He wouldn’t dare

David A. Bell

  • Blood in the City: Violence and Revelation in Paris 1789-1945 by Richard D.E. Burton
    Cornell, 395 pp, £24.50, September 2001, ISBN 0 8014 3868 3

Of all the elements which go into making Paris such an exquisite object of desire, not the least is the memory of bloodshed. It adds a note of danger to the city’s frivolous pleasures, a sombre colour to an otherwise oppressively light palette. No other city’s history can offer such an extraordinary mixture of luxury and savagery, and the visitor who delights in the first also thrills, secretly, to the second.

In Blood in the City, Richard Burton takes his readers on a walking tour of Parisian sacrifice and slaughter. He moves from the Bastille to the place de la Concorde (where Louis XVI was executed), to the Hôtel de Ville (where successive generations of revolutionaries raised the flag of the Republic), and so on around the city. The tour includes the slaughter of the Communards in 1871, the round-up of the Jews in 1942, the settling of scores with Nazi collaborators in 1944, and many other horrific episodes. Burton also traces the way these effusions of blood seeped into France’s literary imagination, quoting liberally from the goriest passages of de Maistre, Bataille and Maurras. All these pages of blood, fire, dismemberment, gibbets, firing squads and the guillotine leave the reader with the impression of a culture devoted to the macabre. ‘It is,’ Burton writes, ‘the figure of a martyred, often decapitated human body, male and female, that dominates French history, literature and painting from the Terror to the Liberation.’

He is particularly concerned with the religious resonances of Parisian violence. Perpetrators and poets alike, he argues, saw bloodshed as expiatory and cleansing. In case after case, behind the ideological slogans and polemics, lay unconscious imitations of the Crucifixion, of ritual sacrifice, holy war and autos-da-fé. French history and literature were steeped in blood between 1789 and 1945, he says, because of an irrepressible longing for lost certitudes: the certitudes of faith and of pre-Haussmann Paris, with its comforting organic unity, its pleasing tangle of tiny streets and its sense of spiritual community. Faith eroded, however, and the great boulevards sliced through old neighbourhoods like a guillotine blade through flesh, leaving Parisians attempting, over and over again, to refound their lost cité (a word that can refer to a physical or spiritual city, as well as to the island at the centre of Paris) through expiatory sacrifice. Something of the same longing could be seen in France last month, as a full third of the electorate embraced the political extremes, with their violent denunciations of a ‘corrupt’ and ‘decadent’ political system, their promises of easy solutions and, in the case of the Front Nationale, their evocations of an older, pristine France, now defiled by alien influence. In response, tens of thousands of student demonstrators fell back on their classic scripts, even building a barricade in the place de la Concorde, and forcing the police to resort to tear gas.

Burton may exaggerate the centrality of bloodshed in French political culture, but his close attention to what Natalie Zemon Davis has called the ‘rites of violence’ reveals some enduring historical patterns. As he puts it, episode after episode of ‘almost choreographed violence’ followed the ‘same basic scenario’. The hapless governor of the Bastille, cut down in the street and decapitated with a kitchen knife, was succeeded by the Communards, lined up against the walls of Père Lachaise and shot, and the Vichyite collaborators hauled up in front of juries of Resistance members for perfunctory trials. Each change of regime involved the theatricalised killing of carefully chosen sacrificial victims, accompanied by hysterical conspiracy theorising and apocalyptic rhetoric.

The targets of obsession varied, of course. In the fervid imagination of the Left, the priesthood filled the central role of occult, demonic conspirators. Priests numbered prominently among the Left’s victims, from the Revolutionary prison massacres of September 1792 to the execution of clerical hostages, including the Archbishop of Paris, by the Commune in 1871. As a direct result of this last atrocity, Sacré-Coeur, built in expiation of the Commune’s sins, now looms morosely over the city. For the Right, the key conspiratorial role was increasingly filled by the Jews. Hence the Dreyfus Affair and its accompanying anti-semitic violence, and Vichy’s voluntary deportation of 76,000 Jews to their deaths during World War Two.

Each episode also produced chilling attempts at justification. From Antoine Barnave, on the murders of two Parisian officials in the summer of 1789: ‘Was their blood then so pure?’ From Anacharsis Cloots, the German baron who came to Revolutionary Paris to proclaim the universal republic of mankind: ‘France, you will be happy when you are finally cured of individuals.’ From Maurras, the eloquent leader of the extreme Right in the early 20th century: ‘Everything seems impossible, or appallingly difficult, without the providential emergence of anti-semitism.’

Despite occasional lapses into portentousness, Burton’s book is compelling and lucid. But what is the real significance of that ‘same basic scenario’? Many onlookers have asked the question, most notable among them the sociologist Charles Tilly who, in The Contentious French (1986), engaged with a much broader swathe of French violence, from food riots to civil wars, and offered a nuanced sociological explanation. Burton, by focusing more narrowly on ‘expiatory’ violence, with its attendant solemn cruelty, takes the inquiry in an intriguing new direction. But by posing as an anthropologist – the scientist who stands to the side taking notes as the natives slaughter each other – he also falls into a trap that has ensnared many others: failing to take seriously the reasons for which his subjects believed they were fighting and dying.

This problem is most obvious in his treatment of the French revolutionary tradition. After all, it is no great reach to suggest that reactionary writers like de Maistre or Maurras believed France needed to reclaim a lost Christian faith through expiatory sacrifice. This is what they themselves declared, at impassioned and often tedious length. But to say the same of the Revolutionaries of 1789 and 1848, of the Communards and the Resistance, is to accuse them of false consciousness. They may have believed they were fighting for democracy, justice and humanity, but in reality, Burton seems to be suggesting, they too were longing for the warm embrace of the Holy Ghost. Burton’s interpretation inadvertently leaves the conservative and reactionary apostles of violence looking a lot more discerning than their democratic and socialist opponents.

Burton makes matters worse by drawing far too heavily, for the early period, on Simon Schama’s evocative Citizens (1989), which treated the French Revolution from start to finish as a ghastly, bloody mistake. He repeats many of Schama’s best stories, including the one about the giant papier-mâché elephant that Napoleon erected on the site of the Bastille as a precursor to a larger, bronze statue. It stood there for years, eroded by the weather, discoloured by mud and soot, swarming with vermin, until finally it was taken down and replaced with the present banal column (a monument not to the Revolution of 1789, but to that of 1830). With brilliant and very British derision, Schama made the Bastille elephant a symbol of the Revolution as a whole. Burton, without sharing Schama’s politics, ends up transmitting his tone.

It’s a pity that Burton did not engage more deeply with the dialogue French historians and sociologists since Durkheim have been conducting about religion and revolutionary politics. From Albert Mathiez’s Les Origines des cultes révolutionnaires, published nearly a hundred years ago, through the brilliant work of Mona Ozouf on Revolutionary festivals, down to Antoine de Baecque’s recent Glory and Terror, French scholars have noted the persistent imitation of Catholicism – Ozouf calls it a ‘vertigo of imitation’ – that has characterised much of modern French secular politics, particularly the Terror of 1793-94. They have paid particular attention to the astonishing scenes that followed the murder of Marat: the placement of the bathtub in which he died on a makeshift altar; the brazenly Christ-like representation of his dead body by David; the renaming of Montmartre (Martyr’s Mount) as Montmarat; the chant of ‘cor de Jésus, cor de Marat’ as members of the Cordelier club carried his heart through the streets of Paris.

What did this imitation really amount to? Did it simply express a longing for the certitudes of Catholicism? As early as 1904 Mathiez, himself an acolyte of the Revolution (and future Stalinist), offered a more nuanced, Durkheimian explanation, interpreting Revolutionary religiosity as the expression of the perennial human will to form a collective being. Seventy years later, Ozouf took this argument in a sophisticated new direction, arguing that Revolutionary cults and festivals had a more historically specific importance. They represented, she claimed, a fundamental shift in modern history: a ‘transfer of sacrality’. Whereas pre-Revolutionary societies had found the source of the sacred in the supernatural, the Revolutionaries attempted, in both choreographed festival and improvised ritual, to bring it down to earth, to sacralise human society itself (and more particularly that part of it that spoke French). Ozouf managed to take Revolutionary religiosity seriously in both religious and political terms. She acknowledged its link to the decline of traditional religious forms and the fracturing of the cité, but also its connection to the democratic and utopian hopes of 1789. Burton has read Ozouf, and even quotes her on the ‘transfer of sacrality’, but has not engaged with her most important insights.

Ozouf’s work would suggest that the sacrificial violence of the Left, rather than trying to re-create a lost world of faith, was fundamentally aimed at founding a new, secular order. Why, then, did it have such strong religious resonances? Why was it so similar to the explicitly religious violence of the counter-revolution? Burton’s explanation is that both were reactions to secularisation – both were peculiarly modern. But is this the case? Did the pattern of violence he identifies arise only alongside the Enlightenment, and its great challenge to religious faith? In fact, every aspect of Burton’s ‘same basic scenario’, from the conspiracy theorising to the scapegoating and sacrificial bloodshed, had their heyday in France not between 1789 and 1945, but much earlier: during the Reformation and the age of religious warfare.

Even a brief glance at this earlier bloodshed puts Burton’s evidence in a very different context. From the moment the Reformation began properly to take hold in France, in 1559, rumours spread that Protestants had killed King Henri II (who died accidentally in a tournament), and were planning to hand the country over to German invaders. The next 35 years were possibly the most ghastly in French history. The lowpoint came on 24 August 1572, St Bartholomew’s Day, as Protestants gathered in Paris to celebrate the marriage of their leader, Henri of Navarre, to the King’s sister Marguerite (‘La Reine Margot’). Determined to wipe out the Protestant movement, supporters of the ultra-Catholic Duc de Guise attempted to kill one of its leaders, but succeeded only in shooting him in the hand. As tensions rose, the King’s mother, Catherine de Médicis, secretly urged Catholic gangs to murder all the Protestants they could find. Two days of slaughter in the streets followed. Thousands of Protestants lost their lives.

The Massacre seemed initially to break the back of French Protestantism, but ten years later a pair of royal deaths left Henri of Navarre as the heir to the throne. In response, a fanatical Catholic League, which vowed to hand France over to the Spanish rather than accept a French Protestant sovereign, grew in strength. In 1588, the League drove out of Paris the mercurial King Henri III, who in his brief reign had lurched between bouts of hedonism and masochistic religious devotion. They used what would in subsequent centuries become the infrastructure of Parisian violence: street barricades. But Henri struck back in December, murdering de Guise, the League’s sponsor, having invited him to his château in Blois. The King’s physician, François Miron, described the moment in one of the greatest French historical memoirs: the feverish deployment of the assassins in the early hours; the King rubbing a secretary’s cheeks lest the man’s paleness give the plot away; the Duke’s comment to his worried entourage as he strode off to his final rendezvous: ‘he wouldn’t dare.’

Paris erupted with a fury that has never again been matched: not in 1789, 1848, 1871 or 1944. The League expelled the King’s supporters from the city or killed them, and its theologians declared the monarch deposed. Every day, religious processions passed through the streets, attempting to resanctify the cité and rouse the population to holy fury against the besieging royal army. Printing presses worked overtime, spewing out tracts accusing Henri III of fighting for the Protestants, of sodomy, of committing his soul to the devil. In the span of fifty pages, one pamphlet managed to call him a liar, traitor, coward, slave, tyrant, tiger, perjurer, murderer, parricide, assassin, devil, thief, sybarite, atheist heretic and knave, while comparing him unfavourably to Machiavelli, Herod, Absalom, Heliogabalus, Sardanapalus, Decius, Nebuchadnezzar, Julian the Apostate and Nero. In the summer of 1589, a Dominican monk named Jacques Clément entered the King’s camp outside Paris, claiming to have secret information: ushered into Henri III’s presence, he took a knife from his sleeve and stabbed the King to death. Only after Henri of Navarre converted to Catholicism in 1594 did peace finally return to the battered country that the poet Agrippa d’Aubigné called ‘France désolée . . . terre sanguinaire,/Non pas terre, mais cendre’. In 1610 Henri of Navarre, too, fell to an ultra-Catholic assassin’s knife.

Much of this earlier bloodshed can be explained with a variation on the argument Burton uses for the 19th century. Burton cites, for instance, the fact that the rebuilding of 19th-century Paris destroyed many of the churches that bound the city into a liturgical whole, while physically separating others from the buildings that surrounded them: ‘the separating out of the sacred and the profane . . . the divorce of religious signifiers from their signified’. Burton rightly sees this process generating tremendous anxiety. Yet none of it was new, or necessarily secular. In fact, it was quite characteristic of Calvinism. In the 16th century, wherever Jean Calvin’s followers had taken power, they cleared out the space around churches, broke up the old parishes, deconsecrated and disenchanted. The shattering of the old religious certainties began, it turns out, not with Voltaire, but with Luther.

It’s true that between 1610 and 1789 sacrificial violence didn’t break out as regularly as it would after the start of the Revolution. The absolute monarchy’s great achievement was to keep the peace, particularly after the colourful but limited Fronde revolts of 1648-53. Yet this peace was precarious. It demanded one last bout of religious violence: the forced expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Huguenots in 1685. And the memories of the religious wars haunted France long after the physical damage had been repaired. In the 18th century, Voltaire made them the subject of his most ambitious epic, La Henriade, which dwelt at length on the grisly horrors of St Bartholomew’s Day (blood steaming in the streets of Paris, children dashed against flagstones). Diderot wrote memorably of the days when ‘one half of the nation bathed itself, out of piety, in the blood of the other half.’ The reforming minister Turgot took it on himself to warn the young Louis XVI about the dangers of religious fanaticism, ‘which put daggers in the hands of kings to butcher the people, and in the hands of the people to butcher kings’. In 1789, Camille Desmoulins roused the crowds of the Palais-Royal by warning about a ‘St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of patriots’. It’s no coincidence that the most popular stage play of the early Revolution, Marie-Joseph Chénier’s Charles IX, was centred on the Massacre.

In short, expiatory sacrificial violence had become a French tradition long before the Revolution. When Parisian rioters broke the peace in the spring of 1789, terrified onlookers feared a recrudescence of fanatical violence. When royal troops moved to surround the city in the summer, they brought with them the spectre of the Saint-Barthélémy. Reluctant to become sacrificial victims, Parisians quickly concluded that their only hope lay in striking first. The crowds who listened to Desmoulins at the Palais-Royal went on to storm the Bastille, and kill its governor. In doing so, they established an agonising pattern of massacre and counter-massacre. Only then did the memory of the Saint-Barthélémy finally fade, replaced in the Parisian imaginaire by more recent effusions of blood.

Catholic writers of the 19th century were all too happy to ascribe these new bouts of slaughter to the spirit of the age, and its lamentable loss of faith. Like their contemporary Matthew Arnold, they saw the sea of faith receding, leaving exposed not the towers of the great cathedrals, but that monstrous symbol of secular modernity, the Eiffel Tower, which arose in part as a response to Sacré-Coeur, and which they hated with a particular passion. Burton cites Léon Bloy’s description of the Tower as a ‘beacon of shipwreck and despair . . . that sterile Babel of iron’, casting its shadow over the city in place of the consoling image of Christ, mocking the death throes of the poor. But how much should we generalise from such jeremiads? How much can we link the long and tortured story of modern French political violence to the receding tide of religion? The temptation to make a strong connection is powerful. But, in the end, the explanation obscures the extent to which the rites of violence could be means to real political ends, including the establishment of a democratic republic and social justice. And it obscures the purpose these rites served as the anguished expression of Parisians caught in a terrible cycle of retribution and revenge.