The Other July Revolution: Bastille Day
July 14th is Bastille Day
My last post was about the Declaration of Independence of Great Britain’s American colonies, celebrated every July 4th by patriotic U.S. citizens and residents.
July 14th marks another celebration of revolution, Bastille Day, celebrated by citizens of France. On that day, citizens stormed a Paris prison, the Bastille to release a handful of prisoners.
Terror, Genocide, Tyranny, and War
The French Revolution succeeded in toppling the monarchy and killing the king and queen. And then the revolution plunged into madness: the guillotine, mass killing in the Vendee, Bonaparte’s tyranny, and twenty years of devastating war.
Finally, the orgy of violence ended in failure: the monarchy was restored.
Were the people better for it? Perhaps those who survived were.
I’ve been looking into the conflict in the Vendee for a work-in-progress.
The government’s terror campaign against the nobility (and anyone else judged an enemy of the state), naturally led to opposition. In addition, like the Russian and Chinese Marxists of the twentieth century, the revolutionary government took steps to bring religion under state control.
The Vendee region was a royalist and Catholic hotbed, and rebellion against the revolution was centered there. Current day scholars are still discussing the suppression of counter-revolution in the Vendee. Some have ruled the revolutionary government’s response a genocide. Others consider the mass killings of men, women, and children as the simple result of a civil war. Which I suppose makes it not “settled history”. Opinions run along political lines, like everything else seems to do nowadays.
But this from the Wikipedia article on the topic says much about the government’s attitude:
After the Battle of Savenay (December 1793), General Westermann reported to his political masters at the Convention: “The Vendée is no more … According to your orders, I have trampled their children beneath our horses’ feet; I have massacred their women, so they will no longer give birth to brigands. I do not have a single prisoner to reproach me. I have exterminated them all.
The Wikipedia article has an interesting discussion of the subject, with resources for further study.
A Timely Topic
The causes and the course of the French revolution are (in my opinion) complex and make for interesting reading. I’ve recently seen Twitter spats about the French revolution:
- It was a success.— No, it was a failure.
- Our American revolution inspired their revolution, so if ours was good, than theirs was good also.— No, theirs was a failure.
- The revolution freed the people from monarchy.— Then how did they end up with first a tyrant emperor and then a restored monarchy?
One Twitter user opined that we should bring out the guillotine again for those who hold the wrong political views. Egad, I hope our current madness doesn’t come to that.
It’s the Economy
The real genesis of the revolution was a bungled financial crisis. Thus, those Twitter users who said the American Revolution brought on the French Revolution have the right of it, but not maybe for the reasons they were thinking. Or at least not entirely.
The French government’s financial support of the American Revolution bankrupted France. Historian Lucy Worsley recently talked about this in a PBS piece on Marie Antoinette and the revolution. If this topic interests you, it’s worth watching.
I always feel that fiction brings historical periods to life in a much clearer way than nonfiction. Luckily, there is a rich supply of stories about the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. Ninety-three, by Victor Hugo, and La Vendee, by Anthony Trollope, are novels about the rebellion in the Vendee.
And for those interested in the Terror, who can forget The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy? But if you’re looking for something highly readable by a contemporary author, I recommend Joanna Bourne’s The Forbidden Rose. This is an awesome story, set in Paris during the height of the Terror.
I’ve been so busy with deadlines I haven’t done more than read the first few pages of Trollope’s book. And I hope to get to Hugo’s, since he was, apparently, a fan of the revolution, so may see things from a different point of view.
Do you have any recommended reading? Please share in the comments!
Images are from Wikimedia Commons