The French Revolution

The previous post explained some of the proposed causes of the French Revolution, both long and short term. This post will deal with the immediate lead up to the Revolution and the Revolution itself.

France was now bankrupt, due to its expensive wars and the monarch’s ludicrous spending habits. The already overburdened bourgeoisie could not pay more tax and nor could the peasantry, so Louis XVI attempted to impose taxes on the nobility that they had previously been exempt from. The nobility refused to pay the tax. In an attempt to resolve the deadlock that he was faced with, the King called the Estates General in May 1789, which was a body consisting of representatives of the clergy, nobility and the rest of the population. Elections were held to elect the representatives for the Third Estate, in which all tax paying men over twenty-five had the franchise. The Third Estate called for genuine representation of the people; they wanted equal votes to the Second and Third Estate combined and equal taxation across all the Estates.

However, the Estates General failed- there was an irreconcilable difference in the opinions of the Estates; the nobility did not believe that commoners should have power whereas commoners believed the true power was with them. There were also disagreements in how voting should be done, whether it should be by Estate, or by members. These differences became too difficult to get anything done, and instead, the Third Estate formed an alternative group, the National Assembly. This ran from June to July of 1789 and declared that it was not of the Estates but of the people, refusing to recognise the authority of the King and looked to the support of emerging capitalists.
One of the most important actions of the National Assembly was to create the Tennis Court Oath, in which its members swore: “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require until the constitution of the kingdom is established”.  The clergy voted to join with the Assembly as well as some of the nobility. The situation quickly spiralled downwards and tension skyrocketed when Louis brought in troops, French and foreign mercenaries, which caused outrage. The National Assembly reconvened as the National Constituent Assembly and demanded the withdrawal of troops. By now Paris was at fever pitch.

Just before the Estates General Assembled, the French government had lifted censorship to allow debates over the voting in the Third Estate, and Paris’s public sphere had exploded into a fevered political discussion, and the age of enlightened thought had brought radical new ideas that were spread rapidly over Paris by pamphlets and newspapers. The calling of the King’s troops seemed to be the last straw that ignited the city in revolt. On 14th July the Bastille, a weapons store and symbol of royal power was stormed, and the King backed down amidst the violence. Order around France quickly broke down and attacks on chateaus of the nobility were common.

In August, the National Assembly abolished feudalism, revoked the privileges of the nobility, and swept away Church tithes. They also established the Rights of Man and His Citizen, which stipulated that amongst other things; all men are born free and equal in rights, the need for public tax and equal contribution, and that sovereignty lies in the nation. In 1791 the Constitution is established, but the following year the constitutional monarchy fail and are executed.

There is no doubt that the French Revolution is one of the pivotal points in history and this brief outline of events is unable to capture and explain every detail of the Revolution.The next post in will explain some of the longer term results of the Revolution and its significance in history, which is undeniably far-reaching yet much debated.


The French Revolution: the Beginning

The French Revolution is a much debated moment in history, in terms of its intent, its causes, and its effects. Being on the brink of early modern and modern history, there is discussion as to whether this can be identified as the ‘trigger’ of the modern period. There is widespread agreement that it was an iconic moment in the developing ‘Age of Revolution’, but we must be careful not to add anachronistic labels to the Revolution, and remember what the actual achievements of it were.

The French Revolution is easier to understand when it is put into its correct context. Pre-Revolutionary France was made up of around 80% rural dwellings reliant on or directly involved with agriculture. Society was organised into three tiers, known as “Estates of the Realm”. The First Estate was comprised of clergy, the Second of nobility and the Third Estate included ‘everyone else’ in society, including the newly emerging bourgeoisie class.

Power in France resided almost exclusively with the King, as an absolute ruler who executed his power through the ‘Letter de Cachet’, which were sealed arbitrary orders with no right of appeal. Absolute power included powers over taxation, which was put heavily and disproportionately upon the bourgeoisie and peasantry. The wealthy nobility were exempt from Crown taxes despite attempts by some French monarchs to change this. This led to the nobility becoming more and more unpopular with the growing bourgeois class and general dissatisfaction. France was also cripplingly in debt.  The financial situation was only exacerbated by Louis XV, who held an extravagant and extremely expensive court at Versailles and his successor Louis XVI was reluctant or simply unable to make any changes. Massive loans were taken out to support unnecessary wars, including the Seven Years War that France lost and their part in the American Revolution that gained them nothing. Compared to England’s loans, these were taken out at a much higher interest rate.

The growing bourgeois class also came with an increasingly uncensorable public sphere. In the eighteenth-century, there was a boom in newspapers, journals, and coffee houses and whilst these would have been heavily censored, it would have been impossible to censor what people were thinking privately, and people’s unspoken opinions on important matters. Urbanisation meant that Paris had one of the largest concentrations of intellectual, enlightened thought which created a thriving debate forum. The public opinion increasingly began to demand the right to decide policy, superseding the royal court and questioning the authority of the Church and the legitimacy of monarchical power.

There were also a few short term factors that helped aggravate the situation. The Agrarian Crisis in 1788-89 coincided with the deregulation of the grain market, leading to a massive increase in grain prices and massive inflation. But the underlying tensions and increase in public debate led to a dramatic standoff between government, monarch and people, and create a Revolution not uncommonly seen as the beginning of the modern world.


Tudor rebellions; The Kett rebellion

In 1549 England was at war with both Scotland and France under the leadership of the Duke of Somerset, or Edward Seymour. The wars were financially crippling to England, which was made worse by poor harvests, inflation, and rising rents. Enclosures were also an important issue; where areas of land had fences put around them for sheep to be raised. This often led to peasants being forced off the land they were renting, and in many cases, areas that were meant to be common were taken by the gentry and enclosed. Somerset was further ruining the economy through his relentless debasement of the coinage, and insistence on continuing to fight the wars.


Edward Seymour

Eventually, disgruntled locals in East Anglia took matters into their own hands. Forming an angry, and somewhat inebriated mob, the marched to one of the local gentry’s house and began to tear down his enclosures. The house belonged to Robert Kett, a middle class land owner.
Instead of breaking up the angry mob, Kett joined it, tearing up his own enclosures before directing the rebels to one of his old enemies, Flowerdew. The locals were angry at Flowerdew for buying the local abbey that the locals thought they owned collectively and stripping it of its lead.
Eventually, the mob, that was beginning to number some 16,000 moved to Mousehold Heath, just outside Norwich, where they held a siege for a number of weeks. Local landowners who had broken rules about enclosing common land and such were tried at Kett’s “Tree of Reformation”. Rebels were kept organised and well behaved, and repeated attempts to disperse the rebels failed miserably.

Somerset began to get worried about the growing threat and strength of the rebels. His armies were insufficient and preoccupied with foreign wars, and failed to cope with the rebels despite sending the army multiple times under multiple different leaders. Eventually Somerset was forced to accept the significance of the rebellion and think more seriously about suppressing the revolt. Swallowing his pride, he sent the Duke of Northumberland with an army to subdue the revolt. Northumberland was not a supporter of Somerset and would eventually overthrow his rule.
After intense fighting in the streets of Norwich, rebels were forced to retreat back to Mousehold Heath, and then further as Northumberland’s army made gains, and around 3000 rebels had been killed.
Eventually, the rebels were forced to surrender. Kett was hung from Norwich castle and around 50 rebels were executed.

The rebels had hoped to achieve promises from Somerset to stop enclosure, improve the ruling of Norfolk and get back land owed to them. However, with the crushing of the rebellion and the execution of the leaders, the rebels were in no place to try and negotiate. Though the rebels had gained little, they had caused Somerset a whole heap of trouble and would be one of the pivotal factors in his downfall.

Tudor Rebellions; The Pilgrimage of Grace

During Henry VIII’s reign, he forced his country through a whirlwind of religious reform, and faced intense factional rivalry from subjects  in his own court. All his moves, whether political, religious or personal, were scrutinized by his court and by his people, and though they tended to acquiesce, Henry sometimes went too far and the public could not hold their tongues for any longer.


During the Henrician Reformation, a number of measures were taken to eradicate Papal influence in England. One of these measures was the Act for the Dissolution of the Greater Monasteries. This followed the Act for the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries, and shut down all remaining Monasteries. In the eyes of the people of Yorkshire, this was wholly unacceptable, and they made Henry painfully aware of this. This was part of a larger string of measures Henry took to take the title of “Head of Church and State”. This is often referred to as the “Royal Supremacy”, and caused England to lean heavily toward Protestantism; this was not popular at home or on the continent.

The predecessor to the Pilgrimage  was the Lincolnshire rising in October 1536. This is considered to be less religiously motivated, instead  seemingly triggered by bad harvests in 1535 and 36, together with political concerns and a fiery sermon by a local priest. This brought up lingering feelings of resentment towards government interference in local affairs.
After a short flurry of activity, the rebels drew up a list of grievances, citing high taxes and the hatred of the Statute of Uses. The rising was quickly dissolved after the Duke of Suffolk arrived with a royal army.

enlighs bibl

The English Bible, showing Henry VIII at the head, and God floating among the clouds, much smaller. This was another step in the religious reform.

Later the same month, Yorkshire saw a similar rising, but bigger and, on the surface at least, more of a threat to Henry VIII.
Under the leadership of Robert Aske, a middle class lawyer, 30 000 men marched on York. This was an organised band of men, some of whom had fought in the Scottish War. The rebels swore an oath that contradicted the Royal Supremacy and drew up manifestos calling for the removal of “evil councilors” from Henry’s government, the restoration of the Old Faith (Catholicism) and protection of the monasteries.


An illustration of the Pilgrimage of Grace.

Norfolk was sent to put down the rising, it became clear that his 8 000 strong army was not fit to take on the 30 000 rebels that Aske was leading. Norfolk retreated and told Henry about the strength of the rebels. After lengthy discussion, Norfolk convinced Henry that negotiation was the only way to placate the rebels. Henry offered the rebels a full and free pardon if they dispersed immediately, and agreed to hear their demands in a court. True to his word, negotiations were held, but no deals were going to be made. The rebels had put their trust in Henry, but he had not followed through.

Henry had survived the largest numerical uprising of the Tudor period. However, we cannot credit him nor Norfolk for any quick thinking; the rebels had no intent to harm Henry or his regime, and in fact professed their loyalty to him profusely throughout the whole fiasco. Henry had been given the first taste of what his people thought of his religious reform. Subsequent monarchs would have to face the same treatment.

The Prague Spring

The Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest the world  had come to all out nuclear warfare. Over a period of 12 days, the US and the USSR inched further and further to utter destruction of both nations, through the opposing sides involvement with Cuba, its leadership and its political system. After this, both sides entered into a slightly improved relationship, though both with great trepidation. These improved relations were known as “detente”. However, this was to be tested in the Czechoslovakian Prague Spring.

Since 1948, Czechoslovakia had been the model satellite state; the standard of living was higher than other states, and her government obeyed Moscow to the letter. However, during the 1960s, opposition to Soviet control developed. This was partly due to the brutal murder of Jan Massaryk in 1948. But more pressingly, Czechoslovakia was lead by a man called Antonin Novotny since 1957, a hard line communist and anti reformist, he was unpopular with his people, and refused to adopt Khrushchev’s policy of de-Stalinisation (lessening the level of control over satellite states, and encouraging co-operation with the US).
The Czech economy was beginning to fail in the 1960s, which caused the standard of living to fall. The economic problems were started by the USSR’s refusing to allow Czechs to produce consumer goods, and instead forced them to produce raw materials for the benefit of the Soviet economy (and the detriment of their own). Novotny’s “New Economic Model” in 1965 failed, and simply lead to greater demands for democracy. In October 1967, a number of reformers challenged Novotny’s leadership at a meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. In December 1967, one of the reformers, Dubcek invited Brezhnev (the leader of the USSR at the time) to Prague. Surprised at the extent of opposition to Novotny and withdrew his support for the leader. On 5th January 1968, Dubcek replaced Novotny as First Secretary of the Communist Party. In March, Novotny resigned as President and was replaced by Svoboda, one of Dubcek’s fellow reformers.
The Prague Spring refers to a series of reforms introduced by Dubcek in the spring of 1968. These reforms were “communism with a human face”- Dubcek still held communist values, but wanted to improve support for it by removing its worst features. The reforms included;

  • Greater political freedoms; freedom of speech & the press. This led to fuller radio and TV reports, with corruption being exposed, and communists politician being grilled on TV.
  • A 10 year programme for political change; bringing about democratic elections, a multiparty state and a new form of democratic socialism
  • A reduction in the power of the secret police; they could no longer imprison without trial
  • Removal of travel restrictions and open contact with the West; including trade with West Germany
  • The creation of work councils; this looked to improve working conditions in factories and rights for workers.

Alexander Dubcek

These reforms led to increased demands for more radical reforms from opponents of communism. In June 1968, the social democrats began to form a rival party and a leading journalist encouraged Czechs to take the initiative and force even more reforms.
The USSR was suspicious of these changes, and Brezhnev feared they would leave the Warsaw Pact in favour of NATO. Czechoslovakia was one of the most important countries in the pact, and if they left it would have split the Eastern Bloc in two, leaving NATO to border the USSR. Brezhnev was under pressure from Ulbricht (East Germany leader), and Gomulka (Poland) to stop the reform.


Despite Dubcek’s calls for passivism, there was still violence.

In June 1968, Soviet troops were taking part in a military exercise in Czechoslovakia, but remained there even after the exercise was finished.  Tensions begin to show, and in the July of of 1968 Warsaw Pact members meet up to discuss Dubcek’s membership. He agrees to stay in the Warsaw Pact if his reforms can go ahead. A short time later, the Bratislava declaration was issued to show Czechoslovakia’s loyalty to communism and declare Czechoslovakia a one party state. This was not enough for the USSR, so the Soviet Politburo told Dubcek he would bring down the Pact and, together with other Warsaw Pact members, his troops invaded Czechoslovakia. Despite Dubcek’s efforts to encourage a passive response, 100 died and he was made to sign the Moscow Protocol; an agreement that bound him to make no reforms whatsoever.

Dubcek was forced out of power and fled to Turkey, and more hard line communists took over. Student protests continued in Czechoslovakia, and the leadership role was taken by Husac.

Ultimately, the Prague Spring was proof of an attempt at “socialism with a human face”, that failed catastrophically and dissuaded other Pact members from attempting to leave (though Albania managed to sneak away in 1968). It also shook Moscow; they had come close to losing a major state in their Eastern Bloc. Though it may seem appropriate for a sharp Western response, detente was going well and the West feared upsetting this. In the end, Czechoslovakia was firmly  back under Soviet control, at Moscow’s beck and call.

The Hungarian Uprising

In 1953, after the death of Stalin, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev came to power, after grappling briefly with other prospective leaders. Following Stalin’s startlingly oppressive regime, Khrushchev began a more co-operative policy with the West. In other words, Khrushchev believed in the idea of a peaceful co-existence with the West, and relations between the two began to thaw. This came after years of icy relations between the US and the USSR, which led to a series of near misses, situations that never saw the two sides come into direct violent conflict with one another, but were hair-raisingly close. And so there was a thaw. However, after the USSR brutally put down an uprising in Hungary, the two sides entered into a hostile relationship once again.

Satirical cartoon depicting the two sides, US and USSR, arm wrestling, while sitting on nuclear weapons.

Satirical cartoon depicting the two sides, US and USSR, arm wrestling, while sitting on nuclear weapons.

During the Second World War, Hungary acted as one of Hitler’s allies, so the USSR invaded Hungary in order to push the Nazis back towards Berlin. However, after the War ended, and Nazi Germany fell, Russian troops remained, despite a provisional government being set up for Hungary by the Allied Control Commission, and Hungary agreeing to pay the USSR reparations.
In November 1945, Hungary held elections, in which the Smallholder’s Party won 57% of the vote, and the Communist Party took 17%, so by the nature of democracy, the Smallholder’s should have formed a government. Nevertheless, a coalition was established between the two parties, and in a key maneuver by the USSR was to push Rajk (a communist) in charge of the security police.
This then gave the Communist Party enough authority to arrest leaders of the Smallholder’s and National Peasant Party in February 1947, and force other to flee. In the next election, the Communist Party grew in popularity, but still were not big enough to claim a majority, so once again had to settle for a coalition government. During this government, a new constitution was drawn up, based on the Soviet system.
At the head of this constitution was a man called Matyas Rakosi, who was a strictly communist dictator, calling himself “Stalin’s Best Pupil”. In contrast, Hungarians called him the “Bald Butcher”. Under his leadership, Hungary became a member of Cominform and Comecon, and began to take its orders from Moscow.  Continue reading

The Munich Putsch

In late 1923, the Weimar Republic were deep in a crisis; the economy was collapsing under the pressure of the post war economy. At this time, Adolf Hitler was merely an embittered, unknown failed Austrian artist. However, he was smart. Hitler desired prominence desperately, so when he saw the Weimar Republic crumbling, he saw a perfect opportunity.

At the time, the Nazi members were merely a mismatched band of unemployed rowdy men, known as the Storm troopers, or SA, the Nazi party itself just a terrorist organisation. Knowing he was unlikely to be able to stage a revolution by himself, he obtained the help of two nationalists, Kahr and Lossow, who both held state positions; Kahr as State Commissioner and Lossow as Commander of the German Army in Bavaria.

However, by the 4th October, Kahr and Lossow had removed their support, and left Hitler in the lurch with 3,000 troops waiting for an order. Hitler was quick to resolve this and within days had Kahr and Lossow at gunpoint (along with 600 of his SA) and forced to agree to the rebellion. In a rather unusual turn of events, Hitler released the men, and allowed them to go home.
When Hitler and his Nazis turned up the next day, and marched into Munich, into what they believed would turn out as a triumphant and glorious march into victory, they were met by police and army reinforcements; Kahr had (naturally) called the police once he had gotten home, and told them of the planned Putsch.

During a short scuffle in which 16 Nazis were killed, including one who was said to have jumped in front of Hitler to protect him (though there are reports that suggests it wasn’t a voluntary action), Hitler managed to escape, and was found hiding in the attic of one of his friends, and was arrested and imprisoned.

Although his failure is almost laughable, it gave Hitler a perfect platform to air his views. During his trial, he publicized his opinion to Germany, and used his time in prison to write “Mein Kampf”, or My Struggle about his political ideology. Hitler would now fade out of the pubic eye for a while, until Weimar begins to struggle once again, and next time, his efforts would be much better planned.