I’ve been spending much of the last few months reading, mostly history. I’m trying to fill some of the gaps in my education that schooling has left out. Early education was great at hitting the highlights of major world events, but they were garbage at explaining them. One example I can think of is the French Revolution. Louis XVI famously lost his head. The exact process from revolution to guillotine to republic gets skipped over.
It turns out, the process does matter. One of the books I’ve read was Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama. It’s a very good account of the details leading up to and during the revolution, along with revolutionary massacres and the Terror. The account of events at that time highlighted the chaos and opportunistic politics of a dying regime in a then-modern nation.
Another striking thing was how familiar some of the events felt. Much of the great revolutionary moments were accidents or desperate appeals to the sentiment of a mob. They struck me as similar to events like 6 January, except repeated every time a large, hungry crowd gathered. Due to the rampant famines of the day, this was quite often.
The echoes of historical farce as glorious revolution did not end there. Paris in the late 18th Century was riddled with sensationalist writers who would feel quite at home in the modern 24-hour news cycle. These people played upon common fears and conspiracy theories of the day. One of them, Jean-Paul Marat, was murdered because of how well he could incite people to rage. The story of the murder itself was as fascinating as it was tragic for the people involved.
Moreover, it was illuminating to see past iconic moments lose their mystery. The storming of the Bastille, for example, was nothing like I’d heard about in school. It was not a moment of triumph for the French people or for the prisoners. Rather, it came about as an afterthought. The mobs had swarmed the place not out of hatred of royal tyranny, but out of a need to loot the weapons and gunpowder stored there.
Most of all, I was struck at the sheer stupid luck and misfortune of the people involved. Accidents didn’t just happen; they practically dominated the course of events after initial mistakes were made. At its core, the revolution wasn’t this inexorable birth of a republic. It was a killing of an ill-prepared king and the subsequent struggle over the corpse of state. All the lofty principles attributed to it were retroactive excuses to cover up mass killings and proto-genocidal gestures.
In the end, the French Revolution, like other revolutions (including the American one-but that’s a different rant for a different day), didn’t change anything. People were still people. When they gather in a mob, terrible things happened.
Just like they happen now.