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The French Revolution by Christopher Hibbert

Recent events in France ensure that that country remains an important focal point  for anyone interested in world affairs.  Many of us perhaps fall into the trap of believing that terrorism is a recent phenomenon; it certainly isn’t. The French themselves have been masters of it, in France itself, in Africa (Algeria is a notable example) and elsewhere. The tragic and brutal slaying of innocent people in the streets of Paris and in France’s other cities and towns has precedent. Those of us familiar with the French Revolution from school may know that the guillotine was used to kill the king and later his wife. The names Robespierre and Napoleon ring bells. However, we may not know a whole lot more besides. Christopher Hibbert’s highly readable and detailed account of the Revolution is a real eye-opener. His treatment of the subject is thorough without being exhaustive or overly dense. He is particularly strong on the personalities involved, Mirabeau and Danton being two of my favourites.

It all starts with the king. King Louis XVI strikes one as a man unsuited to the throne. He was smallish, with poor posture and reputedly impotent. He liked to read and was disciplined enough to teach himself English. But he liked to eat and his wife, Marie Antoinette, felt the need to deny him access to pastry. She, for her part, was Austrian and rumours abounded of her sexual exploits and infidelity. It was eight years before she bore her husband their first child.

In the late eighteenth century, about 26,000,000 people lived in France, the vast majority of them in the countryside, working in agriculture. Poverty was widespread; Hibbert quotes two English travellers’ observations of “terribly ragged” children and peasants with the appearance of “ravenous scarecrows.” Taxes didn’t help and then, as now, it was poorer and middle-class people who paid most of them. Inequality in France at the time was so marked that Hibbert is able to assert that the clergy, which numbered 100,000, owned a tenth of the land and paid no taxes. The people, who had to pay tithes, hated the aristocracy more than the Church however. The rich landowners got the poor to pay for roads and to feed their pigeons; they avoided tax and influenced events at local level disproportionate to their number. The nobility numbered about 400,000 yet owned about a fifth of France.

But the middle class was slowing growing, threatening the aristocracy and showing contempt for the poor. Both the middle class and the upper class were suspicious of royal absolutism. The king, perhaps at the  urging of his ministers, took certain measures to ease the burden on living on his people. He chose the oddly named Anne-Robert Turgot to sort out the country’s finances. Turgot wasn’t liked however and Jacques Necker replaced him before long. Necker realised that the French were already taxed to the hilt (a somewhat apt metaphor) and so advocated borrowing to sort out France’s finances. His plan was questionable but it made him popular with the people who were tired of taxes. Several figures succeeded Necker and ultimately a wealth tax was proposed which the wealthy argued could not be introduced without the assent of the Estates General, a national parliament which hadn’t met in nearly two centuries. Convening it was a major error on the part of Louis XVI because it led to a series of subsequent developments that resulted in his head being forcibly removed from his body by means of the dreaded guillotine.

What strikes one as one progresses through Hibbert’s account of events is the incredible violence of the time. At times it seems as if everyone strong enough to hold a weapon has one and is determined to use it to kill. The dangerous ambition of a lot of people who had been waiting for an opportunity to progress upwards in the face of certain barriers inherent in the ancien regime, meant that mob rule was exploited to overturn a system the  upper echelons must have presumed they could rein in when circumstances were more to their liking. Name after name is given of ruthless, exploitative demagogues who, largely to serve their own ends (and perhaps even more terrifyingly because of ardent, obsessive belief in Revolution), utilised the anger and bloodlust of the masses. The ascent of the Third Estate led to the king having to pressurise the First and Second Estates to row in with it and this course of events led not only to his own death but to thousands of others. The siege of the Bastille fortress is described in great detail and is worth the price of the book on its own. The carnage was just mind-blowing so much so that one will often wonder about Hibbert’s sources (of which he provides a long list in an appendix.) Can any populace have been so cruel, so wrathful, so contemptuous of human life?

There are accounts of gangs of murderers going about Paris drinking the blood of their victims mixed with gunpowder. Anyone who knows about the fate of Tutsi women in Rwanda in the mid-90s will find parallels in some of the other, even more gruesome details. What started out as an assault on absolutism appears to have grotesquely morphed into an attack on humanity and decency.

What’s particularly remarkable about the Paris of the time is how close the throngs were to their representatives. It seems like the people were repeatedly breaking through doors and into exalted gatherings of deputies, brandishing weapons and making demands. In this regard, it’s surprising there weren’t more people murdered even while the amount who were is astonishing.

Things finally seem to have come to a head with Robespierre, more specifically with his death, which was pretty agonising. He’d been shot in the face by Charles-André Merda (though Merda’s account is considered unreliable). Robespierre, sitting in an armchair in a prison cell, had been just about to sign his name to an edict to go to war: “The pen had been in his hand. He had inscribed the first two letters of his name, Ro______, but there the writing stops. The bottom of the document is marked with blood.” He was patched up by a physician and taken to the scaffold to be guillotined. Witnesses described him as “fearfully disfigured.” The executioner “tore away the bandage and splint that the surgeon had applied to his wound.” After his death, people seem to have had enough of the Terror and the government took measures to stem the flow of blood. Prisoners were released and certain individuals resigned their posts. Poor people continued to suffer however; then, as now, events in the corridors of power having little or no influence on the lives of ordinary people. Hibbert tells us that hungry wolves invaded towns and villages looking for food.

The book concludes with an account of the rise of Napoleon. He, very much like Hitler, was chosen because he was unscrupulous but his betters quickly realised they’d unleashed a force they would very soon lose control over. Thus began another decade or so of upheaval on an even more dizzying scale that was to have virtually unbounded effects on Europe and the world.