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In which John Green completes his introduction to the history of the French Revolution, discussing the rise of the Committee of Public Safety, Maxmillien Robespierre, the reign of terror, the guillotine, the death of Marie Antoinette, the Directory, the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, and some thoughts on why we study history in the first place.


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Good morning, Hank, it's Thursday. We left off yesterday in our study of the French Revolution in early 1793 with King Louis XVI being separated from his head via guillotine, and France is ensuing war with almost all of Europe.

Meanwhile, and I don't want to overemphasize this, no one has done anything to fix the famine! So these poor laborers, known as the sans-culottes, because they wore pants instead of shorts, or, humorous outfits, they start rioting. And eventually, these guys and the Jacobins get an idea to solve the famine, which is even worse than the idea of going to war with Austria: government price controls for bread.

This of course fails miserably, and eventually, having failed at stealing grain from the rest of Europe, the French government sends its army into the countryside to steal grain from itself. All this happened under the leadership of the Committee of Public Safety, motto "we suck at protecting public safety", which was lead by Maximilien Robespierre, a fascinatingly paranoid despot who would foreshadow fascinatingly paranoid despots like Kim Jong Il and Saddam Hussein and Joseph Stalin. Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety hated anyone associated in any way with the church or the royalty. And between the summers of 1793 and 1794, they oversaw the guillotining of over 16,000 people. Including many nobility, many inadequately revolutionary revolutionaries, clergy who refused to sign an oath to the government, and of course, in October, Marie Antoinette.

Marie Antoinette, the king's wife, who for the record never said "Let them eat cake", and who, like almost everyone else murdered during the terror, posed absolutely no threat to the government. So what had just recently been the First and Second Estates of the France, the people who ran the show, had suddenly become the enemies of this new secular state. And in the end, this led to a lasting decline in the relevance of religion and class to governments and economies in Europe. The rampant guillotining during the terror is often seen as an example of enlightenment thinking run amok, but in fact, more people were killed by guns during the terror than by the guillotines, so...yeah...no.
However, among the people killed by the guillotine was Robespierre, who, after a year of being paranoid that people were trying to kill him, of course inevitably got himself killed. Which is one of the great lessons of history and also life, if you act out of a paranoid fear of something happening, you will always make that thing happen. Right, so Robespierre was guillotined in the month of Thermidor in the year two.

Oh, that reminds me of something I forgot to mention, which is that while this famine was going on and France was broke and fighting like nine wars, the Committee of Public Safety decided to change the French calendar. You know, because the traditional calendar with its 24 hour days and its dating from the birth of Christ was all irrational and religion-y. They renamed all the months and decided that every day would only have 10 hours and each hour 100 minutes. That would be an example of enlightenment thinking run amok.

So after the Committee collapsed, France passed a new constitution, and for the next four years, from 1795-1799, France was run by a group of directors, who stole elections and bungled the economy, but didn't cut off 16,000 people's heads, so... bonus points for them. But the French military was actually having a lot of success, largely because in 1793 France instituted the first military draft, which meant they had way more soldiers than anybody else. And really, the military was the only institution in which people had confidence, which is why, when General Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in 1799, people were initially pretty psyched. And so it was that after more than 100,000 lives lost, a decade of suffering, a continent-wide war, France went from one supreme ruler to another.

The best quote ever about the French Revolution comes from the former Chinese president Zhou Enlai, who in the 1960s was asked what he thought what the French Revolution's impact had been, and he replied: "It's too soon to say." And in a way, it still is. The French Revolution brought to the floor many of the conflicts that continue to define modernity between secularism and religion, between idealism and pragmatism, between oligarchy and democracy. And to answer the inevitable student question of why do we even have to study this stuff, that would be my first answer.

The past isn't past, it's still shaping the present. But even more than that, I believe that the study of history is essentially an exercise in empathy. You have to imagine what it was like to be a peasant in 18th century France, or to be King Louis XVI, or to be Marie Antoinette, or Robespierre. Lookin' good! What the study of history forces you to confront is how people who are acting rationally, who think they're acting in their own best interest and in many cases think they're acting in the best interest of their countries, can end up killing so many people, and in many cases killing themselves!

I believe that thinking about those questions makes us better at living our little lives. Even if it is in a less fancy costume. In my case, a much less fancy costume. Hank, I'll see you on Friday.