Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Le Quatorze Juillet

Today is Bastille Day (or at least it still is in France- it is now July 15 here). A fact which brings certain questions to the forefront of my mind. It never ceases to astound me that the French Revolution still garners a certain nostalgia in Western culture. Similarly I am amazed that the French still celebrate it, still sing the Marsellaise and that few people see anything sinister in that. How is it that the French Revolution managed to escape the kind of anathemas heaped upon the Nazi regime (or, for that matter, Stalin's regime, which also grew out of a bloodthirsty revolution)? More to the point, given the fact that most people have some sense that something horrible called the 'Reign of Terror' happened, why is this generally regarded as something arbitrary, not of the essence of the French Revolution? Why is the French national conscience not seared every time the Marsellaise is sung, knowing the inhuman deeds that were done to its tune (and which its lyrics vividly describe)? It amazes and befuddles me to find that the French Revolution is still treated as a touchstone of democracy.

In fact, the thing was inhuman and bloody from start to finish. In the storming of the Bastille on July 14 1789, only seven people were found inside, none of them political prisoners, but "when the day was done, the mob had torn Governor de Launey of the Bastille and Mayor Flesselles of Paris to pieces and paraded their heads on pikes....Less than three months after the storming of the Bastille, a similar mob made up initially of market-women, later joined by a few men, almost killed the Queen at Versailles and brought the royal family by force to the Tuileries palace, where they lived in captivity until they were formally overthrown on August 10, 1792, once again with pikes bearing human heads leading the march." (Carroll, The Revolution Against Christendom, p133)

That August 10 mentioned above was one of the lowpoints of human history. After the King had ordered his Swiss Guard to lay down arms, they were massacred by the mob. This, it should be noted, was before the 'Reign of Terror'. Warren Carroll, again, describes that terrible night:
"And so the drums of the Swiss Guard beat the retreat before the French Revolution. Back through the gardens of the Tuileries they marched; the treacherous National Guardsmen assembled there opened fire on their unresisting ranks as they passed. One column went to their barracks, the other to the Assembly; in both places, they stacked arms. Then, disarmed and defenseless, they were set upon. Wherever they went, wherever they hid, wherever they fled, they were seized, dragged out and slaughtered. Many of them were horribly mutilated. Before it was over, an observer said he did not believe there was a single street in Paris that had not seen at least one Swiss head on the end of a pike. At the end of the day, children were rolling some of the heads along the streets. Women like vultures were tearing strips of flesh off the naked corpses of the king's defenders. More than six hundred of the Swiss Guard died in that massacre. (Far more were killed at Auschwitz and places of its kind - but that killing was not done in the streets of the capital city of a nation with women and children cheering on the killers...)....There stands today [in Luzern] a stone lion erected in memory of her sons who gave their lives in a foreign land, in defense of a foreign king. The lion is dying, struck down by a lance. Faithful unto death, it holds in its paws a shield emblazoned with the fleur-de-lis, ancient symbol of the kings of France. Below are engraved the names of the fallen." (Ibid. p154)

I have seen that stone lion in Luzern. It is an arresting and moving sight. If there were any justice in the world, a visit to it would be a required part of the high school curriculum for every teenager in France. Perhaps then the youth of France would realise what it is they are celebrating today and the resultant nausea would relieve them of any desire to ever do so again.

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