On July 14, 1789, the Paris mob aided by units of the National Guard stormed the Bastille Fortress which stood in what had been the Royal area of France before the Louvre and Tuilleries took over that function. The Bastille was a bit like the Tower of London, a fortress prison under direct control of the Monarchy. It was used to house unusual prisoners, all aristocrats, in rather comfortable durance. The garrison consisted of soldiers invalided out of service and some older soldiers who didn’t want to retire; it was considered an honor to be posted there, and the garrison took turns acting as valets to the aristocratic prisoners kept there by Royal order (not convicted by any court).
On July 14, 1789, the prisoner population consisted of four forgers, three madmen, and another. The forgers were aristocrats and were locked away in the Bastille rather than be sentenced by the regular courts. The madmen were kept in the Bastille in preference to the asylums: they were unmanageable at home, and needed to be locked away. The servants/warders were bribed to treat them well. The Bastille was stormed; the garrison was slaughtered to a man, some being stamped to death; their heads were displayed on pikes; and the prisoners were freed. The forgers vanished into the general population. The madmen were sent to the general madhouse. The last person freed was a young man who had challenged the best swordsman in Paris to a duel, and who had been locked up at his father’s insistence lest he be killed. This worthy joined the mob and took on the name of Citizen Egalite. He was active in revolutionary politics until Robespierre had him beheaded in The Terror.
And elsewhere we read of the triumph of Reason four years later:
[T]he first such modern genocide in the West took place in France, beginning in 1793. It was undertaken by modern, progressive apostles of Enlightenment and aimed at pious peasants in the Vendée region of France. By its end up to 300,000 civilians had been killed by the armies of the Republic.
This story is little discussed in France. Indeed, a devout historian who teaches at a French university once told me, “We are not to mention the Vendée. Anyone who brings up what was done there has no prospect of an academic career. So we keep silent.”
It is mostly in the Vendée itself that memories linger, which may explain why that part of France to this day remains more religious and more conservative than any other region. The local government opened a museum marking these atrocities on their 200th anniversary in 1993 — with a visit by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who noted during his eloquent address that the mass murders of Christians in Russia were directly inspired by those in the Vendée. The Bolsheviks, he said, modeled themselves on the French revolutionaries, and Lenin himself pointed to the Vendée massacres as the right way to deal with Christian resistance.
It was ordinary farmers of the Vendée and Brittany regions who rose up in 1793 against the middle-class radicals in Paris who controlled the country.
“Not one is to be left alive.” “Women are reproductive furrows who must be ploughed under.” “Only wolves must be left to roam that land.” “Fire, blood, death are needed to preserve liberty.” “Their instruments of fanaticism and superstition must be smashed.” These were some of the words the Convention used in speaking of the Vendée. Their tame scientists dreamed up all kinds of new ideas – the poisoning of flour and alcohol and water supplies, the setting up of a tannery in Angers which would specialise in the treatment of human skins; the investigation of methods of burning large numbers of people in large ovens so their fat could be rendered down efficiently. One of the Republican generals, Carrier, was scornful of such research: these “modern” methods would take too long. Better to use more time-honoured methods of massacre: the mass drownings of naked men, women and children, often tied together in what he called “republican marriages,” off specially constructed boats towed out to the middle of the Loire and then sunk; the mass bayoneting of men, women and children; the smashing of babies’ heads against walls; the slaughter of prisoners using cannons; the most grisly and disgusting tortures; the burning and pillaging of villages, towns and churches.Anyone for a rousing chorus of Le Marseillaise?