Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Danton by Frank Dwyer

(Book Review)

Another book in the “World Leaders: Past and Present” series that I checked out from the Oita Prefectural Library the last time I was in Oita city.

Like the book on Robespierre, this is another book that seeks to navigate all the complexities of the French Revolution for a young adult audience. This book does a slightly better job, perhaps because it’s written by literature professor. This is evident already from the first paragraph, which provides an enticing introduction to the biography but at the same time avoids overloading the reader with information.

“An ingenious and fatal machine casts its long shadow over the pages of this story. It has a tall, strong wooden frame that is grooved along the inside edges to permit the raising and lowering of a heavy blade. The blade is raised by a system of lead weights and pulleys, and is designed to come down quickly, hurled to the base of the frame by its own weight. A movable wooden plank, large enough to lie on, is fitted into the frame close to the base, where two semicircle pieces of wood (the lunette) can open and shut to admit a medium-sized object and hold it in place in the path of a blade. It is a machine for cutting off heads.”

Although brief, there is a lot of interesting biographical information about Danton here, as well as his shifting alliances.

He is portrayed in this book as an opportunist. He began his legal career with a speech, “Woe to those who provoke revolutions, woe to those who make them.” But when he perceived the power of Louis XVI court was finished, he cast his lot in with the revolution.

The author often contrasts Danton, who entered the revolution out of slightly opportunistic reasons, with Robespierre, who entered it for idealistic reasons.
Danton and Robespierre were both brilliant and courageous revolutionary leaders, but their personalities were very different. Robespierre, known as “the incorruptible” for his famed virtuousness and purity, was cold, hard, distant—a man of ideals and intellect. Danton was warm, easygoing, sociable—a man of passions and heart. For now, these natural rivals were uneasy allies in the Revolution.” (p 49)

And on Danton’s taking bribes:
The reality of this bribe taking may not be quite as bad as it sounds to the law abiding citizens of a stable government. Robespierre was called “the Incorruptible” because his integrity was so unique. No one would ever have called Danton “the Incorruptible” and he probably would not have appreciated it if they had.”

Although there is no proof that Danton ever took bribes, the author provides lots of interesting circumstantial evidence that indicates he probably did.

There is also the very interesting allegation that Danton bought his famous military victory against the Prussian duke of Brunswick with a bribe of “The Blue Diamond of the Golden Fleece.” Also the interesting connection that Danton, the duke of Brunswick, and many of the other leading men involved in the battle belonged to the secret society of the Masons.
….Again, no hard proof, but a lot of interesting circumstantial evidence.

When Danton became a rival to Robespierre, he was executed by the Revolutionary Tribunal as part of The Reign of Terror. Danton was responsible for helping to create both the Tribunal and the Terror, and then ironically enough became their most famous victim.

The deputies were forced to create their own Frankenstein, a monster that would eventually murder many of them. Danton’s repentance came too late. “God and my fellow men forgive me,” he said after his fall. “I never meant [the tribunal] to become the scourge of humanity it has. All I wanted was to prevent any recurrence of the September massacres.” He hoped that the Revolutionary Tribunal would replace the unpredictable mob as the protector of the nation from domestic enemies, and believed the tribunal would help to restore order and calm in Paris. Instead, he learned that he and his fellow deputies had given the party—or the individual—in power a swift and efficient mechanism for sending opponents to the guillotine.” (p84-85)

Link of the Day
Dubious Debates: How media moderators lowered the level of Election '08

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