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The Genius of the Modern Age

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In the autumn of 1792, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe went to war against France in the service of a coalition of German armies. The war aimed to protect the monarchs of old Europe from the menace of the French Revolution. On Sept. 20, outside the village of Valmy in northeastern France, the Germans suffered an astonishing defeat at the hands of the French forces. The battle saved the Revolution, and four months later Louis XVI was guillotined. In the midst of the German retreat, Goethe marked the passing of the ancien régime: “Here and today,” he told his companions, “begins a new era in world history, and you can say...

© Wall Street Journal