The French Revolution unleashed tyranny in Europe. Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

September 15, 2020   4 mins

For the want of a fast coach, the Kingdom of France was lost. For the want of a Kingdom, the French Revolution succeeded. And so Europe was put on the long and bloody path from guillotine to gulag.

You didn’t really think the French Revolution was a force for good, did you? As if. All the great political woes of the modern era — Communism, Fascism, and its German bier and swastika variant, Nazism — have their tangled, bitter beginnings in the storming of the Bastille. The French Revolution was the taproot of Tyranny in our time. No French Revolution, no Marx, no Hitler. Voila!

The French Revolution began in 1789 as an Enlightenment experiment. In 1793, however, the Jacobins, led by Robespierre, tried to turn France into a Rousseauian theme park — where the people were sans private possessions and sans self-interest, but were suborned to the state (“the general will”) — by destroying the rich. The Jacobins also wanted to export the ‘benedictions’ of Revolution via the barrel of a cannon. 

Sound familiar? Yes, it is the same millenarian collectivist philosophy of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Pol Pot, Osama Bin Laden. The accompanying praxis was, and is, murder. Mass murder. As Robespierre so delightfully put it: “We must smother the internal and external enemies of the Republic or perish with them…Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible justice; it is therefore an emanation of virtue.” Before 1793, Europe  was no stranger to violence, but not until the French Revolution was murder used systematically to erase a designated internal enemy from its existence. The Jacobin’s mass firing squads anticipated absolutely the Nazis’ Einsatzgruppen.

The Jacobins desired “Year One,” a cheerless utopia in which individual freedom was rescinded in the name of the commune, and where the people were dosed daily with propaganda to rid them of their vices — such as the desire to own a home of their own (“Property is theft!”), to possess freedom of thought or to enjoy a private life. The Jacobins and their descendant mini-mes, in their thirst and thrust for absolute power, have disavowed all ordinary amusements. Hence the purist, monkish public image cultivated by Robespierre, Hitler, Mao, et al.

It could have been so different. In June 1791 Louis XVI was about to flee Paris in a fast carriage; at the last moment, MarieAntoinette (and her voluminous baggage) insisted on accompanying him, rather than travelling separately. Uxorious to the nth degree, the king agreed. Consequently, they took the big and literal slow coach instead of the speedy light one — and were intercepted by revolutionaries a mere 25 miles from the safety of the Belgian border. The royal couple were then returned to Paris to be shortened by Madame Guillotine.

But in a parallel universe, there exist Les Annals Alternatives de la France and they tell of Europe’s avoidance of the nightmare of tyranny: the right, fast route taken. The relevant extract follows.

On the night of 20/21 June 1791 in the Tuileries Palace, Louis XVI  patted his powdered wig and said to the queen: “Don’t be daft, ma petite chou, one valise only! Vite!” Their light coach sped from Paris, to meet loyal soldiers, who escorted the royal family over the border into Belgium. The king, who was a realiste, understood there was only one power that could truly aid him. Thus he swallowed his pride and sailed across La Manche to perfidious Albion, where he was welcomed with wide arms and pawky eyes.

From Britain, Louis XVI sowed discord in France, and eventually reinvaded successfully in 1794. But there was a cost: to pay for his fomenting of counter-revolution he hocked Louisiana and other French properties to Britain. With France disengaged from North America, Britain  had the whip hand over the uppity colonials and won the War of 1812, controlling all of North America into the late 21st Century (latterly on a Canadian “member of Empire” model, rather than direct rule). Britain henceforth not only ruled the waves (having sequestered the French fleet): it ruled half of terra firma. 

Louis XVI reinstalled himself as a reforming monarch and the Revolution stalled, spluttered and died. Louis, a convinced Catholic, retained strong support from the powerful and fiercely anti-revolutionary Church, while his encouragement of legislative self-government separated the mass of revolutionaries from the Jacobin hardliners. Thus, he commanded majority support. However, bound to the Church as the new France was, it made stony ground for science, and France’s Industrial Revolution was henceforth a stuttering affair similar to that of its southern neighbour, Spain. (Britain, meanwhile, boomed.)

The “proto-communists” of the Revolution did not disappear entirely: their creed was taken up by an obscure German PhD student called Karl Marx. However, he failed to find a following outside students in the newer universities and “polytechnics”. Moderate socialism, however, became a mass force, under the banner “Reform not Revolution!” Indeed, this became the mantra of the entire of Europe. “Ink not Blood!” was another popular slogan. 

The definitive termination of the revolutionary mindset in France itself came with Louis XVI’s exiling of “The 500″ (the principal leaders of the Revolution) to the island of  New Caledonia where, deprived of vin rouge and tobacco, the scarlet and the black, they withered and died. Louis’s political adroitness — the exile was torture which appeared to be clemency — was compared to that of Machiavelli’s Prince.

Inevitably, monarchist France, isolated and enfeebled militarily, produced no sturm und drang reaction in its Germanic neighbours, who failed to proceed beyond a loose federation of Ruritanians. (Essentially, there was nothing for them to unite against; as the saying goes, no grit, no oyster.) “Romanticism” achieved a certain following in Germanic coffee houses and bierkellers. But no more than that.

In a cause cĂ©lèbre one such Romantic, Adolf Hitler, fell off his ladder in 1967 while daubing anti-Jewish slogans on the walls of the Reichstag. His 30-person strong National Socialist Party claimed he was pushed by agents of the Rothschild banking dynasty. The pathologist’s report determined that Herr Hitler had suffered an aneurism, which was accepted by the house painter’s lover, Bruno, 72.

Curiously, despite its diminished standing in Europe, there were two spheres in which France led the continent post-Restoration, these being philosophy and music. With the planet dominated by three centuries of the British political model of safely safely pragmatism, French philosophes continually engaged with what 20th Century Parisian academic Jean-Paul Sartre termed “The Ennui of Anglicisation” in his book Critique de la raison Britannique. (In his suicide note Sartre declared “The British Way is So Boring I Revolt by Self-Murder”; a number of other philosophes imitated him, including the Marxist adherent Louis Althusser, who strangled himself with his wife’s stocking.)

To the disappointment — and contempt — of the philosophes, the people showed no inclination to either rise in rebellion or to self-annihilate. Latent hankerings for the excitement of revolution in This Most Boring of All Possible Worlds (see Jacques Derrida, Writing and Indifference, 1962) were ultimately diverted into “pop rock”, the ultimate Anglo-Saxon cultural victory. And so French entertainer Johnny Hallyday became the biggest-selling singer on the planet in the second half of the 20th century, after re-releasing all his songs in English.

John Lewis-Stempel is a farmer and writer on nature and history. His most recent books are The Sheep’s Tale and Nightwalking.