Robert Zaretsky: The Changing Symbolism of the Bastille

Roundup: Talking About History

Robert Zaretsky teaches French history at the Honors College of the University of Houston and is coauthor of France and its Empire Since 1870.

It was no surprise, of course, whenFrance'snew Socialist president, Francois Hollande, celebrated his election over the weekend at the Place de la Bastille. Once the site of the nation's most notorious prison, the square has long been the place that French leftists proclaim their victories. But while many commentators noted the symbolic importance of the Bastille, they overlook how this symbol has changed over time — a transformation that may hold a lesson for President-elect Hollande.
When a large crowd attacked and took the Bastille on July 14, 1789, the French Revolution was launched. That the prison held no political prisoners but instead a mere half-dozen petty criminals and lunatics, and that the crowd marked the event by chopping off and displaying the heads of two government officials, did little to mute the festive atmosphere.
On the contrary. Overnight, the Bastille became Paris' most successful tourist attraction. The decapitated heads were still fresh on the ends of the revolutionaries' pikes when Pierre-Francois Palloy, a wealthy businessman, with a work crew nearly as large as the crowd that stormed the Bastille, began leveling the medieval pile. Once razed, the prison's iron, brick and wood detritus was transmuted into souvenirs, including inkwells, domino sets, snuff boxes and daggers.
Even after the prison was gone, tourists from France and abroad surged to the rubble-strewn field where the Bastille once stood. One year after its destruction, Palloy held a celebratory ball among the ruins at which Parisians quite literally danced on the grave of the old regime. Uncertain what to do with the vast space, the revolutionary government let it go to romantic seed. If the revolution was indeed a return to the natural order of things, what better proof than the shrubs, flowers and weeds that began to sprout amid the scattered stones at the site?..

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