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  • Originally published 12/03/2013

    Where to now, Ukraine?

    Historian Stanislav Kulchytsky on the tumult in the streets of Kiev.

  • Originally published 08/22/2013

    Understanding Modern Violence Through the Lens of the Reign of Terror

    Jack Censer

    One of the most stimulating books I have read in some time is Sophie Wahnich’s In Defense of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution (published in 2003, but in English 2012). But it’s not the writing (which is murky) or its purpose (with which I generally disagree) but its viewpoint on Terrorism that can be instructive.In fact, this little book is an apologetic for the Terrorists in the French Revolution. And its value is that in associating herself so clearly with her subject, she does see them much as they saw themselves. In short, Wahnich argues that the Terrorists were motivated by the “dread” that they felt after the assassination of Marat. They then had acted to protect the purity and integrity of the “sacred” revolution that they had made to affirm the political equality of all. More originally, Wahnich also claims that the mechanism of the Terror led to more incarcerations than executions and that its organizational existence at least put limits on popular “enthusiasm.” In sum, the Terrorists were justified and their leadership contained excesses.

  • Originally published 08/19/2013

    From the Bloody Nursery of Revolution, Democracy

    Guillaume Mazeau

    More than two years after the hope that accompanied the so-called “Arab Spring,” the Occidental experts, politicians and public opinions are now chocked by the return of political violence in Egypt, perpetuated by the military. What is striking about these reactions is the difficulty to understand why so many Egyptian former dissidents, liberals and even leftists, who fought against Mubarak and his military dictatorship, now clearly support General Al-Sisi’s coup and even justify the recent massacres of Muslim Brothers. Is it possible to explain such a dramatic shift without blaming these sincere men and women, who claim to struggle for democracy but, at the same time, approve the use of political violence?

  • Originally published 08/15/2013

    Why Egypt Fell Apart

    Juan Cole

    Resorting to violence is a long-term, deeply-ingrained habit in human history, and is not easily discarded.

  • Originally published 07/31/2013

    Revolutionary Situations are Inherently Messy

    Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall

    Social scientists who study revolutions and other historical processes generally look for patterns and similarities. Historians, by contrast, have traditionally focused on factors that are specific to each situation, in each time and in each place. They seek to understand the particularities of each situation, rather than generalize about commonalities.Like most historians, I tend to analyze events based on particular historical contexts. And yet, after twenty-five years of studying eighteenth- and nineteenth-century revolutions (and watching new ones erupt in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries), I cannot help but notice certain patterns that recur in almost all revolutionary situations.

  • Originally published 07/18/2013

    Marie Arana: Simon Bolivar the "Polar Opposite" of George Washington (INTERVIEW)

    Robin Lindley

    In Bolivar, Ms. Arana recounts Bolivar’s bloody military campaigns and forays into the turbulent and frustrating politics of the new republics, and she also presents a striking portrait of the times and the many contradictions and foibles of the Great Liberator -- a passionate embodiment of the Enlightenment who was addicted to gambling, glory, and women.

  • Originally published 07/16/2013

    Stop Thinking of Only the "Arab World"

    Bassam S. Haddad

    For now, most serious treatments of the Arab uprisings will remain inadequate from a historical perspective, including this one! The first objective is to avoid the outlandish or lazy analytical treatments that proceed from some idiosyncratic political or cultural essence, and/or those monist approaches that reduce outcomes to one variable. There is no place for either sort of reductionism in serious political or historical inquiry. The second objective is to recognize the limits of our ability as analysts in pinning down the right mixture of weighted variables in explaining revolutionary outcomes. But explanatory despair should not be the takeaway from these precautions. The trick is gradually to refine the conversation on the question of causes. Revolutions, or uprisings, are not a science -- even according to Political Scientists! We simply can’t predict them, but we surely can do much better than the outlandish and the monist.

  • Originally published 07/12/2013

    The Military Played a Smaller Role in France and the U.S. than in Egypt

    Jack Censer

    The political independence that the military often displays in the midst of revolutionary situations was strikingly absent in both the American and French revolutions. Both depended on militias composed of citizen soldiers. Even as an army was constituted, this remained the case at least for a good while.Let me consider the French case as I know it much better. In fact, the revolutionary uprising (July 12-14, 1789) that led to the capture of the Bastille already revealed that some of the royal army had, in fact, absorbed the rising tide of revolutionary spirit. The troops called up largely refused to intervene. The effective fighting force that actively favored the revolution proved to be poorly armed citizenry, but taking the Bastille was accomplished less by armed assault than persuasion. When the revolutionaries got around in succeeding months to organizing the army, they installed elections by the troops as a way of peopling the officer rank.

  • Originally published 07/12/2013


    Peter N. Stearns

    Analogy is always tempting amid contemporary uncertainties. It can also be distracting or misleading.From the outlet of the Arab spring, drawing parallels with 1848 in Europe has offered potential insights. Here are two situations in which revolution spread quite rapidly across a region, though of course not uniformly, and in which claims about human rights and political representation loomed large.Other connections now suggest themselves, two years into the process. Most obviously, the 1848 revolutionaries, in centers like Berlin, failed (like their counterparts in Egypt) to secure the military or provide reliable alternatives to it. This would haunt the revolution then, as it is doing today. 1848, again in centers like Prussia, was also bedeviled by tensions between social and political goals, on the one hand, and other ideologies (nationalism then, Islamism now?), which ultimately hampered revolutionary drive.

  • Originally published 07/11/2013

    Announcing "Revolutionary Moments"

    Jack Censer

    With the world once again filled with anticipation and dread of revolution, it is reasonable to examine what relevant past events our predecessors experienced. Inarguably, the past is at least a set of experiences that may be useful in considering the present. Even that relatively modest claim requires some hesitation in that historians do not write as oracles, somehow outside the fray. Politics, despite the best intention of scholars, inflicts this work. Nonetheless, reviewing the revolutionary past will be at least interesting and potentially instructive.Thus, the moderators propose to introduce questions relevant to current events with the notion that scholars who study revolutions throughout the globe will comment. Postings must be under 250 words and conform to scholarly norms.

  • Originally published 05/09/2013

    Christian Caryl: 1979 and the Birth of the Chinese Economic Miracle

    Christian Caryl, the editor of Democracy Lab, is a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute and a contributing editor at Foreign Policy. He is also the author of a new book, Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, to be published in May.It is inevitable, perhaps, that we tend to focus on leaders when we examine grand political and economic transitions. But they are not the only actors in these dramas. Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues triumphed precisely because they unleashed the creativity and the entrepreneurial urges of millions of Chinese. Many of them -- shocking though it might be to think -- were not even members of the Chinese Communist Party.

  • Originally published 09/03/2013

    Revolutions On Screen: Then and Now

    Revolutionary Moments

    I spent a good deal of the summer writing about how the Haitian Revolution and Caribbean slavery have been depicted in film. Many films depicting these subjects are disappointing, which inspired me to read some of the foundational scholarship on film and history, such as Robert Rosenstone’s. As Rosenstone has argued, historians are almost inevitably disappointed when they watch the events that they study depicted on screen. Scripts call for narrative structure that real history does not present.Fiction films on revolutions illustrate Rosenstone’s principle well. Real revolutions proceed haphazardly, with more monotony than viewing audiences will tolerate. Moreover, there are often so many actors involved in a real revolution that simplifications become necessary. Filmic revolutions often present characters who are composites, so that viewers will have only a few characters to follow (see Fiction and Film for French Historians [link at http://h-france.net/fffh/tag/french-revolution/ ] for recent scholarly analyses of films on the French Revolution).I do have one favorite revolution movie – not necessarily for the accuracy of its portrayal, but because it is great fun: Sherman Edwards’ and Peter Hunt’s 1776 (made in 1972). The music is catchy, and the script is filled with witty gems. The film appeals to all age groups (I watched it this summer with an enthralled group ranging from small children to septuagenarians).Of course, many details in the movie could not pass the scrutiny of American Revolution specialists. The film papers over the subject of slavery, portraying it as a Southern issue while implying that northerners were all abolitionists. The film also oversimplifies Abigail Adams’ political interests, turning her correspondence with John into one chiefly concerned with love and sewing. One would also not know from the film that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were close friends (“You’re obnoxious and disliked; that cannot be denied/…Mr. Adams, you are driving me to homicide!” Jefferson sings in “But, Mr. Adams!”).Despite these simplifications, 1776 offers many useful lessons on revolutions. One is how hard it is for people in real time to decide to raise arms against their government. Often today, the public imagines the American Revolution as clear-cut or even inevitable: “we” (Americans) decided to oppose “them” (the British) because they were being unfair. And yet….it was a wrenching decision for the Britons of North America to opt to wage war against their own countrymen, including their crowned King. “Sit Down, John” - in which members of the Continental Congress shout at Adams as he exhorts them to “vote for independency!” - is a fantastic song in this regard. In addition to sharing vivid truths about summer in Philadelphia (it is “hot as hell” and there are often “too many flies!”), the song illustrates how uncomfortable many delegates were with a radical notion like independence.The film also shows the critical roles of contingency and human factors in revolutions. Delegates sometimes had to leave the Congress for illness or family reasons, and votes could have gone in different directions depending on who was present on a given day and how they felt inspired to vote based on others’ decisions.Watching social movements explode on TV today reminds me, however, of one great shortcoming of 1776: it leaves out the violence that accompanies almost all revolutions. Soldiers in the film sing about the battle dead in Washington’s army, but such losses are off screen and bloodless. Moreover, when we hear about the physical harm inflicted by pro-independence forces against loyalists in 1776, it is as a joke. The stalwart advocate of independence Benjamin Franklin is delighted to hear that his son William (the loyalist governor of New Jersey) has been captured and ill-treated because of his pro-British beliefs.Today, fiction films are not our only option for watching revolutions unfold on screen. Journalists capture live footage on stations like CNN and Al-Jazeera, and participants can upload their own videos and pictures to sites like YouTube and Twitter. Even though they are not scripted like fiction films, we cannot forget that these glimpses of revolution are mediated in their own way; journalists are still making choices of where to go and what to film, and participants show only their own vantage point at any given moment. Perhaps violence is overemphasized in how we understand revolutions today, since the more boring parts of revolutions are less exciting to film (and also may take place in private spaces rather than public squares). With new media will come new ways of understanding revolutions, which in turn will offer us fresh perspectives on revolutions of the past. Nevertheless, it is critical to remind our students – and others - that whenever we see a revolution on screen, we are getting only a partial glimpse into revolutionary reality.