Solzhenitsyn Mourned Bastille Day. So Should All Christians.
The French Revolution invented radical nationalism and socialism, and launched the first modern genocide, aimed at Christians.
Tuesday, July 14 probably passes without much fanfare in your home, but the date, Bastille Day, marks the beginning of the greatest organized persecution of Christians since the Emperor Diocletian. This day, the beginning of the French Revolution, also planted the seeds for the murderous ideologies of socialism and nationalism that would poison the next two centuries, murdering millions of believers and other innocent civilians. Between them, those two political movements racked up quite a body count: In Death By Government, scholar R. J. Rummel pointed out that
during the first 88 years of this century, almost 170,000,000 men, women and children have been shot, beaten, tortured, knifed, burned, starved, frozen, crushed, or worked to death; or buried alive, drowned, hung, bombed, or killed in any other of the myriad ways governments have inflicted death on unarmed, helpless citizens or foreigners.
But the 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 Aleksandr 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.
- Executed the king and queen, and left their young son to die of disease in prison.
- Seized the Cathedral of Notre Dame, stripped it of Christian symbols, and enshrined a prostitute as the “Goddess of Reason” on the altar;
- Declared a revolutionary “war of liberation” against most of the other countries in Europe;
- Suspended all Protestant services, in deference to the state’s cult of Reason;
- Seized all church property from Catholics, expelling thousands of monks, priests and nuns to fend for themselves, then sold the property to their cronies to raise money for their wars;
- Ordered all clergy to swear allegiance to the government instead of the church; and
- Launched the first universal conscription in history, drafting ordinary people — most of them devout peasants bewildered by the slogans that held sway in Paris—to fight for the Revolution.
When the Parisians came to take away their sons for the army, the Vendeans finally fought back and launched a counter-revolution in the name of “God and King.” It quickly spread across the northwest of France, tying down the government’s professional armies — fighting untrained bands of devout guerillas, many of them armed only with muskets suited to hunting.
The First Modern Genocide
As Sophie Masson — herself a descendant of rebels who fought in the Vendée resistance — has written:
The atrocities multiplied, the exterminations systematic and initiated from the very top, and carried out with glee at the bottom. At least 300,000 people were massacred during that time, and those of the intruders who refused to do the job were either shot or discredited utterly. But still the people resisted. Still there were those who hid in the forests and ambushed, who fought as bravely as lions but were butchered like pigs when they were caught. No quarter was given; all the leaders were shot, beheaded or hanged. Many were not even allowed to rest in peace; the body of the last leader was cut up and distributed to scientists; his head was pickled in a jar, the brain examined to see where the seed of rebellion lay in the mind of a savage.…
“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.
The persecution only really ended when Napoleon came to power in 1799 — and needed peace at home so that he could launch his wars of conquest. He patched together a modus vivendi with the pope, and the Vendée quieted down.
How the Revolution Turned Satanic
Of course, it wasn’t supposed to work out this way. The Revolution had begun with a financial crisis, and promised to pare back an absolutist monarchy, perhaps along British lines. King Louis XVI was a kindly if not terribly competent king. He had lifted the lingering, disgraceful legal penalties against Protestants and Jews imposed by his ancestors during a more intolerant age. He bankrupted his kingdom bankrolling the American Revolution. (In gratitude, the U.S. Congress hung a portrait of the monarch in the Capitol, and named a southern county “Bourbon.” That’s where the whiskey was invented.) The French legislators who met in 1789 for the first time in over a century intended at first to reform their government, not replace it.
And some reforms were certainly needed: As Tocqueville would observe, the ruthless centralization imposed by Louis XIV and XV had hollowed out French political life and concentrated power over the lives of citizens almost entirely in Paris, in the hands of technocrats. Predictably, they’d made a mess of things.
Unlike its sister kingdom across the channel, France had no sitting parliament, no common law protecting its subjects from arbitrary arrest, and an economy largely driven not by free citizens but the state. The French church, while still in communion with Rome, was largely controlled by the kings – who appointed its bishops and set its policies. Indeed, the kings of France, Portugal and Spain had arranged in 1767 for the suppression of the Jesuits — whose loyalty to Rome and rejection of the Divine Right of Kings made them suspect, and whose defense of the rights of Indians got in the way of “progress.”
The educational vacuum created by the destruction of this order was quickly (and ironically) filled by Enlightenment philosophes. The first generation to rise without the Jesuits would come of age in 1789. The abuses that would mark the Revolution — including mass executions of priests and nuns — were endorsed by intellectuals schooled on the slanderous pamphlets of Diderot, full of pornographic falsehoods about the “secret lives” of monks and nuns.
Indeed, there’s a chilling similarity between the anti-clerical literature that prepared the public for the looting of monasteries and the anti-Semitic canards that were spread by the Nazis. The euphemism that was used to describe stealing monastic property for the state — “secularization” — found its echo in the 1930s in the term the German government employed for robbing the Jews: “aryanization.” Since the Jews are indeed a priestly people, it is not surprising that such satanic parallels exist. Just as fascists excused their atrocities by pointing to Jewish prominence in the financial sphere and the press, leftists still defend the persecution of the Church by pointing to her political influence. We shouldn’t let them get away with it. I wait in vain for the historian who will write a comprehensive comparison of anti-Semitism and anti-clericalism.
In 1989, I helped organize a funeral Mass for all the Revolution’s victims. We invited the French consul-general, but he pleaded a prior engagement. In the Vendée itself, a French friend told me, some people still wear black armbands on their country’s national holiday, and regard the Revolution’s tricolor as black Americans do the Confederate battle flag. As we tremble for the future of religious liberty in America, let’s remember those who died defending freedom and faith before us. God forbid that we’ll have to follow in their footsteps.
This piece originally appeared in a different form at Crisis magazine and is reprinted with permission.