Robert Owen Paxton
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his Nobel Lecture, asserted that "one word of truth shall outweigh the whole world," a claim aptly characterizing your potent scholarship. Modern society, with its plethora of wrenching conflict, frequently calls on the historian to reconcile us with our past. Yet few examples more starkly reveal the power of exacting scholarship to shift the understanding of individuals, and indeed entire nations, than does your reevaluation of the German occupation of France during World War II. As a young man, your devotion to comprehending and explaining the past in all its harrowing complexity helped you develop unerring vision, and led you to Germany and an extended journey through archives describing the recent past. There you confronted the distressing truth that Marshal Henri Philippe Petain's Vichy government was not a passive tool of Nazi rule but a collaborationist regime complicit in discrimination against, and the deportation and murder of, tens of thousands of Jews. Fierce, if predictable, opposition across French society threatened to impede a fair reading of your findings and their ultimate acceptance. You persisted, confident that pursuit of an essential truth about who we are would eventually prevail over political calculation and national pride. In time, your analysis became accepted fact, certified by President Jacques Chirac's admission of French complicity with the Third Reich in a landmark speech in 1995. You pressed forward with the controversial decision to testify at the trials of former Vichy officials. In doing so, you challenged accepted notions of the relationship between historian and history to supply context and nuance to France's effort to reckon with its past. For these efforts, you have been called part of the conscience of France, a distinction accompanied by prestigious awards, including the Légion d’honneur, the Ordre national du Mérite, and the rank of commandeur of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Columbia has been honored to be your intellectual and professional home since 1969. Admired by colleagues for being a scholar of quiet yet powerful conviction, you inspired the careers of generations of students who saw in you an example of the transformative potential of the historian's craft. Your principled scholarship conducted over more than five decades shattered long-standing myths about French collaboration, recast our understanding of this seminal period in history, and elevated you to the stature of a historical figure in your own right. For marshalling your talent, your determination, and your moral compass to reveal a hidden truth that certainly did remake the world, Columbia is proud to present you with the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.