Children of the Revolution: The French, 1799-1914

To understand the French, study the revolution.

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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.)

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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.

It’s everyone: the peasants quitting ancestral fields to sweep floors in a hospital, the typical first city job; writers and artists seeking the right cafe to make the contacts needed to market their work; women breaking into 19th-century professions or out of loveless marriages; the parish priest trying to “rechristianize” France after the Revolution, one confession at a time; and textile workers and coal miners navigating “the industrial reserve army of the unemployed.”

Promises of the revolution
These stories are the heart of the narrative and it’s a great read, no matter whether or not you are convinced in the end by Gildea’s five-generation scheme or by the notion that total war a nation makes.

A memorable factoid: to keep a family farm intact in rural France required a strictly gendered division of labor – and lots of hard work. So, “courtship might take the form of squeezing hands until the knuckles nearly broke, in order to test the strength of the intended, and beauty was actually seen as a negative quality,” he writes.

The French Revolution promised a new order: liberty, equality, fraternity, the abolition of privilege and the opening of careers to talent, freedom of the press, the status of citizen (for men, anyway), and new social options for women, including divorce by mutual consent.

But “the revolutionary brotherhood consumed itself in fratricidal struggle” and that roiled France for generations, Gildea writes.

One side yearned to restore the Old Regime, including social hierarchy and the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church. The other carried on the fight for revolutionary ideals in education, public festivals, and military service – all seen as venues for creating citizens for the Republic.

For more than a century, these two sides were irreconcilable.

Each generation saw the past differently. The first generation born after the Revolution was brought up to the “roll of drums,” wrote novelist and playwright Alfred de Musset. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, “When the children spoke of glory, they were told, ‘Become priests’; when they spoke of ambition, ‘Become priests’; of hope, love, strength, life,: ‘Become priests,’ ” he wrote.

The next generation, born around 1830, were deeply marked by the defeat of the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune. They were builders, not dreamers, writes Gildea.

For the fourth generation, the defining event was the Dreyfus Affair (1897-1909), involving a Jewish army officer falsely accused of treason and ultimately acquitted, but at great cost to the reputation of the Army. The scandal reopened conflicts between republicans and antirepublicans, but also rekindled a desire for national unity and reconciliation in the fifth generation.

How a country came together
That process of reconciliation is riddled with great stories, from the rediscovery and promotion of Joan of Arc as national symbol/savior to a 1912 petition drive by Michelin tire manufacturers to get the French government to number French roads and put up signs identifying them. The resulting tourism boom brought the provinces closer to Paris.

After the price of bicycles dropped from 500 to 100 francs in the 1890s, the sport caught on. In 1903, Henri Desgranges launched the Tour de France – another symbol of national unity.

By the time France again faced Germany in 1914, “France was a proud and confident nation once again, buoyed up by a national consciousness that had been formed steadily since 1870,” he writes. And Generation 5 left 1.5 million of its own on the battlefields of the Great War to prove it.

Gail Russell Chaddock, a Monitor staff writer, was the paper’s Paris correspondent from 1994 to 1997.

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