Simon Schama's Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution turned out to be quite good. It's a massive work: 875 pages, of which 480 cover the five-year period starting in July 1789. Schama portrays, in great detail, the major players and the societal forces involved in the Revolution.

It's a complex story, which many internal contradictions. The aristocracy helped lead a revolution that, later on, caused such devastation to them. The same forces that created the Declaration of the Rights of Man subsequently gave way to the Terror.

Instead of trying to summarize the French Revolution, or Schama's treatment of it, I'll just mention a few things that caught my attention.

The book started by describing the two significant people from the 1789 Revolution who lasted long enough to become involved in the revolution of 1848: Lafayette (George Washington's assistant during the American Revolution) and Talleyrand. They both survived the French Revolution by fleeing France: Lafayette stuck in an Austrian prison and Talleyrand going to America.

Though Louis XVI wasn't an impressive leader, as monarchs go he wasn't an awful tyrant. Many of his ministers were capable and dedicated. They just couldn't resolve one fundamental issue: how to pay the massive French debt, built up during foreign military activities, such as supporting the American Revolution. The debt issue necessitated the calling of the Estates-General, which in turn drove the French Revolution.

France was modernizing during the reign of Louis XVI. Some of the popular resentment came from people who were victims of the emergence of capitalism. The rising price of bread, following a poor harvest, was the other major factor that angered the general population.

Once the Revolution was underway, there was a sequence of power struggles. The more radical groups generally won, killing the prior leaders. The radicals often argued that their opponents were enemies of the revolution, anticipating the rhetoric and actions of the Soviet Union and Communist China in the 20th century.

The French Revolution had a strong anti-clerical component. The French government appropriated much of the Church property, demanded that all priests swear loyalty to the revolutionary cause, and punished those who didn't. Those activities naturally fanned anti-revolutionary sentiments in many of the more religious rural areas.

France actually started many of the wars against its neighbors, hoping to spread the revolution, avert future attacks on themselves, and gain revenues from the surrounding areas. The Revolution had a strong military aspect.

Certain regions of France rebelled against the Revolutionary government. Once the government regained those areas, they implemented a policy of extermination that killed up to a third of the residents of those areas and damaged those regions for generations.

Overall, the book does a good job of explaining the complexities of the French Revolution. It drags at times, when describing various public ceremonies in minute detail. Still, Citizens is definitely worth reading.

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