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Johnson, Douglas William John (1925–2005), historian, was born at 43 Pitt Street, Leith, Edinburgh, on 1 February 1925, the son of John Thornburn Johnson, land surveyor and town planner, and his wife, Christine Douglas, née Mair. His parents had married in Edinburgh in 1916, but at the time of his birth lived at 1 Seward Road, Hanwell, London. From his Scottish mother he may have drawn an understanding of the auld alliance between Scotland and France. He was educated at the Royal Grammar School, Lancaster, and was fifteen when on 18 June 1940 he heard General Charles de Gaulle's appeal to the French on the BBC to ignore the armistice requested by Marshal Pétain and continue the war against Germany. Often at school he wore the cross of Lorraine, a symbol of his support for the Free French. In 1942 he won a scholarship to read history at Worcester College, Oxford. He was called up for military service in the Northamptonshire regiment in 1943–4, but was invalided out. He returned to Oxford, graduating with a second-class degree in modern history in 1946, then continued with graduate studies, writing a BLitt thesis on Sir James Graham, home secretary to Robert Peel in the 1840s.

In 1947 Johnson was one of the first cohort of foreign students to be awarded a scholarship to the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in the rue d'Ulm, Paris, the training ground of France's academic and intellectual élite. He encountered a post-liberation Paris that was divided by powerful animosities inherited from the occupation. He was inspired by the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, and met the left-wing, Catholic, former resister and future historian François Bédarida. This was also, however, post-liberation Paris of some gaiety. At a joint ball with the women students of the École Normale Supérieure of Sèvres he met Madeleine Rébillard, whom he married in 1950. They had one daughter.

While Madeleine taught at Rouen to fulfil the terms of her government scholarship Johnson was appointed a lecturer at the University of Birmingham in 1949. In Paris he had studied nineteenth-century French history with Charles Pouthas, and in 1963 (the year in which he was promoted to a professorship at the University of Birmingham) he published Guizot: Aspects of French history, 1787–1874. Organized thematically, it explored the career of an austere Calvinist politician who sought to reconcile the gains of the French Revolution with ordered government, wrote ‘whiggish’ histories setting the French and European struggle for liberty in a millennial context, and as sometime ambassador at the court of St James was a great admirer of the English constitution of 1688, which French liberals had tried to imitate in 1830.

In 1968 Johnson succeeded Alfred Cobban as professor of French history at University College, London, a post he held until his retirement in 1990. He was head of the department of history (1979–83) and dean of the faculty of arts (1979–82). In London he continued his research into French history; his publications included France and the Dreyfus Affair (1966), The French Revolution (1970), and Michelet and the French Revolution (1990), and he was general editor of the Fontana History of Modern France. He also developed a new role, as an ambassador of Franco-British relations, at a time when de Gaulle's successive vetoes of British entry into the Common Market had done much to damage them. In 1965, on the invitation of Paul Barker of New Society, Johnson gave a lecture at Chatham House entitled ‘The political principles of General de Gaulle’. After 1976 Johnson became a pillar of the Franco-British Council, set up in 1972 by Edward Heath to improve understanding between the two countries. With François Bédarida and the economic historian François Crouzet he edited France and Britain: Ten Centuries of History (1980), attracting contributions from a galaxy of historians, journalists, novelists, politicians, and diplomats. Under the auspices of the Franco-British Council he co-edited A Day in June: Britain and de Gaulle, 1940 (2000) and Cross-Channel Currents: a Hundred Years of the Entente Cordiale (2004). From 1993 Johnson sat on the scientific council of the Fondation Charles de Gaulle. The French government showered him with honours. He was made a commandeur des Palmes Académiques in 1987, and chevalier (1990) then commandeur (1997) of the Légion d'honneur. Although he advised Margaret Thatcher on French matters the British government neglected to recognize his services.

Less formally Johnson provided benign but decisive support to a wide range of academics and graduate students who were studying French society, politics, and culture. As president of the Association for the Study of Modern and Contemporary France, founded in 1980, he used his contacts to invite a wide range of French figures to its conferences. He was instantly recognizable in his béret basque and cashmere scarf. His geniality, generosity, witty interventions, and deadpan humour endeared him to a wide field of lovers of France. In 2000 Martyn Cornick and Ceri Crossley edited a Festschrift in his honour, Problems in French History. The occasion was marked by ‘an evening with Douglas Johnson’ at the French Institute in London, when he did what he did best, telling stories about his encounters with French people and situations over more than half a century. He died of cancer of the oesophagus at the Royal Free Hospital, Camden, London, on 28 April 2005. He was survived by his wife, Madeleine, and their daughter.

Robert Gildea

Sources  

M. Cornick and C. Crossley, eds., Problems in French history (2000), xvii–xix · The Guardian (29 April 2005); (12 May 2005) · The Independent (30 April 2005); (9 May 2005) · The Times (5 May 2005) · Daily Telegraph (16 May 2005) · M. Evans, History Today, 55/7 (1 July 2005), 6–7 · S. Reynolds, Modern and Contemporary France, 13/4 (2005), 583–7 · J. Hoppit, ‘Remembering Professor Douglas Johnson’, symposium, 2 Dec 2005, UCL · WW (2005) · personal knowledge (2009) · private information (2009) · b. cert. · d. cert.

Likenesses  

obituary photographs