wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Jean-Francois Revel

The Flight from Truth

Certain historians frown at the very mention of the 'massacres' of the Vendee, finding the death toll to be on the feeble side. One can always do better, of course; but it would be a good idea to fix a precise limit above which a mass purge deserves the rank of 'genocide.'

The repression in the Vendee exceeded what was called for to such a highly embarrassing degree that in France's secular schools the scope of what happened and the atrocious details have for the past century been effaced from high school textbooks and university teaching. The Vendee was effectively driven underground, into the catacombs of textbooks of royalist or clerical inspiration—with a most paradoxical consequence. Relegated by the choice of his subject to the fenced-in dog patch of the 'counterrevolutionaries,' Reynald Secher, thanks to the seriousness of his research, actually rectified the factual record to a degree no republican historian had dreamed of. He established with impartiality that the number of human lives lost in the Vendee was in fact very much smaller than had always been thought.

Lazare Hoche, who for a while had commanded the local republican army, estimated the number of dead at 600,000. Later, and right up until recently, even the historians who thought this figure excessive never descended lower than 300,000. Secher, however, after painstakingly checking parish registers and other primary sources, concluded that of the 815,029 inhabitants of the Vendee in 1792, 117,257—or some 15 percent of the population—perished in battles or massacres. Although less than what was commonly thought, this is still a lot. Such a percentage, applied to the population of present-day France (around fifty million), would amount to 7.5 million victims. Needless to say, the exterminations and destructions varied greatly from one township to another. Certain villages lost almost half of their inhabitants and houses, others less than 5 percent.

Admittedly, the authorities in Paris could not tolerate the Vendeean insurrection, above all at a moment when a foreign war was brewing. But the transformation of the repression into genocide was ideologically, not militarily, motivated. This is proved by the acts of savagery that took place in other areas of French territory where no civil war was threatening. Thus the tiny village of Bedoin, in the department of Vaucluse (north of Marseille), was punished for having allowed its Freedom Tree to be chopped down one night. Unable to ferret out the culprit, the Convention's emissary decided to impose a collective punishment: sixty-three persons were guillotined or shot, the rest were driven out, and the entire village was put to the torch. 'There is not one spark of civic spirit in this commune,' the emissary commented with virtuous placidity in his report.

Like all regimes that found their legitimacy on an ideology, the Committee of Public Safety seemed incapable of asking itself why the people resisted it, either actively or passively. In its eyes, the genuine 'people' was itself. An abstract, absolute, monolithic entity, it could not imagine that the flesh-and-blood living, changeable, and diverse people could have sincere and real motives for discontent. Curiously enough, before the Revolution the regions of Western France were to the 'left,' as we would say today. It took Jacobin sectarianism to push them to the 'right,' where by and large they have remained ever since in the history of French elections.

Clemenceau, who was anything but a fool, uttered the idiocy of a lifetime when he coined the famous slogan 'La Revolution est un bloc!' ('The Revolution is of one piece'). But no! Nothing that is human is a bloc. Those who reason in terms of blocs are tyrants. One can feel oneself to be an heir of the France of 1789 without making it one's duty to justify the Vendee, Bedoin, and the Terror.