La Difference

France’s New Deal
From the Thirties to the Postwar Era
Philip Nord
Princeton University Press, $39.50, 474 pp.

A historian’s tone may leave its mark long after a reader has forgotten the details of the book; it may make all the difference. This is even more true when the subject is well-known and controversial, and the arguments familiar. For many years now—since Robert Paxton’s pioneering study Vichy France—the tone taken by Anglo-American historians in works related to modern France has been procuratorial, when not triumphant: the able prosecutor thumping home a winning case, or, to switch metaphors, the old poker pro who cannot resist a sneer as he turns over a full house. And memory of the sneer may linger longer than memory of the hand or even the game itself.

Perfect pitch, then, is one of two main qualities that lodges Philip Nord’s fine book in the reader’s mind. The other is the novelty of its periodization: the Princeton professor’s stubborn focus on 1930 to ’50 in the face of an all-but-implacable resolve on the part of historians, particularly French historians, to observe the traditional caesuras: 1870–1940 (the Third Republic), the État français (Vichy, 1940–44), and the Fifth (Gaullist) Republic (1958–present).

Most of the time, reading a work on controversial eras of French history—and especially the Vichy regime—imparts a teeter-totter effect, as the historian seesaws between contrasting sides. Philip Nord, instead, quietly presents a convincing analysis that integrates and harmonizes the opposing sides without disservice to truth:...

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About the Author

Steven Englund, a longtime Commonweal contributor, is currently writing a study, From Anti-Judaism to Anti-Semitism, and Back Again.