As I am sitting on my balcony of a boat traveling down the Mosel River in Germany, passing picturesque villages founded before Christopher Columbus was even born, I am in awe of this place with its castles and massive churches. While I am having a dream vacation, I am also thinking upon what the history of this region can teach. As you know, I believe history is here for us to learn from, and while I was spending a few days in Paris, eating some amazing food, I have realized how part of France’s history may be mirroring our own right now.
When we were making plans for Paris, I was excited to spend some time looking around the city and visiting the historic sites. As I made a list of the things I wanted to see, there were the normal attractions, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the Grand Entrance. As an American historian, I was interested in the history of the two World Wars, but I am also interested in the French Revolution. When you teach early American history, you end up teaching a great deal of European history, and the French Revolution played a part in shaping that history. Knowing this, there were a few sites I wanted to see like the Palace at Versailles and the Bastille. Yet to my surprise, the Bastille no longer stands. It turns out it was destroyed by the new revolutionary government because of what it stood for, and it was not the only structure to suffer damage from a new regime.
If I ranked world revolutions in terms of radicalness, the French Revolution makes the top of the list. The American Revolution, which is on the other end of the spectrum, was a top-down revolution that replaced British nobility with an elected American nobility. The French Revolution was a bottom-up revolution that turned every aspect of French society, culture, and politics on its ear. The revolution began from an economic downturn after financing the American Revolution. In 1789 the people, who were struggling to feed their families as well as lacking basic human rights, rose in protest as the Estes General became the National Assembly and the people stormed the Bastille, releasing the political prisoners within. Later the King and Queen were put on trial and their heads were removed from their bodies as were the vast majority of the noble class of France. Eventually the Bastille suffered the same fate as the noble class as it was destroyed because of its symbolism of the monarchy.
Unfortunately, the Bastille was not the end of the destruction. In 1793, the same year Queen Maria Antoinette lost her head, the people got caught up in a frenzy and moved on the most sacred site in Paris, the Cathedral of Notre Dame. On the front of the Cathedral were 28 statues of Jewish kings from the Bible and beyond. Yet the masses in their righteous indignation and ignorance assumed the Kings were French kings and tore them down and cut off their heads as they had done with the real royalty. I am not arguing that the people did not have the right to be upset. The French people had been under absolute control for too long and had the right to hate everything associated with the monarchy, yet what did this act accomplish? The monarchy was just as dead with or without the destruction. Even though the monuments were gone, it did not stop the French people from falling into chaos with the “Reign of Terror.” What happened instead was the destruction of a sacred structure and the elimination of an important piece of history which is celebrated today in France with Bastille Day. The actual object is not around to experience and learn from.
Now consider the experience at the next stop on my trip. When we left Paris and boarded ships, the first town we visited was Trier, an ancient Roman city and oldest city in what is today Germany. In 1818 Karl Marx was born in Trier. With his publication of the Communists Manifesto, he changed economic and political theory forever, especially after the Russian Communists Revolution. Understand that Germany has no love lost for communism. The German Fascists and the Communist Russians killed each other by the hundreds of thousands in WWII. After the War, the Communists kept East Germany under their authoritarian control for decades. Yet it is impossible to deny Marx’s importance to history, for good or bad. On the 200th anniversary of his birth, Trier decided to hold a celebration. When the Chinese government heard about the celebration, they wanted to present the town with a giant statue of Marx. Accepting the statue became quite controversial, especially one so large. Yet Trier recognized that the history was important. They did make the Chinese scale back the monument and did not place it where the Chinese wanted, but they still put it up.
America is going through its own crisis of history. We may not have stormed the Bastille, but we are going through a revolutionary attitude just the same. In our anger about our past, are we going to continue to act in haste and tear down statues? Is removing the statue of Andrew Jackson from Jackson Square in New Orleans going to change the historical fact that Jackson, a slave holder, won a battle against the British and saved the city from capture? Is our world better by removing President Wilson’s name from Princeton, a school where he was president, because he was racist in a time when racism was unfortunately acceptable?
We have a choice to make in our country. Do we remove names and statues of our past that some have found offensive, or do we accept our history, warts and all, embrace it as historical truth, and learn from it? After all, only fifteen years after the French stormed the Bastille, Napoleon crowned himself emperor and authoritarianism was the law once again. Historically speaking, maybe instead of destroying the Bastille, they should have learned from it.
Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts, follow Historically Speaking at Historicallyspeaking.blog or on Facebook.