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above: detail from Execution of Louis XVI by Charles Monnet, 1794, engraving on paper (public domain)


Old Story, New Resonances

A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution by Jeremy D. Popkin; Basic Books; 640 pp., $35.00


Zhou Enlai was asked in the early 1970s what he, one of the architects of the Chinese communist revolution, thought of the French Revolution. His response: “Too early to say.”

The international press seized upon that comment, which satisfied every cliché about Eternal China and served as proof of Zhou’s profundity and long-range vision of history. Alas, we now know the anecdote is proof only of Zhou’s confusion and faulty hearing, as he thought he was responding to a question about the much more recent student uprisings in Paris. Perhaps it’s also proof of the journalistic habit of not allowing the facts to interfere with a good story.

Nevertheless, the story bears repeating. It reminds us that historical events can indeed have new meanings for the societies that they help create and for anyone seeking instruction, illumination, or diversion.

Jeremy Popkin, whose Short History of the French Revolution, now in its seventh edition, has been a staple of undergraduate syllabi for decades, confronts this question directly in his new book, which is a more comprehensive narrative aimed at a broad, educated audience. Considering A New World Begins, both a culmination of his scholarly...

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