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The French Revolutinary Wars

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.. ssure to show its zeal against France’s enemies and consequently ordered a premature military offensive, led by General Barthelemy-Catherine Joubert, in northern Italy.

He explains the humiliating French loss at the battle of Novi (15 August 1799) in terms of Joubert’s ill-timed initiative, determined more by domestic politics than military considerations.. (pp. 251-2). Indeed, the evidence Blanning presents suggests a dialectical relationship between foreign and domestic policy, one in which real threats from abroad have an impact on domestic politics, and in which imaginary foreign threats and conflicts are fabricated for use by domestic politicians, with real international consequences.

In this scenario foreign policy is certainly important, indeed crucial to an understanding of the whole picture–and for this reason Blanning’s study is invaluable–but whether it has primacy is questionable. Blanning’s claims about the primacy of foreign policy, moreover, are at least potentially at odds with his revisionist sympathies. Blanning cites Francois Furet and Simon Schama approvingly, and his verdict on the Revolution is correspondingly harsh. The government of the Terror was a regime that can only be described as criminal (p. 137). Even in the summer of 1793, before Terror had become the order of the day, the revolutionaries had committed unspeakable atrocities in the pacification of the Vendee, and in August, in the midst of wild excitement and nihilism the National Convention issued a declaration of total war reminiscent, in the author’s mind, of a similar declaration by the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in the winter of 1943 (p.

101). Yet by emphasizing the extent to which foreign affairs in general and war in particular determined the course of events in France, Blanning inadvertently suggests mitigating circumstances for the revolutionary crimes. This paradox is most dramatically illustrated his account of the September prison massacres of 1792. Here Blanning describes the fear that gripped Parisians at the news of the fall of Verdun and the allied invasion of France. He notes that this fear was compounded by the Brunswick manifesto of 25 July, which had threatened collective punishment of Paris should the Tuileries palace be attacked or the king or royal family harmed (the Tuileries were attacked on 10 August and the king subsequently imprisoned with his family). To be sure, Blanning’s goal could not be further from excusing the heinous acts which took place over those five infamous days in September.

Yet when he writes, Never has there been a revolution so paranoid, and then lists the reasons why it had cause to be fearful (p. 72), he simultaneously denounces the revolutionaries and offers an opportunity for their defenders. Moreover, Blanning’s emphasis on the treasonous flight of General Charles-Francois du Perier Dumouriez to the Austrians in April 1793 as an explanation of the proscription of the Girondins and the lurch by the Revolution to the left (p. 99), suggests that the events of the war were decisive in the drift toward the Terror.

Paradoxically, then, the logic of the primacy of foreign policy theory puts Blanning uncomfortably close to the long list of apologists for the Terror from Albert Mathiez to Albert Soboul. Of course, tout comprendre n’est pas tout pardonner, and besides, history is more than simply assigning blame and conferring praise retrospectively. But Blanning’s convictions about the criminal nature of the Terror lead to an understandable desire to discount any potentially exculpating factors such as the war. In other words, as a revisionist Blanning is not surprisingly unwilling to adopt the position that the Terror was an aberration, an emergency response to the threat of foreign invasion and counter-revolution (pp. 137-38). Yet his convictions about the primacy of foreign policy prevent him from endorsing Simon Schama’s claim that the Terror was merely 1789 with a higher body count (p.

138). Blanning concludes: However flaccid it may sound, the most satisfactory conclusion seems to be that the Terror was latent in revolutionary ideology but needed the strains of war to be activated (p. 139). This position is hazardously close to being tautological.

It may be correct, but its veracity cannot be demonstrated empirically. A similar tension is evident in Blanning’s discussion of the importance of the alleged elan of the French revolutionary soldiers. In some places Blanning criticizes the notion that as citizen-soldiers French troops were equipped with a patriotic spirit or elan and a special sense of mission which enabled them to fight more courageously and more successfully than their counterparts in the allied forces. He notes that the myth of elan corresponds to revolutionary rhetoric and should not be taken at face value. He points out that the revolutionary soldiers sometimes lost, and that to suggest that they lost because they had less elan on some days than others would be begging the question.

In explaining French victories, then, other more mundane factors, such as the number of soldiers in the field and the size, number and quality of their weapons, must take precedence over abstract assumptions about elan (pp. 119-21). Yet elsewhere Blanning resorts to the very principal he has called into question. When explaining Napoleon’s victory at Lodi (May 1796) he writes, It was now that the special vigor and elan of the revolutionary officers noted earlier came into play (pp.

145-46). He cites the Prussian General and famous military strategist, Carl Von Clausewitz, who emphasized Napoleon’s enthusiasm, defined as an elevation of spirit and feeling above calculation, and claimed that the victory at Lodi inspired tremendous enthusiasm in all the friends of France and its general (p. 147). Clausewitz appears frequently throughout the book in support of Blanning’s claims about the social and psychological elements of war which other strategists have reduced to rational calculation. Yet Clausewitz, for all his insight, was a product of his age, and Blanning might have historicized his assumptions about enthusiasm, spirit, and feeling–all rough equivalents of elan–by connecting them to contemporary currents in romanticism.

In the process he might have strengthened his claims about the importance of numbers of troops, the size and quality of the weaponry and the state apparatus that stood behind the war effort. Paradoxically, quandaries such as those discussed above result from one of the great virtues of Blanning’s book: namely, its aversion to reductionism. Blanning includes an impressive quantity of possible causes for the events and phenomena he endeavors to explain. He is careful to establish a hierarchy of causes, and occasionally resorts to the distinction, famously posited by the seventeenth and eighteenth-century German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, between necessary and sufficient causes. Yet the sheer number of causes gives the impression that the events and phenomena in question are overdetermined.

Of course, this is not Blanning’s problem alone. Historians primarily concerned with causation are inevitably forced to steer between the Scylla of reductionism and the Charybdis of overdetermination. In The French Revolutionary Wars Blanning steers skillfully. More important, this book reminds historians that the French Revolution was not merely about France, but about Europe, and offers the type of pan-European treatment of the Revolution that academic specialization along national lines have made into a scarce commodity.

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The French Revolutinary Wars. (2018, Dec 19). Retrieved from