The latest episode of 'The Napoleonicist' is live. This one focuses on the origins and early escalation of the French Revolution, asking 'Where did it all go wrong'. I also announce some exclusive and exciting details about #WaterlooRemembered: https://anchor.fm/the-napoleonicist/episodes/Where-did-it-all-go-wrong--The-early-escalation-of-the-French-Revolution-eeacmu I will also upload it to the website in due course.
top of page
Asked in the early 1970s what he thought the effects of the French Revolution were, Chinese Foreign Minister Zhao En Lai is reputed to have said that it was “too early to tell”.
The Revolution certainly went wrong when Coldplay wrote one of their dirges about it. However, in an allegory of our times, a bunch of German choristers have just produced a much better version https://youtu.be/4hg-Ke3arn0
This rightly criticises the Marxist perspective for trying to retrospectively shoehorn Marxism into the motivations for the French Revolution ...... but then swallows the same kind of nonsense pushed recently by Americans, who really only started referring to an American Revolution in 2003 when they used Freedom Fries and cheese-eating surrender monkeys, (described at the time as remarkably ungrateful). The American War of Independence was in itself about establishing the foundation myth, forgetting that without the French, the chances were that the colonists would have lost and it was in reality, a bunch of middle class landowners seeking to grab power when the existing ruler was in a weakened state. Its talk of “liberty” was only for middle class landowners, not women, the poor nor slaves.
But that does flag up the reality of events, superbly satirised in Orwell’s Animal Farm, where the reality is that one group is taking its opportunity to to seize power from another, using vague populist slogans to whip up popular support among the poorer and more stupid elements of society (it is happening in a more subtle way right now in countries, which have not known full on dictatorship). Supporters of the American Theory would point to the timeline and French involvement taking the analogy on to the Russian Decemberists, who had been in Paris in 1814, but that is just agendas, not least as ideas of constitutional monarchy had arrived in the UK in 1689 and some Americans did propose that Washington be made a constitutional monarch.
We then get more Revolutionary propaganda in the use of the French term Ancien Regime to describe the other European regimes. Russia would remain an autocracy until 1917, when it actually had two revolutions, but the Austrian monarch was not absolute in any part of his realm, albeit different parts had different limits on his power. Leopold II was actually planning to move to a constitutional system when death cut him down too early (much like Franz Ferdinand in 1914). Monarchs in Europe had certainly been trying to centralise power in the 18th century, but largely because they wanted their state to be more effective and to benefit their subjects. That did however alienate the nobles, who lost their local power, while The Enlightenment weakened the Church. A rapidly expanding middle class saw itself as generating the wealth and paying tax, but having no say over expenditure.
So, this is really a struggle for power in what had become a winner takes all game.
That as today, attracts the loons, who mobilise populism to achieve their own aims. Looking into Napoleon’s use of spies in Italy, he was playing off the middle class reformers against the monarchies and then the loons against the moderates. Much depends on the result of the power struggle - usually an absolute monarch is soon replaced by a strongman dictatorship, which uses its initial populist support to secure its own power. It probably didn’t happen in the USA, due to the established and separate local centres of power.
There is much talk of volcanic effects on Waterloo, but the 1783-4 Laki fissure in Iceland produced a series of bad harvests across Europe, making the peasants rebellious. It is perfect ground for the loons with their blame politics.
Hans-Karl has it right, start to finish, impressively from what he knows and has read, and without benefit of notes. As a mater of fact, his post reads like a precis of my lecture notes for teaching the Revolution at university. I may get around to the podcast... or not. I tend to pass on articles, books, lectures, whatever, that clearly announce a bias in their titles. "What Went Wrong," indeed. How quickly the Brits forget Charles I as they bemoan Louis XVI.
OK - after listening, first thanks for the Podcast, a plea, please Bastille - check your pronunciation - yes I know, Brits are not interested in pronouncing foreign words, but it would - at least for me - make listening more enjoyable and I wouldn't have to cough up my coffee all the time hearing distillery 😉
I don't agree that the AWI was a spark at all, it was maybe one of the many causes of the French Revolution - by increasing the debt of France.
Also the philosophers - the enlightenment, as for example Rousseau - had a much greater influence by making non aristos and aristos aware of themselves as human beings, there was no man such as by the grace of God. And no, I also disagree that in time of LXVI - absolutism as in France was that typical in all other states of Europe - there were a lot of nuances.
Without that huge deficit, Monsieur Deficit - later Monsieur Veto, wouldn't have to call upon the three estates - he needed them to pay the bills. The third estate was pretty much aware, due to literacy - that it produced most of the money needed but it had no power what so ever, they were only a third, but what is the third estate - nothing - but it wants to become - all.
Those people elected in the third estate are of course not the mob, those are people of some reputation and who could read and write (still not granted for the total population, had self confidence, did not believe in the power of God any longer) - not necessarily rich, Robespierre wasn't for sure, so for me it were more the intellectual than the rich who are the "Transmissionsriemen" see Karl Marx for that, of the revolution.
I agree that in the beginning - at least the majority did not want to get rid of the King, of to create a Republic, but they did want to have power, we want it now and we want it (almost) all.
Louis Capet of course didn't realize all this - and who could blame him? He was raised to be an absolute monarch by the Grace of God - he believed to have divine powers. Now all of a sudden he should share it? It took your Brits a while to curb your absolute Kings to give all this up and quite a lot of de capitations as well.
By hindsight Louis Capet had two options, to crush the third estate or to ride the storm by accepting a sort of constitutional Kingdom.
But by crushing the third estate - he would gain no money.
Another reason, for the very weak position of the King was his loss of control over the Army, he couldn't rely on them any longer to fight against the masses, not even his Guards.
As on 14 juillet, it wasn't the mob alone, it failed, till French Guards joint them in their attack, and only then they progressed. The vainqueurs de la Bastille, were just several hundred and not a huge mob at all.
The defenders, invalids and several Suisse - in case I remember Salis Samade who were clad in a frock, which helped them not to be so much abused as the Invalids, because the people thought they were a penal unit.
De Launy - capitulated and the people storming were mainly interested n the powder, they had obtained the day before about 20,000 muskets from the arsenals, lynched him on the spot - in case my memory saves me correctly he was not decapitated but à la Laterne - hanging, the French Guard couldn't protect him from being lynched.
Then of course one had a even greater power shift, the National Guards were created who were loyal to the "Revolutionaries" and apart from political and financial power - the Revolutionaries gained also military power, which was used later to strom the Tuilleries in 1792.
Also the intellectuals became aware how to control the people - and use them for their purpose.
The only hope that the Revolution would not go radical was the Kings consenting to a constitutional monarchy. This he wasn't prepared to do so. At the lastest the point of no return was the flight to Varennes, there is a good movie on that.
Well better to stop now, this is all written out of my head without consulting any books or refreshing my mind.
But my statement still is - the Revolution did go wrong with the death of Maxim Robespierre is still valid, after him sooner or later corruption became key and paved the way for another blood sucking tyrant - Bonaparte - who finished off the Revolution.
first without listening - with the death of Maxim Robespierre.