Brême” in French. Then, Bloch recalls, “bit by bit, a curious story reached our ears. As artillerymen and provisioners told it, it ran something like this: ‚These Germans! What marvelous organizers! They have spies everywhere. One was taken prisoner […]. Who was he? An individual who, in peacetime, was set up as a shopkeeper a few kilometers from here, at Braisne.‘“ The misunderstanding of the city’s names had led to the assumption that the scout must have been placed in France already before the war with the intention of spying. The belief that the Germans had established an espionage network was already present. It is only through this belief, that the mistake was not directly disregarded but interpreted in this way and “easily gained credence and spread like wildfire”. Bloch concludes: “an item of false news always arises from pre-existing collective representations.” The misunderstandings can serve as a “mirror” for the “collective consciousness” and that makes them significant to the historian.
Additional conditions contributed not less to the large scale rise of false news during the war: Censorship had diminished the faith in newspapers. In turn, stories from the front seemed more credible, even if they were false. Moreover, the conditions of survival on the front made calm and critical thought impossible, letting the soldiers – including Bloch himself, as he states – accept stories they would have doubted in any normal situation. Furthermore, these stories were transmitted through dispersed small social groups between the front and back lines, and were elaborated more and more in the process. The situation of the war lead to a “renewal of oral tradition, the ancient mother of myths and legends.”
As false news influenced people’s world views and actions, Bloch ends his article with the call to collect these instances and examples. He does so in the hope that another occasion for such an exercise will not present itself again: “Let us hasten to take advantage of an opportunity that we must hope will be unique.”
Reflections of an image historian
Bloch asked in his initial questions, how false news “propagate themselves […] from mouth to mouth or writing to writing?” Another significant medium by which news, as well as false news, propagated themselves in the First World War has been the image. This leads us to the work of Aby Warburg. During the war, Warburg concentrated on the study of newspapers and the role of images. The experience of the influence of the images in press and propaganda in his own time led him to a study of mass images in history and to state their relevance for the understanding of history. In his essay, Pagan-Antique Prophecy in Words and Images in the Age of Luther, Warburg studied the early forms of propaganda during the Reformation. In that case, he writes: “The invention of printing from moveable type had lent wings to learned thought; and now the art of pictorial printing enabled images […] to fly far and wide.” By putting mass images in the centre of his study on the Reformation, Warburg changed art history to a more open history of images.
Put very succinctly, for both Bloch and Warburg reflection on the war changed their perspective on history. Unlike Bloch, Warburg did not write an explicit text on his reflections on the war. Instead, he formulated numerous short notes which remained unpublished. They have to be taken together to gain an understanding of how the experience of the war influenced his views on history in detail. Bloch’s essay is a helpful comparison for this task, as the historian combined his personal reflections on the war and the consequences he drew from them for his academic work directly.
Bloch and Warburg, lastly, interpreted the “false news”, and the corresponding images respectively, as recurrent in history. Each time has its specific false news and propaganda in words and images. In his essay, Bloch stated after the questions cited in the beginning on the origin, communication and impact of the false news: “No question should fascinate anyone who loves to reflect on history more than these.” That is, one can add, no less true today.
The English translation (cited here), “Reflections of a Historian on the False News of the War”, in: Michigan War Studies, no. 51, 2013, is online at: http://www.miwsr.com/2013-051.aspx.
On Bloch during the war see: Carole Fink, Marc Bloch. A Life in History, Cambridge 1989, pp. 54–78; Ulrich Raulff, Ein Historiker im 20. Jahrhundert: Marc Bloch, Frankfurt am Main 1995, pp. 70–92; Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, “Introduction”, in: Marc Bloch, Écrits de guerre (1914–1918), Paris 1997, pp. 5–34.
Aby Warburg, “Pagan-Antique Prophecy in Words and Images in the Age of Luther”, in: ibid., The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity, Los Angeles 1999, pp. 597–651, here p. 622.