Nicholas Atkin, 1960-2009

December 10, 2009

A historian who transformed our understanding of wartime France has died.

Nicholas Atkin was born in Lincolnshire on 18 September 1960 and studied at the local grammar school before obtaining a degree in history at what was then Westfield College in North London.

He went on to study for a PhD at Royal Holloway, now part of the University of London, and his research eventually led to his first book, Church and Schools in Vichy France (1991). This was followed by Petain (1997), a biography of the Vichy head of state; The French at War, 1934-44 (2001); The Forgotten French: Exiles in the British Isles, 1940-44 (2003); and The Fifth French Republic (2005).

These books confronted a number of myths, carefully promoted by General Charles de Gaulle and others, about the French as "a nation of resisters" during the German occupation.

But although he presented a more complex and often less flattering picture, Professor Atkin won French, as well as international, acclaim for his work. He was even asked to contribute to a French volume addressing another sensitive topic, the disastrous defeat of 1940.

After a number of temporary teaching posts within the University of London, Professor Atkin was offered a two-year position at the University of Reading in 1986.

This became permanent when he received his doctorate two years later. He remained there for the rest of his life, rising to become professor of modern European history and head of humanities.

Having started his career with a study of the church in wartime France, Professor Atkin extended these interests in several directions with a co-authored history of European Catholicism since 1750, Priests, Prelates and People (2003). He also edited or co-edited a number of volumes, including Religion, Society and Politics in France since 1789 (1991), Catholicism in Britain and France since 1789 (1996), The Right in France: From Revolution to Le Pen (2003) and Daily Lives of Civilians in Wartime Twentieth Century Europe (2008).

Jonathan Bell, head of the department of history at Reading, remembered a man who played a major leadership role within the university, who was notable for his "good humour, sharp wit and judicious treatment of his colleagues".

"He was well respected on both sides of the Channel and was able to bring a certain amount of tact to the study of sensitive topics while always remaining totally rigorous," he added.

Professor Atkin died of meningitis on 22 October 2009 and is survived by his wife Claire, a son and a daughter.

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