Guillotines are not funny or clever

The year was 1815, and my great-great-great-great-great grandfather Pierre Henry landed in his new home in Prussia. He was one soldier in the French Army which was part of Napoleon’s failed Russia campaign, and he was one of thousands of soldiers who did not make it back to France. He did not die as a result of the war, he died in 1848. He married Susanna Juliana Hoffman and had at least one son, Melidor Henry. Melidor would go on to have at least one son Eugen, who would have three children. Eugen’s son Karl died in 1949, and Karl’s daughter Ursula was my great-grandmother who I remember.

Pierre was born in France, and his father was Louis Marie Henry, born in 1762 in Versailles. He lived through the French Revolution. He died in 1828.

I do not know the names of Pierre’s sibilngs, but I’m certain he had some. Somewhere in France I am certain I still have some cousins because my great-great grandfather was still in contact with at least one cousin in France in the early 20th century. If you are one of them, please contact me.

OK, family history aside I want to make it abundantly clear that what I am discussing is a personal topic to me, as much as any event which happened over 200 years ago can be. While my writings based off of the Soviet Union are based on discussions with people who saw their mentors being dragged away by the secret police, this article is about my personal family history.

The story begins with the end of the Carolingian/Capetian Dynasty. This corrupt dynasty was overthrown in 1792 by a revolution. Many people were killed by the guillotine and the First Republic was founded in 1792. 7 years after its formation Napoleon Bonaparte came to power and ended any form of democracy in France. During the French First Republic there was first the National Convention which lasted for 3 full years upon the death of King Louis XVI. 3 years later power was stripped from the Legislative Body into the Directoire which lasted for 4 years. The Directoire was a counsel of 5 members who governed France. It was a time of economic stagnation and ending the Reign of Terror. In 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte took advantage of the weaknesses which were present and became the dictator of France.

There is little which needs to be explained about Napoleon. He was essentially a monarch, and he established the First French Empire. His rule ended in 1814 and then there was a Restoration of the Bourbon monarchy after Napoleon’s death. It was a constitutional monarchy, but unlike the United Kingdom or Canada, Louis XVIII was the supreme head of state who had real power which he used. Only the richest one percent of the French had the right to vote during the July Monarchy.

The Restoration was succeeded by yet another monarchy (the July Monarchy) which lasted until 1848. 60 years after the French Revolution had been the abolition of Kings, only 10 years were not under a sole monarch.

1848 was a revolutionary year for Western Europe and France was no exception. The Second Republic lasted a full 3 years until President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte declared himself Emperor. He remained the emperor until 1870. The Second Republic had universal suffrage, but this was practically meaningless because the laws had to originate with Emperor Napoleon III.

Napoleon III was the last Emperor of France. During his time he continuously saw his power diminish, but he remained the monarch with real power through his entire reign. He was dethroned not by a popular revolution but the end of the Franco-Prussian War. The Paris Commune controlled Paris for a full two months before the French Army under the Government of National Defense suppressed the Commune and took full control. Cabinet Dufaure I was the first meaningful democratic government of France under a constitution which would last for more than 5 years. The Third Republic continued to rule France as a Unitary Parliamentary Republic until Hitler invaded France in 1940.

The big question remains… how did the Third French Republic come to be? Essentially it appeared in a similar way that the United Kingdom evolved from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy over the 18th and 19th centuries. It was the assertion of power over the country by the mostly powerless Parliament after the Emperor had been captured by the Prussians. After Napoleon’s capture the Parliament declared itself to be the legitimate government of France and instead of having another megalomaniac come to power and declare himself emperor, the structure was stronger than previous governments in French history.

France did not become a Republic overnight from sending the bourgeois to the guillotines. France became a Republic very gradually over 81 years. France did not become a true democracy simply from a bloody revolution by the people. It reached its first stable form after the parliament declared itself to be more than just a meaningless institution but to be the legitimate government of France because of the lack of an Emperor. France did not become a true Republic overnight with the beheading of the aristocracy. If you actually look at French history it didn’t become a true Republic until 1870, and that was the conclusion of 20 years of reforms under Napoleon III. That form of government became stable, and did not require the execution without trial of tens of thousands of people.

That is how France became a democracy.

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