There are few countries with a more fascinating history than France. In "La Belle France: A Short History," Oxford historian Alistair Horne...

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“La Belle France: A Short History”
by Alistair Horne
Knopf, 485 pp., $30

There are few countries with a more fascinating history than France. In “La Belle France: A Short History,” Oxford historian Alistair Horne provides a breathtaking tour of French history, from its earliest kings through the Mitterand government of the 1980s.

Starting from Julius Caesar’s division of Gaul, Horne surveys the Crusades; the Dark Ages; the Plague; and endless royal succession, mendacity and extramarital sexual liaisons. Horne, no stranger to his subject, has authored nine prior volumes of French history.

Horne deals with the French Revolution in a single chapter, but then sweeps on. Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power amidst the anarchy of the Revolution. But he fatally invaded Russia in 1812, was forced back, and ultimately surrendered. He was banished to Elba, escaped, returned to power and was defeated at Waterloo, all within the so-called “Hundred Days.” From the Revolution to Waterloo took 25 years — a span of time comparable to that from the election of Ronald Reagan to today.

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Internally, the restoration of the monarchy lead to repeated popular uprisings. Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon I, seized control and declared himself “Emperor” but ultimately was defeated by Prussia, which forced a humiliating capitulation by the French at Versailles in 1871.

From there, it was a straight line to World War I, an utter calamity for France, during which she lost 1.3 million men. The United States, by contrast, lost 53,513 men in the entire conflict. Indeed, France lost more men in World War I — by a large margin — than the United States has lost in every war it has ever fought, from the Revolutionary War through the last soldier to die in Iraq, combined.

That’s no criticism of unquestionably brave American soldiers, but for much of the brutal slaughter of the Great War, they were home in Nebraska. How do you measure bravery? By sacrifice? By the willingness to stand and fight against all odds? By the war’s end, France was bereft of an entire generation of young men. That loss — 20 years later — resulted in a shocking disparity in birthrates. By the eve of World War II, four times as many militarily-capable young men were reaching maturity in Germany as in France.

Conventional wisdom would have it that the brutal peace terms dictated by France and her Allies led directly to World War II. But for France, humiliated at Versailles in 1871, this was a settling of debts. Unfortunately, not the last.

Like slow-motion footage, the book slows as it approaches the cataclysm of World War II. The devastated French sought desperately to avoid another war but devoted their attention to eastern fortifications and social unrest, rather than military preparations. The Germans, by contrast, quietly built a powerful war machine and lulled the West to sleep. When ready, Hitler sidestepped the French Maginot line and punched a 60-mile-wide hole through the French defenses, moving with astonishing speed. It was over before it began, with the French losing more than 300,000 men in the first six weeks alone.

The Germans were strictly instructed to be extremely courteous in occupied Paris, and it was only after they consolidated control that neighbors living near 74 Avenue Foch, where the Gestapo settled, were kept awake at night by the screaming from the interrogation rooms.

Some things are understood best from a great distance. French resistance to more recent calls to arms must be seen through the prism of its bloody history, and particularly its staggering losses of the last 100 years. As Santayana famously remarked, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Kevin J. Hamilton is a Seattle lawyer.