Thursday, July 19, 2012

Brief, Random Thoughts on the French Revolution

A few days ago was Bastille Day, the anniversary of the French Revolution. Typically, I scoff at attempts to reduce history to simplistic explanations, but if I am forced to cite one event as in some sense the "cause" of the modern world then it would be the French Revolution.

The French Revolution ushered in a great transformation of the then exiting European international system, marked of course by a "balance of power" network. The revolution itself gave rise to Napoleon Bonaparte who single handedly decimated this traditional "balance of power" system that had held in Europe since 1648. And though the Congress of Vienna (1815) did briefly re-establish a "balance of power" system back to Europe after Napoleon's final defeat, it was sufficiently weak enough to allow for a resurgent and militaristic Prussia to begin its rise to great power status. Led by Otto von Bismark, who via three brief wars (1864, 1866, 1870/1) reunited the German confederations into one state, modern Germany came into being and almost immediately began to upset the existing wobbly "balance of power" dynamic in Europe. And driven by Great Power psychology, Germany would go on to antagonize the other powers eventually creating the conditions which led to WWI and the final collapse of the old "balance of power" system. And as I've already hinted elsewhere, I believe WWI was probably the most crucial pivot point for the modern world, something I plan to elaborate on in a future post.

In the end this analysis is of course overly simplistic and too broad in its generalizations. Nevertheless, I think it accurately captures the world changing character of the French Revolution. Moreover, I think the French Revolution was more monumental (and revolutionary!) than the American Revolution, even if the American revolution (perhaps more accurately, American "gradual evolution") did partly influence the French Revolution. Why? Well, simply put I think you could still have the American revolution without it ever leading to WWI and the birth of the modern world as we think of it and live in today. However, WWI was simply, in my opinion, unlikely to occur without that initial upheaval that the French Revolution brought to the European world order. In other words, no WWI without the French Revolution. So, anyways, happy (?) belatedvBastille Day!

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