Sunday, July 30, 2017

Anniversary of the End of "The Reign of Terror"








Sadly, I missed posting this particular blog entry on the date when it would have been far more fitting, but better late than never, n'est pas? 

A couple of days ago marked the anniversary of the end of the Jacobin "Reign of Terror" era of the French Revolution, when the main guy behind the Terror, Maximilien Robespierre, was himself sent to the guillotine. The events leading to his arrest and his being led to the guillotine shortly thereafter continue to be unclear, and will likely remain obscured in history. After all, there were no television cameras or recording devices back then, and Robespierre himself had limited access by the press to a lot of governmental proceedings like this. However, one thing for sure is that Robespierre himself was the final victim of the very "Reign of Terror" that most historians feel that he was most responsible for, being the leader of the "Committee of Public Safety" (Comité de salut public in French).

Kind of gives a new take on that expression "death by committee," now, does it not? Or maybe even that expression originated from the events of the French Revolution, although I cannot say for sure. 

Most of us know that the French Revolution was more or less largely defined by it's excesses, and that is of course especially true of the "Reign of Terror," when an estimated 16,000 plus Parisians were executed by the blade of the guillotine in the Place de la Révolution in Paris (which is now known as the Place de la Concorde). This, of course, included most of the most prominent figures of the Revolution, including, but certainly not limited to, Maximilien Robespierre, George Danton, Camille Desmoulins, Louis XVI, and Marie Antoinette. Even the inventor of the guillotine, physician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, was himself sent to his creation to meet his end. Those were grim times indeed.

It should be noted here that the guillotine was originally designed as a humane way of sending people to their deaths, and emphasized equality. As surely anyone with a decent grasp of history knows, there were all sorts of grueling and horrifying methods of execution that had existed prior to the French Revolution. Between numerous nations, there were several methods of execution that had been used, including hanging (the most common in France prior to the Revolution), as well as some that automatically make people cringe, such as being sent to burn at the stake, or the use of the Iron Maiden in Britain. Even beheadings had been especially horrifying prior to the guillotine, which was designed to be efficient and, again, to remove as much pain as possible. It was quick and efficient, and often described as feeling like a cool breeze on the back of your neck, before instant death.

With the sheer numbers of citizens who were sent to the Place de la Révolution to be guillotined during "The Reign of Terror," it became clear to everyone that the revolution had spiraled out of control, and that the excesses were glaringly obvious. It was a tragedy, of course, and was the dark period that followed the bright focus earlier on liberating the French people from what had been brutal oppression at the hands of the Ancien Régime in the feudal system of absolute monarchy that had existed prior to the outbreak of the revolution. 

The thing is, the revolution was inevitable. Had it not happened in France specifically at the time that it did, it surely would have happened elsewhere at some point. France was, in retrospect, perhaps the most likely candidate, because of the nature of the Ancien Régime, and because of how much they had needed to borrow to fight wars overseas, particularly in the perennial chess match between Britain and France at the time. France had spent enormous sums of money during the Seven Years War (often known in North America as the French and Indian War) and, ironically, supporting the rebel cause during the American Revolution. Some of the ideas from the American Revolution helped inspire the French Revolution, although the debt that France incurred as a result of these conflicts forced the monarchy to dramatically raise taxes on the people, who were starving. Of course, anyone who has visited France and seen some of the elaborate palaces, Versailles being only the most famous and impressive of these, will at once understand that the Ancien Régime did not want to compromise any of their own luxuries in the process, so they felt that the third estate (the 97 percent of French people who were just trying to make it, and not at all living lives of luxury) could and should pay for it.

Indeed, it cannot be said with any certainty that Marie Antoinette, when told that the masses were starving, actually responded by saying the words, "Let them eat cake." However, there is no doubt that the nobility were largely indifferent to the sufferings of the masses, all while forcing them to pay heavy taxes in order that they themselves, members of the French nobility (and particularly the royal family, of course) should live in grand and opulent lifestyles. Louis XIV had desired the Versailles palace in order to impress foreign heads of state, and felt that only a place like that could reflect the full glory of the King of France. He seemed to feel it was a strategic necessity, although he also invited thousands of members of the French nobility to live there, ultimately so that they could be controlled and kept under watchful eyes. As for the masses, very few of them ever got to enjoy the benefits of such places and, in any case, those who got the chance only did so rarely. Versailles might be an attractive tourist destination these days, but it should be remembered that this was the king's royal estate - one of many - and was not really open to the public at the time.  

So yes, when the royal family who supposedly were divinely chosen to rule over France seemed so indifferent to the suffering of the vast majority of the French people, which they themselves of course created, then it was time for a change. Indeed, the Revolution became bloody and has even come to be defined by it's excesses, as well as how it all ended with a tyrant like Napoleon taking over. However, it should also be remembered that the French Revolution happened because the French kings had for so long ignored the plight of their own people, and just kept adding to their burdens. Also, Napoleon was seen as a tyrant who tried to take over Europe, but let us not forget that it was those other European nations, all still ruled by monarchies themselves, who waged war on revolutionary France, trying to forcibly suppress it from the outside. Napoleon was a brilliant general and military strategist who simply allowed France to enjoy some remarkable successes on the battlefield, and like other opportunists at the time, he simply used his growing status to eventually grab power, quite literally (he grabbed the crown from the Pope). 

All of this I say not to condone the excesses of the French Revolution, such as the "Reign of Terror," but rather as a reminder that it seems that sometimes, people criticize the French Revolution without really seeming to understand the brutality of what had been in it's place beforehand, and the necessity of getting rid of the  Ancien Régime. It most certainly was not sustainable, and needed to go. And, in point of fact, it did go. Perhaps we do not like to think of the image of a literal killing machine prominently displayed in a square of a capital city for public executions of high profile figures. However, the French Revolution ended absolute monarchy. Even when the Bourbon dynasty was restored after the Napoleonic wars, the fact of the matter was that the French people had had enough of it, and when kings tried to grab too much power, the people took it away from them. There were subsequent revolutions in France throughout the 19th century, in 1830, in 1848, and again in 1870-71. Ultimately, the monarchy of France was abolished. And yes, I personally think that this was a good and necessary thing.

We right do well to remember all of this in our own age, when corporations and the very wealthy elites also seem intent on grabbing as much power and money as possible, of hording and then hiding these staggering fortunes in offshore accounts. I cannot say with absolute certainty how or when some kind of uprising will occur, or whether it will shake the world like the French Revolution did. However, that the current system is unsustainable, there is no doubt. Much like the Ancien Régime, elites today simply have gone too far, and lost sight of any sense of limitations.

In any case, I meant to publish this a couple of days ago, but admittedly got a little too busy with things to actually do so. However, I added some movies, all from Youtube, that you can watch, all about the French Revolution.

The one which I am most familiar is "Danton." It is an excellent film about specifically the "Reign of Terror." I have seen it several times in my life now. The first time was either as a kid, or at most, as a teenager, when my understanding of the events was limited at best. The next time was at Rutgers University for a course that focused on the French Revolution, specifically. And now, I just finished watching it again earlier today (one of the reasons that I did not publish this earlier, because I wanted to watch it as a reminder of what happened, because life can sometimes make you forget such things).

I think this film really captures the essence of what it must have been like, and what happened. You can see the power struggles, the very informal and impersonal way that Robespierre calls others "citoyen" (the precursor to the infamous term "comrades" used by the Bolsheviks). There are moments of dark humor, such as when the imprisoned Camille Desmoulins rejects the opportunity to visit with Robespierre, who has come to prison to visit with him, and possibly give him a chance to get out of prison and the inevitable death sentence that comes with it. The response ("Tell him Camille is not home") is morbidly funny. Also, Danton's meeting with Robespierre offers both insight and humor, with Danton condemning Robespierre and strongly suggesting that he does not represent the French people, that Robespierre wants everyone to be like heroes in novels, that he has an unreal quality and is overly powdered and impersonal.

It is a very good, albeit dark and depressing, movie. But if you want to kind of get behind the scenes for the darkest chapter of the French Revolution, it is strongly recommended. The other videos I added also, because they should provide some strong background about the French Revolution and what led up to it, and how it began to spiral out of control. I cannot say that I have seen all of them, although in time, I intend to. However, they were added here in case you, the reader and potential viewer, are interested enough to pursue further exploration on this topic.


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