Thursday, July 13, 2017

Celebrating Bastille Day

Romantic literature's portrayal of the French Revolution as a bloody affair enraptures the imagination. Certainly blood flowed wherever Madame La Guillotine made her appearance, and she seemed to move around enough to indicate that the sight of her was unpleasant and evidently not good for local business. But was there blood everywhere? No. That is a romantic fancy. Or is it?

Perhaps if you ventured in Western France, in the Vendée of 1794, then you might see otherwise.

Were there massacres? Oh, yes. Again, not in Paris. But if you travelled to Lyon or else in Nantes, well - let's just say the word, terror, is rather an understatement. How does the word 'genocide' sound? Some would argue against the likes of historian Reynald Secher who advocates for this stance. Many, including the French philosopher Luc Ferry, support him. But that there exists controversy about this word, 'genocide', and whether or not it should be applied for what happened in the Vendée between January and July 1794, is enough to stir attention.

But enough of the romance. It is Bastille Day after all - time to reflect on those raw figures from the French Revolution.

So then, how many people were executed in Paris during the Revolution?
There were 2918 executions, including sadly the mathematician Lavoisier because...he had once been involved in tax collection. Well, that's the official story. The truth is that he made an enemy of Marat and Marat destroyed him.

How many were massacred during that fated event of September 1792?
3400, including the tragic mauling of la Princesse de Lamballe

How many people were guillotined in total, throughout France, during the Revolution?

But let's not stop here. You'll wish for romance, I promise.

How many were murdered by firing squad, shot or drowned?
18500, including 2000 children and 764 women in Nantes.

How many counter-revolutionaries died?
180000 - actually this could be anything between 200000 and 300000 according to research by the likes of Reynald Secher.
These were not soldiers. They were civilians, including women and children and the aged - mostly peasants from above or below the Loire River. Those originating from the north of the Loire were called Chouans. Those to the South were usually Vendeeins.

How many died of famine, cold, misery?

Now when the Terror ended in late July 1794, a new terror of a different nature began. Those 'Jacobins' who had embodied the most radical tenets of the Republic and were strictly intransigent found themselves the victims of violent reprisals.
How many Jacobins died during this so called "White Terror"?

Note that 70% of the executions listed above took place between October 1793 and May 1794 - coinciding with the unleashing of the infernal columns into the Vendée during the Terror. Refer to the genocidal term earlier. It suddenly acquires more color.

One thing is for certain. Even beyond the official Terror months of Sept 1793 to July 1794, there was fear. At the minimum, fear would have been a natural consequence of changes and it turns out that the French Revolution did change many things. One did not need to be an aristocrat to have one's life turned upside down -  schools and monasteries were closed, churches were pillaged and/or destroyed, church property was seized by the state, noble property was seized by the state, street names were changed dramatically, the names of towns were changed, the religious order was secularized, the calendar was transformed so that even the weekdays were no more, the forms of address changed - saying "Monsieur" was frowned upon, one had to use the term "Citizen" to express equality - the manner of dressing, or of expressing oneself changed, the metric system was introduced, government structure and reporting changed, judicial laws changed.

In the patriotic hunt to weed out counter-revolutionaries and traitors, pettiness was rife. And if you were hungry or envious of someone who had enough to eat, then you might accuse them of hoarding food. In the same way, if you were Marat and felt ugly or disadvantaged in some way, you might turn all your party against someone who had once humiliated your beliefs and was part of the Academy of Science...oh, I don't know, someone like Lavoisier for example. In modern day parlance, those who are good at TED talks and have an axe to grind can really do some damage.
The knowledge of human pettiness, the fear of being accused of treason - all this was also part of the Terror.

In Nantes, when the Loire river became infested with the corpses of the thousands drowned, one had to stop eating the fish. Madame La Guillotine pales in comparison to the reality of the French Revolution.

More on this fear for which the best example lies in the Chinese Cultural Revolution. This fear even permeated the new government - National Convention members became protective of their stance to the detriment of one another. Robespierre's increasing paranoia embodies the very spirit of the Terror. Even in his powerful position, he was wary. His acute fear rippled through the psyche of France.

The number of people incarcerated into asylums grew. People were terrified of losing their heads. Literally.

Even the butcher of Nantes, Jean-Baptiste Carrier, in his desire to serve the National Convention (while enriching his pockets) suffered this terror as much as he embodied it. When promising to purge Nantes of counter-revolutionaries he managed to gorge the prisons of the city until it was evident that they could take no more without the risk of a massive typhoid epidemic. What to do with all those prisoners and the threat of disease? What to do? Why, shoot them by the hundreds of course. No, wait. Drown them. Yes. Drown them by the hundreds. The children too. That will do it. Panic. Sheer terror. Fix this problem and report to the Committee of Public Safety that, yes, Nantes has been purged. I, Carrier, have done my duty.

And then there was the economy, just to make things worse.
Due to severe grain shortages in the years before the revolution, bread was already expensive at the time when the Bastille was taken. Guess what? It became even more expensive afterwards. If you thought chopping the king's head and calling everyone equal would mean more bread, unfortunately that wasn't the case. There were some real problems out there and no activism was going to fix things.
The index of Inflation from 1790 to 1795 was as follows:
1790 - 100
July 1795 - 180
Nov 1795 - 340

In early 1790, the government had issued a new paper currency called "assignat". In the next year, they pumped more assignats into circulation so that by late 1791, the currency's purchasing power had dropped by 14%. The fall of the assignat continued  well into 1795, so that by November 1795, purchasing power had decreased by 99%. Fun times. How does one plan when everything is chaos?

Then Napoleon happened. But that is another story.

In Rennes, there is a bronze statue of a man tearing a piece of paper. It receives a lot of attention. It was erected there to commemorate a brave figure. His name is Jean Leperdit. He was mayor of Rennes for several months during the Terror. The statue is amazing. It symbolizes defiance, courage and humanity. See, during the Terror, when Jean-Baptiste Carrier was on a killing rampage sending out letters and lists all over Western France asking for the execution of counter-revolutionaries, this Jean Leperdit reportedly stood up against Carrier and tore up a list of 23 names, refusing to execute these people. It is difficult to know if the story is true but it embodies for me the courage of all those moderating agents during the French revolution - people who were not swept up by terror or fear and managed to preserve their humanity in the face of chaos. These are the people I celebrate when I celebrate Bastille Day.

It could have been worse.

So then, Happy Bastille Day!

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