Through his books Resistance in Vichy France (1978), In Search of the Maquis (1993) and The French Resistance and its Legacy (2022), the historian Rod Kedward, who has died aged 86, transformed understanding of rural France under Nazi occupation during the second world war. His general history, La Vie en Bleu: France and the French Since 1900 (2005), also attracted a wide readership and the conferences he organised in 1984 and 1994 at the University of Sussex on Resistance and Liberation in France turbo-charged the field.
Kedward’s interest in “history from below” – as experienced by ordinary individuals rather than governments or leaders – prompted his decision in the 1970s to work on the grassroots of resistance and conduct interviews with witnesses. It was a bold move. French colleagues warned of the possibility of fabrication and fantasy. Nonetheless he was determined to talk to witnesses from the time.
This was not just to allow them to have their own voice, which he ensured by incorporating passages from interviews into his books, but also to use oral history to inform his approach to the archival evidence.
Previous historians of the period had tended to focus on urban resistance and to assume that rural areas adhered to the regime of the collaborationist Vichy government of Philippe Pétain and supported Pétainist policies that valued farming and a return to agriculture. Kedward’s work showed that there was good evidence of a resistance culture in the countryside.
Drawing on “carnival” theory from anthropology (which examines how established order can be turned upside down) – Kedward showed how the maquis (the bands of rural resisters) subverted the Vichy rule of law in the name of higher justice, to create an “outlaw culture”.
In The French Resistance and Its Legacy, for instance, he relates a “test” in resistance technique that he had to undergo in 1972 before being allowed to interview the resister Louis de la Bardonnie: “He made me steal a notice from the outside wall of a local police station before he would agree to talk, and then he made me put it back.”
Oral histories revealed a wide variety of motivations and levels of engagement in resistance depending on the resister’s location, culture and individual experience. Kedward’s research on southern France drew attention to tradition and folklore as sources of inspiration. Resisters in the Cévennes, for instance, linked their commitment to the 18th-century Camisard revolt against Louis XIV’s repression of Protestants, while in the neighbouring department of the Aude, they were motivated by the Cathar heretics of the Middle Ages.
Kedward also highlighted how women used traditional gender roles to disguise their resistance activities. Their ruse to distribute clandestine publications or transport weapons in shopping bags and children’s prams was so effective that they escaped notice both at the time and by historians subsequently. Observations of women’s behaviour in interview led Kedward to discover how “the women at the doorway” had acted to distract and mislead, covering for a husband or accomplice.
Born in Hawkhurst, Kent, Rod was the younger son of the Rev Neville Kedward, a Methodist minister, and Nancy (nee Judge), a drama teacher. He was educated at Kingswood school in Bath, and studied history at Worcester College, Oxford. As a postgraduate student at St Antony’s College, he moved into French history and France became his preferred destination for holidays and sabbaticals. His love of France, its people and its provincial richness marks all his work.
In 1962, the historian Asa Briggs, vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex, invited Kedward to join what was the first of the new universities as lecturer in history. He thrived on the excitement of this new, “plate-glass” interdisciplinary university just outside Brighton, which caught the momentum of the 60s. He frequently borrowed models from anthropology, sociology, literary and film studies in his research and his writing illuminates how history can benefit from this cross-fertilisation of disciplines. He remained at Sussex, promoted in 1991 to professor of history, until his retirement in 2002.
Generous with his time, Kedward offered encouragement to generations of scholars. He was a charismatic and engaging speaker, whose students would applaud his lectures. Colleagues and former students became firm friends.
An active Labour party member with anarchist sympathies, Kedward campaigned against repression of all kinds. In the early 70s, he wrote for the alternative newspaper Brighton Voice, about issues including squatting, anti-racism, individual rights and tenants’ protests. In 1973-74, he participated in the Larzac farmers’ battle against the extension of a military base in south-west France and supported the movement to recognise the Occitan language of southern France and its border region.
Unusually for a British historian of France, Kedward’s work was translated and admired by the French. In 1994, In Search of the Maquis was awarded the Philippe Viannay prize for an outstanding contribution to the history of resistance and, in 2011, he was made a commandeur dans l’Ordre des Palmes Academiques for services to French culture.
In 2014, Kedward realised his ambition to link the French resistance to other resistance organisations, such as the civil rights movement, the anti-apartheid movement and dissidence in communist eastern Europe, with the creation of the Archive of Resistance Testimony at Sussex University. This has taken on a particular relevance since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. Kedward was also prominent in the Secret World War Two Learning Network, which commemorates British heroes of the Special Operations Executive.
Family was central to Kedward’s life. In 1965, he married Carol Wimbleton, who survives him, along with their children, Josh and Jess, and grandchildren, Isabella, Niamh, Lucien and Rufus.
• Harry Roderick Kedward, historian, born 26 March 1937; died 29 April 2023