Eugen Weber; UCLA Historian, PBS Host
Sunday, May 27, 2007
Eugen Weber, an eminent historian whose books on France and modern Europe have influenced a generation of scholars and students, and who became well known for a 1989 public television series on history, died May 17 of pancreatic cancer at his home in Los Angeles. He was 82.
A professor at the University of California at Los Angeles for more than 50 years, Mr. Weber was a prolific writer with wide-ranging scholarly interests. The most popular of his more than a dozen books is probably "A Modern History of Europe: Men, Cultures, and Societies From the Renaissance to the Present" (1971), which is a standard textbook in many college courses.
On occasion, Mr. Weber examined other historical subjects, such as anti-Semitism, the rise of fascism and apocalyptic beliefs, but he kept returning to France, a country he had known well since the 1940s, tracing the changing political and cultural life of the nation from the 18th century to World War II and beyond. His research was buttressed by documents and letters drawn from every quarter of the country and was enlivened by what a critic from the Sunday Times of London called "a Hollywood-like gift for storytelling."
When his book about the late 19th century, "France, Fin de Siècle," was published in 1986, Los Angeles Times critic Lynn Hunt wrote: "The epoch immortalized by Marcel Proust in 'Remembrance of Things Past' has now found a historian equal to the task of capturing its tones and textures."
A popular professor at UCLA since 1956, Mr. Weber was internationally renowned for his scholarship and helped attract a stellar history faculty to his university. One of his most influential books among historians was "Peasants Into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870--1914," (1976), which, among other things, exploded many myths about French society.
Mr. Weber wrote that as late as the 1890s millions of French citizens still conversed in regional dialects and could not speak French. Well into the 20th century, houses in the suburbs of Paris often lacked running water, sanitation and windows.
"Building a French nation was a long struggle pitting the dominant culture of Paris against a people of cultural, linguistic and regional diversity," Mr. Weber wrote.
In "The Hollow Years: France in the 1930s" (1994), he chronicled an era of decline as France slid toward a fascist government during World War II. In that book, he also disclosed that, between 1920 and 1940, the average Frenchman drank 250 liters of wine a year.
"France was not an underdeveloped country," he wrote in typical pithy fashion, "but a developed one in an advanced state of decay."
Among the first historians to explore popular culture and sports as legitimate avenues of historical inquiry, Mr. Weber was an expert on the revival of the Olympic Games, which were first held in 1896. In 1989, he found legions of new admirers as the host of a 52-week PBS series, "The Western Tradition," which was based on his college lectures and touched on everything from cave drawings to cartoons.
Mr. Weber was adamantly opposed to the growing trend of writing history from the viewpoint of various theories -- many of them originating in France -- that have dominated the study of history since the 1960s.
"Nothing is more concrete than history, nothing less interested in theories or in abstract ideas," he said. "The great historians have fewer ideas about history than amateurs do; they merely have a way of ordering their facts to tell a story."
Eugen J. Weber was born in Bucharest, Romania, April 24, 1925, and was sent to England at the age of 12 for his education. He was an officer in the British army during World War II and graduated from Cambridge University in 1950, after intervals of study in France. He received a master's degree in history from Cambridge in 1954, spoke many languages and sometimes described himself as a failed novelist.
After teaching stints at Cambridge, the University of Alberta and the University of Iowa, Mr. Weber settled in Los Angeles in 1956, saying he was persuaded to stay by the city's palm trees. His sole survivor is his French-born wife of 56 years, Jacqueline Brument-Roth.
Despite challenging many long-held ideas about French life, Mr. Weber was popular among both scholars and the public in France. He delighted in anecdotes about qualities that seemed indelibly French, including a tale about Jules Jusserand, an ambassador to the United States, who once swam across the Potomac with his friend, former president Theodore Roosevelt. The French ambassador swam in the nude, except for a pair of gloves, "in case we meet a lady."