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.


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.

How Hitler Came to Power

On 30th January, 1933, one Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, at the forefront of a coalition, in which only 3 out of ten ministers were from the Nazi party and less than half of the seats in the Reichstag (the German parliamentary building) were held by the Nazis.

Die grosse Verfassungsfeier der Reichsregierung am 11. August 1932 in Berlin ! Blick von der Siegessäule auf den flaggengeschmückten Platz vor dem Reichstag während der Verfassungsfeier.

The Reichstag Building.

The one power that Hitler had to answer to at this point was the President; von Hindenburg, who had the power to dismiss Hitler from his position as Chancellor at any time. With an election due in March 1933, Hitler knew he must win an overwhelming majority to silence the increasing dissent aimed at the Nazis within the Reichstag. In a series of events over the course of the year, Hitler increased and consolidated his power, and seized a suffocating grip on the German people.

The first step towards dictatorship was the Reichstag fire on 27th February, 1933. This was a huge advantage to Hitler; a communist supporter, Marinus van der Lubbe was found on the site of the fire with matches, fire lighters and communist papers. Hitler was quick to point the finger to the far left, claiming the fire was a communist conspiracy, and made Hindenburg declare a state of emergency, which gave Hitler the power to rule by decree; that is, if he has the support of Hindenburg. The following day, Hitler issued the Decree for the Protection of the People and the State, giving him the power to revoke the civil rights of German people, imprison political opponents, and shut down communist newspapers. Though this all sounds thoroughly anti-constitutional, under the state of emergency, it was all legal. The fire also prompted Nazis to increase the intensity of their election campaign with posters, rallies and radio broadcasts.


The Reichstag fire

After the election itself on 5th March, the Nazis won 288 seats, giving them a 2/3 majority. However to achieve this, he had to ban the communists from taking the seats that they had won, which again, under the Decree he issued, was legal. Later that month the Enabling Act was introduced, to give Hitler the right to make laws for 4 years without needing the consent of the Reichstag, which is essentially, a dictatorship, but, since the act was passed in the Reichstag, it was legal. However this does not take away from the heavy intimidation used during the vote.

Nazi propaganda used during the election

Nazi propaganda used during the election

Next on Hitler’s hit list was any source of opposition to his regime, starting with the trade unions. These were a powerful political force, with the ability to organize mass protests against governments, and even the threat of a simple walkout would be enough to frighten the government after the economic crash in the late 1920s. These threats were eradicated when Hitler used his powers from the Enabling Act to outlaw strikes.
Political parties were next on Hitler’s agenda, with him issuing a decree making all political parties in Germany illegal, excluding, of course the Nazi party.
Next, Hitler led a direct attack on the Weimar Constitution, which gave every region in Germany (Länder) their own parliament. Hitler abolished these local governments, and replaced them with Gaus, which were run by Gauletiers, and monitored extremely closely, going so far as to assign Blockleiters to individual blocks of flats.

On the night of the 30th June 1934, in the heat of summer, came the Night of the Long Knives. The SA, which had originally started life the party’s security, but had quickly grown until they were vast in number, yet frighteningly lacking in discipline. The SS however, had emerged as the sharply disciplined and brutally efficient military organisation that Hitler desired. Under the command of Ernst Röhm, the army had begun to demand it take over the army and begin their socialist agenda. The sheer scale of the SA was one of the most prominent threats to Hitler, despite technically it being his force. Röhm had become something of an embarrassment to Hitler in his last few years, accused of being an alcoholic, socialist and even a homosexual. In a night of brutal murders, over 400 SA members were killed by the SS, including Röhm himself. The SA were now scared into submission, and the SS were at the forefront of Nazi enforcement.


The ultimate consolidation of power came on the 19th August, when President Hindenburg died, and Hitler declares himself simultaneously President, Chancellor and head of the army, or in other words, the Führer. Adolf Hitler now had complete and unrivaled control of Germany, and after a renewal of the Enabling Act in 1937, he was an impenetrable force, and an unstoppable dictator.

The Cuban Revolution

Fulgencio Batista had served as the elected President of Cuba from 1940 to 1944, and became President for the second time in March 1952, after seizing power in a military coup and cancelling the 1952 elections. During his first term, Batista had proved quite progressive, however, after seizing power he became far more dictatorial and ignorant of public affairs. Cuba suffered from high unemployment and limited infrastructure, Batista made lucrative deals with American companies which allowed them to dominate the Cuban economy.


Fulgencio Batista

During Batista’s first term, he had been supported by Cuba’s communist Party, but became strongly anti communist during his second term, which earned him military aid and political support from the U.S, who were in the midst of fighting the Cold War, and Batista began to develop a strong security infrastructure to silence political opponents.
After Batista’s military coup in March 1952, Fidel Castro, a young lawyer and activist, petitioned for Batista to be removed from power, accusing him of being corrupt and a tyrant, but the arguments were rejected by the Cuban courts.
After realizing Batista couldn’t be overthrown by legal means, Castro decided on an armed revolution. He and his brother Raúl founded a paramilitary organization known as “The Movement”, and began stockpiling weapons and had recruited around 1,200 followers from the dissatisfied working class by the end of 1952.

Fidel and Raúl gathered 123 Movement fighters for a multi-pronged attack on military bases, and on 26th July the rebels attacked the Moncada Barracks in Santiago and the barracks in Bayamo, but were unsuccessful. Castro claimed that nine of the rebels were killed in the fighting, and 56 executed after being captured by Batista’s government, though the exact number killed is debatable. The death toll included Castro’s second in command, Abel Santamaria, who was imprisoned, tortured and executed on the same day as the attack.
In a highly political trial, Fidel spoke for nearly four hours in his defense, finishing with the words “Condemn me, it does not matter.. History will absolve me”, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison, while Raúl was sentenced to 13 years. Under huge political pressure, the Batista government freed all political prisoners in Cuba.
Fidel and Raúl met with other exiles in Mexico to plan a more successful way of overthrowing Batista, and began training with Alberto Bayo. Fidel met the Argentine revolutionary Ernestio Guevara in June 1955, who joined the cause. In reference to their attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953, the rebels named themselves the “26th of July Movement”.

Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro

The Castro brothers and 80 others arrived in Cuba on December 2nd (two days later than planned), 1956, in Playa Las Coloradas, in Niquero. The late arrival meant the attack was not coordinated with the llano wing of the movement. The rebels made their way to the Sierra Maestra mountains, in south-eastern Cuba.
Batista’s army attacked the band of rebels three days after the trek began, and though there is dispute as to the exact number of rebels killed, fewer than 20 of the original eighty-two men survived the encounter with the army. Those who did escaped into the Sierra Maestra mountains, including both the Castro brothers, Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. The survivors were scattered and wandered the mountains in small groups or alone, looking for one another.
The men eventually found each other, and formed the core leadership of the guerrilla army. Celia Sanchez and Haydee Santamaria were among the female revolutionaries who helped Fidel in the mountains.
After a failed attempt by a separate group of revolutionaries; the anti communist Student Revolutionary Directorate, to overthrow Batista, the US imposed economic restrictions on the Cuban government. Batista’s support among the Cuban’s began to fade and the government , though US businessmen and the Mafia continued their support.
Castro, helped by other rebels, successfully attacked small garrisons of Batista’s troops, and consolidated his control in the mountains with the help of his brother and Guevara, which often involved execution of Batista loyalists, or other political rivals of Castro.
A pirate radio was set up called “Rebel Radio” in February 1958 to allow Castro to gain influence within enemy territory. Carlos Franqui, an acquaintance of Castro made these broadcasts possible, who subsequently became a Cuban exile in Puerto Rico.
However, Castro’s forces remained small, sometimes dipping below 200 men, compared to the combined manpower of the Cuban army and police force of around 37,000. However, Castro’s rebels forced the Cuban military into a retreat at nearly every conflict that arose between them; Batista’s forces were significantly weakened by the arms restrictions imposed on them by the US government. These restrictions also left the Cuban air force to deteriorate.
Batista responded to Castro with “Operation Verano”, which saw 12,000 soldiers, half of them untrained recruits, into the mountains, only to be defeated by Castro’s determined guerrillas. In the Battle of La Plata, which lasted from 11th July to 21st July, 1958, Batista’s 500-man battalion was defeated, with 240 of them being captured, while Castro only lost 3 of his men.
However, on 29th July, Batista’s troops had almost turned the tide, when they pinned down Castro’s forces in the Battle of Las Mercedes, forcing Castro to ask for a cease-fire on 1st August.
Over the next week, Castro’s trapped forces managed to escape while the useless negotiations took place, and by the 8th August, Castro’s entire army had managed to escape back into the mountains, and Batista’s government had failed once again.
On 21st August, Castro’s forces began their own offensive. In the Oriente province, Fidel and Raúl Castro directed attacks on four fronts. With weapons captured during Operation Verano, Castro’s forces captured several towns such as Maffo, Contramaestre, and Central Oriente, which brought the Cauto plains under his control.
Meanwhile, under the command of Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and Jamie Vega, the three other rebel fronts moved westward towards Santa Clara, the capital of the Villa Clara Province.
Batista’s forces destroyed Vega’s column, but the two others managed to reach the central provinces, where they joined with other rebel groups, not under the command of Castro. When Guevara’s group passed through Las Villas, through the Escambray Mountains, friction developed between them and the Anti-communist Revolutionary Directorate forces, who had been fighting Batista’s army for many months.
However, the combined rebel army continued the battle, and Cienfuegos won a key victory in the Battle of Yaguajay on 30th December, 1958, and earning himself the nickname “The Hero of Yaguajay”.
On 31st December 1958, Santa Clara fell to Guevara, Cienfuegos and the Revolutionary Directorate (RD) rebels led by Commandantes Rolando Cubela, Juan Abrahantes and William Alexander Morgan. These defeats panicked Batista, who fled to the Dominican Republic a few hours later, in 1st January, 1959.
Upon hearing of Batista’s leaving, Castro started negotiations to take Santiago de Cuba, and on 2nd January, the military commander in the city, Colonel Rubio ordered his soldiers not to fight, and Castro’s forces took over the city.

Castro learned of Batista’s flight in the morning and immediately started negotiations to take over Santiago de Cuba. Guevara, Cienfuegos and their forces entered Havana around this time, and encountered no opposition on their journey to Cuba’s capital. Castro arrived in Havana on 8th January after a long victory march, and his first choice of president, Manuel Urrutia Lleó took office on 3rd January.