War and Cultural Transfer in Europe

Authored by: Alan Forrest

The Routledge Companion to the French Revolution in World History

Print publication date:  October  2015
Online publication date:  September  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415820561
eBook ISBN: 9781315686011
Adobe ISBN: 9781317413875


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It may seem a curious, even a rather perverse, point of departure to think of war – especially a war as total and as unforgiving as that of the Revolution, with its strong overtones of ideology and its assumption of moral superiority – as having the capacity to act as a source of cultural exchange and understanding between the peoples of Europe. France in the eighteenth century was not a state accustomed to sustained periods of peace, and the rest of Europe, inured as it was to decades of warfare against France’s monarchs, found it hard to take the revolutionaries’ seemingly peaceful overtures seriously. Throughout the century the French had thrown themselves into regular and recurrent wars, whether struggles over territory and dynastic succession in Europe or wars for overseas empire across the extra-European world. In the Seven Years War French forces had fought in North America, the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent, and it was only the loss of Canada and of much of France’s colonial empire in that war, combined with the British loss of its North American colonies a decade later, which limited the scope of the French revolutionary wars more strictly to Europe. At the outbreak of the Revolution France was still an ambitious and expansionist European power. Many of the leaders of the early Revolution had direct experience of Old Regime politics, whether as lawyers, merchants or public officials; others had commented on politics as journalists or had begun military and naval careers. There was no complete break with France’s past in 1789 despite the Revolution and the transformation of her political culture. The need to promote growth and wealth was a major concern for both the French government and her people. The Anglophobia that had marked the war ministries of the later Bourbon monarchy was not extinguished.1 And the rest of Europe, whatever the French government might proclaim, would continue to take account of that past and see France in its historic geopolitical context; if anything France’s neighbours feared that the Revolution would revitalize the country and make it a more formidable opponent in war.2

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