The French Revolution: A Tale of Terror and Hope for Our Times

The French Revolution: A Tale of Terror and Hope for Our Times

by Harold Behr


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ISBN-13: 9781845197032
Publisher: Sussex Academic Press
Publication date: 03/01/2015
Pages: 180
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Harold Behr is a retired consultant child psychiatrist. He is a coauthor of Group Analytic Psychotherapy: A Meeting of Minds and a former editor of the International Journal of Group Analytic Psychotherapy.

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The French Revolution

A Tale of Terror and Hope for Our Times

By Harold Behr

Sussex Academic Press

Copyright © 2015 Harold Behr
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84519-703-2


Louis XVI

The Scapegoat King

'It is to the family of the Capets that the French people owe all the evils under the weight of which they have groaned for so many centuries.' Public prosecutor at the trial of Madame Elisabeth, sister of Louis XVI

One definition of a family is that it is a group of people related by blood or marriage. Another is that it comprises all the descendants of a common ancestor. Louis XVI was cursed by both these definitions. By a great irony he was the mildest, most humane, least acquisitive member of the Bourbon family to rule France since Henri IV, the great peacemaker and religious reformer whose reign ended with his assassination in 1610. Louis' tragedy was that he was made a scapegoat for the oppression, injustice and barbaric cruelty inflicted on the people of France under the reign of the Bourbons who followed Henri.

* * *

He was a sickly, shy, strangely silent child with an obsessional cast of mind and a preference for solitary pastimes, the odd one out among his siblings. His two younger brothers, destined to outlive him and become kings of France in the post-Napoleonic era, looked on him with contempt. He only grew in confidence during his early teenage years when he was introduced to the pleasures of riding and hunting. He never lost his disquieting reticence, though, which was reinforced by tutors who emphasized that reserve and restraint, the qualities of retenue, were essential royal attributes.

His slowness, apathy and reticence meant that he was often thought dull, but he was by no means unintelligent. He showed a talent for mathematics, physics and astronomy, enjoyed history and geography – especially map-reading – and had a fascination for gadgetry. Had he lived today he would probably have been placed somewhere along the milder end of the autistic spectrum. His aptitude for repairing clocks and locks would have served him well as a career in another life. His role as dauphin, however, would not allow him to lead the life of a social isolate. He would have to marry and conduct affairs of state. When the deaths of his father and older brothers earmarked him for the throne he grew close to his grandfather, Louis XV, who reluctantly took on the task of grooming him for the heavy burdens of kingship. But he showed no interest in politics or philosophy. His greatest social handicap was his embarrassing tendency to be silent beyond the dictates of kingly reserve. His greatest political handicap was his paralyzing indecisiveness.

He had an unfortunate social presence, too. He was ponderous both in build and manner and is described as walking with a waddle. His social graces were not improved by his tendency to fall asleep in council meetings and church services. His portraits show a lugubrious expression which probably reflected his depressed state of mind. There is certainly enough evidence to support the view that he was depressed. He had been raised in an emotionally barren environment, the recipient of little love from parents, whom he hardly saw apart from ceremonial occasions. His mother died when he was eleven, his father soon afterwards. An adored older brother had died when Louis was seven years old, deflecting his attachment onto a sister who stayed close to him through the tribulations that were in store.

His constant sadness and bouts of grief were visible to all, but gained him little sympathy. He lavished tender love on his own children, and suffered at the deaths of his first two children in infancy, and that of his firstborn son at the age of seven, a sensitive child whose death from tuberculosis of the spine ended a long period of agony over his frailty and the deformities caused by his illness. The child's terminal decline coincided with the opening of the States General in 1789. Louis and his wife were already the objects of hatred and abuse which intruded into their grief and would continue unremittingly until their deaths.

He was benevolent and compassionate by nature, and he wanted at all costs to avoid confrontation. These were virtues which would have won him favour in peaceful times, but they worked against him when what was needed was inspired leadership and the ability to fight fire with fire. When the violence of the Revolution reached the doors of his palace he reacted outwardly with accommodating behaviour, while inwardly he became devious and obstructive. The safety of his family and the avoidance of bloodshed were paramount in his eyes. His own fate did not matter. Underlying his phlegmatic disposition was a selflessness strengthened by a deep commitment to his Catholic faith.

* * *

The tendency for groups to appoint a carrier for their own badness and then set about getting rid of that carrier is as old as the human species. It rests on the magical belief that badness can be purged from the community if it is projected into a creature, person or group within the community perceived as responsible for introducing it. The culprit or culprits can then be expelled from the group along with the badness and the group restored to its pristine condition. The original goat from the bible was crowned with a wreath of thorns and at first simply driven out into the desert, but because the silly animal tended to wander back into the community the process had to be taken a step further by pushing it off a cliff.

History is replete with accounts of persecution culminating in atrocities, wars and centuries-long hatred between groups, all founded on the myth of the scapegoat, in which the blameless are blamed and the innocent pronounced guilty. However, the woes of the group are never alleviated by this device. The relief obtained by the expulsion or death of the victim is usually short-lived. The underlying causes remain firmly in place, the problem invariably recurs, impelling the group to find a new scapegoat, and the cycle is repeated.

Eighteenth-century France was susceptible to this myth. Its people had suffered centuries of hardship and decades of sustained warfare. Cultural myths of traumas dating back to antiquity had been kept alive and stored in the nation's social memory. These myths rose to the surface when the country faced economic decline and the threat of starvation. In a replay of ancient legends, heroes were brought to life who had once rescued the country from monsters and tyrants.

In small groups the person chosen for the part of monster or scapegoat sometimes plays an active part in the process by behaving in a way which offends the mores of the group. In a country of twenty-six million people, however, the personal attributes of the intended scapegoats scarcely mattered. Louis and his family took on an almost entirely representational role. It was enough that they were perceived as having malign power and experienced as alien to the people amongst whom they lived.

Louis inherited the throne on a wave of optimism and only came slowly into his role as scapegoat. His grandfather, Louis XV, would have been a more deserving candidate. He had done nothing to reform the monarchy or rescue France from its economic troubles. An attempt to assassinate him in 1757 led to the public torture and execution of the would-be assassin, a feeble-minded servant called Damiens, providing a spectacle which caused widespread revulsion. This and other cruel punishments perpetrated during the reign of Louis XV imprinted themselves on the collective consciousness of France and highlighted the brutality of the regime. Satirists like Voltaire and philosophers like Rousseau provided the intellectual ammunition for an assault on the barbaric traditions which had produced such cruelty. They and many other thinkers of the Enlightenment painted the picture of a new era based on reason and freedom from oppression. Louis XV's death in 1774 from smallpox was hardly mourned, and hope was in the air that the new young king would bring France out of the dark ages.

This hope proved illusory. Louis XVI was well intentioned, but he was hopelessly miscast as king. His attempts to reform France were thwarted at every step of the way by the self-aggrandizing nobles who surrounded him, and his offer of help to the American rebels in their war of independence against the British brought France to the edge of bankruptcy. The country could not be rescued by the tinkering of his economic advisers, who were in any case hamstrung by the aristocratic opposition to change. The slide from hope into disappointment created a mood of fury and blame which settled on the head of the one person with symbolic responsibility for the country's troubles, the king.

But there is a paradox in seeing Louis entirely as a victim. He exercised real power as a monarch, and this has to be differentiated from the magical powers projected onto him by those who believed in his divine powers and the majority who believed in the inherent tyranny of Bourbon rule. We must ask to what extent Louis was capable of influencing the situation he found himself in by the exercise of his power, and what part his personal attributes played in his appointment as a scapegoat of the Revolution.

The arrival on the scene of his bride-to-be provided an added dimension to the scapegoat myth. Marie Antoinette was the daughter of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, a country which had been involved in a long and debilitating war with France, the wounds of which had not healed. The machinations of the two royal houses to bring about an arranged marriage between the fifteen year old dauphin and the fourteen year old Austrian princess as a means of sealing the new Franco-Austrian alliance took no account of the sentiments in France towards an enemy which had caused grievous destruction and loss of life. The image of the evil Bourbon king was now merged with that of his foreign wife, the daughter of France's greatest enemy. Tyranny and foreignness had come together in the minds of the French people, creating the perfect conditions for turning the royal couple into a two-headed monster destined for the role of scapegoat.

The reality of their lives as a couple was a different story. In the tradition of politically arranged marriages, Louis had had no say over the choice of his bride. To the exasperation of France's elder statesmen he showed the same indifference towards his young wife as he did to the world of politics. As husband and wife they were wretchedly incompatible. Louis was lacking in charm, wit and elegance, Marie Antoinette was spirited, feisty and gregarious. She enjoyed dancing, frolicking in amateur theatricals and indulging in social intrigues, tastes which held no interest whatsoever for her ungainly and emotionally inert husband.

For the first six years of the couple's marriage their sex life was impaired, not only by Louis' lack of libido but by a physical problem affecting the royal phallus. Louis suffered from phimosis, a tight band of tissue around the prepuce which interferes with erection. He balked at the minor operation required to correct this, but the fate of the Bourbon dynasty depended on his dependant organ, and he apparently submitted to the surgeon's knife, although there is no documented evidence to this effect. The couple proved fertile, but the fact that their first child was a girl sent a further ripple of anxiety through the court. Then two sons were born, and the future of the line seemed to have been secured. A year later a fourth child was born, a girl, who died shortly before her first birthday.

The fears of the people widened the gulf between fantasy and reality. The royal couple were turned into caricatures of themselves, the realities of their lives into grotesque myths. Their faults and weaknesses were seized upon and enlarged, their virtues and strengths obliterated.

Before the two-headed Bourbon monster could be made into a scapegoat, it had to be stripped of its power. This task appeared formidable. The beast was perceived as having tentacles everywhere in the form of laws, institutions, traditions, customs and even thoughts, which though outwardly innocent, concealed the monster's evil intentions. The first stage in the dismemberment of the monster came in the form of attacks with words and images. The royal couple were subjected to insults and obscenities thrown at them through every medium. Pamphlets, newspapers, cartoons, songs and theatrical productions outdid one another in their malicious and pornographic representations.

Louis was turned into a cuckold and depicted as a donkey or a pig. Marie Antoinette was portrayed as a sexual predator, shown in embraces with men and women alike and compared with the notorious women of antiquity. Her extravagant lifestyle was rendered into a monstrous crime deserving of the death penalty. These journalistic and artistic outpourings were accompanied by a chorus of verbal abuse which greeted the couple at their public appearances. Louis and Marie were shaken by the intensity of the hatred, but whereas Louis was more inclined to react with mournful resignation, Marie Antoinette developed a steely hatred, and threw herself into intrigues with her Austrian relatives, exhorting them to act in order to alleviate the family's dire situation.

The attacks on Marie Antoinette exceeded in venom those on Louis. She was doubly a monster, partly because of her foreignness – a popular epithet was 'l'Austrichienne' ('the Austrian bitch') – but even more because she was a woman. Deeper emotions were at work in which the despair of a people who had suffered hunger, oppression and injustice was rooted in a frustrated longing to be fed and comforted by a loving mother. When these needs could not be met in reality the nation sought out a symbolic mother in whom they could invest hope that their suffering would cease. The new world promised to them by the Revolution, a society of freedom and plenty, was this Good Mother, the personification of the biblical land flowing with milk and honey. This was the mother who would love them unconditionally and assuage their hunger. In the shadows was the image of Marie Antoinette as the Bad Mother, a woman who had withheld her love and her milk and turned her affections elsewhere to gratify her own base instincts. Their murderous rage at this abandonment and betrayal knew no bounds.

By the same token Louis was the father who had failed them. In his impotence he had neither protected them from the cruelty of his forebears, nor that of his wife and her nefarious associates, for whose tyrannical rule he, as king, was responsible. In the recesses of the collective mind he too must be destroyed and replaced by a new father, a government by the people, who could assume their own authority through their elected representatives. In tandem with these primitively driven attacks came a barrage of reasoned arguments against the monarchy as a concept, spearheaded by the philosophes and amalgamated into an ideology by the new breed of politicians, many of them lawyers, who now made up the body politic. This two-pronged attack by the combined forces of emotion and reason surrounded the royal couple in a pincer movement from which there was no escape.

* * *

An outpouring of projections turned Louis and his wife into a combined bad object which grew into a monster. After the monster had been exposed to the public gaze it had to be tamed, which meant that it had to be brought under the control of the people. This meant driving it out of its familiar habitat and conveying it to a more restricted one, where it could be kept under scrutiny. The Revolution had begun with a mighty surge to what was then regarded as the centre of the nation, the royal court at Versailles. But the deputies of 1789 soon designated this a false centre, an excrescence created by the sun king to escape the noxious vapours of Paris. The true centre, they believed, now lay with the citizens of Paris, and it was to Paris that Louis, still the nominal leader of his people, would have to go.

In October 1789 a large crowd, consisting mostly of market women angry at the hardships imposed on the country by the latest food shortages and price rises, set out on a march to confront the king at Versailles. The cry for bread soon changed to a demand for the royal family to come to Paris. A delegation from the crowd invaded the palace, haranguing the king and terrifying the queen, who hid with her children in an inner recess.


Excerpted from The French Revolution by Harold Behr. Copyright © 2015 Harold Behr. Excerpted by permission of Sussex Academic Press.
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Table of Contents


A Personal Note,
List of Illustrations,
Chronology of the French Revolution,
Theoretical Preamble,
One Louis XVI: The Scapegoat King,
Two Robespierre: The Mind of a Fanatic,
Three Danton: The Passionate Opportunist,
Four Violence and Enlightenment: The Paradox of the French Revolution,
Five The Revolutionary Crowd: Bloodthirsty Mob or Will of the People?,
Six Revolution versus Religion: God, Reason and the God of Reason,
Seven Heroes, Tyrants and Martyrs: The Assassination of Marat and the Murder of the Girondins,
Eight The Reign of Terror: A Study in Group Paranoia,
Nine The Power of the Group to Destroy its Leader: The Fall of Robespierre,
Ten How History and Myth Intertwine,
Books Which I Hope Will Interest the Reader,

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