August 6, 2014

Michael Curtis to Receive French Légion d’honneur

CurtisMichael Curtis, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University, has been appointed by the President of France to the rank of Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor for his contributions to the history of the politics of France in the 19th to 21st Century.

The Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur was established by Napoleon. The old orders of chivalry were abolished in the French Revolution and Napoleon decreed that honors should be awarded for merit rather than based on the old system of nobility. Today, the requirements for a chevalier consist of 25 years of distinguished professional activity.

While the Légion d’honneur is supposed to be limited to French citizenry, non-French individuals who have made significant contributions to French culture are also considered. Michael Curtis is the author of more than 35 books on the fields of political theory, comparative government, the Middle East, and European politics but especially on the history of French political thought, focusing on the importance of that history to the development of political ideas in the rest of the world.

Mr. Curtis was born in London and educated at the London School of Economics where he took a First. He received his PhD from Cornell University after coming to the United States in 1954. His very first book in the United States, published while he was teaching at Yale, was Three Against the Third Republic (Princeton University Press, 1959), recently re-issued by Transaction Press with a new introduction by the author (2010). This book is considered the definitive study of early 20th century French politics and the rise of the right after the Dreyfus affair. In it Mr. Curtis focuses on three writers, Georges Sorel, Maurice Barrès, and Charles Maurras and their reactions to the deficiencies they saw in the Third Republic and in the system of French democracy. They formulated a philosophic political amalgam of the conservative, reactionary, and moralist segments of French thought that later became the rationale for the rise of rightist governments throughout Europe.

Verdict on Vichy came out first in 2002, published in London by Weidenfeld and Nicolson (Orion Press). This book was widely recognized as updating and presenting new material crucial to fresh understanding of the complexities of French government and life during World War II. It was named one of the best books of the year by The Daily Telegraph. It went on to be published in the United States in 2004 by Arcade Press, and was also translated into Italian and Czech for editions in those countries. The Italian title, Francia Ambigua, expresses how Mr. Curtis explored the contradictions and the dilemmas faced by various segments of French society, particularly in relation to the Holocaust. He brought to light for the first time outside of France, the investigation of the French government commission on despoliation, the requisitioning of Jewish property. Verdict on Vichy has been newly released as an e-book by Skyhorse Editions, the successor to Arcade Press (2013).

Mr. Curtis has written extensively on the French political philosopher Raymond Aron helping to create renewed interest in this influential French intellectual. He wrote an extensive introduction and analysis for Transaction Press when in 2004, it reissued Aron’s book, De Gaulle, Israel, and the Jews. Curtis is also the first to write about Aron’s texts during World War II. After the fall of France Aron joined the Free French forces of General Charles de Gaulle in London and edited their newspaper, La France Libre (“Free France”), from 1940 to 1944. These essays on Aron have been combined into one piece that is included in Curtis’s most current book, Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East (Transaction Press, 2013). 

In Orientalism and Islam, published by Cambridge University Press (2009), Mr. Curtis focuses on the history of European thought, highlighting the role played by French political philosophers in creating the field of Oriental studies. He traces the creation of terms like Oriental despotism back to Montesquieu. He goes on to discuss the impact of Montesquieu’s writing on subsequent thinkers like Edmund Burke, Karl Marx, and Max Weber. Included is an important chapter on Toqueville. While outside of France, Toqueville is associated with his study of the new nation of the United States, Curtis reveals Toqueville’s contribution to Oriental studies with his analysis of France and its relation to Algeria. This book is highly regarded as countering the popular misconception that Western philosophers like Montesquieu and Toqueville were inherently biased and could not comment objectively on Oriental and Muslim societies; Mr. Curtis shows how they based their theories on perceptions of real processes and behavior in Eastern culture and government.

Since 2012, Mr. Curtis has been writing almost daily on current events for the online journal, The American Thinker. His observations also appear in the British online publication, The Commentator. He often remarks on contemporary French politics in these columns, most recently on the French government’s unflinching stand against the anti-Israel riots as motivated as much by antisemitism as the current conflict.

At a date yet to be determined in the Fall, Mr. Curtis will receive his award from Francois DeLattre, currently French ambassador to the United States and newly appointed as French ambassador to the United Nations.