Robert Gildea

 

On his book Children of the Revolution: The French, 1799-1914

Cover Interview of December 19, 2008

In a nutshell

‘The bloody truth about France’ was the heading of the London Sunday Times review of this book.  For those who think France is about camembert and surrender, here is another story.  The French Revolution of 1789 plunged France into twenty-five years of civil war, religious war, Terror, dictatorship and continental war from which it took a century to recover.  The ‘children of the Revolution’ are the successive generations of French men and women who were torn between resuming old battles they had lost and forging a strong and united French nation.  They could not decide whether they wanted a Republic, a monarchy or an Empire, Napoleon-style: there were three revolutions and ten regime changes in seventy years.  They struggled to regain the great-power status they lost at Waterloo, and looked enviously towards Britain, the United States, Russia and Germany.  Defeat by Germany in 1870 plunged them again into civil war, but after that they found a political consensus around a middle-of-the-road republic and built an overseas empire, so that by the time Europe went to war in 1914 they were strong and united enough to withstand the onslaught.