The French Revolution brings to mind the guillotine, the demise of Louie XVI and Marie Antoinette, and the Reign of Terror. But is all a blur in my mind. I know there’s more to that history than that. And why was the French experience with revolution so much different from the American experience? I’ve also read a lot about Napoleon and his exploits, but how could an outsider (Corsican) take over the French government and create his Empire?
These are all questions that spurred me on to listen to these forty-eight lectures. That totals twenty-four hours of listening time which approximately equals a 700 to 800 page book. So this has been a pretty heavy dose of French history that I’m recovering from while writing this review.
One of my first thoughts is to compare the current Arab Spring happenings with the French Revolution. A lesson from both is that it’s easier to begin a revolution than to bring it to a final conclusion.
And it’s almost not fair to compare the French Revolution to the American Revolution. The French Revolution was more of a civil war while the American Revolution was a separation from a country on the other side of the ocean. Granted, there were American Loyalist, but the colonies didn’t have established aristocracy and clergy (rich and tax exempt) within their country the way that France did.
And then there’s the phenomenon of The Terror, how did that come to be? It began as a tool to execute “enemies of the revolution” but devolved into a way to get rid of political opponents who were in reality fellow revolutionaries. Toward the end it became necessary for politicians to execute their rivals before their rivals executed them. The death toll was in the tens of thousands over an eleven month period.
And why could an outsider like Napoleon take over? As best I can figure there was so much internal squabbling that only an outsider could bring it to an end.
One of the reasons I was interested in this subject was that on a recent tour through the European lands of my ancestors, I learned that religious dissidents didn’t have any civil rights until the French Revolution and the subsequent spread the French Revolutionary ideas. The French Revolution and then Napoleon introduced the concept of the secular state throughout Europe, and helped spread the concept of toleration of minority religious groups. The Reformation had divided Europe into Protestant and Catholic nations, but had not done much for religions not sanctioned by the state.