Shakespeare, French Revolution and World War One

“The cannons have their bowels full of wrath, And ready mounted are they to spit forth Their iron indignation 'gainst your walls” Shakespearean quotation for the anniversary of the French Revolution and World War One“The cannons have their bowels full of wrath,
And ready mounted are they to spit forth
Their iron indignation ‘gainst your walls”

King John, act 2, sc. 1

This year’s July features two important anniversaries. On July 14th, 1789, the people of Paris stormed the prison of the Bastille, triggering the start of the French Revolution. 2014 is its 225th anniversary. And on July 28, 1914, following the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne, the dual monarchy of Austria and Hungary declared war on Serbia, thus starting World War I. It was the first European Civil War, resulting in 8.5 million dead, 22 million wounded, almost 8 million prisoners or missing, with a total of 37.5 million casualties.

There is a thread connecting the French Revolution to WWI, however dissimilar the events may seem in nature, and however distant they may be in time. Clearly a blog is the last place for a thorough historical analysis of events. Considering that the related publications, writings, chronicles, documentation, statistics, biographies, literature and novels would by themselves fill a large library. Quite aside from the obvious fact that all history is interpretation.

For one, both events ended up with results remarkably different from those anticipated. It is well known that the French Revolution was eminently a “bourgeois” undertaking – a means by the merchant class and the nouveau rich to acquire the power held by the nobility and the clergy.

But rarely everything goes exactly according to plan. The first actors in the Revolution were not just stooges of the rich but counted among themselves some extraordinary people, animated by a sincere desire to reform society, and to actually practice the principles of liberty, fraternity and equality – words that still embody the initial revolutionary spirit. Practice and not theory, as opposed to the American Declaration of Independence, where the “inalienable rights” of equality meant the rights of the rich (see blog

Then, as the Revolution progressed, the initial backers and rapacious hangers-on became worried. Worried especially about Robespierre, who, unfortunately for him, was not only “incorruptible” by his nick-name – applied to him by his contemporaries – but incorruptible in practice. Traditional history has associated the Terror with Robespierre, but that is as true as Saddam having weapons of mass destruction.

Still, after the assassination of Robespierre, the Revolution turned around and back. Five years of sacrifices, of incessant labor, of victories, of battles conducted in writing and in action were annihilated. Which explains why, at a distance, the results of the Revolution appear odd at best. For it seems that for the French revolutionaries everything was bad with kings but there was nothing wrong with an emperor, in the instance Napoleon I. Who, to pile paradoxes on one another, declared himself the heir of the Revolution.

In this sense, the never enough cursed Thatcher was not entirely wrong in saying that all the French Revolution produced was a heap of headless corpses and a tyrant.

Napoleon was a contemporary of the future. A master of the spectacle and an instinctual expert of mass behavior, Napoleon understood that the most effective motivator of the populace is a myth. And he invented (or resurrected) a particularly appealing one. It simultaneously meant everything and nothing, namely nationhood. Napoleon became unwittingly the Henry V of France, even without a Shakespeare to sing his praise.

The myth of nationhood has astoundingly remarkable features and benefits. It disposes the believer to give up his life in battle for the myth, without realizing that he dies for his rulers. It gives him an irrational sense of pride that, in turn, facilitates a general belief in the irrational. For example, that he is somehow better than the men he is asked to kill in the name of nationhood. When Obama says, “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being” he attempts to tell Americans that they are better than everybody else. Therefore Obama, in their name, can kill millions, destroy states, assassinate women and children and even American citizens worldwide, “whenever American interests are threatened”. Not even Napoleon dared as much.

The myth dramatically reduces the labor cost of an army. Prior to Napoleon, the armies of most European states were staffed by volunteers and mercenaries. With obligatory conscription Napoleon could have a nation of men fighting at zero cost but for food, forage and weapons. A proposition that was (and still is) music to the ears of the military-industrial establishment.

And because conscripted soldiers are cheap they are expendable. When reminded that the disastrous Russia campaign of 1812 had completely destroyed his army Napoleon said, “A night of love in Paris will replenish our lines and more”.

Meanwhile, all throughout “liberated” Europe even small towns had their own “liberty” tree, decorated with three-color cockades, signifying liberty, equality and fraternity, the fruits of the French Revolution. But in Milan the people summarized the situation with a trenchant line in their dialect, “liberte’ egalite’, fraternite’, i Frances en carrossa e nou a pie’ “ (Liberty, equality, fraternity, the French in fine carriages and we on foot). For 250 years, in Europe, a handsome carriage with horses was the notable symbol of class superiority and conspicuous consumption – the ‘coach and six’, the baroche Landau and the brougham so often found in Jane Austen’s novels.

As we know, after many victories and the expansion of the Empire, came Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815, with the territory of France shrinking to what is today.

In the meantime…. the myth and spectacle of nationhood had not gone unnoticed in the rest of Europe. If France could do it why not other ethnic groups, or people with the same language or the same religion? Which is why various European lands, in the 19th century, became the nations that now we take for granted, Germany, Italy, Greece, Serbia, Romenia, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina – not without innumerable bursts of civil war, along with terror, trials and murders of patriots in their respective countries. Plus, of course, wars among and between some of the newly formed nations. Momentous was the war of 1870 between Prussia (now become Germany) and France, during which victorious Germany appropriated itself of the region of Alsace-Lorraine, west of the river Rhine.

This occupation was never accepted by the French State, now a republic. The recovery of Alsace-Lorraine became an objective of France and one of the most feared points of contention with Germany.  In the meantime, Germany herself had become an empire under the Hohenzollern dynasty. And all the while, England feared the growth of the German army and especially of the German navy. In the East, the Ottoman empire was gradually dissolving and Russia aimed at taking over and controlling the Bosphorus. In the Balkans, Serbia was at odds with the Austrian-Hungarian empire. Serbia, supported by Russia, saw herself as the heart of a yet-to-be-created Pan-Slav empire carved at the expense of the German empire.

The complicated chronicles of the time between 1890 and 1914 read at times like a novel. Two allied groups were formed, the Triple Entente (triple understanding) between France, England and Russia and the Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria and Italy. But there were constant intermittent defections from one party of the Entente to a party of the Alliance and viceversa, depending on specific issues or items of contention – in turn influenced by the diplomats involved.

image of archduke franz ferdinand, assassinatewd at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914

Archduke Franz Ferdinand

It is clear, however, that while every nation was preparing for war, none really wanted it. And it is yet another historical irony that it fell on Austria to light the fuse of the disastrous WW1. Furthermore, given that history is written by the winners, it became official that Germany was the main party responsible for the war, whereas it seems that Germany did all she could at the time to avert it.

Soon after the peace of Versailles, many of the participants wrote their own ‘colored’ book explaining away their responsibility for starting the war. Germany published her “white” book, England a “blue” book, Russia an “orange book”, Belgium a “gray” book, Serbia a “blue” book, France a “yellow” book and Austria a “red” book. But in the after-war Commission established to determine and assign responsibilities, Germany was not even allowed to take part. Which explains the very questionable official historical verdict. Add to it that the peace treaty of Versailles, the official conclusion of WWI, reads like a prescription for the next and even more macabre WW2.

Still, the fact remains that, were it not for the French Revolution, there would not probably have been a Napoleon I. And with him the growth of the myth of nationality, the self-righteousness of nations and the belief by each nation of being better than the others and consequently deserving exceptional treatment.

Today, fortunately, only America maintains to be “exceptional”, meaning superior to anyone else. This notion has justified wars, coups, global and domestic spying, the murder of millions and untold misery for other millions. At home, among other things, it has meant austerity, which is the imposition of extreme capitalism on the poor, and the gift of socialism to the rich.

But the thirst of greed cannot be quenched, the demands of prejudice and folly can never be satisfied and the intoxication of dominion knows no remedy. Therefore, when Obama proclaims America’s “exceptionalism”, many would like him to stick it up a part of the body which I will forbear to mention out of my inviolable respect for the ladies.

In the play. King John to the besieged citizens of Angiers.

Image Location.

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