I live in France, and tomorrow, the 14th of July, it is a national holiday that celebrates the storming of the Bastille in 1789. It was a symbolic event, since there were few prisoners in the place. One was the undistinguished Marquis de Sade.
The French Revolution is a complex chapter of history, and I would be a fool to try to analyse everything in a short blog article. In the video I show here, we find the conclusion that the liberal ideas of the Revolution survived the cruelty and fanaticism of Robespierre, and so did the hatred and terror of those who declare war against humanity. We have the satisfaction of knowing that this vile man died on his own guillotine, in the same way as our ancestors heard on the wireless in 1945 that Hitler had poisoned and shot himself in the Führerbunker in Berlin.
The Revolution marked the end of the Church and the Monarchy working according to the principles of medieval Christian society. In the founding stages, it brought hope to many: the poor, ordinary people, those who could not follow the old regime. The Romantics were fascinated with the new ideas coming out: human rights, equality, fraternity and freedom. They were naive, but put their hope into what they believed to be a new spring. We see the same kind of thing happen now with movements of revolt such as we experienced in the 1960’s. In the 1790’s, the Revolution set fire to France and much of the rest of Europe, leading to lasting instability throughout the nineteenth century, and established the roots of World War I. The Terror began in 1793. Here is a video to watch on Robespierre:
In 1793 to the following year, the blood flowed as the guillotine claimed its victims. They were not only the nobles and priests, but anyone under suspicion of being an enemy of the state. Robespierre lost his head in 1794 and the Jacobins were overthrown by the Thermidorean reaction. The Revolution declined and Napoleon took France with an iron fist. Napoleon was a revolutionary with royalist trappings. As I mentioned in the light of my visit this week to the Isle of Aix, I appreciate the devotion many French people have for Napoleon’s military genius, energy and vision for a new Europe. By 1815, when Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo and exiled to the Island of Elba, the Revolution and the vicissitudes of nineteenth-century France were no longer of any interest to Romantic idealists.
My wife and in-laws are deeply Napoleonic in their ideas, not royalists or legitimists. I see their point. France is a country one both loves and hates. There is a cruel undercurrent in this country that is unmatched even by the British Empire of yore and the atrocities in India and Australia. This country of human rights can be remarkably callous. France was twice divided in the twentieth century, over the Dreyfus Affaire and which side people buttered their bread under the Occupation and the Pétain regime south of the Ligne de Démarcation. Many collaborated with the Nazis out of self-interest, and most of those involved in the Résistance were Communists by ideology as well as those loyal to De Gaulle. The lines of division are felt to this day. In a highly polarised country, I am glad to be an English expatriate.
It is humanity and the Mark of Cain, the broken and sinful spirit of man who sought something other than the knowledge of God.
I hope and pray that this celebration of a tragedy of tragedies will bring us to self-knowledge and repentance for our foolish ways and hatred for other humans. I see the hollowness and hypocrisy of French republicanism through the self-serving politicians at the Elysée. It is no different in England with the absolute fiasco over the Brexit referendum. Perhaps the gunpowder, as dry as ever, will one day again be ignited. We all feel it in the air.
Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.
In simple trust like theirs who heard
Beside the Syrian sea
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word
Rise up and follow Thee.
O Sabbath rest by Galilee!
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity
Interpreted by love!
With that deep hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
As noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down.
Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.
I would be tempted to reverse your description of Napoleon to “a monarch with revolutionary trappings”.
I asked my wife what she thinks. Napoleon was above all a visionary who conceived Europe ahead of his time. He was a conqueror, pragmatic, someone with the idea of recreating France (and the rest of Europe – and Russia) according to rational principles. My wife takes exception if I call Bonaparte a mere dictator, someone to compare with Hitler! Unlike Uncle Adolf, Napoleon was a military genius and knew about planning and strategy. I am English and more disposed to a Romantic spirit rather than French Cartesian rationalism, but I recognise that, like Frederick the Great and Charlemagne, Napoleon more than made his mark on history.
PS. An error in my posting that everybody makes. The 14th July in France is not the celebration of the storming of the Bastille but the anniversary of that event on which the Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed. One can have a mitigated attitude towards the French Revolution: the aspect that interested the Romantics and many others – that of human rights to freedom, equality before the law and association with others of like mind. At the same time, we have to oppose the extremes such as happened under Robespierre and the dictatorships of the 20th century, and which are now brewing in the face of Islam and unrestrained capitalism. The struggle for our humanity and our soul remains to this day.