It is one thing to read about a tortured man in a cell. It is another to stand in that cell, even if the events happened long ago, and even if there is no stench of unwashed bodies or overflowing toilet bucket, no crowding of half a dozen in a room that would be cramped for one, no moans of men and women recovering from the torments of the day and anticipating those of tomorrow.
I was in Montluc prison in Lyon with some 45 students and faculty studying occupation, collaboration, and resistance in France from 1940 to 1945. The cell had been occupied by Marc Bloch, the great medievalist and one of the founders of the Annales school of history, which looks at the long sweep of the past and the larger forces that shape our world. A veteran of the First World War, he had served as a staff officer in the second, and after France’s shattering six-week defeat in 1940 wrote a reflection, Strange Defeat, that remains a powerful analysis of the tragedy. He continued to write and teach, joined the Resistance, and was captured.
Bloch was an archetype of the civilized man in barbaric times, the intellectual who sought to understand even as the patriot in him insisted on resisting. One of his Resistance companions wrote, “It was bad enough to know that he had been beaten, tortured; that the body of this slim man on which distinction sat with so natural an air, that this refined, moderate-minded proud intellectual had been plunged into an ice-cold bath, and then, choking and shivering, had been struck, beaten, and outraged … We could not, literally could not, bear to contemplate the picture which this news conjured up …”