Two hundred and twenty-eight years ago today, on July 14, 1789, a Parisian mob stormed the infamous Bastille prison in an event that is generally marked as the beginning of the French Revolution. One hundred and twenty-eight years later, on July 14, 1917–a century ago today–U.S. troops, newly arrived in France, paraded in Paris on the anniversary of Bastille Day in a show of solidarity for our French allies in World War I. These events are connected by more than just chronology and the celebration of Bastille Day. Indeed, while it doesn’t get much play in history books, the links connecting the French Revolution and the First World War are very strong and important. France’s revolution changed the world in many profound ways, but I think it can be said that the French Revolution was never truly “finished” until France went through the first of its two ultimate trials during the 20th century. It’s a lesson we Americans might want to think about when we consider our own freedoms and the meaning of our own democracy.
The French Revolution was both a wonderful and a terrible event. Ideologically it arose out of the same Enlightenment thought that gave rise to our American Revolution of 1776; politically it also was connected to our Revolution, because the economic crisis of the 1780s that provided the tinder for the flame of France’s revolt was caused by France’s crushing debts in her war against Britain, which was partially about the American colonies. But far from being a simple story where democracy-loving Parisians swept through the streets and overthrew a tyrannical king, the French Revolution was an extraordinarily complicated series of events that devolved into considerable bloody chaos in just a few years. By 1794 the Revolution had spun badly out of control, with tens of thousands of people executed by guillotine for political and pretended crimes. The chaos ultimately led to the rise of a military dictator–Napoleon Bonaparte–and a chain of counter-revolutions and counter-counter revolutions that roiled France through most of the rest of the 19th century.
The storming of the Bastille prison in Paris on July 14, 1789 was not really the “beginning” of the French Revolution, but it has become a ceremonial marker as such in historical memory.
By the 20th century, though, France was a democracy, though the road leading to that condition was pretty rocky. In 1870, after having been through autocratic governments by two members of the same family–Napoleon and Louis-Napoleon (Napoleon III)–the Third Republic was proclaimed, and much of the political infrastructure of modern France was established. But even this, I think, was not really enough to cement the ideals that the French people had risen up in 1789 to establish in their society. The real test came in 1914, when France found itself in the midst of an existential military crisis: the French nation was threatened with literal destruction by the forces of imperial Germany, and the center of gravity of World War I, militarily speaking, was happening on French soil.
In thinking about France’s long road to democracy I’m struck by two particular examples, both from World War I, about how the French people internalized the values of the democratic society that, at least as of 1914, they’d dreamed about more than they had actually experienced since 1789. The first is the incredible success of France’s military conscription system. Established in the 19th century, almost every male of service age in France was given some military training and a card that told them where to be, and when to show up, for military service in the case of a general mobilization. In August 1914 when the call for mobilization went out, the rate of voluntary compliance with the system, by ordinary citizens–farmers, shopkeepers, merchants, lawyers, what-have-you–was virtually 100%. This is more than just good logistics. French citizens honestly believed their country was worth fighting for and understood that they had a personal part to play in that struggle. In short, democracy mattered to them personally. This is a strong indicator, I think, of the democratic values that had taken root in French society.
When war was declared in August 1914, millions of French citizens answered the call to mobilization with enthusiasm and patriotic feelings, as this photo of a mobilization parade demonstrates.
The second example appears to be a contradiction to the first, but I think they point in the same direction. In the spring of 1917, after nearly three years of horribly bloody combat on the Western Front, tens of thousands of French soldiers mutinied against their commanders and refused to engage in a series of ill-conceived attacks that would have resulted in further mountains of corpses for what most rank-and-file French soldiers regarded as very little gain. Mutinies rippled through the French lines like wildfire; the French Army commanders were desperate to keep news of the mutinies secret, lest it tempt the Germans to launch an attack in a perceived moment of weakness. Most of the unrest was settled, not just with promises of better treatment of soldiers (including improved leave policies), but also an implicit agreement that the tactics of throwing soldiers pell-mell against German machine guns had to end. The French by and large returned to their duties in the trenches. Though more than 27,000 French soldiers deserted in 1917, only 43 death sentences were actually carried out.
What does this have to do with the French Revolution? I think it shows that the French people were not only willing to serve in defense of their democratic values, but they were prepared to hold their leaders accountable for a perceived abuse of their service. Taken together with the example of the success of French mobilization in 1914, the mutinies of 1917 show the French enforcing both sides of the social compact: duties owed to a democratic state, but also opportunities and rights preserved. This idea is exactly the type of Enlightenment notion that gave rise to the French Revolution in the first place.
The arrival of U.S. troops in large numbers in French ports in the summer of 1917 was something of a divine deliverance for the weary armies of France and the other Allies.
And here’s where the Americans come in. After the spring 1917 mutinies–which occurred just at the time that the United States was entering the war against Germany–the French military commanders decided that they wouldn’t risk any more large trench offensives without American support. “I am waiting for the tanks and the Americans,” said the French supreme commander, General Petain. On Bastille Day 1917, three months after U.S. entry into the war, those tanks and troops were visible marching down the central boulevards of Paris. One democratic country, with its own rocky and tumultuous history of trying (often imperfectly) to realize the ideals of its revolution, had come across the sea to rescue another.
In this sense, World War I can be said to have “finished” the French Revolution–and perhaps the American one too. On Bastille Day let’s remember what we fought for, and honor it, as the French and Americans did together a century ago in Paris.