This book was pretty much exactly what I was looking for – a broad overview of the French Revolution, just what I needed to give a solid grounding of this important period in French history. Definitely only recommended if you are specifically interested in the period, though. And it gets kind of hard to follow towards the end due to the large number of various competing groups and historical figures, but I think that is more a result of the absolute chaos of the period rather than any deficiency in the textual account.
The French Revolution was a tragedy. By that I do not mean that the old feudal order of Europe should not have fallen — it had to give sometime, somewhere. The commoners had valid claims of injustice; they saw vast inequality in the nation, with relatively few nobles and the church on top and everyone else (the “Third Estate“) on the bottom. The Revolution began essentially as a demand for a more fair accounting. The tragedy is that the lofty ideals of freedom, liberty, and fraternity espoused by the Revolutionaries were so soon twisted into violence, brutality, purges, and the guillotine.
[Aside: 99 percenters today claim a similar situation to the peasants of medieval France – could they drag us down into a Revolution? Discuss. I think not; at least today pretty much everyone has enough to eat…]
Worst of all was the Committee of Public Safety and the Revolutionary Tribunal, mainly associated with Robespierre. The Law of 22 Prairial is a horrific joke: “greatly increased the numbers of those who could be regarded as ‘public enemies’ and expedited the processes by which they could be condemned to death – the only punishment now to be inflicted – by the Revolutionary Tribunal. Defence lawyers were dispensed with; so were witnesses unless ‘the formality’ of calling them was considered ‘necessary to discover accomplices or for other important considerations of public interest.'” Basically, you were guilty if you were brought before the Tribunal, and you could be called up if someone in power didn’t like you or if enough people started rumors. There are a lot of examples in the book of horrible things that happened during the Terror, like a woman who was guillotined because she wept during her husband’s execution – obviously a sign of anti-revolutionary sentiment within her as well! Reminds me of some of the books I’ve read about China’s Cultural Revolution. But the French one seemed to have more violence, guillotining, and sticking heads on pikes…
The culmination of the tragedy was that the plight of the commoner only got worse as the Revolution dragged on. The politicians who entered the revolving door of power seemed intent on guaranteeing their own safety (usually by getting their rivals executed) rather than providing for the people, despite what they said publicly. The life of the common man did not improve; Hibbert reports the cost of living increased 30x in the years following the fall of the Bastille. Plus, while they got rid of a king, they ended up with an Emperor.
Finally, the fate of Louis XVI was also tragic. His situation was pretty hopeless to begin with due to no fault of his own; the storm had been building up at least since his grandfather’s time. But Louis XVI’s lack of self-confidence and tepid personality rendered him unable to do much of anything at all to change things — he was more of a pawn than a player in the game. Kind of feel sorry for the guy, and his family.