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The French Revolution was an effort to transform France from an unequal rule by the monarchy into an ideal republican form of government that was based on Enlightenment concepts such as natural rights and legal egalitarianism. In its ambitious attempt to do so, it disregarded its promise of liberty, and eliminated all voices of opposition, arguing that such radical and authoritative actions were necessary to achieve its ideal end of forming a perfect society. Employing radical means to achieve an ideal end is characteristic of the many totalitarian governments the world has seen since the French revolution such as Stalin’s Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The leaders of these regimes, in order to realize their vision of an ideal society, employed many radical methods that were used by French revolutionaries to eliminate dissent, such as the use of terror, propaganda by the government, and undemocratic rule by a single party.
The French revolution was very much inspired by Rousseau’s philosophy who believed that for the attainment of the general will, citizens’ personal needs and wants must be overlooked and more importantly, all forms of dissent must be eliminated. This philosophy was in full force during the Terror during which, for the general will, Robespierre seized power and initiated the Terror, therefore causing “every aspect of citizens’ lives to be politicized”, since they had to always be in accordance with the general will. To ensure the loyalty of citizens towards the state, disagreement with the new revolutionary government “appeared as crime and perversion” and thus was punishable by death. As a result of this, thousands of citizens in this brief period were sentenced to death by the guillotine even if the government was suspicious of their dissent despite having no real evidence to prove it. Similar to this, in both Stalin’s Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, those who opposed or criticized the state were seen as its enemies and were inhumanely punished (instead of death, they were often sent to concentration camps). Harsh punishment such as this for mere differences of opinion instilled widespread fear amongst the citizens of France, Russia, and Germany under their respective totalitarian regimes, and due to this fear, overthrowing the regime virtually became an impossibility. Therefore, similar to the leaders of the French revolution, such as Maximilien Robespierre, leaders of modern totalitarian regimes used fear to eliminate dissent.
An additional measure used by modern totalitarian governments to prevent dissent was the indoctrination of its citizens about the benevolence of the government through the use of propaganda. Propaganda was not as widespread in France during the revolution as it was in modern totalitarian governments but there was a presence of it. For example, the Jacobins – who formed in the wake of the French Revolution, were the most radical political group during the revolution, and played a key role in instituting the Terror – “used propaganda to manipulate the uneducated masses”. A similar pattern was seen in recent totalitarian governments such as Nazi Germany. Under Hitler’s Third Reich, education was a mechanism through which the youth could be effectively indoctrinated in the racist Nazi ideology. For example, school courses aimed to teach children about the racial superiority of the Aryan race and “instilled anti-Semitism in children through the advocacy of racial theory”. Similarly, propaganda under Stalin’s USSR was used to denounce governments that starkly contrasted with the communist Soviet Union, such as liberalism, democracy, and parliamentarianism by calling them “degradations of true politics”. Therefore, although propaganda during the French revolution was not utilized as much as by modern totalitarian governments, it did bear resemblance to its use in such regimes and served the same purpose of eliminating dissent.
Although the French revolution was inspired by progressive ideals such as equality of all men before the law and liberty, it ironically was led by governments and led to governments (such as the First Consul of Napoleon Bonaparte) that contradicted these very ideals. A prime example of this was when the radical Jacobins seized control of the National Convention from the moderate Girondins in 1793, using the state of emergency France was in as justification for this power grab. The new government then effected radical changes such as the establishment of a new calendar and the abolishment of Christianity to create a more rational society. The violent transfer of power to the Jacobins and the changes they instituted were undemocratic and characteristic of modern totalitarian governments such as Nazi Germany. Although Hitler became Chancellor of Germany through a democratic process, he destroyed democracy through democratic means (as he had originally intended to). In a short span of time, he became the dictator of Nazi Germany by consolidating the powers of the president and chancellor into a single position that he held and by passing the Enabling Act through the Reichstag. Once dictator, he outlawed opposition parties, suspended civil rights, and commited genocide against Jews, homosexuals, and other groups of people that he considered to be inferior to the Aryan race. Similar to Nazi Germany and the French governments during the Revolution, Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s communist China were totalitarian regimes that were ruled by a single party andsubjected to undemocratic and atrocious legislation that was responsible for millions of deaths. Although the French revolution, unlike modern totalitarian governments, was inspired by democratic and Enlightenment principles such as equality and liberty, the revolutionaries considered it necessary to utilize any means, however brutal and undemocratic, to achieve the goal of forming an ideal state that upheld these principles. Similarly, modern totalitarian governments, in order to attain their version of an ideal society, have utilized vicious methods such as terror, propaganda, and rule by a single party to eliminate dissent.
However, the striking similarities between the French revolution and modern totalitarian governments aren’t reason enough to conclude that the French Revolution was the origin of them. The essential justification for the brutal actions taken by totalitarian governments is that the end justifies the means. This thought was the guiding force behind the savageness of the French Revolution, and for this reason, it is the origin of modern totalitarianism.
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