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French Revolution


  • Originally published 08/22/2013

    Understanding Modern Violence Through the Lens of the Reign of Terror

    One of the most stimulating books I have read in some time is Sophie Wahnich’s In Defense of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution (published in 2003, but in English 2012). But it’s not the writing (which is murky) or its purpose (with which I generally disagree) but its viewpoint on Terrorism that can be instructive.In fact, this little book is an apologetic for the Terrorists in the French Revolution. And its value is that in associating herself so clearly with her subject, she does see them much as they saw themselves. In short, Wahnich argues that the Terrorists were motivated by the “dread” that they felt after the assassination of Marat. They then had acted to protect the purity and integrity of the “sacred” revolution that they had made to affirm the political equality of all. More originally, Wahnich also claims that the mechanism of the Terror led to more incarcerations than executions and that its organizational existence at least put limits on popular “enthusiasm.” In sum, the Terrorists were justified and their leadership contained excesses.

  • Originally published 08/19/2013

    From the Bloody Nursery of Revolution, Democracy

    More than two years after the hope that accompanied the so-called “Arab Spring,” the Occidental experts, politicians and public opinions are now chocked by the return of political violence in Egypt, perpetuated by the military. What is striking about these reactions is the difficulty to understand why so many Egyptian former dissidents, liberals and even leftists, who fought against Mubarak and his military dictatorship, now clearly support General Al-Sisi’s coup and even justify the recent massacres of Muslim Brothers. Is it possible to explain such a dramatic shift without blaming these sincere men and women, who claim to struggle for democracy but, at the same time, approve the use of political violence?

  • Originally published 08/08/2013

    Revolutionary Disillusionment, from 1789 to 2013

    Disillusionment is a time-honored revolutionary tradition. True believers risk their lives launching a revolution, only to see their ideals abandoned by others -- or, worse, to watch the former government return.

  • Originally published 08/06/2013

    Revolutions: Three Different Kinds

    Alyssa's posting, like Peter Stearns' earlier, implicitly touch on the questions of leadership and revolutionary stages. Perhaps in any discussion of revolutions it may be worth keeping in mind that those who begin revolutions rarely are the ones who finish them. (The American Revolution, perhaps better called by its other common term, the War for Independence, is an anomaly that perhaps misleads Americans about revolutions.) In comparing revolutions and leadership, perhaps several variants are worth keeping in mind:1) Places where the revolution “succeeds,” in the sense of the old regime being swept away, but successive leadership changes and even mini-revolutions and regime changes occur before things are stabilized in a new order, as in France after 1789 and Russia in 1917.2) Those (rare?) instances where the original revolutionaries successfully sweep away the old regime and replace it by something genuinely new that is reasonably stable and permanent, such as Turkey with Ataturk.3) Instances where revolutionaries have temporary success but the old regime soon reconstitutes itself in slightly altered form (“Revolution of 1905” in Russia, 1848 in Central Europe).

  • Originally published 07/31/2013

    Revolutionary Situations are Inherently Messy

    Social scientists who study revolutions and other historical processes generally look for patterns and similarities. Historians, by contrast, have traditionally focused on factors that are specific to each situation, in each time and in each place. They seek to understand the particularities of each situation, rather than generalize about commonalities.Like most historians, I tend to analyze events based on particular historical contexts. And yet, after twenty-five years of studying eighteenth- and nineteenth-century revolutions (and watching new ones erupt in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries), I cannot help but notice certain patterns that recur in almost all revolutionary situations.

  • Originally published 07/12/2013

    The Military Played a Smaller Role in France and the U.S. than in Egypt

    The political independence that the military often displays in the midst of revolutionary situations was strikingly absent in both the American and French revolutions. Both depended on militias composed of citizen soldiers. Even as an army was constituted, this remained the case at least for a good while.Let me consider the French case as I know it much better. In fact, the revolutionary uprising (July 12-14, 1789) that led to the capture of the Bastille already revealed that some of the royal army had, in fact, absorbed the rising tide of revolutionary spirit. The troops called up largely refused to intervene. The effective fighting force that actively favored the revolution proved to be poorly armed citizenry, but taking the Bastille was accomplished less by armed assault than persuasion. When the revolutionaries got around in succeeding months to organizing the army, they installed elections by the troops as a way of peopling the officer rank.

  • Originally published 01/15/2013

    Charles Walton: The Missing Half of Les Mis

    Charles Walton is Associate Professor of History at Yale University.Before there were blockbuster films, there were blockbuster books. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, published in 1862, was one of them. Thanks to a market-savvy publisher, this monument of French romanticism, which was serialized in ten installments, became an immediate bestseller across Europe and North America. Demand was so great that other authors, notably Gustave Flaubert, postponed the publications of their own books to avoid being outshined. On days when new installments went on sale in Paris, police were called in to stop impatient crowds from storming the bookstores. Some high-minded critics, not unlike those who spurn sensational Hollywood films today, found the hype distasteful. Edwin Percy Whipple, in a review for The Atlantic, referred to “the system of puffing” surrounding the book’s release in terms worthy of Ebenezer Scrooge: it was “the grossest bookselling humbug,” a spectacle “at which Barnum himself would stare amazed.”

  • Originally published 09/03/2013

    Announcing "Revolutionary Moments"

    With the world once again filled with anticipation and dread of revolution, it is reasonable to examine what relevant past events our predecessors experienced. Inarguably, the past is at least a set of experiences that may be useful in considering the present. Even that relatively modest claim requires some hesitation in that historians do not write as oracles, somehow outside the fray. Politics, despite the best intention of scholars, inflicts this work. Nonetheless, reviewing the revolutionary past will be at least interesting and potentially instructive.Thus, the moderators propose to introduce questions relevant to current events with the notion that scholars who study revolutions throughout the globe will comment. Postings must be under 250 words and conform to scholarly norms.

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