The Vendée – struck down with the saber of freedom

The victors had the skin of their victims cut into riding pants; the human fat smeared the wheels of their wagons. The revenge of the revolution was as bloody as it was merciless, the guillotine that they had brought to the Vendée at the beginning of the war had become too mild for them.

One could have guessed. Every July 14th, France celebrates the storming of the Bastille as an act of heroism in the name of freedom, equality, and fraternity. The historical reality was less glorious, instead of liberating hundreds of political prisoners, four deceivers, two insane people and an imprisoned aristocrat, said to have been the Marquis de Sade, were released. The crew of the Bastille promised free escort, none of the surrendering soldiers should experience the end of the day.

Beyond the borders of France, the French Revolution today stands for a founder myth of free democracy, even though the United States of America had already seen the light of world history a few years earlier. It is correspondingly unpopular in France and among ardent followers of the Enlightenment to point out the dark sides which, as we know, have produced almost every revolution. Among the dark teams that obscured France after 1789 was not only the terrorist rule of the Jacobins per se but also perhaps the first modern genocide in European history.

“O freedom, what crimes are done in your name!”

Madam Roland

Even today, the inhabitants of the Vendée department on the Atlantic below Brittany, together with two adjacent departments, are considered particularly conservative and Catholic in France. At times when the king, queen, and dissenters were chopped off in distant Paris, it was not much different. All it took was a spark of ignition from the increasingly radicalized revolutionary government in 1793 when the European powers allied themselves against the revolution and they knew no alternative but to set up a mass army through compulsory military service. The French would already take up arms and strike back at the enemy together. Also, the French in the Vendée decided to take up arms, but against the Republic, against Paris, and against the increasingly powerful Jacobins.

In France, people still discuss whether the massacres, which lasted until 1800, were genocides, or at least what they called Guerre de Vendée, war, and German historiography likes to trivialize an uprising or peasant uprising. If this war, which consisted of three wars interrupted by periods of peace, comes up at all.

So at first, it looked good for counterrevolution; the people ran over to them, even some women put on men’s clothes to fight for king and god. The republican troops outnumbered, while officers with military experience came from local nobility. Again and again, they hurried from victory to victory, sometimes so quickly that one did not know what the next step should be. Should we march to Paris and free the 9-year-old crown prince, for the insurgents already as Louis XVII, their rightful king? How should one hold the conquered cities? Should we ally ourselves with the insurgent Chouans in Brittany?

The Jacobins in Paris took away their decision, and the National Convention decided to wipe out the Vendée. Those who knew the bloodthirst of men like Danton, Marat or Robespierre knew that the revenge of the Republic would be merciless.

“We must destroy all the men who took up arms and smash them up with their fathers, their wives, their sisters and their children. The Vendée is supposed to be nothing more than a large national cemetery.”

General Louis-Marie Turreau

The fact that historians argue about the question of genocide, also has to do with the question of the number of victims. There are reports of 600,000 victims of the war in the Vendée. More credible, however, are figures that are grouped around 115,000 victims, since the affected area had only about 800,000 inhabitants at that time. Ultimately, the question of how many victims one can speak of genocide is more likely to be for the more cynical representatives among historians. The cruelty with which the inhabitants of the Vendée were blessed with “freedom! Equality! I wanted to bring you brotherhood. At some point, however, even the Jacobins’ welfare committee found it impossible to anchor the ideals of the revolution among the inhabitants of the Vendée; consequently, the people were driven out by soldiers and replaced by “good Sansculottes.” Since the civil war in Yugoslavia, we have called such an approach “ethnic cleansing.” On the other hand, the behavior of the Vendéens themselves, who repeatedly released captured soldiers into freedom and only took away their promise not to fight them again, seems like a beacon.

“Kill the women because they are the fertile plaice; kill the children because they are future brigands; and kill the blues (followers of the Republic), for you will have no time to distinguish them from the counterrevolutionary whites.”

Welfare Committee directive

The war in the Vendée is still a topic that one should not address during a friendly dinner in France. It has become a symbol when regionalists quarrel with centralists, conservatives with leftists and Catholics with secularists. The crimes of that time have become the plaything of the opposites of modernity, either by instrumentalizing them against the left, which still reveres the revolution as the “Holy Grail”, or by calling them necessary measures of a state against an insurgent region, in order to avoid any staining of the revolution by the blood of the victims. It is doubtful, however, that the name of a General Louis-Marie Turreau, for example, can still be found engraved on the Arc de Triomphe, although at least his deeds are historically undisputed. Finally, he praised himself for the “republican baptism” in Nantes, behind which, of course, nothing else but the drowning of men, women, and children in the port of the city stood. No less doubtful, however, is the attempt to take the Vendée as its founding myth from the Vichy government created by the National Socialists.

“There is no more vendee. She was cut down with our saber of freedom, with women and children. I buried them in the swamps and woods of Savenay. I can’t be accused of being a prisoner. I wiped everything out.”

General Francois- Joseph “Butcher of the Vendée” Westermann

While the rest of France is still arguing, in the region itself the memory of the struggle for God and the King, for the freedom which religious freedom carries within itself, is alive. Be it through monuments in those places where victories were won or where their heroes fell. Many churches also bear witness to this, which, even for the Catholic Vendée, seem like a grotesquely oversized cathedral. They were built during the restoration period as a replacement for the churches burned down by Republicans.

The coat of arms of the department still shows the double heart crowned with a crown in blood red, surrounded by the lilies of the Bourbons, once sitting on France’s throne, alternating with a stylized castle.

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