Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Gen Eds H5a: The French Revolution

This is the fifth post in the World History part of my "General Education in a Nutshell" series. This series involves ten subjects you might study in a general education or "liberal arts" core at a university or college. The first topic in the overall series was philosophy. So far in the world history section:
V. From Cromwell to Napoleon
I haven't been able to complete these large sweeps in time for my regular Wednesday postings. So instead of putting off the post for another week, here is the first part of this fifth sweep. The sweep is from Oliver Cromwell in 1649 to the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. This installment is on the Napoleonic Wars.

The Napoleonic Wars
1. The Holy Roman Empire, which Hitler considered to be the first German "reich" or kingdom, was a collection of small "states" across central Europe that had existed at least since Otto I in 962. [1] Some date it back to Charlemagne in the year 800. It covered territory that today we call Austria, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Czech Republic, and parts of Italy, France, Poland, and more.

There were hundreds of these small states, free cities, and so forth. To get some sense of how small some of them were, think of the tiny nations of Luxembourg and Lichtenstein today, which are remnants of that era. Of course some were larger from time to time, like the Kingdom of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic). The economic and cultural devastation of communism in Eastern Europe in the late twentieth century makes us forget that some of these areas were once centers of civilization.

Napoleon put an end to this thousand year reich in 1806 when he formed the "Confederation of the Rhine" out of the German states he had defeated at the Battle of Austerlitz the previous year. That was the end of the third confrontation between broader powers like Russia and Austria with France. The reason these foreign powers were attacking France was because of the French Revolution, in which the masses had deposed and then executed King Louis XVI in 1793.

2. There are of course important lessons to be learned from the French Revolution. King Louis XVI was not entirely a bad king. In fact, he tried to diminish feudalism (the medieval system where landowners had power and the common person worked their lands). He tried to increase tolerance toward non-Catholics, remembering that France remained Catholic despite the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s. He tried to enact "Enlightenment" ideals (more to come) and supported the American Revolution. [2]

His deregulation of the grain market would probably be considered good long term economics today, but it led to a spike in bread prices at a time when grain was scarce. This was just one factor that led to revolt. Although there is no evidence she really said it, no doubt the fictitious quote of Louis' wife captures what the ordinary person thought was Louis' attitude. When told that the people did not have bread, Marie Antoinette is alleged to have said, "Then let them eat cake," not realizing that if they did not have bread, then they certainly did not have cake.

Louis' social conservatism, however, privileging the aristocracy and wealthy, would finally explode on him. Taxes were "regressive" at the time--the more you had the less you paid. Louis was slow to allow for popular representation in a National Assembly. At the time France was controlled by the upper 2%. This more than anything else--his slowness to give the masses representation and then his attempts to control the pressure cooker when it was forced upon him--was his undoing.

The French masses stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789, the prison that symbolized the power of the monarchy. There were only seven prisoners at the time, but it was the beginning of the French Revolution.

One lesson is that you cannot expect to maintain a populace indefinitely by force. There have been dictatorships that have managed to do so by extreme force, but none of us would ever want to live there. The amount of power it takes to control a people on this level is both abhorrent and inherently unstable. Often such leaders are assassinated. Often there are multiple coups. Always, life under them is horrific.

Force cannot maintain society indefinitely, especially a society that is used to some degree of freedom. The only real long term solution is to find ways to assuage the discontent of the masses. Contentment doesn't trickle down. It has to be addressed at a grass root level. It is a long term struggle. Sometimes a discontent generation has to die off and the solution has to come with their children. To think that the answer is merely law and police is ignorant of history. It is certainly not the answer of a democracy.

3. Another lesson is that once the mob is in control, things go horribly out of control. They are bound to go horribly wrong for a season. Most revolutions go through a phase when lots of people die who were at peace or privileged before. This even includes reformers who had championed the interests of the masses before the revolution. The fire engulfs those who were trying to help or who were just by-standers. The fire often engulfs many of the revolutionaries themselves.

In France this period from 1793-94 is called the Reign of Terror. Nobles who had championed the people died at the hands of the people. Tens of thousands of people died all over France, over two thousand in Paris itself. Certainly King Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette were certainly some of the first. Many priests and nuns were executed, seen as complicit with aristocratic power. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, the man who proposed the machine to execute people humanely, was himself send to the guillotine, along with others like Antoine Lavoisier, the man who discovered oxygen.

For a horrible year, a "Revolutionary Tribunal" under the direction of Maximilien Robespierre, kept control of a chaotic situation with extreme violence, until he himself was finally guillotined. During that year, he abolished slavery in all of France's colonies. He also set up a "Festival of the Supreme Being," both in opposition to the control of the Catholic Church but also to atheism.

4. Napoleon supported the revolution and was in the army as its most gruesome phase was taking place. After rising through the ranks by his military prowess, he staged a coup that left him as First Consul of the new French Republic, then emperor. After his victory at Austerlitz he went on to defeat Prussia at Jena and Russians at Friedland. The turning point was Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812. The Russians scorched their own land to keep the French troops from eating off their own land. Then the harsh Russian winter severely diminished Napoleon's armies.

Then the French were decisively defeated at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813 in the largest battle in history prior to World War I. Napoleon was exiled. But he escaped and was not finally defeated until the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 in Belgium. This time he was exiled to the island of Saint Helena, where he died six years later.

5. Despite his military ambitions, Napoleon more or less put an end to feudalism in Europe, in which landowners held all the power over the common person. He put into effect "the Napoleonic Code," which created a single law for all people. It revolutionized the legal systems across Europe.

Next Week: Cromwell to the American Revolution

Major Take Aways:
  • Force does not work as a long-term solution to popular unrest. It simply increases the pressure, which eventually leads to great violence. Popular unrest ultimately has to be addressed at the popular level.
  • You can't control a mob. The fire of anarchy engulfs anyone in close proximity.
  • Don't invade Russia in winter.
[1] The French Voltaire (1694-1778) famously remarked that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.

[2] The amount of money Louis spent helping America was part of his own undoing, since his own country was soon in economic crisis.

1 comment:

John Roth said...


One minor point: I'm told that the word that's usually translated as "cake" in Marie Antonette's comment denoted a particularly noxious form of black bread, not the high-calorie dessert we usually think of when we hear the word.