Bauhaus

Bauhaus Building, Dessau, Germany. Wikipedia.

This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus, an influential school of architecture and design that was located first in Weimar, then in Dessau, and finally in Bernau, a suburb of Berlin. It became a byword for the experimentation (or decadence) of the Weimar Republic, and was accordingly shuttered by the Nazis when they came to power in 1933 – which meant that their faculty, some of them quite famous, spread throughout the world, preaching the Bauhaus message of form following function.

Sotheby’s Magazine has a short article on museums hosting centennial exhibitions this year, including at Munich, Rotterdam, Weimar, and Dessau. Click the link to see some interesting images.

I wrote a paper on the Bauhaus in college that I’m proud of, and the only time I was in Berlin I made sure to see the Bauhaus Archive (currently closed for renovation). I certainly enjoyed walking around the White City, a neighborhood of some 4000 Bauhaus and Bauhaus-inspired buildings in Tel Aviv, built by Jewish architects who migrated to British Palestine after the rise of the Nazis.

Dartmouth Seal

Dartmouth is gearing up for what it calls its sestercentennial, that is, a celebration of the granting of its charter on December 13, 1769, 250 years ago. An elaborate, double-issue of the alumni magazine just arrived, which included this item:

My scholarship lives! (Although it would have been nice of them to actually state who the author is.) ūüôā

In honor of the sestercentennial, allow me to post a graphic that adorns the title page of a book entitled simply The Dartmouth, by “Students of Dartmouth College,” which was given to me this Christmas by my classmate Ken Bower. The Dartmouth claims to be “America’s oldest college newspaper, founded 1799”; this is bogus, but it was going by 1840, when this book was published (at the time The Dartmouth was a literary magazine, and the book comprises all the numbers of volume 2). The illustration is of the four buildings lining the east side of the Green, with the three on the left comprising so-called Dartmouth Row, and the fourth being Reed Hall. (You can remember their names by the mnemonic “When Green Turns Red,” that is, Wentworth, Dartmouth, Thornton, and Reed.) Nowadays they are all in brick, painted white, with dark green shutters, but this wasn’t always the case, as the graphic illustrates.

Here’s a view of Dartmouth Row as it appeared in March of 2011, the last time I was on campus.

November 9

This day is an important one in German history:

‚ÄĘ On November 9, 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated in favor of a provisional government, later termed the Weimar Republic. It was this regime that signed an armistice with the Allies, ending the First World War, before Germany was actually invaded by them. This allowed the promulgation of the Dolchsto√ülegend¬†by the German Right following the war: that we could have won the war, but we were “stabbed in the back” by Jews and Socialists, the “November criminals” who deserved a terrible fate.

‚ÄĘ Thus did the Nazis attempt their Beer Hall Putsch in Munich on November 9 in 1923. They were going to take over the Bavarian government, and then march on Berlin and take over the country, as Mussolini had the previous year in Italy. This was a failure, but it did win them a great deal of publicity.

‚ÄĘ That Kristallnacht took place on November 9, 1938 was a coincidence, but I’m sure that for some people it was a gratifying one. On that day, Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat stationed in Paris died of having been shot two days earlier by¬†Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish Jew, who was protesting the treatment of his people by the Nazi regime. Goebbels took full advantage of the assassination to encourage the “spontaneous” uprising of Germans against Jews and Jewish interests – by the next morning, mobs had murdered some 100 Jews, smashed the storefronts of some 7500 Jewish businesses, and over burned over 1400 synagogues and prayer rooms. This exposed Nazi anti-Semitism for all the world to see, although by this point it was too late to do much about it.

‚ÄĘ But in 1989, the date was redeemed, so to speak, when East German border guards, unsure of what they were supposed to do, opened the checkpoints between East and West Berlin, allowing the free movement of people across the border for the first time since 1945. Of all the events of 1989 representing the fall of Communism,¬†fall of the Berlin Wall was probably the most significant.

But on account of Kristallnacht, the Germans do not celebrate German reunification on November 9, but on October 3, the day in 1990 when the West legally annexed the East.

Real Independence Day

Gail Heriot on Instapundit (emphasis added):

RIGHT SENTIMENT, WRONG DAY:  On this day in 1776 (and not July 4th), the Continental Congress voted for independence from Great Britain.  The next day, in a letter to Abigail, John Adams rhapsodized:

The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

Yes, we did eventually come to celebrate Independence Day with parades, bonfires and illuminations. But we chose the 4th of July (the day the Declaration of Independence was adopted and signed) rather than the 2nd of July when the vote for independence was taken.

Here’s one way the difference might matter:  Choosing the 4th made Jefferson the most significant figure in the story, since he wrote the Declaration. If the 2nd had caught on as the day to celebrate, it would have put Adams more at the center, since he was the more important oral advocate for independence.

Margaret Thatcher

April 8, 2018 marked the fifth anniversary of the death of Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady,” Prime Minister of the United Kingdom 1979-1990. Two things to come up on my Facebook feed in observance.

1. Alex Pareene in Salon:

The woman who wrecked Great Britain: Margaret Thatcher earned every single cheer that greeted her death

 Aging punk rockers, trade-unionists and decent people around the world greeted the news of the passing of Margaret Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher, with something less than respectful restraint. Millions of people had been looking forward to yesterday for years

Despite their quaint maintenance of a monarchy, British politics are less respectful than ours, and the prime minister is afforded much less regal deference than our president — though by the end of her reign Thatcher was always using the royal “we” — so the death of Thatcher¬†has and will be debated in the United Kingdom much more critically¬†than the death of her comrade-in-arms against the postwar liberal consensus Ronald Reagan was in the United States. The more cowardly American press, though, calls her time in office “controversial” and then moves on to the much more comfortable territory of her extraordinary ambition, forceful personality and skill with a cutting remark. (Our weird class of privileged British expat media leeches have also¬†guided the discussion¬†of¬†the Iron Lady¬†along those lines.)

It would be a crime to allow hagiography and personality to distract from what made her so deeply despised: She ruined Britain.

Let’s skip the rise-to-power biographical crap — if you care you can see it in the Meryl Streep movie, I assume — and get to the point. She intentionally immiserated millions of English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish people in order to carry out a liberalization of the British economy that benefited the wealthy at the expense of nearly everyone else. Decades after she left office, the country hasn’t recovered.

2. The Blaze offers sixteen memorable quotations:

On April 8, 2013, Baroness Margaret Thatcher, the last of a Cold Warrior triumvirate that included President Ronald Reagan and Blessed John Paul II, died of stroke, leaving the world to reflect on her remarkable legacy.

‚ÄúIt was with great sadness that I learned of Lady Thatcher‚Äôs death. We have lost a great leader, a great Prime Minister, and a great Briton,‚ÄĚ said current British Prime Minister David Cameron. ‚ÄúLady Thatcher didn‚Äôt just lead our country, she saved our country.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúWith the passing of Baroness Margaret Thatcher, the world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend,‚ÄĚ President Barak Obama said in a statement released by the White House.

And although she is remembered most for her political achievements and her steely resolve in bringing down the hated Iron Curtain, she was also know for her flair for rhetoric and her razor-sharp wit.

So, in honor of the passing of the great Iron Lady, here are 16 of the best Thatcherisms.

Read them at the link. My personal favorite: “The conference will go on.”

Irish Flag

The place of the Irish tricolor in Ireland was assured forever when it was flown by the rebels of 1916, but people forget that it is actually older than that. Ireland had its own unsuccessful Revolution of 1848, at which time the tricolor made its first appearance. The Irish Times reports this and fourteen other facts about the Irish flag, which turns 170 on March 7.

“Filial Correction”

From the National Catholic Register (via Instapundit), notice of a letter sent to Pope Francis last month, offering a “Filial Correction¬†Concerning the Propagation of Heresies,” from 62 Catholic notables. The article claims that the last such correction was given to Pope John XXII in 1333. Correctio Filialis comes in three main parts:

In the first part, the signatories explain why, as believing and practising Catholics, they have the right and duty to issue such a correction to the supreme pontiff. Church law itself requires that competent persons not remain silent when the pastors of the Church are misleading the flock. This involves no conflict with the Catholic dogma of papal infallibility, since the Church teaches that a pope must meet strict criteria before his utterances can be considered infallible. Pope Francis has not met these criteria. He has not declared these heretical positions to be definitive teachings of the Church, or stated that Catholics must believe them with the assent of faith. The Church teaches no pope can claim that God has revealed some new truth to him, which it would be obligatory for Catholics to believe.

The second part of the letter is the essential one, since it contains the ‚ÄėCorrection‚Äô properly speaking.¬†It lists the passages of Amoris laetitia in which heretical positions are insinuated or encouraged, and then it lists words, deeds, and omissions of Pope Francis which make it clear beyond reasonable doubt that he wishes Catholics to interpret these passages in a way that is, in fact, heretical. In particular, the pope has directly or indirectly countenanced the beliefs that obedience to God‚Äôs Law can be impossible or undesirable, and that the Church should sometimes accept adultery as compatible with being a practising Catholic.

The final part, called ‚ÄėElucidation‚Äô, discusses two causes of this unique crisis. One cause is ‚ÄėModernism‚Äô. Theologically speaking,¬†Modernism is the belief that God has not delivered definite truths to the Church, which she must continue to teach in exactly the same sense until the end of time. Modernists hold that God communicates to mankind only experiences, which human beings can reflect on, so as to make various statements about God, life and religion; but such statements are only provisional, never fixed dogmas. Modernism was condemned by Pope St Pius X at the start of the 20th century, but it revived in the middle of the century. The great and continuing confusion caused in the Catholic Church by Modernism obliges the signatories to describe the true meaning of ‚Äėfaith‚Äô, ‚Äėheresy‚Äô, ‚Äėrevelation‚Äô, and ‚Äėmagisterium‚Äô.

I would really hate to hear what they think of postmodernism! I love how the article describes Martin Luther as a “heresiarch.”

By the way, to help celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the composition of the 95 theses next month, PBS premiered “Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World” last week. I believe you can still see it on the PBS website. It was sponsored by Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, so you won’t hear him described in such terms.

Lady Di

This day marks the twentieth anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, at the age of 36 in a car crash in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris. Her lover Dodi Fayed and driver Henri¬†Paul also perished in the wreck. Paul had three times the legal limit of alcohol in his blood, and had been driving over 100 km/h, in an attempt to evade a number of photographers chasing them on motorcycles.¬†

Monogram of Diana. Wikipedia.

Lady Di’s relative youth and the violence of her death were shocking, of course, but what was most remarkable was the great outpouring of sympathy for the deceased. She had admitted to cheating on Prince Charles prior to their divorce and since that time had led a sort of Eurotrash lifestyle, but to a lot of people these things then became badges of “authenticity,” especially when compared to the rest of the allegedly stuffy, uptight royal family – her flaws became her virtues. Press coverage was nonstop, a great carpet of flowers and teddy bears appeared in front of Buckingham Palace, and even Prime Minister Jean Chr√©tien ordered flags to fly at half-mast in Canada. The Queen remained at Balmoral, her Scottish summer residence, in the week following the crash; by Thursday the headlines were reading “Show us you care!” – the idea being that King George VI had refused to leave London during the Blitz, so Her Majesty should come down to be with her people in their hour of need. I recall someone later writing that this drift “deserved a special Pulitzer for ass-saving improvisation,” as it usefully deflected peoples’ animosity away from the “paparazzi,” whom they blamed for Diana’s death.

Coat of arms of Diana during her marriage to Prince Charles – i.e. the Spencer arms, impaled with the arms of the Prince of Wales. Wikipedia.

There are theories that World War I started because all the Events of 1914 took place starting on June 28 – i.e. during the summer – and that people would have been a lot less hotheaded if the Archduke had been assassinated in January.* Summertime is the “silly season,” and my personal theory is that the higher temperatures and extended daylight hours made the reaction to Diana’s death a lot more intense than it¬†otherwise¬†would have been.

Coat of arms of Diana following her divorce – i.e. the Spencer arms, on a lozenge. Wikipedia.

Fortunately, it burned itself out. It reminded me of a medieval political assassination (e.g. that of Thomas of Lancaster or Simon de Montfort); often, such deaths were followed by a burst of miracles at the tomb of the deceased, but these tended to taper off as grief for him waned, and without the active involvement of interested parties, the initial sympathy generally did not evolve into a sustained saint’s cult. I seem to remember that a memorial march on the first anniversary of Diana’s death attracted much fewer people than anticipated, and two years ago the Express newspaper found her gravesite at Althorp, Northants.,¬†to be in an unkept state. Furthermore, I am really glad that the Queen has not abandoned her old-school reserve and devotion to duty, that she has not started oversharing her personal feelings with celebrity journalists or publicly working out at the gym, because that’s what people expect these days – and that she retains the respect and affection of her subjects for it. Christopher Hitchens was perhaps too harsh when he called Diana a “silly, trivial woman” and a “simpering Bambi narcissist,” but the revelation that she had borderline personality disorder¬†in retrospect makes complete sense and suggests that she was not really someone worthy of admiration.

Royal Standard for members of the Royal Family without assigned arms (i.e. the royal arms, within a bordure ermine). This covered Diana’s coffin during her funeral, “the most hyped non-event in history” (Hitchens, again). Wikipedia.

* Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring (1989):

The days of that summer were long and full of sunshine; the nights were mild and moonlit. That it was a beautiful and unforgettable season is part of the lore of that summer of 1914, part of its poignancy and mystique…. The fine days and nights of that July and August encouraged Europeans to venture out of their homes and to display their emotions and prejudices in public, in the streets and squares of their cities and towns. The massive exhibitions of public sentiment played a crucial role in determining the fate of Europe that summer. Had it been a wet and cold summer, like that of the previous year or the next one, would a fairground atmosphere conductive to soap-box oratory and mass hysteria have developed? Would leaders then have been prepared to declare war so readily? There is evidence that the jingoistic crowd scenes in Berlin, St. Petersburg, Vienna, Paris, and London, in the last days of July and in the early days of August, pushed the political and military leadership of Europe toward confrontation.

Dieppe

August 19 marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Dieppe Raid, an ill-fated mission during World War II that taught the Allies that any invasion of France would have to be planned a lot more carefully. (Just as the English Channel saved Britain from Nazi invasion, so also did it prevent an easy counterattack.) From the Globe and Mail (Toronto):

Dieppe raid, 75 years later: The country’s bloodiest day of the war

Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr is leading a Canadian government delegation to France to mark the 75th anniversary of the Dieppe raid during the Second World War.

The raid, launched on Aug. 19, 1942, would prove to be the bloodiest single day for Canada’s military in the entire war.

The Prime Minister released a statement Saturday to honour the hundreds of Canadians who lost their lives in the battle.

Of the nearly 5,000 Canadian soldiers who took part in the ill-fated mission, more than half became casualties, and 916 would die on the rocky shore of Puys Beach on the northern coast of occupied France.

The beach landing was supposed to happen under the cover of darkness, but the Canadians, along with 1,000 British and 50 American soldiers, were late arriving on shore, and as the sun rose they were left exposed to withering fire from German troops on the cliffs above.

Justin Trudeau said the loss at Dieppe taught Allied forces valuable lessons, which he said helped ‚Äúto turn the tide of the war on D-Day‚ÄĚ less than two years later.

‚ÄúAs we commemorate the Dieppe Raid at events in Canada and France, I ask all Canadians to honour the people who gave so much at Dieppe, as well as their families at home who suffered the loss of their loved ones,‚ÄĚ Trudeau says.

Governor General David Johnston noted that this year marks the centennial anniversary of two great victories for Canada ‚ÄĒ the battles at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele in the First World War ‚ÄĒ but it‚Äôs equally important to remember the losses, like the one at Dieppe.

‚ÄúWe must never forget the terrible cost of armed conflict and ensure that future generations remember, lest we repeat the mistakes of the past,‚ÄĚ Johnston said in a statement.

See also this recent Mark Steyn interview with screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd (video, starting at 22:45).

Vive la Révolution!

For Bastille Day (July 14), let us take symbolic tour of the French Revolution.

The French Revolution of 1789 is often billed as “the birth of modern politics” and the Jacobins who¬†took it over “the first modern political party.” Indeed, they shared more than a little in common with the Bolsheviks who took over¬†Russia in 1917. It wasn’t enough to have a regime change; both the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks¬†felt they had to remake their respective countries from the ground up. There came to be a “revolutionary” way of doing everything! In this way did the the French Revolution differ from the American Revolution that inspired it. For the Americans to dissolve the political bands that tied them to the British crown was psychologically easy enough, given that 3500 miles of ocean separated the two; the Americans adopted a new flag and national emblem, and rejected anything monarchial, but left pretty much everything else about their society intact. The situation was rather different in France, given that the government, and its numerous supporters, were all¬†right there, and ready to make alliances with neighboring powers hostile to the revolution. Thus there was a greater imperative to extirpate everything associated with¬†the ancien r√©gime,¬†through terror if necessary.

France’s original experiment with republicanism ended in 1804 in favor of Napoleon’s empire, and the country reverted to monarchy in 1815. Another dynasty took over¬†in 1830, which in turn was ousted in 1848 in favor of another republic. Then followed (from 1852) another empire, which fell in 1871 in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War. Since that time, France has been consistently republican,¬†so many of these revolutionary symbols are now respectable (and unremarkable) state symbols. Some of them did not stick, however. All of them were highly political when they were first introduced. If there was any principle in operation at the time, it was that anything monarchial, Catholic, or medieval was out, and anything republican, classical, or “enlightened” was in. Things like…

mariannes

Philatelic Mariannes (author’s collection).

Allegorical female figures. In Latin (and in French), most abstract nouns are feminine, so it is easy to imagine “Justice” or “Hope” as female figures. The revolution saw the increased use of these¬†– the idea was¬†to avoid saints like Joan of Arc, Louis IX, or Denis. The seal of the First French Republic (1792) featured¬†“Liberty”; in 1830, Eug√®ne Delacroix painted Liberty Leading the People¬†(see below). Eventually a female figure representing France acquired the name “Marianne” and is now an integral part of French symbolism. A young woman is even elected as a model Marianne on a regular basis by all the mayors of France. She’s everywhere!

frenchcocks

French stamp (author’s collection); emblems of the French national rugby league team, ice hockey team, rugby union team, and football team; Le Coq Sportif logo (Wikipedia)

Rooster. Another classical reference. The male chicken is a “gallus” in Latin, which was also the name of the Roman province of Gaul, which became France after the Franks settled there. The rooster itself is watchful, and will preserve the revolution. After Marianne, the coq gaulois¬†is the most common animate¬†symbol of France¬†today. (Certainly the fleur de lys, that sacred symbol of French royal power, was right out!)

delacroix

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People (1830), detail, via Wikipedia.

Bleu-blanc-et-rouge. I understand that the French tricolor actually dates from the early days of the revolution, when people thought that a constitutional monarchy was still possible. White was the Bourbon color, and red and blue the colors of Paris, so the idea was that the three colors¬†represented an alliance between the monarchy and the citizenry. The three colors¬†survived the execution of Louis XVI, however, and as a cockade identified the revolutionary National Guard. A tricolor flag of vertical stripes soon followed. It has been France’s national flag continuously since the July Monarchy of 1830.

135_C

Tympanum of a state-owned French church, via Wikipedia.

Libert√©, √Čgalit√©, Fraternit√©.¬†The three colors of the revolutionary flag are often linked to the three words of the revolutionary motto, which is perhaps why this motto won out over others in use at the time. Any man of the Enlightenment¬†would recognize “liberty” and “equality” as ideals; the fact that the motto goes on to embrace “fraternity” is probably a testament to the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his mystical concept of the General Will. (Many people have pointed out¬†that the motto ends up contradicting itself – are you at liberty to drop out of your fraternity?)

79760_sealfrench_lg

Seal of the First French Republic, 1792. From Clip Art Etc.

Fasces and Phrygian cap. These¬†were two more revived classical symbols beloved of the revolutionaries. A fasces consists of a bundle of rods bound around an axe. It was a ceremonial object borne before the consuls in republican Rome, and is thus a symbol of republicanism (although it isn’t as popular as it once was, given that it’s also a symbol of fascism). The Phrygian cap was¬†worn by Phrygians and others in the ancient Near East; through confusion with the pileus, cap worn by freed slaves in Rome, it came to be a symbol of freedom. Marianne wears one, often with a tricolor cockade; sometimes the cap¬†is shown lifted aloft on a pole.

Inscription_Eglise_Ivry-la-Bataille

Inscription (1792-1794) on a church at Ivry-la-Bataille, via Wikipedia.

Cult of Reason. Nothing better¬†illustrates the anti-clericalism of the revolutionaries than their¬†sponsorship of the Cult of Reason as a replacement for Roman Catholicism. Churches across the land, including Notre Dame in Paris, were transformed into Temples of Reason, and a national Festival of Reason celebrated on 20 Brumaire Year II (see “Revolutionary Calendar” below). As the name implies the religion was dedicated to the pursuit of philosophy, and the object of its worship¬†was “the people.” This was too much for everyone to stomach, and Robespierre himself sponsored a competing Cult of the Supreme Being, which at least acknowledged the existence of a god of sorts. After Napoleon’s concordat with the Catholic Church in 1801, he banned both cults.

PantheŐĀon,_Paris_25_March_2012

Le Panthéon national, via Wikipedia.

Panth√©on.¬†Another aspect of the revolutionaries’ anticlericalism was their expropriation of the church of Ste. Genevi√®ve in Paris and its transformation into a mausoleum¬†for national heroes, such as¬†Voltaire and¬†Rousseau. This Panth√©on (a nice classical reference there)¬†has reverted to being a church on a couple of occasions and a cross remains on the dome as a memento of the building’s original purpose, but it¬†is still in use today as a secular French hall of fame (the most recent interments were in 2015). Foucault’s Pendulum, proving¬†the rotation of the Earth, was first demonstrated in the Panth√©on in 1851.

map_departments

A map of the départements of 1798. From Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution.

D√©partements. The thing about the ancien r√©gime is that its¬†traditional geographical subunits (Aquitaine, Burgundy, Brittany, etc.) were also the titles, and private fiefdoms, of various dukes and counts. Such¬†particularism, and anything smacking of aristocratic privilege, could¬†not be welcome in the new France. So the revolutionaries divided the country into 83¬†d√©partements,¬†each one to be governed by a civil servant known as a prefect and each one named, neutrally, after a local river or some other geographical feature. The capital of each d√©partement was to be no more than a day’s ride from any settlement in it, as a security measure. It¬†remains the fundamental administrative division in France, even if people might still claim to be from “Champagne,” “Normandy,” or some other traditional area.

metric

“Use of the New Measures,” woodcut from eighteenth¬†century France (detail), via Wikimedia Commons.

Metric System. This one is still in use; in fact, it’s one of the most successful of all the products of the Revolution, exported to Europe and then to the world. Only eccentric places like the USA hold out against it. One can understand the revolutionaries’ desire for a uniform system of measurement, given the multiplicity of different systems within France prior to 1789 (although why the Bourbons, with all their absolutist power, didn’t manage to impose one on France themselves, has always been a mystery to me). It¬†is very much a product of the Enlightenment, in which everything is Logical. The base units are derived from nature, and relate to each other, and a uniform set of prefixes indicate by which power of ten we are to multiply the base unit. A gram, the base unit of mass, is equal to one cubic centimeter of water, which itself represents one milliliter of liquid measurement. Zero degrees centigrade is the freezing point, while 100 is the boiling point. A thousand meters is a kilometer, a thousand grams is a kilogram, a thousand liters¬†a kiloliter. All very rational – although sometimes twelve is actually an easier number to work with, in that you can divide it in half, and then in half again, and also in thirds. Also, what’s easier to say, a “mile” or a “kilometer”? And a yard may be all of three inches shorter than a meter, but the one is allegedly derived from the length of the king’s arm, while the other is one ten-millionth the distance from the North Pole to the Equator. I can’t help but think that the former is intuitive and human centered, while the latter is abstract and inhuman. (Or perhaps I have just lived too long in the United States…)

20757171

Personifications of the autumnal Revolutionary months of Vend√©miaire (“vintage”), Brumaire (“mist”), and Frimaire (“frost”), from Journal d’un S√©goleniste.

Revolutionary Calendar. Like revolutionaries everywhere, the Jacobins claimed they were living in a new era, and designated 1792, the year of the abolition of the French monarchy, as Year One. They also reorganized the calendar so that there were twelve months of thirty days each, with an extra five or six intercalary days dedicated to revolutionary virtues like “talent,” “labor,” or “honors.” Every other day of the¬†calendar was dedicated to a fruit, vegetable, animal, or tool, and the months themselves were given descriptive names like Messidor (“harvest,” June-July) or Niv√īse (“snowy,” December-January). No longer would people be celebrating the saints’ days of the¬†old calendar! This innovation did not stick (Napoleon revived¬†to the Gregorian system¬†in 1806), although the names of some of the months live on, as in Lobster Thermidor, Emile Zola’s Germinal, or Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. An interesting website has more information, and a calendar converter.

Clock-french-republic

French decimal clock from the time of the Revolution, via Wikipedia.

Decimal Time. This one was even more bizarre. That there are sixty seconds in a minute, and sixty minutes in an hour, and twenty-four hours in a day, was displeasing to some people. Metric is based on powers of ten, so the revolutionaries sponsored a decimal system of time measurement whereby each day had ten hours, each hour had 100 minutes, and each minute 100 seconds. This was deprecated in 1795.

Guillotine. Everyone knows about this instrument of the Reign of Terror (although it was only one of several methods of execution that the Jacobins employed). The irony is that the guillotine was actually considered humane, and a social leveler to boot. In the ancien régime, commoners got hanged, while only aristocrats were entitled to decapitation. The trouble is that often the hanging victim did not die instantly, while the executioner of nobles sometimes required several sword strokes to finish the job. The guillotine was not going to miss, and provided an instant, painless death no matter what social class you were from. It remained the preferred method of capital punishment in France until the abolition of the death penalty in 1981.

Sans-culottes. Men did not always wear trousers in the western world; certainly in the eighteenth century, if you had any sort of position to keep up, you wore breeches – trousers that stopped just below the knee, with hose covering the remainder of your leg. Only the lower classes¬†wore trousers that went all the way down to the¬†ankle. But insofar as the Revolution was about lifting those people up, it became briefly fashionable for everyone to wear pantalons. It was certainly a good idea during the Terror, when any hint of association with the old ways could spell¬†death. “Sans-culottes” means “without breeches” and refers to radicalized members of the working classes who were some of the revolution’s¬†most fervent supporters, although their ideas were more about equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity and they were marginalized following the Thermidorian Reaction (1794). (Apparently the fashion arbiter Beau Brummell introduced trousers to London society during the Regency [1811-20], making them safe for the upper class¬†to wear.)

legionhonor

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne (1806), detail showing collar of the Legion of Honor, via Wikipedia.

Legion of Honor. This was a Napoleonic innovation, meant to replace the chivalric orders of St. Michael (1469) and of the Holy Spirit (1578), sponsored by the French monarchy. The¬†L√©gion d’honneur,¬†in good republican form, was meant to recognize¬†talent, merit, and achievement, not birth. It has survived all¬†subsequent vicissitudes of French politics and remains the pinnacle of the French¬†honors system.

marseillaise

From the blog of 98.7 WFMT.

The Marseillaise.¬†This song¬†was composed in 1792 after the declaration of war against Austria¬†and declared the revolutionary¬†anthem in¬†1795. It derives its name from a group of volunteers from Marseilles who sang it¬†as they traveled to Paris. You know the tune – it opens the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love,” strains of it are heard in the finale¬†of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, and it is played by the man with the tape recorder up his nose in the Monty Python sketch. The lyrics are pretty violent¬†– the enemy is coming to “slit¬†the throats of our¬†sons and companions,” so we must¬†fight back and “let an impure blood soak our fields”! It was deprecated by Napoleon and banned by the nineteenth-century monarchs, but restored to official status in 1879 and remains France’s national anthem.

Jean-Pierre Hou√ęl, Prise de la Bastille (1789), via Wikipedia.

Finally, there is Bastille Day itself, or as the French call it, la Fête nationale. There were many events in the fateful year of 1789, including the convocation of the Estates-General (May 5), the Tennis Court Oath (June 20), the Great Fear (July-August), and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (August 27). But the one that everyone remembers, and that stands in for everything else, is the Storming of the Bastille on July 14. The Bastille was a prison in Paris that had come to symbolize royal tyranny, and following the dismissal of the reformist Finance Minister Jacques Necker on July 12, the Parisians stormed it. Ninety-eight attackers and one defender died in the battle; afterwards, the governor of the Bastille had his head removed and paraded around on a pike. The prisoners Рnone of whom was actually political by that time Рwere freed, and the building quickly reduced to rubble.

The elevation of July 14 to its current status of premier national holiday¬†came about in 1880, in the early years of the Third Republic. I do not know why this event of all that took place in 1789 became so important – I guess, as with¬†the Marseillaise, that violence shows you’re serious.

UPDATE: I suppose a better reason is that the destruction of a physical barrier, like in Berlin on November 9, 1989, is psychologically satisfying. Here is a photo of a model of the Bastille, made from one of the bricks of the Bastille, presented to Washington by Lafayette, on display at Mount Vernon.

Photo: Anne Good.