Children of the Revolution: The French, 1799-1914
To understand the French, study the revolution.
(Page 2 of 2)
But “the revolutionary brotherhood consumed itself in fratricidal struggle” and that roiled France for generations, Gildea writes.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.
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.