The Guillotine and the Cross
(Warren Carroll, Christendom Press, 1991)
reviewed by Matthew M. Anger
To the theological temperament the [French] Revolution was, of course, proof that neither God nor Satan had abandoned the heroic battleground of this earth.
- Crane Brinton, A Decade of Revolution, 1789-1799
Few studies of the French Revolution illustrate the underlying theological reality of human events as well as Warren Carroll's Guillotine and the Cross (Christendom Press, 1991). It is a book that has already joined the ranks of classic Catholic history, along with the works of Hilaire Belloc, William Thomas Walsh and Christopher Hollis, for its engaging narrative and uncompromising analysis. An example of Carroll's style is his discussion of the attempt by Robespierre to concoct a Jacobin faith to replace the old Creed. The Revolution, while abolishing Catholicism, condescended to acknowledge the existence of God. In commemoration of this progressive discovery, it proclaimed a "festival of the Supreme Being" which took place in May 1793. These events, says Carroll
are all discussed by most historians, even Catholic historians, with a seriousness which under all the circumstances they hardly seem to deserve. Whatever it was that Robespierre was talking about was very far removed from the God of the martyrs of the Revolution... It was a "god" who seems to have borne a rather close resemblance to Maximillien Robespierre himself. At the "festival of the Supreme Being" he hailed this god from an enormous pasteboard mountain which he had run ahead of the formal procession to be assured of climbing first. From its summit, dressed in a robin's-egg blue coat and jonquil-colored breeches, he addresses an enormous throng through clouds of incense. In honor of the occasion [he notes wryly], the guillotine was draped in velvet that day and did not strike off a single head.
Surprisingly few writers, even conservative historians, have provided as incisive a study as this. At the same time, one esteems Carroll's sense of balance. A mere litany of atrocity stories, of which the Revolution provides many, would simply blunt the reader's sensibility in the retelling. Carroll does not shrink from them, but he gives us a handful of sharply drawn vignettes of both bravery and madness that leave a lasting impression of what revolution is really about.
Unlike the accounts that have come down to us in the form of novels (or novels passing as history), there is little to savor about the republicans, aside from some sardonic episodes which Dr. Carroll has artfully picked out from the mass of source material. There is, for example, the description of the National Convention, the violent and factious body that terrorized France for three long years. At one point, the infamous Jacobin pamphleteer Jean Paul Marat puts in an appearance. He does not exactly stroll up to the speakers' podium; rather, he hops and hobbles while his face grimaces at the gathered throng. Even the hardened revolutionaries in the Convention are repulsed by the instigator of the September Massacres of 1792.
A furious demonstration greeted Marat.... "Give him a glass of blood!" one member shouted, and others joined in, "Blood! Give him blood!"
Some time later, Robespierre achieved total control of the Convention. He was known as "The Incorruptible," a bloodless pedant who bullied the craven mass of deputies with continued threats of purges and yet more purges. He would, says Dr. Carroll, impress the gathering with his "Supreme Being Outfit" (the blue coat and yellow trousers mentioned above). Then Robespierre would search out the hall for new victims, momentarily lifting his glasses and fixing his gaze on some unfortunate who had wavered a hair's breadth from the constantly shifting party line. The glance of those green feline eyes was most unnerving.
One of the delegates, in a moment of abstraction, suddenly started as he found Robespierre's gaze fastened on him, and blurted out to those standing nearby: "He'll be supposing I was thinking about something!"
One may wonder where amidst the absurdity and bestiality a positive message may be found? There is, admittedly, a certain grim satisfaction in knowing that the majority of the Revolutionary leaders—from the puffed up liberal aristocrat, Philippe Orleans (the self-styled "Philippe Equality") who voted for the death of his kinsman, Louis XVI, to the vicious Jacobins, St. Just, Hebert and Robespierre himself—met the same end as so many of their victims. But vengeance was not enough to expiate the evils of the Republic.
The antidote to revolution is primarily sacrifice and repentance. The deaths of faithful Catholics had a more noble countenance than that of the pitiful revolutionaries who were caught up, kicking and screaming, in their own machine of death. The martyrdom of the faithful undoubtedly won supernatural reprieve from the worst aspects of the Terror. Dr. Carroll notes that the last great act of "Revolutionary Justice" culminated in the execution of Mother Teresa and her Carmelite companions on July 17, 1794. Ten days later, the deposed Robespierre followed them to the guillotine in the so-called "Thermidorian Reaction" which ended the Terror.
Dr. Carroll devotes an entire section to the exploits of the Catholic "rebels" of the Vendee. These were the devout peasants of West France, from the area evangelized by the great St. Louis de Montfort earlier in the 18th century, who raised an army with little more than farm implements for weapons and the badge of the Sacred Heart as their armor. It is regrettable that modern American Catholics know nothing about their story. By contrast, in the early 19th century, the outrages of the Revolution were still fresh in peoples' minds. Even non-Catholics, like Sir Walter Scott, thrilled to the tales of Vendean leaders like Cathelineau, Charette and Rochejaquelein. While the Revolution was, according to Crane Brinton, substantially engineered and guided by a radical minority, the Vendee was a truly popular uprising. The handful of aristocratic generals in the Catholic army were practically pressed into service by the zealous peasants of the Bocage. Jacobins, like the up-and-coming young officer, Napoleon Bonaparte, could not but be impressed with that fact.
One last incident of note, which will come as a surprise even to long-time students of the Revolution, is the story of the great Georges-Jacques Danton. Indeed, the fact of this revolutionary leader's repentance is probably even more obscure than the story of the Vendee. After all, liberals do not like to be deprived of their idols.
Danton was the giant of the Revolution. He was a towering, heavy-set but active man, who was not afraid to physically confront his opponents. His bull-like, pock-marked face was featured in popular portraits and was later commemorated in a drab stone bust in the early days of the Russian Revolution. He was the veritable demigod of the Republic and perhaps the only Revolutionary who truly rose above the pretentious mediocrity of the mass of intellectuals, bureaucrats and lawyers. Danton's booming voice commanded all in its presence. Even to his last appearance before a Revolutionary Tribunal, no one could out-talk or out-shout the man from Arcis-sur-Aube.
It was Danton who was the architect of the Terror. It was Danton who, with his famous "Audacity, audacity, and again, audacity!" imprisoned the Royal family and defeated the counter-revolutionary armies of Germany and Austria. It was Danton who helped suppress the anti-republican clergy. Yet it was this same Jacobin who turned repentant Catholic and grappled with the very engine of death he had helped to create. He died at its hands, says Dr. Carroll, in willing expiation for his guilt.
A mere recounting of the facts does not give one a true feel for the drama of the French Revolution as can Dr. Carroll's vivid chronicle. Readers will find a great many more surprising details than are covered in this brief review. Despite its obviously sinister aspect, the French Revolution is a reminder that great conflict not only brings out the worst in men but also the best. Were it not for the men and women who gave all to gain all, such events would be unbearable and unintelligible. When former revolutionaries and apostate priests remember their God, we must remember that there is always hope at the last minute, even now.
In retrospect, we see that the story of the Revolution is a tale of two cities, not only in the Dickensian sense, which says a great deal about good and evil, but also in the Augustinian sense. St. Augustine said that there are two societies which influence all the nations, empires and cultures of the world, and to which, one or the other, all men belong: the City of Man (or the World), and the City of God. As if prophesying about the French Revolution, the saint of the fifth century wrote that "In the City of the World both the rulers themselves and the people they dominate are dominated by the lust for domination." Dr. Carroll's historical research merely drives home the Christian conviction that the City of the World will indeed have its republic (complete with guillotine), but that the crown will go to the City of God.
Matthew Anger is a freelance journalist who has written essays on history, philosophy and literature from a Catholic perspective. He lives with his wife and eight children in the Richmond, Virginia area, where he is employed as a web/multimedia designer. In addition to Seattle Catholic, he contributes to The Latin Mass and Homiletic & Pastoral Review. He also maintains Imlac's Journal, a philosophical blog.