In Memoriam: Eugen Weber

Lynn Hunt, January 2008

When he died of pancreatic cancer at his home in Los Angeles on May 17, 2007, Eugen Weber left behind a beloved wife, Jacqueline; a history department at UCLA deeply in his debt; and legions of students and admirers who had heard his distinctive voice, whether on the page, on the lecture stage, or in his famed 52-part television series, The Western Tradition.

Born in Bucharest in 1925, Eugen Weber was the son of Sonia and Emmanuel Weber, a Romanian industrialist. At age 12 he talked his father into sending him to boarding school in England, the first of many surprising turns in his eventful life. In 1943 he joined The King's Own Scottish Borderers, rising to the rank of captain. After completing his war service, he entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Even while developing an almost uncanny mastery of the English language, he fell in love with France and a French woman, Jacqueline Brument, his wife of nearly 57 years. His Cambridge PhD thesis on French history was turned down, however, and England's loss became America's gain. After teaching at the University of Alberta and the University of Iowa, Weber landed at UCLA in 1956 where he remained for the rest of his career, playing a key role in building the history department into one of the country's best. He served as department chair, dean of the social sciences, and dean of the college. He won both the Distinguished Teaching Award and a coveted invitation as Faculty Research Lecturer. He held the history department's first endowed chair in modern European history, now named in his honor. Through every twist and turn in his distinguished career, he flourished a rapier wit, an outsized intellectual energy, and an inextinguishable joie de vivre. The combination made him a truly larger-than-life figure, even while he showed little patience for taking oneself too seriously.

Eugen Weber never did anything by halves. He threw himself with passion into every activity, whether it was writing his regular columns for the Los Angeles Times on the latest detective novels, exercising his charismatic spell from the lectern, or pushing his colleagues to higher aspirations for themselves and their university. In what can only be a cautionary tale for doctoral examiners, his spurned thesis became the first of many influential books that ranged across late 19th- and 20th-century French and European history. The Nationalist Revival in France, 1905–14 (1959); Action Française: Royalism and Reaction in Twentieth-Century France (1962); France, Fin de Siècle (1986); My France: Politics, Culture, Myth (1991); and The Hollow Years: France in the 1930s (1994) fundamentally shaped the field of French history. His modern European history textbooks and his public television series on the Western tradition reached even broader audiences. The latter is still available in DVD.

In this glittering array of vivid and penetrating works, one book still stands out from all the rest, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1880–1914 (1976). At a time when common wisdom held that historians working outside of France could not possibly enter into French debates in the same way as the French themselves did, Peasants into Frenchmen proved the naysayers wrong. A blockbuster in size and depth of research, it was also elegantly written and richly evocative. It reset the terms of debate and was actually devoured by the French themselves who found in it their own roots, traced so lovingly for them by a Romanian living on Sunset Boulevard! In 1977 Weber was decorated with the Ordre National des Palmes Académiques for his contribution to French culture. Among his many prizes, fellowships, and honors was the 1999 Award for Scholarly Distinction of the AHA, bestowed in January 2000.

In the autobiographical reflections that open My France, Eugen Weber gives his own account of why he studied and wrote history: "The short answer is that I am incurably curious. Curiosity, reluctance to accept the accepted, a tendency to delve into stereotypes and commonplaces to see what lies behind them and what makes them tick, and a strong urge to tell others about what I find, this is what drives me." That incurable curiosity and that astounding passion for life will continue to shine through his works.

—Lynn Hunt
Eugen Weber Professor of Modern European History
UCLA