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French revolution and aftermath, 1789-1815: Part I

French revolution and aftermath, 1789-1815: Part I

  • The French Revolution was an influential period of social and political upheaval in France. It was one of the most important events in human history.
  • Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, the Revolution profoundly altered the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of theocracies and absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and democracies.
  • With the outbreak of French Revolution, European history merges in the history of one nation, one event and one man (the nation is France, the event is the French Revolution, and the man is Napoleon.)
  • The great upheaval in France was not merely domestic concern of the French people. It shook whole Europe to its very foundation and thereby paved the way for its reconstruction on a new basis.
  • Through the Revolutionary Wars, it unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East.
  • French Revolution was as much a war of ideas as of bayonets. It spread far and wide new principles of government, new ideas of social organisation, new theories of the rights of man, and was thus a challenge to the established customs and institutions of Europe.
  • The old regime in Europe was based on authority, class privilege and absolute rule, and over these were to blow from France irresistible gusts of new ideas, sweeping away what was worn out and decayed, and heralding the dawn of a new order of things.
    • An invasion of armies can be resisted but invasion of ideas is irresistible. Hence the new ideas promulgated by the French Revolution permeated the whole of Europe and gave a rude shock to the prevalent social and political systems.
    • The old order in Europe, which had become out of date, tumbled down in utter confusion before the onset of new ideas, such as those of equality, nationality and democracy- ideas strong and intoxicating enough to take a firm hold of the people long subjected to the tyranny of privilege, custom and authority.

What was Old Regime in Europe that was transformed by the French Revolution?

  • Political weakness of Europe:
    • Absolutism was the order of the day:
      • Europe was organised aristocratically. Control was in the hand of the few. This was true in country like England which enjoyed a constitutional government.
      • In this respect, republics were but little better than the monarchies. Thus Venice though a republic was governed by a noble caste.
      • In constitutional England, the great majority of the inhabitants did not possess the franchise.
      • In Austria, Russia, Spain, Prussia, France, Sweden, and most of the Italian states, the prince was absolute.
      • Thus absolute monarchy (with some exceptions) was the prevailing form of government in Europe on the eve of the French Revolution. Such governments were generally oppressive and repressive allowing little scope to the principle of liberty. Serfdom prevailed almost everywhere in Europe (except in France and England).
    • Low tone of international morality:
      • Not only were rulers absolute, but they were also dishonest and unprincipled in their dealings with each other. This was, to a certain extent, due to the absence of any unifying principle of religion and politics. Europe was, in the middle ages, regarded as a great Christian Commonwealth under the spiritual headship of the Pope, and the temporal headship of the Emperor.
      • But this conception was shattered by the Reformation which broke up the unity of Christendom and destroyed the authority of Pope, and by the Thirty Years’ War, which impaired the authority of the Emperor. Europe was thus left without a dominant principle of government.
      • Hence international relations became chaotic, and force became the order of the day. Respect for dynastic rights and treaty obligations now gave place to a state policy which avowedly aimed at little else but gain of territory or markets. Thus moral tone of European politics was very low.
      • There was no honour among nations; each tried to take advantage of other’s weakness. The typical example of the unscrupulous and aggressive spirit of the time was the partition of Poland by Russia, Prussia and Austria. With such precedents of political robbery before us, we need not be surprised at Napoleon’s aggression.
      • The old Regime of Europe was disloyal to the very principles on which it rested, viz., respect for the established order and regard for legality and engagements.
    • Weak and inefficient political organisation of most of the Continental States:
      • Political weakness of Germany:
        • Germany was merely assemblage of about 360 sovereign states whose only bond of union was their inclusion in the Holy Roman Empire.
        • The imperial organisation was loose, the Emperor having no authority over the component states. Hence the Holy Roman Empire had long ceased to be either “Holy or Roman or Empire”.
        • The two leading powers in Germany were Prussia and Austria and they were deadly rival. Their mutual jealousy always kept Central Europe in a state of ferment.
      • Weakness of Austrian Empire:
        • Austria, ruled by the House of Hapsburg, possessed great prestige from the fact that its ruler was also the Emperor of Germany. But it suffered much from the dispersion of its component states.
        • There was no Austrian nation and it was jumble of states and races and languages. There were Bohemians, Hungarians, Milanese of Italy, Netherlanders and Austrians proper.
        • Joseph II, who was Emperor when the French Revolution broke out, tried to weld together his heterogeneous dominions into a homogeneous whole by enforcing the use of German as the official language and by simplifying the diverse legal and administrative systems. But states resented and some of them like Bohemia, Hungary and Netherlands rose in revolt which threatened the union of Empire.
        • Thus, the Austrian Empire was in a state of intense ferment on the eve of the outbreak of the French Revolution.
      • Prussia, a strong state:
        • She had been raised to a position of commanding eminence by genius of Frederick the Great.
        • But her rise to greatness was accomplished by the most unscrupulous means, the forcible seizure of Silesia and the infamous partition of Poland.
        • After the death of Frederick in 1786, he was succeeded by Frederick William II, who maintained a strongly anti-Austrian and anti-Russian policy.
        • At the outbreak of the French Revolution, the attention of Prussia was directed more to the partition of Poland than to the stirring events in France.
      • Aggressive policy of Russia:
        • She under Catherine II was always bent upon territorial aggrandizement.
        • Catherine’s designs upon Turkey and Poland gave rise to serious international complications, which greatly helped the cause of the Revolution in France.
        • Austria and Prussia had to keep a vigilant watch upon her movements, and so they could not take joint action against France until after the Revolution was fairly on foot.
        • Catherine in her turn urged these two powers to help the cause of the French monarchy, so that she might have a free hand in Poland.
      • Italy was weak and divided:
        • Italy was a mere geographical expression and not a single united country.
        • It was a collection of many petty states having different forms of government and without any internal cohesion or unity. Several of its states were in the hands of foreign rulers.
      • Spain:
        • It had lost her former prestige and power and was decaying.
      • England:
        • It had recently suffered great loss in the successful revolt of the American colonies.
        • Her prestige had been impaired and she was looked upon as a decaying nation.
        • But under the guidance of Pit the Younger, she was recovering her strength at home and prestige abroad.
    • The political situation in Europe shows that on no side of France were barriers strong enough to resist the tide of revolutionary sentiment. Most of the governments of Central Europe were hopelessly decadent.
    • Influence of partition of Poland on the French Revolution:
      • Austria, Prussia and Russia had their eyes fixed more upon the plunder obtainable in Poland than on the rush of events in France. They looked upon the French Revolution as important only because it kept France engaged in her own troubles and thereby prevented her from actively interfering in their infamous design of partitioning Poland.
      • As a matter of fact, concurrently with the French Revolution, Austria, Prussia and Russia was carrying on another Revolution in Poland, which by absorbing their interest, prevented them from making any energetic coalition against France. This to a large extent, contributed to the initial success of the French Revolution.
  • Social weakness of Europe:
    • The European society was based on privilege:
      • Social organisation of all European States was aristocratic and oligarchic.
      • Everywhere on the continent the nobles and the clergy formed the two powerful orders distinct from the mass of the people.
    • Unequal taxation:
      • The privileged orders enjoyed total and partial exemption from taxation and so the State had to press hard on the lower orders for money to carry on the various functions of the government.
      • The richer a man was the less he had to pay to the State and so burden on the lower orders was crushing.
    • Feudalism:
      • In many part of Europe, feudalism predominated. The landowners of central and eastern Europe generally ruled as petty sovereigns over those who tilled their lands.
      • The serfs cultivated the soil and the landlords appropriated the profit.
      • Thus society was composed mainly of two elements: the nobles and the serfs. There was hardly any middle class to serve, as a connecting link between these two extremes.
      • The condition of the serfs everywhere was deplorable. They had to submit to endless galling restrictions. They were tied to the soil, had to submit to forced labour and were not allowed freedom even in many of their domestic concerns.
    • Privileges for the favoured few, and oppression and misery for the masses, this was the social condition of Europe. Small wonder that the oppressed people everywhere in Europe should welcome the revolutionary principles which held out to them the prospect of a better state of things.

Conditions in other Western European countries looked more fertile for Revolution, but it happened in France and not in other Western European Countries:

  • Condition of French people as a whole was no way worse than people of other European countries. German, Polish and Hungarian peasants had no personal plot of land, no freedom to marry and no right to move freely. Their condition was no better than Negro slaves in the USA.
  • There was no serfdom in France, peasants in France were free to move and marry (only they could not sell). In France, the political power of the feudal nobility had been broken but in Germany and Eastern Europe the nobles possessed great authority.
  • Even if the French monarchy was bankrupt, the nation was prosperous. The monarchies of Prussia and Russia were even more despotic.
  • Next to England, France had the most numerous, prosperous, intelligent and enlightened middle class.
  • Yet, it was in France, the Revolution occurred because:
    • Prosperity of average Frenchmen and lack of slavery, gave them power to be critical of their government.
      • People enjoying certain rights become conscious of more rights.
      • In other countries, as for instance in Russia, Germany, Denmark, or Hungary, the peasants, utterly ground down by feudal serfdom, were too wretched to grasp such ideas as those of civil equality and liberty.
    • France was, in fact better off than the rest. It was precisely because of the more favourable conditions prevailing in the social life of France that the revolutionary crisis broke out there rather than elsewhere in Europe.
      • The French middle-classes—richer, more educated, in closer contact with the higher ranks of society, than were those of other European nations, and divided from the nobility by less marked differences in their way of life—were more acutely conscious of the injustice that excluded them from political influence and honours; and being possessed of moral and material strength that others lacked as yet, they were first to win that place in public life to which they felt entitled.
    • The French monarchy was weaker than other despots of Europe.
      • The poverty of French monarchy shattered its prestige and compelled it to appeal to the nation for few taxes.
      • Other monarchies of Europe were not so poor.
    • French became exposed to influences of the English and American Revolution.
    • France was more exposed to the influence of the philosophers than any other countries of Europe.
    • In France, there was a wealthy, intelligent and enlightened middle class who gave leadership to the peasants and workers.
      • The enlightened middle class was not to be found in other parts of Europe.The peasants or serfs, sunk in ignorance and superstition, were not capable of heroic action without the guidance of the more intellectual section of the community i.e. middle class.
      • The members of middle class were well-to-do persons, but they still belonged to the unprivileged class. They had wealth and brains and consequently were not in a mood to put up with the inequality which the Ancien Regime imposed on them.
      • They were profoundly influenced by the philosophy of Rousseau, Voltaire and Montesquieu.
      • After having assimilated thoroughly the philosophy of the above intellectual giants, they could not find any justification for their humiliating condition.
      • Although the unprivileged classes in other countries of Europe also suffered, they had neither any idealism nor any leaders among them who were prepared to challenge the existing order and hence no revolution broke out there.
    • In other countries there were feudal privileges and duties.
      • The feudal lords not only enjoyed certain exemptions from taxes but also performed certain duties. They served in the army of the kings, gave military aid to king and were responsible for maintaining law and order within their locality at their own charges.
      • However, in the case of France, the feudal system had become worn out and the king had deprived the nobles of all governing powers but had allowed them to retain their exemptions and privileges. Hence in France, the feudal Lords enjoyed certain rights and privileges without corresponding duties.
      • No wonder, the privileges of the nobles in France were irritating to the people of France. The whole system had become an anachronism and consequently it was condemned. The discontentment against the nobility burst out in the form of the Revolution of 1789.
    • In France alone had the capital city acquired such importance as to become the centre of the nation’s entire political and administrative life; so that, when the revolutionary forces had gained mastery over Paris, the whole country too succumbed to them.
      • In other nations, administrative centralization was as yet rudimentary or entirely lacking, and provincial life remained more or less autonomous; unrest that arose in one area did not necessarily disturb the rest, and disorder in the principal centre had little effect on the provinces.

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