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January 29, 2020 / Congau

The Riddle of the French Revolution

When asked about the significance of the French revolution, the Chinese prime minister Zhou Enlai famously replied: “That’s too early to say.” This quote from about 1970 is no less relevant today. It is still too early, and in fact, it will always be too early.

The French revolution defies any attempt at interpretation, or alternatively, it is too readily available for interpretation, which amounts to the same thing. It was surely a momentous occasion, letting lose ideas that had hitherto been confined to philosophers’ solitary chambers and literary salons, but it was also just another upheaval with the arbitrary effect of spurring a pan-European war. Great wars had happened on the continent before and all of them reshaped history and contributed to the existence of today’s world. The Thirty Years’ War, the War of Spanish Succession, the Crimean War, pick anyone you like, and you will realize that the world is still under the influence of its legacy.

But the special significance of the French Revolution goes well beyond the physical realities of the Napoleonic Wars. After all Waterloo seemingly restored the power structures of Europe to normal, and one might think the wheels of history could have squeaked on pretty much like before.

Well, maybe they did. If it’s extremely difficult to assess the lasting impact of the clash of physical forces and it’s impossible to determine how a swarm of ideas could affect the minds and continue to stir the tranquility of later generations.

All those isms and convictions, the difference between right and left, the ardent will to change or preserve, it all finds its mythical culmination in the events following the 14th of July 1789. But since we are talking about ideas, there are no facts on the ground that could really prove their ability to shape the world. The significance of the French Revolution lies both in its abstract symbolism and its concrete manifestation, but which is which and where to find it, that’s forever too early to say.

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