The French Revolution is the most significant event of the past 250 years. Of course plenty of people may argue with this. Here in the United States many citizens and so-called patriots may sputter outrage that our own Revolution of 11 years earlier is way more important and, yes, to us I suppose that is true. But this is a particularly American way of looking at things. It was the French Revolution that began the trend all throughout the world of overthrowing local governments, and efforts to enforce self-rule upon ignorant, terrified, frequently very angry people. And this is much of the world we still struggle with today. This is why we are who we are. The American Revolution, with all its historically remembered nobility, was merely a trial for the realities of a free world.
Here are some ideas, both contemporary to the time and subsequent, of what this bloodbath looked like:
Try as I might I could find not a single picture that is not in some way or another gruesome, if not downright condemnatory. For all of the great ideas that inspired the notion of this revolution, historically this collapse of Europe in 1789 can only be looked upon as a failure. Even modern film depicts the French Revolution this way:
So how did this seemingly apocalyptic event come to be, and what happened to transform it into such a horror show? Perhaps we can allow Charles Dickens to open the discussion:
“It was the popular theme for jests; it was the best cure for headache, it infallibly prevented the hair from turning grey, it imparted a particular delicacy to the complexion, it was the National Razor which shaved close: who kissed La Guillotine, looked through the little window and sneezed into the sack. It was the sign of the regeneration of the human race. It superseded the Cross. Models of it were worn on breasts from which the Cross was discarded, and it was bowed down to and believed in where the Cross was denied.”
Dickens, it seems, in A Tale of Two Cities (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780451526564&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used) saw the French Revolution as the birth of a new sort of religion, one that had followers every bit as dedicated, every bit as fanatical as the fundamentalists that the revolution had partly been undertaken to overthrow.
It was really the so-called “Enlightenment” (see, eventually, Elsewhere 5 for further insight into this earth-shattering philosophical era) that ushered in the ideas that would lead to civil collapse.
While on the surface consumed with ideas of liberty and justice, the Enlightenment seethed underneath with resentment so powerful that every royal family, everywhere, was terrified. It was the Enlightenment, also, that gave birth to rumors of conspiratorial secret societies that were calling the shots behind the scenes, controlling the masses, as well as people’s minds through newspapers and rhetoric, but just as often with supernatural powers capable of bending all life to their will. It was out of this wreckage, this both paranoid and hopeful time that stories about “The Illuminati” were born.
Now The Illuminati was an actual group going way back to those days before the revolutionary era, and I suppose in some ways they must be given some credit for inspiring them.
A man named Adam Weishaupt founded this organization and it is unlikely you know his actual motivations.
Weishaupt claimed that the Illuminati’s goal was to create “a state of liberty and moral equality.” Born in Germany, Weishaupt was a gifted child. As he went through his studies he always suffered from a restless mind, seeking to discover everything about everything. His family had once been Jewish, but had converted to Christianity several generations before. Weishaupt, however, found organized religion itself inadequate and sought to find a new organizing principal of society. He chose to become a law professor at the University of Ingolstadt, where he rapidly fell into the study of increasingly obscure and secretive philosophical ideas, including Kabbala and the Mysteries of the Seven Sages of Memphis.
Weishaupt was greatly influenced by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s
ideas on public education, seeing the youth being raised in this “Age of Enlightenment” as being the masters of their own fate, a generation that for the first time would be able to decide for themselves who they actually were and what their aimed to become. He saw an age of “Illumination,” teaching both the wealthy and the poor the same principles, giving everyone ample opportunity to succeed.
Realizing that he needed backing for his plan, Weishaupt at first considered joining the Freemasons,
a group that was essentially the first labor union and which (for some reason) practiced weird, esoteric rituals to make the fraternity into a brotherhood. But Weishaupt found objection with many of the Masonic practices and decided to stretch out on his own, defining a new order that might actually get things done.
And so in 1776, two months before the American Revolution, Weishaupt founded his new order, calling it “Illuminati.” He freely recruited disillusioned Freemasons for his order, and charmed and hypnotized them with his intricately set out plans and theories for the betterment of society. They renamed him “Brother Spartacus” and joined with evangelical fervor.
Eventually the secret society grew, attracting several prominent people in public life: doctors, lawyers, politicians. This order even included the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,
whose famous two part play Faust (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780195004106&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used) has sometimes been interpreted as an exposure of the Illuminati’s goal of selling one’s soul to Satan.
Also a member was Baron von Knigge,
a once influential Freemason who helped Weishaupt develop a similar hierarchical structure to the order, where Weishaupt was number one (illuminatus minor), himself as number two (illuminatus dirigens), and the third most powerful, far below them, was the king. As the rumors of this blasphemy spread, the organization fell into a hushed, conspiratorial silence.
The Illuminati’s influence on society, despite their weird rituals and strange new theology, were then positive. Since the membership included so many wealthy and prominent men (by 1784 they had as many as 3,000 members), it was relatively simple to get new laws passed, to improve education (although the opposition both believed, or used as a political weapon the idea that the new schools were simply recruitment centers for the cult), to outlaw the predatory practices of business owners, and to fight for a fair wage and better living conditions for the indigent.
And then the French Revolution broke out, spreading it’s fervor to every corner of continental Europe and beyond. It became very easy to scapegoat the Illuminati for causing the calamity, even backed up by French royalists. Weishaupt himself was accused of attempting to overthrow the Bavarian monarchy in a similar manner and the myths and rumors spread and metastasized until an illusory picture became the norm, and the so-called magic the still lingeringly primitive culture believed in created a terror not seen since the black plague. The Illuminati shortly thereafter disbanded, most of the membership remaining a secret, and the fellows each returned to their former lives, illuminated, yes, but ultimately unchanged. The true Illuminati would never exist again, only cheap knock-offs using the same name. Each of these gangs were also failures, having neither the influence nor the sincerity of the original founders. They simply attempted black magic and found themselves mostly stumped by the rapidly evolving pace of civilization. And yet the rumors still persist–even to this day. It is very easy to seek something that never was and assign it all the blame for our failures to achieve whatever it is that we wanted.
(For a quick aside I will tell a brief tale of myself as a teacher, just a few years ago. I worked in a big east coast USA city public school, an English teacher in overcrowded classrooms. Sometimes our discussions would veer off into esoterica and the students would start talking about this or that or so-and-so being a member of the Illuminati. They claimed Jay-Z and Beyonce
, Barrack Obama
hell, they even drew images on photos of Lady Gaga to prove that her face resembled a pentagram.
When I asked them where they heard all this the answer was always the same: “In church.”)
The French Revolution rapidly devolved into outright anarchy after the execution of King Louis XVI
It was the leadership of Georges Danton
and Maximilien Robespierre
that proved the driving forces overthrowing the monarchy and, eventually, deregulating industry and outlawing the Catholic church, all the while implementing an increasingly radical position on who should be guillotined (both men were eventually executed themselves).
By 1794 the Reign of Terror was a fully established fact of life. What was the Reign of Terror? Here:
- In August of 1792 partisan members of the National Guard stormed Tuileres Palace and arrested King Louis XVI, thus fulfilling the promise of three years earlier to overthrow the monarchy.
- In September of 1792 an event occurred known as “the September Massacres,” where the prisons of Paris were opened and more than 1,000 prisoners were summarily executed by the rampaging hordes, kicked to death, hacked up, stomped upon, shot.
- In September to October of 1792 a National Convention was held to form the new society. The idea of a Republic was suggested and then passed into law. This had some of the more extremist elements among the revolutionaries licking their lips in anticipation of controlling the government and legally slaughtering all of their enemies.
- In April 1793 the Committee of Public Safety was created, which served as the war time government. Under their control more than 300,000 people were arrested, 17,000 of whom had their heads chopped off in town squares, with another at least 10,000 simply starved or beaten to death in prison without trials
- In the summer of 1793 a bloody civil war erupted on the streets of France, severe partisans ramping up their efforts to dominate both parliament and the public mind. Since this was such a confusing time for so many of the ordinary people, they were left to choose sides, afterwhich, the leaders of their movements would provide uniforms and weapons and set them out on a “reign of terror.”
- July 1793 saw the assassination of Jacobian revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat
- which led to increased influence of the Jacobians over the revolutionary committee itself, beginning the end of Georges Danton after he was unceremoniously removed from the committee, only temporarily to be replaced by Robespierre.
- A counter-revolution broke out later in 1793, inspired by the comments of Bertrand Barere
- who at a convention on the one year anniversary of the September massacres declared, “Let’s make terror the order of the day!”
- November, 1793: the calender of France was officially ‘dechristianized,’ and a “Festival of Reason” was formed, where the ultimate end proved to be the arrest and murder of anyone still publicly declaring faith in the church.
- In February of 1794 Robespierre finally offered a philosophical take on the need for terror: “If the basis of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the basis of popular government during a revolution is both virtue and terror; virtue, without which terror is baneful; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing more than speedy, severe and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue; it is less a principle in itself, than a consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing needs of the fatherland.”
- Slavery in all French colonies was abolished in February 1794, which would soon thereafter lead to the Haitian Revolution, the first sustained and successful slave uprising in the history of the western world.
- June 1794 saw the committee pass Law of 22 Prairal, which simplified the Revolutionary laws so the committee could more or less randomly arrest and prosecute whomever they chose, speeding up the execution process. This law came to be known as “The Great Terror,” and prepared the way for the rise of Napoloan Bonaparte to absolute dictator.
Georges Danton was executed by fanatics of the terror movement in July 1793 for “leniency towards enemies of the Revolution” A year later Maximilien Robespierre, who had been far more an advocate of terror than the more reasonable Danton, saw the newer, increasingly fanatical members of the committee demanding his arrest for unnamed reasons. Perhaps his public influence was too great and he needed to be vilified in order to shift the balance of power. This call for his arrest occurred during an open meeting of the committee and led Robespierre to walk out in disgust, declaring that “the Revolution is lost!”
The Paris commune then decided to close the gates into Paris, thereby imprisoning everyone in the city after a fashion. One of the vice-presidents of the commune later showed up at the hotel where Robespierre was staying with 2,200 soldiers. The arrest of former revolutionary leaders was widespread that night, and Robespierre was ferreted away and shot in the jaw in a holding cell, where he soon bled to death.
The secret societies of legend that were spawned from this global nightmare all faded into obscurity as the revolution itself broke down into petty political factions awaiting the arrival of their strongman to take over everything.
Napoleon Bonaparte turned out to be just what the exhausted-with-revolution people of France believed they needed–a strongman with ideas of world conquest. The nation mostly fell into line behind him and those who objected, considering the increased powers granted to the political councils that had been overtaken by loyalists, were easily eliminated.
This is how an initially noble idea of freedom–a necessary revolution that realigns the order of society (kind of like a chiropractic adjustment for the world, expelling the foul gases of civilization that have clumped together and stiffened the spine)–this is how it descends into madness and paranoia. This is where the most absurd conspiracy theories come from, and it is why such ideas are so rampant and easy to believe. If no one can be trusted, if those former heroes once admired so completely are renamed traitors and villains for the next generation, then there is little hope for the survival of a free nation.
Certainly this collapse of society from its high ideals and into ‘reigns of terror’ has its parallels in every era, and with every nation that seeks self-rule. The current widespread ‘nationalist revolutions’ going on throughout a great portion of the western world is unquestionably an example of this. People are tired, fed up and scared. They see outside forces closing in around them and only seek safety–forget about our rights! You even hear with increasing frequency (and often on contradictory issues) statements like “we must be willing to give up a few of our freedoms if we wish to be safe from terror.” Some believe severely limiting ownership of weapons will salve the open wound of society, while others, usually clutching and pointing their guns at the opposition, believe that limiting free speech offers a better solution, all the while claiming that it is their freedom to speak this way.
Human civilization appears to be an ever changing mess of highs and lows, and in many ways it is. But there is a cruel cyclical element to these triumphs and failures, and the breakdown of trust, and organized radicalization of belief inspired by the French Revolution has allowed us to question the very nature of truth in so-called open societies. It is like we are trapped in a whirlpool, or a tornado, everything spinning faster and faster until we abandon all our deepest ideals in order to just get away from the dizzying speed of a world out of control, and slump back home, bitter and terrified, to watch what the handful of monsters responsible for all the misery we have allowed them to impose upon us do to us next. This is the truth about the nature of all revolutions. Eventually we stop believing in them. And eventually all the high ideals of freedom sink into the cynical bitterness we continually seem to surround ourselves with, giving the powerful the idea that they can (and do) get away with anything.
©2019 Lance Polin