The truth of the French Revolution: collective massacres for the good of the people

The writer Simon Schama recounts with journalistic agility how France wanted to emulate the Roman Empire

The writer Simon Schama recounts with journalistic agility how France wanted to emulate the Roman Empire.

To get an idea of ​​the profound break in the history of mentalities that the French Revolution entailed, two examples will suffice: it is the only moment in the history of the West – not even the Marxist revolution dared – in which the way of thinking was changed in time, introducing a new date, and they wanted to create a new state religion –the Nazis would only make some timid attempt–, the cult of reason and the supreme being, and not by chance during the Terror. The French Revolution, catharsis of light and darkness, counterpoint to the idealistic American revolutionary war, is universally recognized as a historical turning point. The way in which its protagonists were aware of being and making history is fascinating: a key example is the recourse to the past, to the classical world.

Consuls and nomenclature

Revolutionary France, like the 13 American colonies, looked at itself in the mirror of Greece and Rome. If these wanted to be Greek confederations, the former preferred to emulate the Roman Republic with its paraphernalia, its nomenclature, its consuls, etc. The continuous reference to the classic participatory political experiences is the cornerstone for the wide-ranging reflection in pursuit of the idea of ​​the State and of modern society. And, furthermore, the French Revolution was a model for subsequent revolutionaries: the quote by Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai is famous when, asked about the relevance of 1789, he replied, no doubt still feeling part of the historical process: «It is too early to know». . History folded itself in an astonishing inflection that thus united contemporaneity,

In 1989, coinciding with the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, a series of academic and political celebrations were celebrated, ironically in another key year in history. In this framework, a series of studies was published that sought to seek a renewed vision of this subject. Following various historiographical trends, both Marxist and microhistorical – see the excellent works of Richard Cobb’s “History from below” – Columbia professor (then at Harvard) Simon Schama published a monumental study on the Revolution simply but aptly titled , “Citizens” (“Citizens”). Translated into Spanish shortly after its appearance, the book is now recovered in a very opportune manner in the Debate publishing house, thirty years after its writing. This highlights the validity of this already classic and essential work to know in detail the circumstances, precedents, development and immediate consequences of the great revolutionary process that changed the face of the political and cultural history of our world. In his thoughtful review in “The New Yorker”, the essential intellectual George Steiner, also Jewish like Schama himself, praised the superb descriptions of the epic moments and the critical panorama that he offered for his “refined taste, capacity for discernment and humanity of their judgments.”

The work shows how a community of free and equal citizens was engendered, restoring ideals of classical antiquity and consecrating individual rights, but, paradoxically, a stronger State was produced, which had totalizing and totalitarian tendencies, also in the police, preluding much of what would happen later to our mass societies. It is still overwhelming to read the pages about the Bastille, the Terror or the Marseillaise, as well as the description of the collective massacres, which, as Steiner pointed out, speak of an “imperfection” in every revolution: the paradox of the violation of rights in the process of liberation. Even leftist panegyrists of the “Revolutions” (Turner) like Gero von Randow have to admit it.

Dizzying years

Schama pays special attention to the background: how the economic crisis, the indebtedness due to the American adventure and the way of life of the court and the administration, but also the background of the new ideas and the classical cultural ideal, greatly influenced what what happened. For Schama, the “ancien régime” already harbored within itself the germ of revolutionary ideology and violence. In contrast, from 1792, the chronicle becomes fast and almost vertiginous. But they were years like that. It must be remembered that for a short time –almost 20 years– the France of the time passed from the republican experience to the Empire: what its model, ancient Rome, had taken generations to do.

In short, three decades after its appearance, it must be said that “Citizens” is read with true intellectual pleasure and amazement at Schama’s synthetic and expository capacity. If to his expertise as a historian of society, politics and economics are added his intelligent assessment of the cultural and scientific context –from Montgolfier’s flights to the painter David– with an appropriate selection and commentary on memorable images, the historical journey that presents to the reader will be simply unforgettable.

About the Author

Simon Schama (London, 1945) Knight of the Order of the British Empire, is a historian of Jewish origin, an expert in modern history. A professor at Columbia University, he has been a historical commentator on public television in England, for which he has made several series, as well as an art and culture critic for The New Yorker.

Ideal for…

Understand the character that surrounded the events of 1789, a unique event from its immediate precedents to still feel part of that historical process in our current society.

A defect

Schama’s narrative tone helps; however, there is a certain abuse of journalistic sensationalism at the beginning of each of the chapters that can be understood as unnecessary props for the story.

A virtue

The comprehensive look, especially in the precedents of the revolutionary process, which helps the reader understand everything that came later, and the great critical capacity displayed by the historian.

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