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am 25. Januar 2000
'Citizens' is written in a narrative style that gives life to a fascinating period in human history. The detailed descriptions of contemporary issues in art, literature and politics is a new feature in a description of the French Revolution.
In what is a novel approach to the history of the Revolution, Simon Schama devotes almost half of his work to a description of the Ancien Regime, including a very vivid glimpse into the lives of the Peers of the kingdom. By doing this his desciption of the lives of ordinary Frenchmen and Frenchwomen is not as satisfactory. He does, however, re-create the importance of the ordinary people in the lead-up to the Fall of Bastille, as well as the 'radical' phase of the Revolution.
The events surrounding the Fall of Bastille are well described with the effect that the reader feels part of the amazing and rapid changes of 1788-1790.
The period from the ratification of the Constitution of 1791 to the coup of August 10, 1792, is one of the most interesting and crucial turn of the Revolution. 'Citizens' descibes the rise of the republican movement excellently. The uncertainties of the time are shown vividly.
The feeling of destiny which marked the period of the beginnings of the First Republic, and its lead-up to the terror of the Committee of Public Safety, is seen both through the forceful and patriotic perspective of the revolutionaries, as well as the human and moderate eyes of those opposed to the radical solutions of this phase of the Revolution.
This is, however, where the narrative suffers. Schama's description of the Terror is emotional and filled with implicit and explicit condemnation. Although this is a natural reaction to the excesses of the period, it is a result of the benefit of hidsight. The National Convention was at the time genuinely trying to create a better system of government and the events of 1793-94 should be viewed through the eyes of the contemporaries. This is not to say, as the revolts in the Provinces show, that at the time there were no people opposed to the Terror.
Unfortunately, the inspired narrative ends with the fall of Robespierre. Although undoubtedly the intention of the author in pointing out how the Revolution made a full circle back to to tyranny, this is a sad result for those wanting to see how the Revolution lead on to the rise of Napoleon. Without this link-up the many important changes which originated during the Revolution and outlasted it are not given their due credit. The Revolution, after all, went on for another five years after the end of Terror.
Overall, 'Citizens' is an excellent book for those who wish to see the French Revolution through human eyes and in splendid detail. Anyone wanting a glimpse at the glamour of the Ancien Regime at its last, and Enlightenment philosophy in action, should definitely take the time to read 'Citizens'.