Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Genocide in the Vendée?

"En matière de terrorisme d'État, la Terreur, c'est nous qui l'avons inventée"
Patrick Buisson
[It is we (ie. the French!) who invented "state terrorism".]  

Last month, the debate over the "genocide" of the Vendee momentarily excited media attention with the appearance of a new book, La grande histoire des guerres de Vendée, by Patrick Buisson, right-wing politician and former advisor to Nicolas Sakozy.  In an interview with France Inter broadcast on 21st November, Buisson put forward his extreme view that the French Revolution must be considered the origin of all totalitarian ideologies. Barère's speech to the Convention of August 1793 was cited as evidence of a Revolutionary will to carry through a policy of systematic dehumanisation and extermination. Buisson readily compared Revolutionary violence against the population of the Vendée to the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, as well as to the Nazi  massacre of civilians at Oradour-sur-Glane. His intolocuteur, Nicolas Demorand, was at times reduced to interjecting an inarticulate, "Mais..."

Patrick Buisson on France Inter, 21st November 2017

Personally, I'm not much interested in apportioning blame for events which happened two hundred years ago;  nor do I think this sort of sweeping comparative analysis adds much to historical understanding.  Here, in English summary, are a couple of well-considered responses to Buisson's thesis. 

The first is a video intereview with Mathilde Larrère, an academic historian who specialises in the study of 19th-century Revolutions and concepts of citizenship.  She is well-known for her presence on Twitter as "la prof qui fait buzzer l'histoire".

"Un "génocide" vendéen?  Mathilde Larrère rectifie Patrick Buisson", post of 24.11.2017
@rrêt sur images, presented by  Daniel Schneidermann

Mathilde  Larrère bases her argument on the complex realities of the Revolutionary context. The Vendée was a civil war.  There were atrocious massacres and the conflict resulted in as many as 200,000 deaths.  But to speak of a Vendéan genocide is an enormous historical error.  France had been at war for almost a year and the military situation was very unfavourable; patriots were aware that defeat would mean the end of all the gains of the Revolution - civil liberty, the Rights of Man, equality, social justice. They faced armed Counter-revolution but also internal opposition, provoked by certain aspects of Revolutionary policy, notably religion.  The levée en masse brought about widespread resistance from the peasantry, but only south of the Loire did this meet with significant success.  Small local bands of rebels were able to organise; nobles, sometimes true Counter-revolutionaries,  took over leadership.  They found themselves in a position to take control of entire towns. The bleus did not have a monopoly of violence. The Vendéans also carried out "massacres", notably at Machecoul in March 1793: where 160 patriots were tortured, raped and killed.

In the discourse of the Montagnards the concept of "the Vendée" brought together disparate elements of resistance;  it was neither a geographical space nor an ethnic group, but a synonym for counter-revolution.  For Barrère it was not the inhabitants of the Vendée as such but the "brigands vendéens" which had to be destroyed. There were decrees put in place which aimed protect non-combattants and Vendéan patriots. (We should be careful too about overinterpreting the term "extermination" which was habitually used in Revolutionary rhetoric.).  The difficulty was in controlling events on the ground;  chains of command were often weak: the ill-disciplined troops of Turreau's "infernal columns" were responsible for much of the indiscriminate slaughter.  Even Westermann's notorious description of the extermination of the Vendéens -  I crushed the children under the feet of the horses, massacred the women etc. -.was not so much a statement of policy as a piece of self-justification.  At Nantes pressure from the Revolutionary Committee led to atrocious repression. The Committee of Public Safety struggled to regain control of its agents.

Don't mention Hitler! :  "Point Genocide Vendéen, Point Godwin...." 
Events in the Vendée cannot, therefore, be explained by the will of central government to exterminate a region or a race.  Rather they were the result of a power vacuum and undirected local action.  There was never an ideological project of extermination.  There was never an order to kill Vendéans as an ethnic group or a religious community, no plan to systematically destroy them.  Although larger in scale, the violence against civilians resembled that which occurred in earlier conflicts, like the Camisard revolt or the Seven Years War.

 Joseph-Jean-Félix Aubert,  Les noyades de Nantes en 1793 (1882)Musée d'art et d'histoire de Cholet  
The concept of genocide, continues Mathilde Larrère, is  founded in a long legitimist tradition of misreading, which dates back to the Restoration and to writers such as Chateaubriand.  At this time the region was covered in monuments and plaques to the dead.  The Catholic church began beatification processes for martyrs and a religious reading of events was constructed whereby the Vendée became an expiatory victim.  Memorial associations sprang up and paintings like Aubert's  Noyades de Nantes depicted Revolutionary violence.  Republics answered in similar vein, making the Republican soldiers into heroes and emphasising the massacre perpetrated by the Vendéans  at Machecoul.  In the meantime there was almost  no serious historical research.

The Massacre at Machecoul.  This Republican painting, of 1884, is also in the Musée de Cholet.  Note the sombre "feudal castle" and the extravagantly dressed royalist sympathisers.
The term "genocide" first appears after the Second World War, but at this stage only in memorials, such as the plaque in Le Mans which refers to a "holocaust".  It was with Secher's 1985 work that the term began to appear in "scientific" discourse.  Secher never clearly defined what he meant and  was criticised for his misuse of sources, but his views attracted popular attention. He accused the university establishment of hiding facts (when academics were suspected of being gauchists) and was taken up by Philippe de Villiers  who has provided the preface to Buisson's new book. There have been repeated campaigns for formal government recognition. In the meantime, however,  competent historians, such as Jean-Clément Martin, have researched to recover the true complexity of the situation and have concluded that no, we cannot meaningfully talk of "genocide" in the Vendée

The second response is by Loris Chavanette,author of a prize-winning study of the Thermidorians,  Quatre-Vingt-Quinze. La Terreur en procès (CNRS éditions, 2017).

 "Révolution française : un historien répond à Patrick Buisson", interview  from Le Point, 23.11.17.

The starting point of this discussion is more theoretical.  In Loris Chavanette's view it is impossible to approach the subject with total historical relativism, since modern democracy is founded on the philosophical principles of the French Revolution.  Buisson's book is structured around a particular interpretation of the Revolution as "state terrorism". Thus the Revolutionary project of regeneration, which sought to free man from his past, pitted the Parisian bourgeoisie at the head of the Jacobin government against the Catholic peasantry of the Vendée, representatives of the "true France".  The  conflict was "the first ideological genocide" of history,  the Revolutionaries of Year II, "les bourreaux de la Vendée", enemies of humanity and precursors of the  mass crimes of the 20th century. 

This is not correct, says Loris Chavanette. The Revolutionaries of 1789 never theorised violence as a historical necessity. The writers of the Declaration of the Rights of Man condemned arbitrary power and were only subsequently forced into a system of political repression. Moreover, to base the meaning of the Revolution solely on a reading of the Terror of 1793 is "to throw the baby out with the bath water". The Revolutionaries themselves saw the Terror as an aberration. It was they who guillotined Robespierre, Saint-Just and above all Carrier.  In 1795 the Convention condemned the Terror, re-established liberty of religion and offered an amnesty to the rebels in the West.  

Chavanette finishes by remarking that Buisson is in particular error to draw parallels between the war in the Vendée and modern Islamic terrorism.   It is always possible to find points of similarity between instances of government-sponsored violence, but we should respect the difference between religious and politically-driven action.  Islamic terrorism attacks the premises of civilisation itself whereas the Montagnard legislators belonged to the culture of the Enlightenment.

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