squalid despair amid the horrors of unlimited war

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“From this place, and from this day forth begins a new era in the history of the world, and you can all say that you were present at its birth,” Goethe claimed to have told a group of Prussian soldiers after they were routed by France’s revolutionary forces at Valmy on September 20, 1792, and his pronouncement duly features in David Bell’s The First Total War. But Bell does not swoon, as plenty have, at the poet’s clairvoyance. Instead he notes calmly that Goethe wrote his account of Valmy decades later and with some borrowing from the testimonials of others. Nevertheless, there was insight in Goethe’s histrionics; in 1792 the London Times had reported, “The army marching from Paris exhibits a very motley group. There are almost as many women as men, many without arms, and very little provision.” Here was “a people’s war,” with the new French Republic rising to defend itself any which way it could. Bell’s book is an impressively steady, poetically unembellished, evocation of the nativity that awed Goethe.

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