“Audacity! Yet more audacity! Always audacity–and France will be saved,” declaimed the revolutionary George Danton as he urged patriot volunteers to fight in 1792. For subsequent French generations, this revolutionary inheritance has involved the intractable problem of disentangling virtue from treachery. Danton was a glamorous figure, honored two years after the Revolution’s centenary with a handsome statue on the former site of his home on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. But he was also the hard-nosed man of violence who reportedly said of the prisoners massacred after the fall of Louis XVI, “Let them save themselves.” Then there were other revolutionary figures, Maximilien Robespierre above all, who could not be rehabilitated or publicly honored but whose contribution to establishing the values of 1789–liberty, equality, fraternity–was undeniable. Pursuit of those values, infamously, led France to be governed by the Terror.
Robert Gildea ends Children of the Revolution, his erudite account of France’s long nineteenth century, with another tableau of bloodshed–the First World War’s legacy of a million and a half lives lost on the battlefields of France and Belgium in defense of the French Republic and French nation. Gildea’s book shows the internecine struggle there had been in France throughout the nineteenth century to secure the Republic and unify the nation, an effort that would culminate in the monumental sacrifice demanded by the Great War. That so many young men were prepared to die for a vision of France that was relatively new, and essentially contested, is testimony to the deep complexities of patriotism and the nation-state. Gildea assembles a wealth of information–historical, political, cultural and economic–to elucidate the conundrum, without pretending to explain it away. It is impossible to interpret the slaughter of a million and a half people as a triumph in any setting, but Gildea shows unforgettably a national identity winning out against all odds. It’s a lengthy, complex saga, but he manages to sustain enough buoyancy in his prose to allow it to be read from beginning to end with interest and pleasure.
Gildea maps five generations, passing the memory of the Revolution from father to son, mother to daughter. First, those born around 1760, who were participants or contemporary observers of events in 1789 and afterward; then, those born around 1800, who had no memory of the Revolution but whose childhoods were shaped in its immediate aftermath; those born around 1830, whose childhoods witnessed the violent insurrection of June 1848; those born around 1860, who were children during the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune in 1870-71; and finally, those born in 1890, destined, in all too many cases, to die young in no man’s land. Taken together, these five overlapping generations witnessed the collapse of the age-old Bourbon French monarchy, the establishment and failure of the First Republic, the rise and fall of Napoleon as emperor, the short-lived restoration of the monarchy, the Second Republic, the Second Empire and the Third Republic.