Robert Paxton

For the figure skater, see Robert Paxton (figure skater). For the British bowler, see Robert Paxton (bowls).
Robert Paxton
Born Robert Owen Paxton
Lexington, Virginia
Nationality American
Alma mater Harvard University
Notable students Sharon Traweek
Known for Political scientist and historian
Influences James Joll and John Roberts

Robert Owen Paxton (born 1932) is an American political scientist and historian specializing in Vichy France, fascism, and Europe during the World War II era.

Early life

Paxton was born in 1932 in Lexington, Virginia. After attending secondary school in New England, he received a B.A. from Washington and Lee University in 1954. Later, he won a Rhodes Scholarship and spent two years earning an M.A. at Merton College, Oxford,[1] where he studied under historians including James Joll and John Roberts. He earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1963.[2]


Paxton taught at the University of California, Berkeley[1] and the State University of New York at Stony Brook before joining the faculty of Columbia University in 1969. He served there for the remainder of his career, retiring in 1997.

Paxton is best known for his 1972 book Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944. In opposition to the traditional view pioneered by Robert Aron, he argued that the Vichy government was eager to collaborate with Nazi Germany and did not practice "passive resistance" to German rule. Upon the book's publication in French translation in 1973, Paxton became the subject of intense vitriol from French historians and commentators. During a televised debate with Paxton in 1976, the Vichy naval leader Gabriel Auphan called him a liar. However, the translation sold thousands of copies, particularly to the young generation shaped by the civil unrest of May 1968 and who were uninterested in the "cozy mythologies" of Vichy apologists. Today, the book is considered a historical classic and one of the best studies on France in the Vichy era.[2] It was published at a time when French historians and filmmakers were also exploring history under the Vichy regime, as in Marcel Ophul's influential two-part documentary The Sorrow and the Pity (1969).

As an expert on the Vichy era, Paxton co-wrote Claude Chabrol's 1993 documentary The Eye of Vichy. In 1997 he testified at the trial of Vichy bureaucrat Maurice Papon.[3]

Paxton retired from Columbia University in 1997, but remains a professor emeritus. He has contributed more than twenty reviews to The New York Review of Books, beginning in 1978 and continuing through 2016.[4]


In 2009, the French government awarded Paxton the Legion d'honneur.[5]


Paxton has focused his work on exploring models and definition of fascism.

In his 1998 paper "The Five Stages of Fascism," he suggests that fascism cannot be defined solely by its ideology, since fascism is a complex political phenomenon rather than a relatively coherent body of doctrine like communism or socialism. Instead, he focuses on fascism's political context and functional development. The article identifies five paradigmatic stages of a fascist movement, although he notes that only Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy progressed through all five:

  1. Intellectual exploration, where disillusionment with popular democracy manifests itself in discussions of lost national vigor
  2. Rooting, where a fascist movement, aided by political deadlock and polarization, becomes a player on the national stage
  3. Arrival to power, where conservatives seeking to control rising leftist opposition invite the movement to share power
  4. Exercise of power, where the movement and its charismatic leader control the state in balance with state institutions such as the police and traditional elites such as the clergy and business magnates.
  5. Radicalization or entropy, where the state either becomes increasingly radical, as did Nazi Germany, or slips into traditional authoritarian rule, as did Fascist Italy.[6]

In his 2004 book The Anatomy of Fascism, Paxton refines his five-stage model and puts forward the following definition for fascism:

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.[7]

Personal life

Paxton is an avid birdwatcher and a former president of the Linnaean Society of New York.[4]



  1. 1 2 Levens, R.G.C., ed. (1964). Merton College Register 1900-1964. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. p. 459.
  2. 1 2 Evans, Martin (September 2001). "Robert Paxton: The Outsider". History Today. 51 (9). Retrieved 25 September 2012.
  3. Robert Paxton: History Lesson, L'Humanité, Retrieved 29 August 2016.]
  4. 1 2 "Robert O. Paxton". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 22 January 2014.
  5. Hansen, Andrew (April 10, 2009). "The French-American Foundation Weekly Brief". French Today. Retrieved 18 September 2013.
  6. Robert Paxton (1998). "The Five Stages of Fascism" (PDF). The Journal of Modern History. 70 (1). JSTOR 2991418.
  7. Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, Knopf, 2004, p. 218.
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