فصل 34

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فصل 34

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All countries felt the ideas of the Enlightenment to be just and fair, and ruled accordingly. Even the empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, regularly exchanged letters with the French thinkers of the Enlightenment. The only exceptions were the kings of France, who behaved as if they neither knew nor cared about the new ideas. Louis XV and Louis XVI, the Sun King’s successors, were incompetent, and content merely to imitate their great predecessor’s outward show of power. The pomp and magnificence remained. Vast sums were spent on entertainments and operatic productions, on a succession of new chateaux and great parks with clipped hedges, on swarms of servants and court officials dressed in lace and silk. Where the money came from didn’t concern them. Finance ministers soon became expert swindlers, cheating and extorting on a grand scale. The peasants worked till they dropped, and citizens were forced to pay huge taxes. Meanwhile at court, amid exchanges that were not always lighthearted and witty, the nobility dissipated and gambled the money away.

But if a noble landowner happened to leave the palace and go home to his estate, it was even worse for the peasants. For he and his attendants would rampage across the land after hares and foxes, their horses’ hooves trampling the carefully tended fields. And woe betide the peasant who protested! He would be lucky to escape with a few blows across the face from his lord’s riding whip, for a noble landowner was also his peasant’s judge and could punish him as he pleased. A landowner who enjoyed the king’s favour could obtain a note from him which simply said: ‘Mr is to be imprisoned. Signed: King Louis XV.’ The nobleman wrote in the name himself, so that anyone who displeased him for any reason whatsoever was simply made to disappear.

But at court these lords were elegant, prinked, powdered and perfumed, rustling in their robes of silk and lace. Weary of the heavy pomp and splendour of Louis XIV’s time, they favoured a lighter, less formal way of speaking. Instead of their full-bottomed wigs they now wore light, white-powdered ones with a little plait at the back. No one could dance and bow better than they ­ unless it was their ladies, tight-laced in their corsets, the skirts of their crinolines billowing and round like giant bells. And while all these fine lords and ladies strolled in the gardens of the royal palaces, their estates decayed and the peasants starved. Yet even they sometimes tired of such an unnatural life that was all elegance and sophistication, so they invented a new pastime. They played at Simplicity and Nature. This consisted of living in charming shepherds’ huts which they had built in the grounds of their chateaux, and giving themselves the names of shepherds and shepherdesses taken from Greek poems. What could be more natural or more simple?! Into this bright confusion of elegance, gracefulness and overrefinement came Maria Theresa’s daughter, Marie Antoinette. She was a very young girl, barely fourteen years old, when she became the wife of the future king of France. And, of course, she thought everything was as it should be. She threw herself delightedly into all the fairy-tale masked balls and operas, she acted in plays, she was an enchanting shepherdess and thought life in the French royal palaces was altogether wonderful. Nevertheless, her elder brother, the emperor Joseph II, and her mother repeatedly warned her to live simply and to avoid stirring up further resentment among the poor with foolish extravagance and frivolity. In 1777, the emperor Joseph wrote her a long and serious letter saying: ‘Things cannot go on like this, there will be a terrible revolution if you do not do something to prevent it.’

Yet things did go on like that, for twelve more years. And the revolution when it came was all the more terrible for it. By then the court had squandered all the country’s wealth. Nothing was left with which to pay for the monstrous daily extravagances. In 1789, King Louis XVI finally decided to summon a meeting of the three estates ­ the nobility, the clergy and the bourgeoisie ­ to advise him on how to restore the country’s finances.

However, their proposals and requests did not please the king, and he told his master of ceremonies to give the order for the representatives of the estates to leave the chamber. But when he attempted to do so, the impassioned voice of a very clever man named Mirabeau was heard to call out: ‘Go and tell his majesty that we are here through the will of the people, and will not leave except at the point of a bayonet!’

No one had ever spoken to the king of France like this before. The court officials had no idea what to do. While they consulted one another, the assembled representatives of the nobility, clergy and the bougeoisie went on discussing what was to be done about the economic crisis. It was no one’s intention to overthrow the king. All they wanted to do was to introduce the sorts of reform that other states had already adopted. But although the king was a weak and indecisive man who liked nothing better than pottering about and making things ­ locks, in particular ­ he was not accustomed to taking orders, and it never occurred to him that anyone would dare to oppose him. So he called out troops to disperse the assembly of the three estates by force. The people of Paris were enraged, for they had pinned their hopes on this assembly. Crowds gathered and everyone rushed to the state prison, the Bastille, where many Enlightenment thinkers had been confined, and where a whole host of innocent people were now thought to be held. The king did not dare fire on his own subjects for fear of further increasing the fury of the mob. So the mighty fortress was stormed and its garrison killed. The mob surged through the streets of Paris in triumph, parading the liberated prisoners, although it turned out that the only people in the prison at the time were common criminals.

Meanwhile the assembled representatives had made some extraordinary decisions. They wanted the principles of the Enlightenment to be put into effect in their entirety ­ in particular the one which said that reason, being common to all men, meant that all men were equal and must be treated as such under the law. The assembled nobility led the way by grandly renouncing all their privileges, to everyone’s delight. Any citizen of France would have the right to any job, and each would have the same rights and the same duties in relation to the state ­ human rights, as these were called. Henceforth the people, it was proclaimed, would be the true rulers, and the king merely their representative.

As you can imagine, what the assembly of the estates actually meant was that the ruler was there to serve the people rather than vice versa, and that he would no longer be allowed to abuse his power. But the Parisians who read it in the press took the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people to mean something entirely different. They thought it meant that people in the streets and marketplaces, communally known as ‘the people’, would be the rulers. And when the king still refused to see reason and entered into secret negotiations with foreign courts, asking for help against his own people, a procession led by market women went out to the Palace of Versailles. They killed the guards, burst into the magnificent rooms with the wonderful chandeliers, mirrors and damask hangings, and forced the king and his wife, Marie Antoinette, together with their children and their entourage, to return to Paris where they were under the people’s control.

The king and his family made one attempt to flee abroad. But because they did it with all the ceremony and formality of someone setting out to a masked ball at court, they were recognised and brought back, and placed under close guard. The National Assembly had meanwhile decided to introduce many more changes. All the possessions of the Catholic Church were confiscated, as were those of noblemen who had fled abroad in fear of the revolution. Then the Assembly decreed that the people must elect new representatives, to vote on the laws.

And so in 1791 a great number of young people came to Paris from all over France to give their advice. But the other kings and rulers of Europe had had enough. It was not as if they felt Louis deserved their support, for they had little respect for his behaviour, nor were they altogether sorry to see the might of France reduced. But they could not sit back and watch while a fellow monarch was stripped of his powers. So Prussia and Austria sent a few troops to France to protect the king. This threw the people into a frenzy. The whole country was up in arms at the uninvited interference. Every nobleman or supporter of the king was now deemed to be a traitor, in league with foreign accomplices of the court. Noblemen were dragged from their beds at night by raging mobs, thrown into prison and murdered. Things grew worse by the minute. Soon everything that had to do with the past had to be rooted out and destroyed.

It began with dress. Supporters of the Revolution gave up wearing wigs, knee breeches and silk stockings, and wore red nightcaps on their heads and long trousers as we still do today. This was both simpler and cheaper. Dressed in this way they took to the streets shouting: ‘Death to all aristocrats! Liberty! Equality! Fraternity!’ As far as fraternity was concerned, the Jacobins ­ as the most violent party was called ­ had a rather odd understanding of the word. They were not only against aristocrats: they were against anybody who disagreed with them, and anyone who crossed them lost his head. A special machine called a guillotine was invented, which did the job quickly and efficiently. A special court was set up, known as the Revolutionary Tribunal, and day in, day out, it sentenced people to death, upon which they were guillotined in the squares of Paris.

The leaders of these frenzied mobs were remarkable people. One of them, Danton, was an impassioned orator, a bold and unscrupulous man whose powerful speeches incited the people to ever new attacks upon the king’s supporters. Robespierre was the opposite of Danton. He was a stiff, sober and dry lawyer who made interminable speeches in which he never failed to mention the heroes of Greece and Rome. Always impeccably dressed, he would climb the steps of the pulpit of the National Assembly and speak about nothing but virtue ­ the virtue of Cato and the virtue of Themistocles, the virtue of the human heart in general, and the heart’s hatred of vice. And because vice had to be hated, the heads of France’s enemies had to be chopped off, so that virtue could triumph! And who exactly were these enemies of France? Why, all those who did not share his opinions. So Robespierre had hundreds of his opponents killed in the name of the virtue of the human heart. But you mustn’t think he was a hypocrite. He was probably convinced that he was right. No one could bribe him with gifts, or move him with tears. He was terrifying. And his aim was to spread terror. Terror among the enemies of Reason, as he called them.

Even King Louis XVI was brought before the People’s Tribunal and condemned to death because he had appealed to foreigners for help against his own people. Soon afterwards Marie Antoinette was beheaded. In dying they both displayed more dignity and greatness than they had during their lives. There was genuine outrage abroad over the executions, and many troops marched on Paris. But the people had no intention of giving up their newfound freedom. Men were called up to fight from all over France, and the German armies were beaten back, while in Paris, and above all, in provincial towns where opposition to the Jacobins was greatest, the Reign of Terror intensified.

Robespierre and the representatives had declared Christianity to be an ancient superstition and abolished God by decree. Instead, people were to worship Reason. And a printer’s young bride wearing a white dress and a blue cloak, representing the goddess of Reason, was led through the city amid festive music. Soon even this was not virtuous enough for Robespierre. A new decree was issued announcing that God did exist and man’s soul was immortal. Robespierre himself appeared as priest of the Supreme Being ­ as God was now called ­ wearing a hat decorated with feathers, and with a bunch of flowers in his hand. He must have looked quite ridiculous, and many people must have laughed when they saw him. However, his power was almost at an end. Danton had had enough of the daily beheadings and asked for mercy and compassion. Robespierre’s reaction to this was to say: ‘Only criminals ask for mercy on behalf of criminals.’ So Danton, too, was beheaded and Robespierre had his final victory. But soon, after yet another of his interminable speeches, in which he insisted that the executions had barely begun, that freedom’s enemies were still all around, that vice was triumphant and the country in peril, it so happened that, for the first time, nobody clapped. Instead there was just a deathly hush. A few days later, he, too, was beheaded.

France’s enemies had been defeated. The nobility had either been killed, driven out of France, or had opted to become common citizens. Equality before the law had been achieved. The possessions of the Church and the ruling class had been shared out among the peasants, who had been liberated from feudal serfdom. Every Frenchman was free to choose his profession and aspire to any office. The people were tired of fighting and wanted to enjoy the fruits of this tremendous victory in peace and stability. The Revolutionary Tribunal was abolished, and in 1795 five men were elected to form a Directorate, which was to rule the country according to its new constitution.

Meanwhile the ideas of the French Revolution had reached out beyond the frontiers and been met with great enthusiasm in neighbouring countries. Belgium and Switzerland also formed republics based on the principles of human rights and equality, and these republics were given military support by the French government. And it so happened that, in the ranks of France’s armies, there was a young officer who would one day prove stronger than the whole Revolution.

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