Saturday, June 12, 2010

The 1789 French Revolution

The 1789 French Revolution - Should it Inspire Awe or Contempt?

France happens to be one of the few countries in modern Europe where the common man doesn't go about kowtowing and calling it a curtsey or calling anyone their Majesty. It just so happens that France is a modern republic, a country where a monarchy is not even retained in name, where a publicly elected government and a well-thought-out constitution hold sway and not the individual authority of a king or queen.

How is it that other countries around Europe that were just as developed were left behind while France took bold strides into the modern world? The answer lies in the eruption of the ten-year-long 1789 French Revolution.

Everyone knows that the 1789 French Revolution was this great deal that practically changed the political landscape of all of Europe. But what was it like for the people that they should have gone off the deep end and slaughtered the royal family and brought about such stunning change? France at the time was hopelessly caught in the grip of an autocratic monarchy and a terribly fundamentalist Catholic influence. Inept kings and queens have existed before without provoking their citizens like this; but France had the misfortune of suffering a series of terrible famines too at the time; now hunger, economic mismanagement, fundamentalism and an apathetic monarchy surely sounds like a potent brew.

Exactly what was it that the monarchy did that was so awful? Well, to begin with, there were Portuguese slaves, and Jewish people and Muslims who were forced to live with no rights. Women were not allowed to divorce their husbands or to inherit property, education was virtually nonexistent, scientific thought was discouraged and Catholic dogma was enforced, and the country was run into the ground fighting unnecessary wars all around.

Here in this country, it is not uncommon to hear the 1789 French Revolution vilified and the American civil war glorified in comparison. What the French Revolution achieved is quite remarkable even by today's standards. It started that society down the path of racial equality, gay rights, feminism, and emancipation for slaves all the way back then. And in achieving all this, the French Revolution took the lives of fewer than 20,000 people.

Of course any war or revolution is bound to visit some horrors on all concerned and as in any popular revolt, law and order inevitably broke down and anyone suspected remotely of being a sympathizer of the royalty was sent to their death. Often, the mobs, drunk on the power of lawlessness would easily switch to killing anyone in sight and justifying their actions in any way they could. There was a saying attributed to Dostoyevsky "If there is no God, everything is permitted." Perhaps that explains the good parts of what shapes an event like the 1789 French Revolution

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