The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 resulted from a longer-term transformation of political culture. Central to this was the emergence of a self-conscious public opinion that viewed itself as national and sovereign. The failure of the French monarchy to adapt to this development culminated in its removal. The French nation was now sovereign, and hence able to set aside all existing laws and privileges. In terms of France’s relationship with the rest of the World, the Revolution initially heralded a new era of fraternity. This proved ephemeral as war engulfed Europe from 1792 to 1815. In France, war initially encouraged national solidarity as the entire country mobilized. As the war persisted this solidarity broke down and a chasm developed between civilians and soldiers. The latter were increasingly motivated by a cult of honour that found its ultimate expression in Napoleon Bonaparte. He seized control of France in 1799, and then built up an empire in which the national element was increasingly diluted with each new conquest. Napoleonic imperialism in turn triggered reactions in other parts of Europe where opposition to French exploitation manifested itself amongst ordinary people. Intellectuals and some politicians sought to harness popular sentiment by preaching national hatred, and to some extent this assisted the massive mobilization effort necessary to defeat Napoleon. However, following victory Europe’s rulers quickly suppressed the rhetoric of national liberation, as they recognized the danger it posed to their own position.
Michael Rowe, is Lecturer in Modern European History at King’s College London. His publications include From Reich to State: The Rhineland in the Revolutionary Age, 1780–1830 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) and, as editor, Collaboration and Resistance in Napoleonic Europe (London: Palgrave, 2003).