Sir Alastair Horne is an unlikely figure to receive plaudits from a socialist magazine. He is the official biographer of Sir Harold Macmillan, was a foreign correspondent for the Daily Telegraph and is an honorary fellow of St Antony’s College in Oxford, which has a close association with the US and British intelligence community. This year he visited George Bush at the White House to discuss philosophy and history.
Yet he has written three of the best books you could read on three decisive chapters in modern French history – the 1870-1 Franco-Prussian War coupled with the Paris Commune, the 1916 Battle of Verdun and the collapse of France before Hitler in May and June 1940. All three have just been republished in paperbacks.
They combine clear and accessible military histories with excellent social and political clarity. He is, of course, no Marxist but class is part of the dialogue. You could not read The Fall of France, the volume dealing with the 1940 defeat, without grasping why key sections of the French ruling class opted to back Hitler. Their slogan was “Better Hitler than Blum”, referring to the ex-Socialist premier Leon Blum, who had headed the Popular Front government elected in the spring of 1936.
The Price of Glory is about Verdun, which must compete for the bloodiest, and most futile, battle of First World War. This is no love story to war.
Horne is brilliant at drawing the threads between the three events he’s dealing with. If you have read his account of the Paris Commune you will understand why the fear of revolution which followed military defeat stalked the French bourgeoisie. Verdun shaped the Maginot Line strategic thinking which left France so vulnerable to rapid armoured thrusts in May 1940, while it also sealed the career of Marshal Philippe Pétain who would insist on surrender in June 1940.
If I have one gripe it is that a fourth volume, A Savage War of Peace, was not included in the set. It details France’s unsuccessful war to retain Algeria, which ended in 1962 with President de Gaulle ordering withdrawal. That was the book George Bush had read and why Horne was invited to the White House. But to be fair to Sir Alastair, once more, he is bitterly critical of the Iraq war and occupation, as you would expect from a historian with his honesty.
Read, enjoy and learn.
When we opposed the National Front
An imagined revolt in Port Talbot