Sunday, April 6, 2008

Another Age, Another Country

At a time when it seems as if ideological obsessions are leading our country to ruin over both national economic conditions and international relations, it may be worth remembering the extent to which the noble ideologies behind the French Revolution quickly devolved into utter chaos. This morning I was reminded of the extent of that chaos while reading about Mainz, the German city on the west bank of the Rhine, which, in the wake of the French Revolution, was "liberated" into a self-determined republic. Here is the basic account provided by Wikipedia:

During the French Revolution, the French Revolutionary army occupied Mainz in 1792; the Archbishop of Mainz, Friedrich Karl Josef von Erthal, had already fled to Aschaffenburg by the time the French marched in. On 18 March 1793, the Jacobins of Mainz, with other German democrats from about 130 towns in the Rhenish Palatinate, proclaimed the ‘Republic of Mainz’. Led by Georg Forster representatives of the Mainz Republic in Paris requested political affiliation of the Mainz Republic with France, but too late: As Prussia was not entirely happy with the idea of a democratic free state on German soil, Prussian troops had already occupied the area and besieged Mainz by the end of March, 1793. After a siege of 18 weeks, the French troops in Mainz surrendered on 23 July 1793; Prussians occupied the city and ended the Republic of Mainz. Members of the Mainz Jacobin Club were mistreated or imprisoned and punished for treason.

In that context here is a passage from a letter that Forster wrote to his wife on April 8, 1793. This was written from Paris during the Prussian siege of Mainz. His focus, however, is less on Mainz and more on the social climate in France:

Everything is done in a blind, passionate frenzy, and in a raging, volatile partisan spirit that never arrives at calm, reasoned results. On one side, I find insight and talent without courage or strength; on the other, physical energy guided by ignorance, which does good only when the knot really must be cut. So often, though, it ought to be untied but is hacked nonetheless. Everything has now reached the point of crisis. I certainly do not believe that our enemies will succeed; but in the end the populace, too, will grow weary of always having to revolt. So it will depend on who holds out the longest. The idea that despotism in Europe will become quite unendurable if France does not carry through its intentions now always makes me so angry that I cannot separate it in my mind from all my beliefs in virtue, law, and justice, and would rather despair of every one of these than see that hope brought to nothing. There are few cool heads here, or they are in hiding; the populace, as always, is frivolous and fickle, without firmness, warmth, love, or truth—nothing but head and fantasy, no heart and no sensitivity. Despite all that, it is performing great deeds, for it is precisely this cold frenzy which gives the French their eternal restlessness and the appearance of noble impulses, whereas they really have only enthusiasm for the ideas, not feeling for the cause.

Clearly, there is not a strict analogy between our current situation and that in France at the end of the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, Forster's language, particularly when he invokes the metaphor of a knot that "ought to be untied but is hacked nonetheless," provides an interesting lens through which to examine the ideological obsessions of our current Administration. Also, for what it is worth, it may be a useful reminder that our current dark times are, in no way, unique. Like France, we shall eventually emerge from them. Let us just hope that, unlike France, that emergence does not first lead us through another Reign of Terror!

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