Saturday, 25 August 2012

The Reign of Terror Begins




By and large Europe regarded the democratic fervour in France with profound suspicion. In England, the Prime Minister, William Pitt, welcomed the new French government’s renunciation of war and aggression. However, the attitude toward the French monarchy, princes and nobles alarmed Europe with its kings, princes and aristocrats.

In June 1971 when King Louis attempted to flee anarchy he was captured on the way to the frontier and returned to Paris, by which time Leopold, the German Emperor was aware of the insults to his sister, Marie of Antoinette, Queen of France. Yet Leopold did not want to become involved in French affairs. However, after the royal family’s flight from Paris and their forcible return to Paris in summer 1791, he suggested joint European action to free “the most Christian King and his Queen.” Subsequently Leopold issued a Declaration “to place the King of France in harmony with the rights of sovereigns and the well-being of his people’.

In October, the *Girondins forced the king to accept a new Constitution. When the Assembly met for the first time it confiscated the √©migr√©’s property, and passed sentence of death of those who did not return to France by the end of the year.

The Girondins clamoured for a crusade against Leopold, the Austrian despot On January 11th, 1792 to the tune of “Liberty or Death” the government declared that if the Emperor did not relinquish his threat against France, his country would face invasion.

The French government sent agents to the Netherlands to promote rebellion against Austria. In the meantime, William Pitt, the British Prime Minister, pursued the path of peace. In his Budget Speech in February, 1792 Pitt stated that he believed “Europe was on the threshold of a long period of peace and prosperity.” In order to appease those who feared war, he made economies in the Army and Navy.

On the 20th of April, France declared war on Austria. The **Jacobin clubman, Robespierre, leader of a small group, declared war would assist the growth of tyranny. The Girondins refuted Robespierre’s argument on the grounds that the army’s revolutionary enthusiasm would lead to triumph. They were mistaken. The French rabble of an army fled from the Austrian troops.

King Louis attempted to veto a bill to, amongst other things, dismiss the Girondin Ministry. Jacobins and Girondins united and chose Danton, a 32 year-old lawyer from the Champagne to be their leader.

All too soon the great bell of the Cordeliers tolled at night. It signalled Danton had seized the Hotel de Ville prior to an attack on the Tuilleries. While Napoleon Bonaparte, who was writing a history of Corsica, watched the mob storm the Tuileries.

The Swiss Guards were massacred. The royal family fled. By that night Louis VII had been deposed and confined in a small cell.

The Prussians invaded France and took Verdun. Only the ill-equipped French army, energised by Danton, blocked the way between the Prussian army and Paris, where the Prussians boasted they would free the royal family. While Danton called for volunteers to swell the army, amongst whose elected officers were seven future marshals of the Napoleonic Wars, 1,600 prisoners were massacred; most of them liberally minded aristocrats.

To the east of Valmy, Brunswick, the Prussian general, defeated by the rain and mud, sickness and division in his army, called off his men. Goethe who accompanied the army discerned the truth. “From this day and this hour dates a new epoch in the history of the world.”

On the following day, without news of victory, the monarchy was abolished and the statement “the Republic was one and indivisible” was made.

The Prussians retreated. Led by Custine, the French army pursued them to Speyer and Worms. The nobility fled before Custine’s battle cry. “War to the tyrant’s palace! Peace to the poor man’s cottage.”

From the other side of the Channel the English regarded events in France with increasing bewilderment. Their reactions were slow but in time they would act.

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*The Girondins were radical democrats, a faction of the Jacobins. The Girondins forced the declaration of war against Austria, which began the Wars of the Revolution that would result in the Napoleonic Wars.

**Jacobins derive the name from the Jacobin Club of the French Revolution, which was formed in 1789. After the fall of the Girondins the Jacobin leaders instituted The Reign of Terror.

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