To understand the French, study the revolution.
At the heart of Robert Gildea’s Children of the Revolution: The French, 1799-1914 is a vast project: not just a history of France during those astonishing years – from Napoleon to the killing fields of Verdun – but a history of the French themselves.
There’s a sea of books on the French Revolution and its fallout. There’s another sea of books on French cultural history – its edgy Parisian salons, its sun-drenched villages in Provence. It’s rare to try to fuse both, rarer still to do it well. He does.
(A cautionary note: You will need a simple French history text with a good index, no matter how much you think you know about France. A timeline will also help. Really.)
Gildea, a professor of modern history at the University of Oxford, runs through the big political narrative, albeit in abbreviated form: Revolution; First Republic; Terror; Empire; war, restored monarchy, Revolution, the rerun; Republic, the rerun; Empire, the rerun; Franco-Prussian War, Third Republic; and World War I.
These are the events, punctuated by murderous civil conflict over issues ranging from religion to workers’ rights. But what interests Gildea is how the French – especially five key generations – understood these events and, at length, came to find common ground in the “grande patrie” of the French nation.
“Each generation wrestled with the legacy of the Revolution, marked by it but also contributing to the long process of laying to rest the ghosts of division and destruction and recovering what was constructive and unifying about it,” he writes.
It’s not just the generals and politicians who count in this narrative.