The French Revolutinary Wars

THE FRENCH REVOLUTIONARY WARS: 1787-1802
The French Revolutionary Wars: 1787-1802, by T. C. W. Blanning, is a super
Work of historiography. Far more ambitious than its modest title suggests, it is the
history of the French Revolution as well as a military and diplomatic history of
Europe from 1787 to 1802. Blanning enriches our understanding of the
Revolution by placing it in its European context, by showing how it affected and
was affected by France’s neighbors. He is especially well placed to take on this
task. Not only has he written extensively on the French Revolution; he has
written a book on Mainz under the Old Regime and the revolutionary republic,
another on the French occupation of the Rhineland, and two biographies of the
Habsburg Emperor Joseph II. 1 He is one of the few historians who can move
comfortably from France to Germany to the vast Habsburg empire stretching
from Belgium to the Balkans, and he has filled in the remaining gaps with
extraordinarily vast reading. Among the thousand or so footnotes in The French
Revolutionary Wars are references to works in German, Italian, Spanish, and
Russian, as well as French and English. Yet this book is more than a tour de
force of erudition. It is a richly textured, engaging narrative punctuated by cogent,
Blanning begins by arguing that French defeat in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63)
stimulated reforms in the army which are normally associated with the
Revolution: the breaking up of armies into smaller, more flexible divisions; the
use of columns in addition to lines; an increasing reliance on light troops; and the
use of artillery. More controversial, however, were the reforms introduced in
1787 and 1788, which slashed the number of officers in an army that was, in
Blanning’s words, “absurdly over-officered” (p. 19). These reforms, coinciding
with the revolt of the parliaments, added fuel to the fire of the aristocratic
revolution by alienating many of its leaders, who were not only parlementaires
but army officers. They guaranteed that the army would not serve the king when
he needed it to suppress the insurrection in Paris in July 1789, and indeed pushed
the officers to make common cause with the Third Estate. Thus Blanning
provocatively but convincingly claims, “In part at least, the French Revolution
was a military coup” (p. 28). In addition to the hated military reforms, Blanning
argues that an unpopular alliance with Austria contributed to the discrediting of
the monarchy and that, more directly, the crown lost its legitimacy when it failed,
ostensibly due to bankruptcy, to respond to the Prussian invasion of the United
Provinces and the suppression of the pro-French Dutch Patriots in 1787.

The narrative continues with an account of the first two years of the Revolution,
when Russia, Prussia and Austria were preoccupied with Poland–which they
would soon partition out of existence–and therefore relatively uninterested in
developments in France, despite some occasional counter-revolutionary sabre-
rattling. Yet this period of “deceptive isolation from the European states-system”
(p. 42) ended in the spring of 1792, when an unlikely coalition of Girondins and
monarchists (including the king himself) provoked war against the equally
unlikely coalition of Prussia and Austria, countries that had been at war for
more than fifty years. Blanning tells the dreadful story of war and revolution
from September 1792, when thousands of suspected traitors were butchered in
Parisian prisons, to August 1793, when the revolutionary Convention declared
“total war” against external and internal enemies alike. He describes the terrible
process by which the war escalated both beyond and within French borders:
republican victories in the autumn of 1792 brought Britain and the Dutch
Republic into the war. To fight against this growing coalition, the revolutionary
government was forced to adopt conscription, and conscription, more than any
other single issue, provoked and fuelled the revolt of the Vendee and the civil war
which according to Blanning killed some 400,000 people.

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The author goes on to describe the spectacular series of revolutionary victories
from August 1793 to the spring of 1795, by which time France had nearly
reached its “natural frontiers” through the conquest of Belgium, the Dutch
Republic, and most of the left bank of the Rhine. He explains these victories
largely in terms of French numerical superiority, but also emphasizes the
government’s power to requisition vast quantities of arms and to execute
commanders judged insufficiently aggressive on the battlefield. In addition to
indigenous factors, Blanning cites the allies’ infighting and lack of commitment to
the war with France as crucial to French victory. Next Blanning describes the war
under the Directory government, when the post-Terror regime made an official
policy of “nourishing war by war” and making the armies live off the land they
invaded. This policy entailed the “pillaging of Europe”, as the French looted
everything from grain and clothing to gold, art treasures, and rare books and
manuscripts. It gave the lie to any liberationist rhetoric and guaranteed repeated
resistance and uprisings from Belgium to Calabria. Following a rich description of
the naval conflict between Britain and France, Blanning ends the story of the
revolutionary wars with an account of the War of the Second Coalition
(1799-1802), in which France faced a massive alliance that in the author’s view
was bound to fall apart under the weight of mistrust and conflicting interests.

Central to the French Revolutionary Wars is the notion of the primacy of
foreign policy. Blanning sees foreign policy in general and war in particular as
decisive both in causing the Revolution and determining its trajectory. He is
careful to avoid reductionism, i.e. the dismissal of the complexity of causal
factors in favor of a single preferred cause, and gives credit to a variety of
factors–from economics and social strains to revolutionary political culture–but
his main emphasis is on foreign affairs. He observes that the monarchy’s failure
to respond to the Prussian invasion of the Dutch Republic in 1787 was crucial to
its de-legitimization and downfall and that “virtually all of the great journeys–10
August 1792, the September Massacres 1792, 31 May and 2 June 1793 and
18-19 Brumaire Year VIII– were essentially responses to failure in war” (p.

269). Yet though Blanning cites Francois Furet’s claim that “the war conducted
the Revolution far more than the Revolution conducted the war” (p. 267), he
gives ample evidence of the Revolution conducting the war as well. Indeed, he
suggests that the war be largely provoked by domestic politics. He notes that
after the Champs de Mars massacre in July 1792 the “lid” had been “crammed
back on the popular cauldron”, but only ” for the time being.” He continues:
To create a brew so explosive that no amount of legislative weight could contain
its pressure, an issue even more combustible than the royal flight was needed.

The aftermath of the king’s abortive flight to Varennes in June 1791 made it
clear that it could not be domestic in origin. If the attempted flight of the king
could not finally delegitimate the monarchy, then only the gravest charge that can
be made against a sovereign would suffice–high treason. For that, war was
Moreover, Blanning gives evidence of the revolution conducting the war during
the Directory. He notes that after the coup d’etat of 30 Prairial (18 June 1799)
the neo-Jacobin Directory was under pressure to show its zeal against France’s
enemies and consequently ordered a premature military offensive, led by General
Barthelemy-Catherine Joubert, in northern Italy. He explains the humiliating
French loss at the battle of Novi (15 August 1799) in terms of “Joubert’s ill-timed
initiative, determined more by domestic politics than military considerations…”
Indeed, the evidence Blanning presents suggests a dialectical relationship between
foreign and domestic policy, one in which real threats from abroad have an
impact on domestic politics, and in which imaginary foreign threats and conflicts
are fabricated for use by domestic politicians, with real international
consequences. In this scenario foreign policy is certainly important, indeed crucial
to an understanding of the whole picture–and for this reason Blanning’s study is
invaluable–but whether it has “primacy” is questionable.

Blanning’s claims about the primacy of foreign policy, moreover, are at least
potentially at odds with his revisionist sympathies. Blanning cites Francois Furet
and Simon Schama approvingly, and his verdict on the Revolution is
correspondingly harsh. The government of the Terror was “a regime that can
only be described as criminal” (p. 137). Even in the summer of 1793, before
Terror had become “the order of the day”, the revolutionaries had committed
unspeakable atrocities in the “pacification” of the Vendee, and in August, in the
midst of “wild excitement” and “nihilism” the National Convention issued a
declaration of “total war” reminiscent, in the author’s mind, of a similar
declaration by the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in the winter of
1943 (p. 101). Yet by emphasizing the extent to which foreign affairs in general
and war in particular determined the course of events in France, Blanning
inadvertently suggests mitigating circumstances for the revolutionary crimes. This
paradox is most dramatically illustrated his account of the September prison
massacres of 1792. Here Blanning describes the fear that gripped Parisians at
the news of the fall of Verdun and the allied invasion of France. He notes that
this fear was compounded by the Brunswick manifesto of 25 July, which had
threatened collective punishment of Paris should the Tuileries palace be attacked
or the king or royal family harmed (the Tuileries were attacked on 10 August and
the king subsequently imprisoned with his family). To be sure, Blanning’s goal
could not be further from excusing the heinous acts which took place over those
five infamous days in September. Yet when he writes, “Never has there been a
revolution so paranoid,” and then lists the reasons why it had cause to be fearful
(p. 72), he simultaneously denounces the revolutionaries and offers an
Moreover, Blanning’s emphasis on the treasonous flight of General
Charles-Francois du Perier Dumouriez to the Austrians in April 1793 as an
explanation of the proscription of the Girondins and the “lurch by the Revolution
to the left” (p. 99), suggests that the events of the war were decisive in the drift
toward the Terror. Paradoxically, then, the logic of the “primacy of foreign
policy” theory puts Blanning uncomfortably close to the long list of apologists for
the Terror from Albert Mathiez to Albert Soboul. Of course, tout comprendre
n’est pas tout pardonner, and besides, history is more than simply assigning
blame and conferring praise retrospectively. But Blanning’s convictions about the
“criminal” nature of the Terror lead to an understandable desire to discount any
potentially exculpating factors such as the war. In other words, as a revisionist
Blanning is not surprisingly unwilling to adopt the position that the Terror was
“an aberration, an emergency response to the threat of foreign invasion and
counter-revolution” (pp. 137-38). Yet his convictions about the primacy of
foreign policy prevent him from endorsing Simon Schama’s claim that the Terror
was “merely 1789 with a higher body count” (p. 138). Blanning concludes:
“However flaccid it may sound, the most satisfactory conclusion seems to be that
the Terror was latent in revolutionary ideology but needed the strains of war to
be activated” (p. 139). This position is hazardously close to being tautological. It
may be correct, but its veracity cannot be demonstrated empirically.

A similar tension is evident in Blanning’s discussion of the importance of the
alleged elan of the French revolutionary soldiers. In some places Blanning
criticizes the notion that as “citizen-soldiers” French troops were equipped with a
patriotic spirit or elan and a special sense of mission which enabled them to fight
more courageously and more successfully than their counterparts in the allied
forces. He notes that the myth of elan corresponds to revolutionary rhetoric and
should not be taken at face value. He points out that the revolutionary soldiers
sometimes lost, and that to suggest that they lost because they had less elan on
some days than others would be begging the question. In explaining French
victories, then, other more mundane factors, such as the number of soldiers in
the field and the size, number and quality of their weapons, must take
precedence over abstract assumptions about elan (pp. 119-21). Yet elsewhere
Blanning resorts to the very principal he has called into question. When
explaining Napoleon’s victory at Lodi (May 1796) he writes, “It was now that the
special vigor and elan of the revolutionary officers noted earlier came into play”
(pp. 145-46). He cites the Prussian General and famous military strategist, Carl
Von Clausewitz, who emphasized Napoleon’s “enthusiasm”, defined as “an
elevation of spirit and feeling above calculation”, and claimed that the victory at
Lodi “inspired tremendous enthusiasm in all the friends of France and its general”
(p. 147). Clausewitz appears frequently throughout the book in support of
Blanning’s claims about the social and psychological elements of war which other
strategists have reduced to rational calculation. Yet Clausewitz, for all his insight,
was a product of his age, and Blanning might have historicized his assumptions
about enthusiasm, spirit, and feeling–all rough equivalents of elan–by connecting
them to contemporary currents in romanticism. In the process he might have
strengthened his claims about the importance of numbers of troops, the size and
quality of the weaponry and the state apparatus that stood behind the war effort.

Paradoxically, quandaries such as those discussed above result from one of the
great virtues of Blanning’s book: namely, its aversion to reductionism. Blanning
includes an impressive quantity of possible causes for the events and phenomena
he endeavors to explain. He is careful to establish a hierarchy of causes, and
occasionally resorts to the distinction, famously posited by the seventeenth and
eighteenth-century German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, between
necessary and sufficient causes. Yet the sheer number of causes gives the
impression that the events and phenomena in question are overdetermined. Of
course, this is not Blanning’s problem alone. Historians primarily concerned with
causation are inevitably forced to steer between the Scylla of reductionism and
the Charybdis of overdetermination. In The French Revolutionary Wars Blanning
steers skillfully. More important, this book reminds historians that the French
Revolution was not merely about France, but about Europe, and offers the type
of pan-European treatment of the Revolution that academic specialization along
national lines have made into a scarce commodity.


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