The World of the French Revolution, R.R. Palmer, Harper and Row, New York, 1971
Needless to say the history of the French Revolution that began in 1789 and arguably has not been completed yet has been looked at from every possible perspective, some of them noteworthy others merely cumulative. In Professor Palmer’s little book we have a noteworthy one although, perhaps not for the purpose that he wrote the book. At the end of 2007 we have been through a period when the American Bush Administration policy in the Middle East has seen as one of its aims the ‘export of democracy’ ; in the terminology of the French Revolution the ‘export of revolution’. I would also note that during the height of the Cold War with the former Soviet Union, particularly in the immediate post World War II period the ‘export of revolution’ in that case, socialism raised it head. Thus the central point of Palmer’s book in relationship to the French Revolution offers some important historical lessons about that phenomenon.
Professor Palmer divides his work in sections dealing with the pre-revolutionary period, the immediate issues of the revolutionary and the significant period of the reign of the Committee of Public Safety in the 1793-94 period. That part is fairly common. What he does additionally is give space to the various external movements influenced by the French example and the policies of the various adversaries of the French. Further he ties the whole period together by getting a fair outline of the Directory period (basically 1794-99) that is overlooked or undervalued in most works and the policies of the various governments toward outside revolutionary movements.
If there is one conclusion that drifts through the Professor’s work is that it is hard, extremely hard to satisfactorily export revolution, event world historic revolution like the French one. And that fact is not all one-sided. At various times, depending on internal French politics, there was hostility or indifference to those like the Polish who wished to either emulate or come under French protection. Palmer gives us the highlights to further search for the relationship between local indigenous forces, the role of French military success on the ground and other governmental considerations that forced the creation of a least six French-like republics in the 1790’s. This book is hardly the last word on the subject of the French ‘export of revolution’ but it certainly is the first word. Read on.
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