By Benjamin F. Martin

Northern Illinois University Press, $25

An apt student finds lessons for today in the events of yesterday. As is written in Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun and a serious study of history reveals patterns of repetition. For Martin — LSU Katheryn, Lewis, and Benjamin Price Professor specializing in modern France and 19th-century Europe — those lessons occurred in the period between the world wars. Or as he puts it in the preface to this volume, “Right now, I detect a whiff of the 1930s in the air: political polarization, economic collapse, general insecurity, recriminations, anger, fear.”

Martin has written about this era in two previous books, France and the Après Guerre and France in 1938. While he addresses the same subject, he approaches it from a different angle in this book.In Years of Plenty, Years of Want, Martin concentrates on intensive portraits of key figures, including politicians, authors and artists, set within the framework of current events of the day.

A readable historian, Martin lays out the major argument early in the book: because of fragmentation of the national will, France did not act with decisiveness during or at the end of World War I. Before the first world war, things were good in France. The economy was working well. France was a superpower, respected and even feared. It was a time of good feelings. Then came 1914 and war, a conflict that drug on and on and on in trenches across northern Europe with neither side able to make any progress. Casualties mounted. Morale fell.

The French public had to be rallied by the hyper patriotic and steadfast Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau to continue the war until the much-needed relief of American intervention came. Even after the “victory,” French psyches were deep bruised by the cost of the war.

“The Great War laid waste to France. Broad measures stagger: the dead, 1.3 million; the severely wounded, 1.1 million; the damage to the region of the Western Front, 88.7 billion francs ($151 billion in 2011); the debt incurred prosecuting the battle, 177 billion francs ($301 billion in 2011); the losses from Bolshevik renunciation of tsarist obligations, 26 billion francs ($44.32 billion in 2011). The details numb: more than one-quarter of men aged between twenty and twenty-seven died, 600,000 widows and 750,000 orphans mourned, births diminished 1.4 million,” Martin writes.

In the end, France won, and because of treaties, it was guaranteed reparation payments from Germany. The French were counting on this money to rebuilt a shattered economy. The Germans, beaten, were recalcitrant and simply wouldn’t pay. The French economy and the rest of the world economy plunged into depression.

Martin offers portraits of the factions of various political stripes — Radicals, Socialists, Communists and others — that battled for control of France. Some wanted a hard line against rebuilding Germany that included a demand for reparation payments. Some feared a resurgence of the German war machine and argued for an accommodation with the German government.

A confusing skein of alliances and intrigues extended over Europe from Great Britain to France to Spain and Italy to Russia in the east, and French leaders feared upsetting the balance. With the hesitant Edouard Daladier serving as prime minister, France was assured of a vacillating foreign policy stance.

Even the French public itself was bitterly divided about the correct course of action. Their feelings were mirrored in the popular literary works of the time, and in support of his argument, Martin deconstructs many of the works of literature of the period, including books by Nobel Laureate Roger Martin du Gard, and novels by Collette, Irène Némirovsky (who tragically died in a Nazi concentration camp in World War II), François Mauriac, Julien Green and others.

The characters in the novels of the popular writers are beset by doubts, dark expectations, memory of loss. Many of the writers and their characters are veterans of World War I. They remember its cost: “The 1.3 million French who died in the Great War are more than the total number of Americans who have died in all the wars fought by the United States, from the American Revolution to Afghanistan and including the Civil War,” Martin writes.

Social change saw the waning of traditions and cherished institutions such as church and marriage. Privations forced innovation. The French worked to recover, but always with their faces turned to the east where a monster named Hitler lurked. The French weren’t fools, they knew Hitler was a liar and meglomaniac, but they had to have something to hope for, something to believe that would ward off total despair and collapse. They tried to negotiate with Germany. They tried to rattle their sabers. The French government formed new alliances — with Britain and, on-again and off-again, Russia. Nothing worked. Like clockwork, every spring in the mid-1930s brought a fresh batch of bad news from Hitler.

“On 9 March 1935, he announced the creation of the Luftwaffe, a powerful air force, and a week later on 16 March, the re-creation of the German Wehrmacht, an army of thirty-six divisions to be increased rapidly through conscription. On 7 March 1936, he denounced the Locarno Pact and reoccupied the demilitarized zone of the Rhineland. On 12 March 1938, he invaded Austria to effect Anschluss. On 15 March 1939, he occupied the remainder of Czechoslovakia, Bohemia, and Moravia, declaring them a German protectorate.”

When Hitler invaded Poland that September, world war began again.

Martin’s clarity of style and flowing prose mark him as a skilled writer. His thoroughness and attention to detail are testament to his ability as an historian. “As always, I write not just for scholars but for anyone who seeks out historical parallels, who shares my preoccupations,” Martin writes in the preface. He offers salient lessons from history in this volume. Apt students will find them edifying.