Even after 200 years, the French Revolution continues to fascinate societies where people are deprived of their fundamental rights and basic needs, like education and health. It may horrify the rich and privileged who consume wealth without sharing with others.
The revolution remains a unique event in history. It was spontaneous and not led by a specific leadership. Leaders of the revolution who emerged from time to time were killed by rival forces.
Robespierre and Danton were guillotined on the charges of betraying the revolution. Political parties such as Jacobins, Girondists, and the Club of the Cordeliers played an important role by providing different ideologies to the agenda of the revolution.
The revolution passed through several stages. The first phase was moderate but turned violent when the king made an attempt to flee from France and the European powers united to invade and restore the ancient regime.
The revolution created an enthusiasm, a spirit and energy among the common people who marched to the battlefield singing Marseilles, the national song of the revolution, defeated European armies and saved the revolution.
The revolution not only annihilated the old system and its institutions which protected and preserved the aristocracy and their privileges, but also introduced new ideas like nationalism, socialism, feminism, democracy, and its institutions which played an important role in the history of Europe. The idea of change inspired the underprivileged social class.
The revolution was interrupted by Napolean who orchestrated a coup in 1799, declaring himself as consul. He fully utilised the energies of the people charged by the revolution and led the French army to conquer Europe, later assuming the title of emperor. His ambitions ultimately led to disaster and in 1815, in the battle of Waterloo, he was defeated and exiled to St. Helena.
The Quadruple Alliance was a treaty signed in Paris in 1815 by Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia. They assembled at the Congress of Vienna to create a post-Napoleonic Europe. The Congress of Vienna was partial towards France and simply restored the old boundaries and Louis XVIII to the throne. It imposed no reparations. This was done because the allies desired a stable, prosperous France that would not threaten them with revolution or invasion.
The people of France refused to accept absolute monarchy. By now they had experienced how to organise themselves to resist the corrupt system. In 1830, the people revolted against the king and this was the end of the dynasty of Bourbon which was replaced by July monarchy of Louis Philippe. The change did not satisfy the people. The outcome of their dissatisfaction was the revolution of 1848.
This time Paris, Berlin, Vienna and other European cities became the centers of the revolution. The people demanded fundamental rights and constitutional monarchy. Revolutionary sentiments were expressed by barricading the streets of Paris. As a result, elections were held and Napoleon III, the nephew of Napoleon won the post of president in 1948 but he soon declared himself the emperor.
To prevent any revolutionary attempts in future, he reconstructed the city of Paris with wide roads and thoroughfares in order to facilitate the army to be able to chase demonstrators who would hide in the narrow lanes and streets. He also had the dead body of Napoleon brought from St Helena to be ceremoniously buried in Paris. He was defeated by the Prussian army in 1870.
The crushing and humiliating defeat again created a revolutionary spirit among the citizens of Paris. They organised the commune to replace the old political system. The Communards of Paris established their authority and revived the revolution. This threatened Europe, terrifying the conservative powers with the outcome of radical change. Since they did not want to repeat the saga of the revolution in 1789, they mercilessly crushed the Commune. Over 20,000 people were slaughtered to overpower the revolutionary forces.
Karl Marx critically examined the French Revolution and argued that the bourgeoisie being unaware of history committed the mistake of impeding the revolution.
The revolution opened the gates of change but created a bitter conflict between the conservatives and revolutionary forces. The conservative powers gradually lost control and paved the way for liberal and democratic elements.
Revolutionary ideas gradually changed the political, social and economic structure of the European society. Taking the experiences of the struggle and resistance in Europe as an example, we can change our society to abolish feudalism and tribal leadership, to promote religious tolerance and to grant fundamental rights to common people. But it requires an enlightened and visionary leadership. Is there any hope for such a leadership?