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Professor Nick Atkin: Celebrated scholar of French and Catholic history

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Nick Atkin’s untimely death from meningitis at the age of 49 has robbed the historical world of a scholar whose research and writings have done much to illuminate modern French and Catholic history.

Born in the small market town of Gainsborough in 1960, Atkin was the second son of Wilfred and Lesley. Both parents were school teachers, and they instilled in him a lifelong love of learning. Having successfully navigated the 11-plus examination, he attended the town’s esteemed Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, which was then just shedding its public-school image. He read history at Westfield College (1979-82), winning the first-year undergraduate prize, and it was here that he acquired a fluency in the French language and a passion for French history; and just as significantly, it was at Westfield that he met Claire, his future wife.

He moved to Royal Holloway to undertake doctoral work on Vichy France, gaining his PhD in 1988. During the 1980s he taught at the University of London for Westfield, Birkbeck, King’s and Royal Holloway. In 1986 he moved to Reading as a temporary replacement for Professor Olwen Hufton, and was appointed to a permanent position two years later. The appointment was an inspired one for he proved to be an excellent colleague in every respect. He was a gifted teacher, as well as an outstanding administrator who ran the School of History and, subsequently, the School of Humanities with tact, grace and firmness of purpose.

However, it was as a respected, prolific and energetic writer that he really made his mark. His research interests, focusing upon the twin areas of France during the 20th century and, over a longer period, French and European Catholicism, resulted in a wide-ranging yet impressively well-integrated body of work. In 1991 he produced a path-breaking study of the influence of the Catholic Church on education under Pétain’s reactionary-authoritarian regime, Church and Schools in Vichy France, a book that would become the essential reference point on the subject in any language. It not only demonstrated that the relationship between the Church and the government was much less close than previously imagined, but that Vichy consciously rewrote history as a way of controlling politics and influencing mentalities.

His The Forgotten French: Exiles in the British Isles, 1940-44 (2003) helped to transform yet further our understanding of what the French label “the dark years”. A highly original analysis of the French in Britain during the Second World War, it looked beyond the familiar narratives of De Gaulle’s relations with Churchill, the government and the BBC, and instead investigated the rich and diverse experiences of the French communities in wartime Britain, exploding forever the myth that exiles after the fall of France were all members of the Free French, thus challenging peddlers of the Resistance myth. French attitudes in Britain were shown to mirror closely the contradictions to be found in public opinion on metropolitan soil.

The Forgotten French was the fruit of 15 years’ research and was a Spectator book of the year. It even provided scholarly justification of Atkin’s support for Tottenham Hotspur, if only because regular visits to White Hart Lane took him along Pembury Road, the haunt of refugee French fishermen in 1940. In 2003 he also published the joint-authored Priests, Prelates and People: A History of European Catholicism. A hugely ambitious project, some quarter-of-a-million words in length, this covered the sweep of the Catholic experience since the French Revolution with punch and panache.

As well as the research monograph, Atkin was a master of synoptic and popular writing. His balanced biography of Pétain (1997), produced for Longman’s well-known Profiles in Power series, provided the best available introduction to the subject in any language. His work on The French at War, 1934-44 (2001) and The Fifth French Republic (2005) were masterpieces of concision and insight. Additionally, he was editor or co-editor of a number of works including Religion, Society and Politics in France since 1789 (1991), Catholicism in Britain and France since 1789 (1996), The Right in France from the Revolution to Le Pen (2003), The Daily Lives of Civilians in Wartime (2008) and, most recently, Themes in Modern European History, 1890-1945 (2009).

Much of Atkin’s writing concerned controversial and still painful episodes in France’s recent past. Anglo-Saxon writers on the occupation and Resistance are not always well received in France. It was a mark of his international standing and the sensitivity with which he handled such issues that he was invited by the Institut Charles de Gaulle to reassess the general’s reputation a century after his birth and to contribute to a reappraisal of the French defeat of 1940 in Maurice Vaisse’s Mai-Juin 1940 (2000). He was a long-standing obituarist of French individuals for The Independent.

Atkin helped to make Reading an outstanding centre for work into French history. He initiated a series of international conferences there in the 1990s, and these presaged the formation of the university’s Centre for the Advanced Study of French History in 2004 which drew together the expertise of scholars such as Andy Knapp, Joèl Félix and Lindy Grant. Colleagues remember him best for his personal qualities: warmth, generosity, insight, optimism and an irrepressible sense of humour. These qualities informed his writings (he mischievously referred to the “rough-and-tumbrel” of politics in the French Revolution), his family life and his friendships.

At the time of his death, Atkin was preparing a monograph on Franco-British tourism and was commissioned to write the 20th-century volume of the Longman History of France. He had just completed a major writing project for the forthcoming Blackwell Dictionary of Modern European History since 1789. As his co-authors, the undersigned will now see this through the press in a form fittingly dedicated to the memory of a friend, colleague and collaborator whose career of scholarly achievement was so prematurely terminated.

Frank Tallett and Michael Biddiss

Nicholas James Atkin, historian: born Gainsborough 18 September 1960; Professor of Modern European History, University of Reading, 2004-09; married 1990 Claire Procter (one son, one daughter); died London 22 October 2009.

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