Peter McPhee

Histories of the origins of the idea of ‘Europe’ have probed the legacies of the Roman Empire, the concept of western Christendom, and the power of the ‘republic of letters’ in the dissemination of ‘Enlightenment’ ideas, culminating in the cosmopolitanism of the early years of the French Revolution. Anthony Pagden is well aware of this heritage but has decided to begin his own study with Napoleon. It seems a strange choice, since the emperor’s European dream was always of a French imperium, whatever the toll in lives; but it does serve to highlight the later triumph of the European Union in securing continental peace.

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Many readers will recall reports of the fire in April 2021 that damaged the University of Cape Town’s library, which, among other riches, housed invaluable collections of unique manuscripts and personal papers, and one of the most extensive African film collections in the world. The extent of the damage is still being assessed. Even worse, the fire that destroyed the National Museum of Brazil in July 2018 consumed twenty million objects, including unique documents, the oldest human remains ever found in Brazil, and audio recordings and documents of extinct indigenous languages.

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The French have a term for weighty tomes of scholarship: gros pavés or paving stones. Alexander Mikaberidze has landed his own gros pavé, an extraordinary account of the Napoleonic Wars of 1799–1815 in almost one thousand pages, based on an awe-inspiring knowledge of military and political history and a facility in at least half a dozen languages. The scale of his knowledge is breathtaking.

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Napoleon Bonaparte and Charles de Gaulle are two of the most polarising figures in French history. In today’s episode, Peter Rose talks to leading historian Peter McPhee about Patrice Gueniffey’s new book on the lasting impact of these two leaders and the French people’s fascination with ‘great men’.

 

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Napoleon and de Gaulle: Heroes and history by Patrice Gueniffey, translated by Steven Rendall

by
December 2020, no. 427

Forty years ago, François Furet outraged the French historical establishment by proclaiming that ‘the French Revolution is over’, launching a blistering critique of the Marxist categories and politics of university historians, many of them still members of the Communist Party he had abandoned in 1959. By the time of the bicentenary in 1989, historians were in bitter dispute over the meaning and legacy of the Revolution. In that year, Patrice Gueniffey completed his doctorate under Furet at the prestigious research school the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He remains at that institution today, Furet’s most famous disciple and a celebrated historian in his own right.

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Jeremy D. Popkin, a historian at the University of Kentucky, fittingly begins his account of the French Revolution with a printer in Lexington enthusing in late 1793 about the ideals of the Revolution of 1789 in his Kentucky Almanac. The printer’s geographic distance from the events in Paris meant that his idealistic vision of the Revolution coincided with its most violent and repressive period in 1793–94, later dubbed ‘the Reign of Terror’. This juxtaposition of 1789 and 1793 is useful for Popkin to make his key point that, ‘despite its shortcomings, however, the French Revolution remains a vital part of the heritage of democracy’.

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Andrew S. Curran recounts the only meeting between the two great philosophes Denis Diderot and Voltaire early in 1778 when Diderot, aged sixty-five, insulted Voltaire, then eighty-five, by averring that contemporary playwrights (including, by implication, the two of them) would not brush Shakespeare’s testicles if ... 

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A son of the French Revolution, Napoleon embedded in French society the Revolution’s core goals of national unity, civil equality, a hierarchy based on merit and achievement, and a rural society based on private property rather than feudal obligations. To these he added the Civil Code ...

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The French Revolution never ceases to fascinate. Marie-Antoinette and Robespierre, the storming of the Bastille and the 'Marseillaise', the Terror and its guillotine ...

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The ‘good’ biographer always opts for a nuanced portrait, and this is what Peter McPhee has given us in his well-written, reflective, sympathetic account of one of the most enigmatic, complex leaders of the French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre (1758–94). McPhee had his work cut out for him. Those familiar with the period may come to this book, as I did, with somewhat preconceived ideas. Robespierre conjures up a rather distasteful character, a revolutionary with all the negative connotations that word can conjure: a zealot, cold, calculating, idealistic, paranoid, the prototype of the totalitarian bureaucrat capable of sending friends and colleagues to the guillotine for the ‘cause’. So I was curious as to what McPhee, a leading historian of the French Revolution, made of the man, and how he accounted for Robespierre’s condemnation to death of so many people.

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