"World War I can be said to have 'finished' the French Revolution–and perhaps the American, too."
By Sean Munger
July 14, 2017 – Two hundred and twenty-eight years ago today, on July 14, 1789, a Parisian mob stormed the infamous Bastille prison in an event that is generally marked as the beginning of the French Revolution. One hundred and twenty-eight years later, on July 14, 1917–a century ago today–U.S. troops, newly arrived in France, paraded in Paris on the anniversary of Bastille Day in a show of solidarity for our French allies in World War I. These events are connected by more than just chronology and the celebration of Bastille Day. Indeed, while it doesn’t get much play in history books, the links connecting the French Revolution and the First World War are very strong and important. France’s revolution changed the world in many profound ways, but I think it can be said that the French Revolution was never truly “finished” until France went through the first of its two ultimate trials during the 20th century. It’s a lesson we Americans might want to think about when we consider our own freedoms and the meaning of our own democracy.
The French Revolution was both a wonderful and a terrible event. Ideologically it arose out of the same Enlightenment thought that gave rise to our American Revolution of 1776; politically it also was connected to our Revolution, because the economic crisis of the 1780s that provided the tinder for the flame of France’s revolt was caused by France’s crushing debts in her war against Britain, which was partially about the American colonies. But far from being a simple story where democracy-loving Parisians swept through the streets and overthrew a tyrannical king, the French Revolution was an extraordinarily complicated series of events that devolved into considerable bloody chaos in just a few years. By 1794 the Revolution had spun badly out of control, with tens of thousands of people executed by guillotine for political and pretended crimes. The chaos ultimately led to the rise of a military dictator–Napoleon Bonaparte–and a chain of counter-revolutions and counter-counter revolutions that roiled France through most of the rest of the 19th century.
The storming of the Bastille prison in Paris on July 14, 1789 was not really the “beginning” of the French Revolution, but it has become a ceremonial marker as such in historical memory.
By the 20th century, though, France was a democracy, though the road leading to that condition was pretty rocky. In 1870, after having been through autocratic governments by two members of the same family–Napoleon and Louis-Napoleon (Napoleon III)–the Third Republic was proclaimed, and much of the political infrastructure of modern France was established. But even this, I think, was not really enough to cement the ideals that the French people had risen up in 1789 to establish in their society. The real test came in 1914, when France found itself in the midst of an existential military crisis: the French nation was threatened with literal destruction by the forces of imperial Germany, and the center of gravity of World War I, militarily speaking, was happening on French soil.
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