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French Revolution
French Revolution

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4 Europe and the French Revolution

4.1 Intellectual, governmental and monarchical responses

There was much sympathy among intellectuals abroad for the Revolution, which seemed to be putting so many Enlightenment ideals into practice. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant was among the first to hail the Revolution as a unique historical phenomenon, and these early reactions were shared by Fichte, Herder, Schiller and Goethe. Enthusiasts in Britain included the radical Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man (1791), Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) and A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), poets such as Burns, Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth, and, initially, the campaigner against slavery William Wilberforce, a man of deep religious conviction. In later years Wordsworth recalled his emotions of 1789 in a celebrated couplet:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

But to be young was very Heaven!

What was the attitude of the French revolutionaries to Europe? In May 1790 the Assembly resolved that ‘the French nation renounces involvement in any war undertaken with the aim of making conquests’ and that ‘it will never use force against the liberty of any people’ (Vovelle, 1984, p. 123). This was not, however, regarded as incompatible with wars of ‘liberation’ to spread the Revolution abroad. In the boast of the radical deputy Pierre Chaumette: ‘The land which separates Paris from St Petersburg will soon be gallicized, municipalized, jacobinized’ (quoted in Furet, 1996, p. 104).

How did the European monarchs react? A letter from Leopold II, Austrian emperor, to Catherine II, empress of Russia, in July 1791 and the Declaration of Pillnitz of August 1791, written immediately after the flight to Varennes, indicate the attitude to the Revolution of the monarchies of Austria and Prussia. Both were ‘open’ documents, intended to influence public opinion across France and Europe and to be understood as expressions of solidarity between the rulers of Austria and Prussia, speaking on behalf of European monarchs generally. In the letter to Catherine, Leopold expresses indignation at the treatment of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette and his fears for their safety. He sees in the ‘dangerous excesses of the French Revolution’ a threat to monarchs and political stability generally. The Revolution had thus become an international issue. The Declaration of Pillnitz is an appeal for support by the Austrian and Prussian monarchs to the other European monarchs and a warning of possible military intervention in France.

The rulers of Britain and continental Europe in 1792 were alarmed by the Revolution, but not so much that they took serious steps to suppress it. Kaunitz, the Austrian chancellor, indeed protested against intervening in France's internal affairs as unnecessary. Austria, Prussia and Russia acted in traditional fashion by taking advantage of the weakness to which they supposed the Revolution had brought France, in order to complete the partition of France's former protégé, Poland, swallowed up by Russia and Prussia in the partitions of 1793 and 1795.

It was the French who declared war. They were not to know how far Austria and Prussia were serious in their threats. What they did know was that in 1787 the Prussians had intervened militarily in Holland, while the Austrians in 1788 had sent their troops into the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium), in each case to suppress a revolutionary uprising. In April 1792 France declared war on the Habsburg ruler of Austria, Emperor Francis (Leopold's successor), and invaded the Austrian Netherlands (present-day Belgium). In November the Assembly decreed that France offered ‘fraternal assistance to all peoples wishing to recover their liberty’. Once hostilities began, the Declaration of Brunswick (August 1792) issued by the Duke of Brunswick, commanding the Prussian and Austrian armies, threatened to put Paris to sword and fire should any harm befall the French royal family. War between France and European monarchs spread the Revolution beyond France's frontiers, and inspired an ulterior goal of securing for France the ‘natural frontier’ of the Rhine.