Bastille Day and the Transformative Power of History

(I originally posted this in 2012.  I rather liked this post, so here it is again.)


The La Marseillaise scene from Casablanca.  Today is Bastille Day, the great national holiday in France, the equivalent of our Independence Day.  In France it is known as La Fête Nationale, the National Celebration, or Le quatorze juillet, the fourteenth of July, rather like Independence Day is often known here as the Fourth of July.  There the similarities end.  Although almost all Americans look back at the American Revolution with pride, many of us dedicated to the great truths embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the French Revolution is looked upon much more ambiguously in France.

Bastille Day recalls an event July 14, 1789 in which the mob of Paris, joined by mutinous French troops, stormed the Bastille, a fortress-prison in Paris which had in the past held political prisoners.  The Bastille fell to the mob after a fight in which some ninety-eight attackers and one defender were killed.  After the fighting, in an ominous sign of what was to come in the French Revolution, the mob massacred the governor of the prison and seven of the defenders.  The Bastille held a grand total of seven inmates at the time of its fall, none of political significance.

So began the Revolution which promised Liberty, Equality and Fraternity in theory and delivered in practice, Tyranny, Wars and Death, with France embarked on a witches’ dance of folly which would end at Waterloo, after almost a quarter of a century of war which would leave Europe drenched in blood.  Edmund Burke at the beginning of this madness, in 1790, saw clearly where all this would lead:




One of the wonderful things about History is how it can often transmute events.  For more than a hundred years after the Revolution in France, France remained bitterly divided between those who celebrated the Revolution and those who mourned it.  This began to change during World War I, when Frenchmen of all shades of political opinion rallied together to defend France and some of the symbols of the Revolution, the Tri-color flag and La Marseillaise, began to take on a patriotic meaning for almost all the French, shorn of their associations with the Revolution.  This culminated in 1944 in Paris when General Charles de Gaulle, a believing Catholic, gave a speech in liberated Paris on August 24, 1944:

Why do you wish us to hide the emotion which seizes us all, men and women, who are here, at home, in Paris that stood up to liberate itself and that succeeded in doing this with its own hands?

No! We will not hide this deep and sacred emotion. These are minutes which go beyond each of our poor lives. Paris! Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyred! But Paris liberated! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the French armies, with the support and the help of all France, of the France that fights, of the only France, of the real France, of the eternal France!

Well! Since the enemy which held Paris has capitulated into our hands, France returns to Paris, to her home. She returns bloody, but quite resolute. She returns there enlightened by the immense lesson, but more certain than ever of her duties and of her rights.

I speak of her duties first, and I will sum them all up by saying that for now, it is a matter of the duties of war. The enemy is staggering, but he is not beaten yet. He remains on our soil.

It will not even be enough that we have, with the help of our dear and admirable Allies, chased him from our home for us to consider ourselves satisfied after what has happened. We want to enter his territory as is fitting, as victors.

This is why the French vanguard has entered Paris with guns blazing. This is why the great French army from Italy has landed in the south and is advancing rapidly up the Rhône valley. This is why our brave and dear Forces of the interior will arm themselves with modern weapons. It is for this revenge, this vengeance and justice, that we will keep fighting until the final day, until the day of total and complete victory.

This duty of war, all the men who are here and all those who hear us in France know that it demands national unity. We, who have lived the greatest hours of our History, we have nothing else to wish than to show ourselves, up to the end, worthy of France. Long live France!

He led the crowd in a mass singing of  La Marseillaise.  This was a significant event in French history.  De Gaulle’s parents, both devout Catholics, had not observed Bastille Day and had not sung La Marseillaise, but their son realized that the events of the 20th century had transformed the meaning of those symbols for the people that he led.  It is important that we learn from History, but we can also never forget that we live within it, as contemporary events transform how we view the past and look to the future.


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  1. Liberating the Batille’sprisoners was incidental to liberating its armory.

    That’s the history lesson for Americans.

    Those especially who think the Second Amendment is about hunting and sport shooting.

  2. The immediate and lasting result of the fall of the Bastille was that it sparked « Le grand Peur »
    [the Great Fear] that broke out in different areas, like Franche-Comté and Ruffec, south of Poitiers around the 17th July 1789 and spread rapidly over the whole country.

    Manor houses were burned, along with terriers and tithe-rolls, baillies, seneschals and tithe-proctors fled for their lives (most of the seigneurs themselves were absentee landlords) and, on 4th August 1789, the thoroughly alarmed National Assembly abolished feudal tenures and rights of superiority, with the support of most of the terrified nobles and clergy and with the acquiescence of all of them. That was the great transformation that proved irreversible, not only in France, but everywhere that her armies went on to occupy.

    Lord Acton was right, when he said that “The hatred of royalty was less than the hatred of aristocracy; privileges were more detested than tyranny; and the king perished because of the origin of his authority rather than because of its abuse. Monarchy unconnected with aristocracy became popular in France, even when most uncontrolled; whilst the attempt to reconstitute the throne, and to limit and fence it with its peers, broke down, because the old Teutonic [Frankish] elements on which it relied – hereditary nobility, primogeniture, and privilege — were no longer tolerated. The substance of the ideas of 1789 is not the limitation of the sovereign power, but the abrogation of intermediate powers.”

    The love of equality, the hatred of nobility, and the tolerance of despotism often go together; it is felt that, “if the supreme power is needlessly limited, the secondary powers will run riot and oppress.” (Acton again)

  3. Quick note:
    I tried to post a reference to Fr. Z’s action item, which is to be seen, after typing “whoops”. The attempt was under the post about disallowed parody at the parade. After time for a quick nap, my screen showed a server problem at TAC.

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