June 2015 will see the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo. There will be many historians and pundits discussing that event. But how many people are aware of how the European war – which lasted over 23 years and was finally brought to an end at Waterloo – actually began? It came out of the tumultuous politics of the French Revolution: the reckless politics of the Girondin revolutionary group did much to provoke the onset of war.
Kingston University historian, Marisa Linton has just published an article in the June issue of History Today, on Jacques-Pierre Brissot, the man who led the Girondin group in their warmongering policy. An online version of the article is available for History Today subscribers to read here.Marisa says: “Brissot was reckless, a political lightweight, way out of his depth in international politics. He thought that the best way for France to deal with her external enemies and her internal ones, was by making war on Austria and the other foreign powers. What most interested me about the subject was the contemporary resonances it evokes. Brissot actually called for a ‘crusade for universal liberty’, though he was well aware of the morally dubious implications of the idea of a ‘crusade’, and the terrible consequences of crusades led by medieval Christians against the Islamic peoples of the Middle East. Brissot blithely assuming that wherever the French invading armies went they would be welcomed with open arms by the local populations who would be happy to have invaders bringing them ‘liberty’.
War, said Brissot, was a way of ending terror – by which he meant that the French revolutionaries would destroy their enemies who were trying to use terror against them. It was Maximilien Robespierre who tried desperately to oppose Brissot and to show the dangerous stupidity of embarking on a war. He said it would spiral out of control, cause needless loss of life, destabilise politics, put the military leaders in power, and lead to the militarisation of the state.
As for Brissot’s reckless notion of a ‘crusade for liberty’, Robespierre replied with so much more political good sense, ‘No one welcomes armed liberators’. But Robespierre lost the debate. The Girondins used the patriotism card against him – they said that Robespierre’s opposition to war meant he was ‘unpatriotic’ and secretly in the pay of the French monarchy and the foreign powers. So war was declared, and it went every bit as badly as Robespierre had predicted. Far from war ending terror, it would be the biggest single cause of the French Revolutionary Terror of 1793/94.”
Marisa’s most recent book, Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2013) on the choices made by Brissot and other French Revolutionary leaders that led to Terror, is to come out in paperback next month.