“The Palace of Versailles helped us understand the French Revolution,” I wrote in 2006, after Esteban and I took a day-trip out of Paris to see the (in)famous home of Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette. “After a couple of hours we, too, felt like donning pitchforks.”
Here’s the digital-album page I made shortly after we got home:
Since then, I’ve of course learned that the French Revolution didn’t depend on a single factor (here’s the folk-song version, which also sort of makes me want to grab a pitchfork).
Yes, the king was incompetent and stunningly out-of-touch. But he alone was not to blame: The church was exempt from taxes, which were instead being passed on to — and extracted — from the poor. And although the middle-class (“bourgeoisie“) was becoming wealthy, the nobles made sure they remained powerless.
Add to this mixture a dash of economic stagnation, stir in a few foreign wars, and you have the perfect recipe for an indignant populace … and revolution. Right?
Nope, not entirely.
According to at least one historian, it wasn’t injustice or indignation that pushed the people of France over the edge; it was fear. I don’t know how I’d missed reading about la Grande Peur until today, but suddenly the French revolution made perfect sense. Throughout history, there’s never been a better motivator to collective action than fear.
225 years later, the fall of the Bastille is still echoing through Western culture. And as France celebrates today, I wonder: what lessons have we learned?
As impressive as military might may be …
… or as promising as drone warfare may seem …
… I still have hope that, two centuries from now, we’ll look back on this day and remember not fear, nor revolution, nor war — but peace. That is my hope for France, and for us all.
Joyeux 14 juillet.