Lessons from France | New
As I sit on my balcony of a boat traveling on the Moselle in Germany, passing picturesque villages founded even before the birth of Christopher Columbus, I am in awe of this place with its castles and massive churches. While I’m having a dream vacation, I’m also thinking about what the history of this region can teach us. As you know, I believe history is there to teach us, and while I was spending a few days in Paris, eating amazing food, I realized how much a part of French history can reflect ours right now.
When we were making plans for Paris, I was happy to spend time walking around the city and seeing the historical sites. As I made a list of the things I wanted to see, there were the normal attractions, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the Grand Entrance. As an American historian, I was interested in the history of the two world wars, but I was also interested in the French Revolution. When you teach early American history, you end up teaching a lot of European history, and the French Revolution played a part in shaping that history. Knowing that, there were a few sites I wanted to see like the Chateau de Versailles and the Bastille. However, to my great surprise, the Bastille no longer exists. Turns out it was destroyed by the new revolutionary government because of what it stood for, and it wasn’t the only structure to take damage from a new regime.
If I have ranked world revolutions in terms of radicality, the French Revolution tops the list. The American Revolution, which is at the other end of the spectrum, was a top-down revolution that replaced British nobility with elected American nobility. The French Revolution was a bottom-up revolution that upended every aspect of French society, culture, and politics. The revolution started from an economic downturn after funding the American Revolution. In 1789, the people, struggling to feed their families and lacking basic human rights, rose in protest when General d’Estes became the National Assembly and the people stormed the Bastille, freeing political prisoners at inside. Later, the king and queen were put on trial and their heads were removed from their bodies, as were the vast majority of France’s noble class. Eventually, the Bastille suffered the same fate as the noble class as it was destroyed due to its symbolism of the monarchy.
Unfortunately, the Bastille was not the end of the destruction. In 1793, the same year that Queen Marie-Antoinette lost her mind, the people went into a frenzy and moved to the holiest site in Paris, Notre-Dame Cathedral. On the front of the cathedral were 28 statues of Jewish kings from the Bible and beyond. Yet the masses, in their righteous indignation and ignorance, assumed that the kings were kings of France and tore them down and cut off their heads as they had done with real royalty. I am not saying that the people had no right to be upset. The French people had been under absolute control for too long and had every right to hate anything associated with the monarchy, but what did this act accomplish? The monarchy was equally dead with or without the destruction. Even though the monuments disappeared, that did not prevent the French people from descending into chaos with the “reign of terror”. What happened instead was the destruction of a sacred structure and the elimination of an important piece of history which is celebrated today in France with the 14th of July. The real object is not there to experience and learn from.
Now consider the experience at the next stage of my journey. When we left Paris and boarded ships, the first city we visited was Trier, an ancient Roman city and the oldest city in what is now Germany. In 1818, Karl Marx was born in Trier. With his publication of the Communist Manifesto, he forever changed economic and political theory, especially after the Russian Communist Revolution. Understand that Germany has no lost love for communism. German fascists and Russian communists killed each other by the hundreds of thousands during World War II. After the war, the Communists kept East Germany under their authoritarian control for decades. Yet it is impossible to deny Marx’s importance to history, for better or for worse. On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of his birth, Trier decided to organize a celebration. When the Chinese government heard about the celebration, they wanted to gift the city with a giant statue of Marx. Accepting the statue became quite controversial, especially one so large. Still, Trier acknowledged that history was important. They had the monument set back by the Chinese and did not place it where the Chinese wanted it, but erected it anyway.
America is going through its own historical crisis. We may not have taken the Bastille, but we still live in a revolutionary attitude. In our anger at our past, will we continue to act in haste and tear down statues? Will the removal of the Andrew Jackson statue from Jackson Square in New Orleans change the historical fact that Jackson, a slaveholder, won a battle against the British and saved the city from capture? Is our world better off removing President Wilson’s name from Princeton, a school where he was president, because he was a racist at a time when racism was unfortunately acceptable?
We have a choice to make in our country. Do we remove names and statues from our past that some have found offensive, or do we accept our history, its warts and all, embrace it as historical truth and learn from it? After all, only fifteen years after the French stormed the Bastille, Napoleon crowned himself emperor and authoritarianism was once again the law. Historically speaking, perhaps instead of destroying the Bastille, they should have learned from it.
Dr. James Finck is a professor of history at Oklahoma University of Science and Arts and chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts, follow Historically Speaking on HistoricallySpeaking.blog or on Facebook.
Dr. James Finck is an associate professor of history at Oklahoma University of Science and the Arts at Chickasha. He is president of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at www.Historically Speaking.blog.