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The Revolution Abroad

Inspiration, Collaboration, Opposition
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'And what was the Revolution? It was the victory of France over Europe, and of Paris over France.'

-Victor Hugo

The rapid changes that occurred in Paris between 1789 and 1793 sent shock-waves through Europe. The French Revolution inspired a variety of reactions across the continent. Some countries underwent their own revolutions, while others entrenched themselves in reactionary opposition. Many were forced to collaborate with the revolutionaries when French armies marched across Europe.



'One cannot expect that [the government's] actions will change on their own because it remains within its vital interest to fascinate people with lies, fear of hell, bizarre dogmas, and abstract or incomprehensible theological ideas.'

Tadeusz Kościuszko

The traditional feudal structure of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was shaken to its core by a series of crises in the early 18th century. The international grain market collapsed, the country was apparently in a permanent state of conflict, and a civil war raged until the Silent Sejm of 1717 was held. The decline of internal and external trade meant only the richest aristocrats held onto their folwarks (serf estates). Other nobles were forced to become tenants of these larger estates. Great resentment began brewing among the lower aristocracy, which resulted in the creation of the 'patriot' movement with the aim of fixing the imbalances in the Szlachta (Parliament) caused by these earlier crises. In 1788, the four-year Great Sejm began. This session of Parliament saw a number of reforms enacted that allowed more landowners to become nobles, and thus to become involved in government. This 'Peaceful Revolution' nearly brought Poland-Lithuania up to speed with its neighbours in the space of four years.

Reformist patriots had little sympathy with the revolutionaries in France, whom they considered to be facing a challenge greatly different to that faced by Poland. This all changed when the Russian Empire invaded the country in 1792 to undo the reforms that had been made over the past four years. The statesman Tadeusz Kościuszko, who had who fought in the American War of Independence, led a popular revolt against the Russian puppet government. Kościuszko’s government was similar to that of France: revolutionary clubs held tribunals of ‘enemies of the people’, large ‘scythe regiments’ were levied from the countryside, and regicide was considered to prevent the King from seeking peace with Russia. However, to appeal to dispossessed aristocrats, Kościuszko kept the Szlachta-style government. In this way, revolutionary activity in Poland mimicked that of France in development but not in origin. Once Kościuszko was defeated, Russia dominated Polish society until the end of the First World War. Nonetheless, his revolt shifted the meaning of ‘the nation’ from ‘the government’ to ‘the people’ and raised national consciousness among many Poles, particularly the bourgeoisie and petty aristocracy.

Napoleon exploited Russophobia to entice Poland to willingly join the French dominion when his armies arrived in Eastern Europe. The structure of his Duchy of Warsaw pleased many: its centralisation, civil constitution, and feudal abolition pleased the liberal-minded petty aristocracy and bourgeoisie, while the noble diets that were convened pleased the aristocrats. The title of Duke was granted to the King of Saxony, who was a member of the Confederation of the Rhine and therefore directly answerable to Napoleon. In this way, though far from Paris, the Polish state possessed little independence beyond administrative autonomy. After Napoleon’s defeat, Russian dominance returned, though frequently challenged (as in the November 1830 Uprising, which saw similar scenes to the revolt of 1794 — peasant scythe regiments led by petty aristocrats against a superior Russian foe — and is similarly enshrined in the modern Polish national myth).

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The Great Sejm, 1788-1792, from Wikimedia Commons (source)

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War scythemen raised in revolt by Kościuszko, from Wikimedia Commons (source)



The Kingdom of Hungary (part of the Austrian Empire) was less than 50% Hungarian in the 18th century, down from 80% due to Germanisation and a Turkish invasion. The literate urban elite was largely German as a result of the Austrian colonisation policy, while the rural fringes were the homelands of South and West Slavs and Romanians. This ethnic fragmentation was compounded by religious schism between Catholics and Orthodox South Slavs. However, the idea of the 'nation' being equivalent to the government meant ethnic conflict was rare until the late 18th century. Internal conflict typically consisted of the peasantry of any race fighting against the elites.

Enlightenment ideals, which were growing popular among the literate bourgeoisie, called for universal rights. Universal rights must be promulgated to the masses using vernacular language. This thought process brought the ethno-linguistic divisions of Hungary to intellectual attention, leading to an academic schism in the reformist movement along the lines of ethno-cultural identity.

The reformist movement in Hungary was divided along two lines: ethnicity and radicalism. Non-Hungarian intellectuals promoted cultural nationalism, which eventually formed the basis for political nationalism. Conversely, Hungarian intellectuals promoted political nationalism (making Hungarian, not Latin or German, the official language), later turning to culture to help this along.

Moderate Hungarian intellectual reformists championed social issues. Gregory Berzeviczy wrote: 'In Hungary, where different nationalities, political groups, and religious denominations live together, ... what is most needed is that people ... [should] regard themselves in the first place as human beings.'

The radical Hungarian Jacobin movement of 1794-1795 required all ethnicities to speak Hungarian. Many of these radicals defined anyone who lived in the kingdom as Hungarian regardless of background. Some, like Joseph Hajnóczy, wanted Hungarian to be spoken throughout the country by all ethnicities. Samuel Decsy, more uncompromising than Hajnóczy, said 'whoever eats the bread of Hungary should learn to speak Hungarian.' Others, like Francis Kazinczy, were much more uncompromising towards non-Magyars — 'foreigners in our country will either become Hungarian, or starve.' The non-Magyar Jacobin movement called for a radical restructuring of the state. The Serb Ignatius Martinovics, author of Draft of a New Constitution for Hungary, called for an ‘indivisible’ republican confederacy (ironically, as the frequent use of the word by the French was used to promote unitary, centralised administration) comprised of national states — Illyria, Slovakia, Hungary, and Wallachia — with a federal army, local constitutions, proportional representation, and linguistic and religious independence. These radical ideas were not contested by many Magyar Jacobins, most of whom nonetheless saw it as a solution. This created a united ethnonationalist front that would never be recreated in Hungarian history. It was quashed by police in 1795 as the war with France intensified.

France never seized any Hungarian land from Austria during the wars. However, radical reformism inspired by the French example proved to be a thorn in Austria’s side and sowed the seeds for future Hungarian nationalism, most notably in 1848. Liberal revolutionary activity swept through Europe in that year, from the democratic Chartists in England to the separatists in Poland. One of the most bloody uprisings was the Hungarian Revolution, during which Hungarian nationalists (helped bvy like-minded 'patriots' from Germany) declared independence from the Austrian Empire. The importance of ethno-cultural nationalism in the 1848 uprising sprang largely from the academic stirrings of the Napoleonic era half a century earlier, though this time there was no united front, as the minority communities mostly sided with the Austrian state.

'Foreigners in our country will either become Hungarian, or starve.'

Francis Kazinczy

Francis Kazinczy, a Hungarian Jacobin leader, from Wikimedia Commons (source)


Ignatius Martinovics, a minority advocate politician, from Wikimedia Commons (source)



"Your temple is fallen: your tabernacle, the tables of your law, are no more: language itself, that bond of mankind, becomes antiquated: and shall a political constitution, shall a system of government or religion, that can be erected solely on these, endure for ever?"

Johann Gottfried Herder

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel hailed the Storming of the Bastille as the transformation of the ‘Franks’ into ‘brothers’ who would go forth to the ‘baptism of mankind’. Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock celebrated the liberation of ‘Gaul’.

At the outbreak of the French Revolution, there was a conflict in the German nationalist movement between the aristocratic cultural nationalists such as Klopstock, who promoted the idea of a Gelehrtenrepublik — a 'Scholar-Republic' — ruled by intellectuals, and the populist cultural nationalists such as Herder, Gottfried August Bürger, and the members of the 'Storm and Stress' movement (Stürm und Dräng), who had slowly moved away from the idea of merging the middle- and lower-classes and towards favouring the bourgeoisie. Herder was demoralised by the class, religious, and political divisions that racked Germany — 'Our nation scarcely knows itself,' he despaired. The French Revolution was his final hope for creating a national audience large enough to effect change.

German nationalists turned against the Revolution during the Jacobin dictatorship. Klopstock likened the establishment of the dictatorship to the Fall from Eden and the Jacobin Club to the deceitful serpent in his work Die Jakobiner. Herder decried the ‘rule of a people gone mad’ and called for the education of the lower classes to avoid popular tyranny.

Under the French puppet state named the Confederation of the Rhine (Rheinbund), intellectuals embittered by the destruction of the thousand-year Holy Roman Empire admonished the French as too passionate, claiming the Germans had 'more reason than ever to be pleased with their national character.' They dreamed of taking the mantle of reform from the French, replacing absolutist despotism with reasoned 'Reform Patriotism' (Reformpatriotismus). They proclaimed that the German language and culture was firmly unified and would never be at risk of destruction by a French overlord. Thought steadily became less rooted in the real world and was tinted with idealism and spiritualism. This optimistic shift saw an increase in populist national sentiment — for example, the Deutsche Zeitung newspaper was transformed into the Nationalzeitung der Teutschen. Friedrich Schlegel wrote on popular education: 'This alone is Germanness, the sacred flame which every patriot ... should strive to increase.'

The reaction to revolution was nationalism. German nationalists often highlighted the gulf between French revolutionary theory and practice (such as the exorbitant funds extracted from Rhenish cities like Speyer and Frankfurt by French generals; a similar thing had happened in 1688, and Germans deduced that such barbarity was inextricable from the French character). They claimed the French Revolution was exactly that — French — and not suitable for the German condition. Old concepts like Reichsfreiheit were spoken of as the Germanic form of freedom in opposition to the French form. These 'national definitions' of revolutionary buzzwords were used to ‘immunise’ the population against revolutionary propaganda.

Nostalgia and Francophobia led to the idea of a united German state becoming less popular. In Die Xenien, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller wrote: 'Forget, O Germans, your hopes of becoming a nation. Educate yourselves instead ... to be human beings.'

The situation was different along the banks of the Rhine. The Rhineland had a unique sense of solidarity owing to its shared history, culture, and language, especially coming up to the centenary of the 1688 French pillaging of the region. The idea of French innovation (Französierung) had been hated since the Nine Years' War and was a part of the Erbfeindschaft — the 'hereditary enmity' — between France and Germany. Most patriotism was Reichspatriotismus (Imperial Patriotism) due to the security afforded to the small Rhenish states by the Holy Roman Empire, and to the many careers and institutions which relied on the Empire, such as ecclesiastical groups and Imperial orders of knighthood A rival form of patriotism — liberal, regionalist patriotism — began to emerge among radical intellectuals. Mainz Jacobins spoke of the 'Mainz Republic' declared under French protection in 1792. For example, Georg von Wedekind, a leading Mainz Jacobin, wrote, 'Just as the donkey does not own its stable, the subject does not have a fatherland.' Mainz Jacobins believed a fatherland was a homeland in which one could participate politically. Once the Rhineland had been subdued by France, many Rhenish revolutionaries saw such unification with their 'saviour' as their goal. They disregarded linguistic, cultural, and historical differences as reaction; national consciousness was considered to be a suspect tool of the elite. Georg Forster, another Mainz Jacobin, advocated for union with the French Republic: 'Our languages are different — must our concepts be different also?' Such a sentiment was seen as treason against the German nation. 

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Saxon Line Infantry under the 'Rheinbund', from Wikimedia Commons (source)

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A commemorative medal struck for the creation of the Confederation of the Rhine

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French soldiers inspect Saxon merchants' cargo for smuggled goods, from Wikimedia Commons (source)



'Switzerland is a country where very few things begin, but many things end.'

F. Scott Fitzgerald

In the 18th Century, a movement to revive Swiss unity and patriotism began. The Helvetische Gesellschaft (Helvetic Society) was founded to promote unity to mend religious, political and economic rifts between the cantons. The movement often invoked the past, glorifying events like the Burgundian Wars and the resistance of the Rütli in Schweizerlieder folk songs and other media. An awareness of the uniqueness of the Swiss landscape was awakened by the environmental tourism pioneered by Englishmen. The Alps were portrayed as a God-given bulwark preserving Swiss freedom. Traditional Älpler clans in the mountains were hailed as embodying the ancient republican tradition. Universal Swiss patriotism was combined with canton reformist patriotism  Heimatliebe  as part of a movement to love both cantonal communities (Staat Gottes) and the greater Confederacy (Helvetismus). This school of thought existed before the French Revolution, but was encouraged by it nonetheless. The supporters of Helvetic reform included clergymen who were anxious for educational reform and the frustrated bourgeoisie of ‘subject towns’, towns that came under the jurisdiction of larger cities and had fewer rights.


Paris was closely linked to Switzerland politically, academically, and historically. The revolutionary action in France was observed with keen interest, with news quickly spreading among French speakers, but soon divided the patriotic movement in Switzerland. Revolutionary secret societies grew after 1789, particularly in industrialised areas like Jura and Neuchâtel. Cantonal governments were dominated by one side of the schism  ultra-conservatives and conservative patriots. There was a 50-50 split in the foreign office between the Neutralitätspartei and the largely Catholic Kriegspartei. They grew increasingly disgusted at French radicalism and drew themselves closer to Austria. While Switzerland aided the Coalitions against France, it also traded with France under Robespierre’s ‘good neighbour’ policy  the only gap in the Coalition blockade. However, the massacre of the Swiss Guard in August 1792 led to Switzerland cutting off official relations with the French Republic. Relations were restored under the Directory, but the Coup of 18 Fructidor led to Switzerland being seen as an obstacle to be overcome by internal revolution.

The first sister-republic  the Rauracian Republic  was established around Basel in 1792 but was integrated into France after a few months. Vaud upped the ante by declaring independence from Switzerland in January 1798. France marched into the city to defend it from confederal troops and forced the other cantons to accept a ‘Helvetic Revolution’ led by progressive elites. Twenty-five new republican areas emerged in the confederation, demanding cantonal status. Bern, Fribourg, and Solothurn (the latter being the hub for Ancien Régime diplomacy) resisted the revolution and remained aristocratic. They prepared for a French attack, which came in March. Only Bern resisted, but fell swiftly. France annexed the western cantons and created the Republic of Valais.

The new Helvetic Republic was handed down a constitution by the Directory and became heavily centralised. It functioned surprisingly smoothly until invasion by the Coalition caused bankruptcy and the collapse of support for Helvetism. Helvetic propaganda spread through two major publications  the Volksblatt (which saw limited success due to its tone, which was perceived as patronising) and the Aufrichtige und Wohlerfahrene Schweizer Bote (‘Upright and Well-Informed Swiss Herald'), which was more successful. Bürger was introduced as a progressive alternative to Herr as a term of address. After the Peace of Amiens, a civil war broke out between the Helvetians and the conservatives  the Stecklikrieg or 'War of Sticks'  until France again intervened and First Consul Bonaparte signed the Act of Mediation of 1803. This restored some of the features of the entrenched old system, while retaining the egalitarianism and centralised foreign policy of Helvetia.


Many historians of Switzerland now believe that the Helvetic Republic caused a great enough interruption in the history of the Confederation to spur modernising reform during the Restoration period. The centralised administrative bodies retained by the restored confederacy paved the path for modern statehood for Switzerland. Only 13% of the Swiss population returned to an entirely pre-Helvetic form of government (i.e. patrician democracy). Multilingualism was also retained.

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Alois von Reding, a Swiss statesman that led an uprising against France in 1798, from Wikimedia Commons (source)

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A Swiss soldier bearing the standard of the revolutionary Helvetic Republic, from Wikimedia Commons (source)


Militia during the 'Stecklikrieg' ('War of Sticks'), from Wikimedia Commons (source)


The Netherlands

'A form of government that is not the result of a long sequence of shared experiences, efforts, and endeavours can never take root.'

Napoleon Bonaparte

Joan Derk van der Capellen, a Gelderlander praised by some as the 'Awakener of the Netherlandish Nation', wrote To the People of the Netherland [sic] in 1781, a political manifesto exhorting patriots to send representatives to challenge the government regarding their martial lethargy against the British in the Anglo-Dutch War. It also called for the people to arm themselves. 28,000 Dutchmen out of a population of 2,000,000 responded to this summons (nearly 3%). Der Capellen's movement to fill the government peacefully with populist patriots organised on a national scale from 1784. It united the Staatsgezinden (the party of the provinces) and burgher reformists. The anti-aristocratic sentiment of the burghers split the movement in 1787 and caused the Staatsgezinden to disassociate themselves from the patriot movement. It was crushed by Prussia in 1787 after the Stadholder's Prussian wife was insulted. The patriots who refused to surrender were forced into exile, largely in France.


The abandonment of the movement by the Staatsgezinden radicalised the remaining patriots. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was particularly influential as it presented a viable form of egalitarian Republicanism as opposed to the hierarchical Dutch Republicanism. Moderate reform in the original French vein had considerable support from intellectuals. The Edict of Fraternity published by the National Convention on 19 November 1792 exhorted all European peoples to rise up against their masters. Dutch support for the Revolution now reached fever pitch, amplified by the French promise to liberate the Low Countries following Austria’s defeat. On the second French invasion of the Low Countries in the winter of 1794-1795, popular revolts aided the invaders in swiftly dispatching the old regime.

Gerrit Paape, a burgher patriot, summarised the 1795 programme for a patriotic Batavian Republic as to 'restore a sovereign authority [whose] … orders are promptly obeyed and [is] … redoubtable to its enemies', to 'restore earlier virtues', to 'reverse the decline in population', and to 'inspire anew ... the ancient spirit of industriousness, self-respect, and concord.' Just as in the early French Republic, the early Batavian Republic was hampered by administrative conflict between the federalists and unitarists and the subsequent emergence of political clubs. The French backed a unitarist coup in 1798, ending the constitutional gridlock. The new radical government fostered the cultural nationalism of old, presenting Dutch history as a struggle against internal and external oppression and decadence. Dutch influence over the government effectively ended in 1801 when Napoleon drafted a new Batavian constitution. In 1806, Napoleon created the Kingdom of Holland ruled by his younger brother Louis.

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William V, last Stadtholder of the Netherlands before the invasion of the country by France, from Wikimedia Commons (source)

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Louis Bonaparte, King of Holland, from Wikimedia Commons (source)



'The thousands of civil and ecclesiastical customs, laws and practises [of Italy are]... the eternal pillars of tyranny.'

Melchiorre Gioia

Italian revolutionary sentiment was hampered by entrenched particularism. Only a few well-traveled intellectuals were aware of Italian cultural uniqueness. The centuries-old power struggle was between urban elites and rural aristocrats. Rarely was a ‘patriot’ over 35 years of age. The movement was composed mostly of lawyers, doctors, students, laymen, and young aristocrats, often the youngest sons. As revolutionary thought slowed and softened in France, it grew to fever pitch in Italy.

Before 1795, Italian nationalism was mostly subversive and particularist (demanding autonomy and decentralisation), focusing on eroding social boundaries in a particular region of city. Conflicts between the oppressor and the oppressed tended to be framed according to pre-existing ideas (Brescia vs. Venice, Bologna vs. Papal States, Sicily vs. Naples, etc.). ‘Regionalist aspirations’ overshadowed the national dimension. Patriots identified two types of enemy: the foreigner (typically the Habsburgs) and the aristocrat. La Cacciata adello Straniero — ‘The Expulsion of the Foreigner’ — came to be a core principle of Italian nationalism among aristocrats and commoners alike. Because it was not unified, the movement was easily quelled. This was one of the main reasons why Italian republicans called for an Italian republic 'single and indivisible' like that of the French. 'The thousands of civil and ecclesiastical customs, laws and practices [of Italy are] ... the eternal pillars of tyranny,' wrote Melchiorre Gioia. The natural way to demolish these pillars was to create a unitary state. The goals shared by all Italian revolutionaries were freedom of the press and of association and the abolition of feudalism. Disagreements about equality arose. A radical proposal was that the ‘right to subsistence’ was greater than the right to property, thus calling for the redistribution of land and wealth. Revolutionary works defined the nation as a political, not territorial, unit. 

Napoleon’s advance saw the establishment of the ‘General Administration of Lombardy’ and the ‘Cispadane Republic’, which were combined into the Cisalpine Republic in 1797. The Ligurian, Roman, and Parthenopean Republics were also established in 1797. These sister republics were handed down constitutions modelled after the Constitution of the Year III (1795) which founded the Directory, creating liberal but heavily centralised states. However, the principles of the constitution were often frozen to assist the revolutionary war effort. For example, no votes apart from local plebiscites were ever held. The sister republics suppressed radical revolutionaries (termed ‘anarchists’), though revolutionary action such as founding political clubs, publishing ideological treatises, and holding revolutionary festivals  were encouraged.

As the importance of the state increased after the Austrian offensive of 1799, 'state' began to be conflated with 'nation'. This was reinforced as Napoleon established the Republic and later the Kingdom of Italy, dividing the peninsula along purely strategic lines. Some saw this as a great leap towards the goal of unification, as Italy was now unified in name at least, while others were alarmed by Napoleon seizing power from regional revolutionaries. Those who rejected this shift in perception founded secret societies, the most important of which was the Società dei Raggi, though many came to accept the ‘progressive dictatorship’ as a necessary evil to finally vanquish the two old enemies, the foreigners and the aristocrats.

The restitution of the old Italian aristocracy during the Restoration saw the emergence of a new kind of aristocratic-liberal nationalism focused on La Cacciata dello Straniero. This was largely because the already-resented Austrians refused to fully restore the Ancien Régime system. Eventually, aristocrats of the peninsula would unite in a decentralised kingdom under Piedmontese leadership during the Risorgimento.

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Melchiorre Gioia, an Italian revolutionary leader

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Napoleon attends the Cisalpine Council, the legislative body of the Cisalpine Republic in northern Italy, from Wikimedia Commons (source)

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