Albert Mathiez

The French historian Albert Mathiez (1874-1932) was one of the major 20th-century historians of the French Revolution.

Albert Mathiez was born to an innkeeper's family at La Bruyère in eastern France on Jan. 10, 1874. He graduated from the École Normale in 1897. After teaching for a short time in the provinces, he returned to Paris to prepare a doctoral thesis under the direction of Alphonse Aulard. The thesis, on Revolutionary religious cults (1904), marked him as a historian of independent mind. Mathiez argued that these cults were profoundly related to the Revolutionaries' views of the role of religion in society. Though the thesis derived much of its argument from the work of the sociologist Émile Durkheim, Mathiez later became dubious about the use of sociology in historical writing.

Three years after presenting his thesis Mathiez broke with Aulard, beginning a feud that continued for the rest of his life. Whether the feud was caused by personal pique, psychological conflict, or scholarly ambition, it took public form as a dispute over the characters and historical roles of Georges Jacques Danton and Maximilien de Robespierre. Danton, whom Aulard admired as a patriot, was to Mathiez a corrupt demagogue; Robespierre, a tyrant to Aulard, became for Mathiez the champion of social democracy. To prove his point Mathiez, in 1908, founded a new journal, the Annales revolutionnaires, and the Society for Robespierre Studies. In a series of articles and books—Robespierre Studies (2 vols., 1917-1918); Danton and the Peace (1919); and The India Company (1920)—he exposed Danton's graft and his "defeatist" attempts to negotiate with the enemies of the Revolution. In Danton (1926) he covered his subject's entire career. At the same time he explored Robespierre's career and promoted an edition of his writings. In these articles and books Mathiez demonstrated his mastery of critical history, illuminating with his forceful imagination the new evidence he had found in the archives.

Strongly influenced by Jean Jaurès, Mathiez also wrote on the economic history of the Revolution. He had early come to see the Revolution as a class conflict, and the Russian Revolution confirmed his view that political events had to be related to economic and social movements.

Mathiez wrote one narrative of the Revolution (3 vols., 1922-1927). Writing for the general public, and confined to a short text by the publisher, Mathiez here showed his mastery of French style and his ability to convince his readers. He continued this narrative in a much more detailed manner in The Thermidorian Reaction (1929) and The Directorate (1934).

Mathiez's dispute with Aulard, his brusque manner toward those who were not his friends, his criticism of the government during World War I, and his defense of bolshevism left him few supporters in the Parisian academic world. Professor at Dijon (1919-1926), he was finally called to Paris in 1926 as a substitute and then as a lecturer. On Feb. 25, 1932, while delivering a lecture, he suffered a stroke and died.

Further Reading on Albert Mathiez

Profiles of Mathiez are in Paul Farmer, France Reviews Its Revolutionary Origins: Social Politics and Historical Opinion in the Third Republic (1944), and Pieter Geyl, Napoleon: For and Against (trans. 1949). See also Arthur Marwick, The Nature of History (1970).