By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville
For almost a quarter of a century, from 1792, when the French revolutionaries declared war on the monarchs of Europe, until 1815, when Napoleon was finally defeated, Europe was almost constantly at war. These French revolutionary wars had a long-lasting effect on European history.
A New Kind of War
The French revolutionaries had done something new in military terms. In 1793, the Committee of Public Safety declared what it called the universal mobilization of the French nation, the levée en masse. Everyone was to be drafted.
Men were to do battle, women were to produce for the war effort, and even old men were supposed to stand in public places giving patriotic speeches. If sovereignty belonged to the people or the nation now, then everyone was involved in the war, whether a soldier or a civilian.
Moreover, if the nation had sovereignty, it could make demands on ordinary people that far exceeded what monarchies had required in the past. The French armies that were sent into the field were the largest seen in Europe until that time. They were actively motivated by patriotic ideology, not just passive obedience to kings or princes, as in the past.
In these new armies, promotion would be based on merit, not on whether the soldier had an aristocratic background. It was this promotion by merit that allowed men of genius like Napoleon to shoot up through the ranks.
The Cannonade of Valmy
This new power was vividly demonstrated in a famous event: the cannonade, or artillery battle, of Valmy. For four hours, dedicated but inexperienced French soldiers rained shells down on the professional German army that was advancing against them to restore the monarchy in France. As the French fired their cannons, they sang their fierce national anthem, the Marseillaise, and shouted, “Vive la nation!”
The French won this battle, defeating some of the best professional soldiers in the world. The French had fought with conviction. The great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was actually at Valmy. He concluded: “Here and now a new era of world history is beginning.” Old authority was defeated by a new, revolutionary authority.
This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, Wondrium.
French Revolutionaries as Liberators
The French revolutionaries also invaded neighboring kingdoms to spread their ideas and claimed that they came as liberators. Their slogan was, “War with all kings, peace with all peoples!” But these conquests, like the later ones of Napoleon, touched off a chain reaction of nationalist resistance against the French. In the German lands, in Spain, and in Russia, nationalist volunteers rallied to fight guerrilla warfare against their supposed French liberators.
The wars of nations turned out to be far bloodier than the wars of kings, and this was a sign of things to come. With the impact of ideology, war was becoming more total, increasingly involving entire societies, not just professional soldiers. Napoleon’s wars cost some six million lives until he was finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815 by the Duke of Wellington.
Establishing ‘the People’ as the Source of Power
The American and the French revolutions were turning points in modern world history. They offered both alluring ideals as well as cautionary lessons and contrasts. On the one hand, there was a model that sought balance through the separation of powers. On the other hand, there was a vigorous impulse to centralize and concentrate authority. These revolutions changed modern politics.
As they both challenged monarchies, their claims to establish the sovereignty of the people were a milestone, and really opened the way to a new kind of modern ideological politics. Whereas absolute kings had claimed their authority from God, almost all regimes since these revolutions have tried to argue that they represent the people. Even tyrannies make this claim to present themselves as somehow not totally illegitimate, asserting that they rule in the name of the people.
Learn more about the politics and the people of the American Revolution.
Modern Ideologies based on the Power of the People
As a result of this emphasis on the people as the source of authority and sovereignty, entire modern ideologies came into being, whose proponents argued that their belief systems would serve the people best.
Among these modern ideologies, liberalism emphasized individual freedoms, economically and politically. Nationalism, the claim of belonging to a national community, would be very potent in the 19th and 20th centuries. Karl Marx, harkening back to the French Revolution as a necessary historical stage, crafted socialism and communism.
Reacting against the French Revolution, Edmund Burke launched modern conservatism. On the other side of the political divide, the energies and dynamism of the French Revolution provided a template for radicals, to explore the possibilities of upheaval.
Learn more about the socialist ideology of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
The Tragic Pattern of the French Revolution
The French Revolution also established a recurring tragic pattern: radical revolt, leading to anarchy, leading to tyranny. This turned out to be the pattern of the Russian Revolution of 1917: when the Russian emperor was overthrown, Lenin and Stalin and their comrades were able to take power for their Bolshevik regime.
Similarly, in Germany between the two World Wars, the German emperor’s throne was toppled, but the German attempt at democracy was undermined by economic collapse and a loss of confidence until the Nazis managed to come to power.
However, the reverberations of those revolutionary claims to the authority of popular sovereignty are with us still and continue to work themselves out in the politics of our world.
Common Questions About the Influence of the French Revolution on History
The ‘cannonade of Valmy‘ proved that an inexperienced but dedicated army, such as the French Revolutionary Army, could defeat a professional army like the German forces.
The French revolutionaries saw themselves as liberators from the monarchy. Their slogan was “War with all kings, peace with all peoples!”
The French Revolution gave rise to modern ideologies based on the concept of the power of the people. Some of these were liberalism, nationalism, socialism, and communism.
The tragic pattern of the French Revolution was: radical revolt, leading to anarchy, leading to tyranny.