Europe on the eve of the French Revolution

Europe on the eve of the French Revolution was more varied than it is today, though it had no divisions as rigid as the Soviet's 'Iron Curtain'. In general, western Europe was very advanced in comparison with eastern Europe. The two states at the most easter extreme - the Russian and Ottoman empires - were undoutedly the most backward of all.

In the north the most important power was Sweden. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Sweden had made many conquests but by the 1780s it had largely exhausted itself and given up her territorial ambitions. However, she still held Finland and some territory in Germany. Her monarchy was relatively strong, having recently brought the parliament and nobility under control. Her peasants were free, unlike those in eastern Europe, who were mostly serfs to the land they worked. The second strongest force in the north was Denmark, which had control over Norway and had a strong navy. Her monarchy was still autocratic, and many of her peasants were still serfs - though those of Norway were not. The Scandanavian lands played an important trading role in Europe, especially in the supply of naval stores, furs, fish, grain, and minerals. Trade apart, their influence beyond the Baltic was now small.

In the east lay the vastly undeveloped lands of the Russian Empire, then as now only partly in Europe. It had slowly grown from the fortress and trading centre of Moscow. During the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the leaders of Moscovy, supported by the Orthodox Church to which the Russian people subscribed, had freed themselves from the earlier Mongul invaders of Russia and taken over neighbouring territories. By the sixteenth century the duke or prince of Moscovy had become a king or Tsar (a Slavonic form of 'Caesar'), and his reign stretched from the Artic to the Caspian across the Urals into Siberia. It was the task of Tsar Peter the Great in the early sixteenth century to give this kingdom a westward thrust by gaining an access to the Baltic and by establishing at the head of the Gulf of Finland a new capital, St. Petersburg. Peter, who took the additional title of Emperor, gave the Russian institutions (including the nobility) a dose of compulsory westernization. His objective seems to have been to make the Russian government, industry, and armed forces strong enough to hold their own against the west. Of course, he could barely scratch the surface of his huge country, but Peter succeeded in making it one of the great European powers.

Russia's ruler when the French Revolution broke out was the Empress Catherine II, 'the Great'. Like Peter, she believed in modernisation. German by birth, she was a product of 'Enlightenment', an eighteenth century European movement which criticized superstition and the blind forces of tradition and instead plead for reform inspired by human reason. But although Catherine made advancements in Russian law and institutions and encouraged knowledge of western culture, Russia became a complete autocracy: the Tsar's power was absolute. In at least one respect Catherine had set her country back. To keep the nobles loyal to the throne Catherine granted them large tracts of Crown land and estates in her newly acquired territories. The result was to extend serfdom to other areas where it was previously unknown.

Whatever her limitations were as a reformer, Catherine was certainly a worthy successor to Peter the Great as an empire-builder. Catherine extended Russia southwards into the Black Sea and into the Crimea by warring against the remaining Tartar tribesmen and their supporters the Ottoman Turks. By joint action with Prussia and Austria, she dismembered a large part of Poland and came away with the lion's share of the spoils.

Russia's neighbour to the south was the great Muslim power, the Ottoman or Turkish Empire, whose Sultan reigned at Constantinople. This empire had reached its zenith in the seventeenth century, when for the second time it had threatened Vienna. The flood of Turkish success had been stemmed, and Hungary freed, but the Turks still held power over Christian people of south-east Europe: the Serbs, the Wallachians, the Bulgars, Greeks and others. Because of the difference in religion between the governers and the governed, the Turks never formed a real state out of all this territory; they were there merely as occupiers. Their rule was generally light - except when taxes were unpaid or resistance offered. Massacres and atrocities then quickly became the order of the day. In addition to the countries of the Balkan States, the Ottomon Empire also included most of Asia Minor, the Levant, North Africa. All the religious leaders, whether Muslims in Algiers, Egypt and Syria, or Greeks as was often the case in European provinces, enjoyed a degree of independence. In fact by the late eighteenth century the Ottomon Empire was ripe for breaking up. At all times, Russia and Austria were ready to speed up the breaking.

In the south-east, the Ottomon Empire's northern neighbour was the kingdom of Hungary. This had come under the rule of the House of Hapsburg, whose power stretched out from their capital Vienna, to their ancestral duchy in Austria. There was no one name given to all the Hapsburg possessions, which, besides Austria and Hungary, included Bohemia and Moravia, Galicia (now part of Poland), the Hungarian dependency of Croatia, the northern territory of Italy and the southern or Austrian Netherlands (now Belgium). Over all these lands stood the head of the House of Hapsburg who was also by custom elected the Emperor of what was known as 'the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation'. The Holy Roman Empire, by the eighteenth century more commonly known as Germany. The Holy Roman Empire, by the eighteenth century more usually known as the Empire was a loose grouping of more than 300 states covering Germany and some areas beyond. Both as the Emperor and ruler of Austria and other Germanic lands, the head of the Hapsburgs had a big state in what we call Germany, but most of his territory was not German at all. Inhabited by many different nationalities, the Hapsburg realms became what is known as the Austrian empire in 1804 and as Austria-Hungary in 1867. Outside Italy and the Netherlands they were mainly agricultural, and outside central Europe the Germans usually ran the bigger towns.

The Hapsburg ruler and Emperor when the French Revolution broke out was Joseph II. Like Catherine II of Russia he was a disciple of 'the enlightenment' and planned to rule as an enlightened despot. Some of his reforms were admirable, such as his greater religious toleration and the ending of serfdom on his farming lands. But his energy and his determination to enforce economies and increase state revenue, his interference with local customs and his attempts to secure uniformity by, for example, making the German language compulsory for official purposes gradually created overwhelming opposition. Finally he had to withdraw most of his reforms, and he died in 1790 bitterly aware of his failures.

The Holy Roman Empire, of which the ruler of Austria was usually elected head was described by Voltaire in the eighteenth century as 'neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. The Emperor was in fact a figurehead, and although there was a Diet, or assembly of rulers of the different states it had very limited authority. Nearly all the real power rested with the state authorites. Only the greatest of these states, however, the nine whose rulers elected the Emperor, counted for much in European politics. Among these nine, Bavaria, Saxony, and Hanover (whose Elector was actually King of Great Britain and Ireland) were all important; but the outstanding state apart from the territories directly under the Emperor himself, was the kingdom of Prussia. Its creators, the Hohenzollern Electors of Brandenburg had begun by building up a strong army and military tradition. Their successor Frederick II - Frederick the Great - an enlightened despot who died just before the French Revolution, used these assets to extend the Prussian kingdom still further, mainly at the expense of Austria and Poland.

To her great misfortune, by the mid-eighteenth century Poland had three very powerful neighbours - Prussia, Austria and Hungary. At the beginning of the century she had been a large kingdom extending far beyond strictly Polish areas. Her peculiar institutions, however, made it hard for her to remain a major power - institutions such as an elective monarchy (which encouraged outside powers to back rival candidates) and the 'liberum veto' or free vote by which any member of the Polish Diet could block a proposed measure by his single vote. This privilege made it easy for foreign powers, by bribing a few individuals, to paralyze Polish action whenever they chose. Notorious for the anarchic behaviour of the nobles who dominated the country, and who until 1778 had the power of life and death over their serfs, Poland became less and less able to resist her three big neighbours. In 1772, on Prussia's suggestion, the three surrounding powers settled their differences by agreeing to rob Poland who they stripped of a third of their territory and half of their population. Within a little more than twenty years they were to gobble up the rest.

No single authority as yet ruled the whole of Italy. The Italian peninsula, though sharing a common language and literature was still a conglomoration of kingdoms, duchies, and republics. It had long suffered from internal warfare often brought about by outside rulers wanting to acquire Italian territory. By the late eighteenth century the most important territory in the south was the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily ('the two Sicilies') ruled by a member of the Spanish branch of the Bourbon family. Naples was a great city but most of Sicily was desperately poor. In the centre of the peninsula lay the States of the Church under the sovereignty of the Pope. They contained only two big cities - Rome and Bologna - and were noted mainly for poverty, backwardness, and malaria. In the north of Italy the rising power was Piedmont with the fast-growing city of Turin as its capital. It was ruled by the House of Savoy whose territory also included the island of Sardinia - which gave its name to this whole northern kingdom. Among other important states were the duchies of Modena, Parma, and Tuscany in central Italy, and the great trading republic of Venice in the north-east. The rulers of all these states, though sometimes of foreign origin - Tuscany, for instance, was ruled by the younger brother of the Hapsburg Emperor - at least lived in the state concerned. Most of Lombardy, including its greatest city Milan, came directly under an outside power. It had become a Hapsburg possession early in the eighteenth century and was ruled - and usually ruled well - by local Italians under an Austrian viceroy. Socially, Italy was almost as diverse as she was politically. Cities of great prosperity and artistic magnificence existed side by side with areas of extreme poverty.

Italy was only a 'geographical expression', incapable of united action. Spain, on the contrary, was a great power, though not as dominant as she had been earlier. Her decline, which had set in under her later Hapsburg monarchs during the seventeenth century, had been halted by the new Bourbon kings in the eighteenth, and she was still the ruler of a great empire. Early on the scene in Atlantic exploration she held vast tracts of Central America from California and Texas downwards, most of South America except Brazil besides the several West Indian islands, and the other outposts of the Philippines.

Spain had been strong in her religious, and some would say national, unity, but the latter was marred by the resentment of Catalonians, Aragonese, and Basques against the supremacy of Castile. The foundation of Spain's wealth had been gold and silver from the New World, but this had also brought problems. Such cheaply acquired riches, that could easily buy goods in the worlds' markets discouraged manufacture and even enterprizing agriculture at home. Spain thus combined great wealth with terrible rural poverty and intellectually she struggled from the Church's stranglehold on thinking exerted through the Inquisition. In foreign policy, the Spanish kings preserved a healthy alliance with their Bourbon couterparts in France and this helped Spain to stand up to British emnity. Britain was determined to break down Spain's monopoly of trade with the Spanish colonies and she had already partly succeeded. Several times in the eighteenth century the British and the Spanish fought each other. During the Seven Years War of 1756-63 victory went to Britain; but the most recent bout of fighting, when the Spanish helped the Americans in their War of Independence, had ended in favour of Spain.

Spain's neighbour Portugal had survived a period of Spanish annexation and regained her independence in 1640. She still owned a large colonial empire, including Brazil, but had lost most of her Eastern possessions to the more enterprizing Dutch. As with Spain, her import of gold discouraged industrial production and despite efforts at modernisation during the 1750s - 70s she remained one of the poorest and most backward countries in Europe. This did not stop her spending enormous amounts on the construction of churches. She retained much of her empire largely because of the naval strength of Britain with whom she maintained a constant alliance. The alliance was based on commerce as well as politics. By the Methuen Treaties of 1703, Portuguese wines were imported by Britain at much lower customs rates than French wines, in return for similar concessions to English woollen exports to Portugal. Our ancestors' heavy consumption of port wine and tendency to gout amongst the upper classes, was one result of this agreement. Adjoining France to the north-east were the Netherlands which since the seventeenth century had been sharply divided. The southern Netherlands, with Brussels as its capital and Antwerp on the Scheldt as its great inland port, had remained Spanish - and hence Catholic - domination during the seventeenth century and had come under the Austrian Hapsburgs empire in the early years of the eighteenth. Austrian rule was light, and during the eighteenth century the Austrian Netherlands increased rapidly in population and developed a prosperous agriculture. Commercial growth was difficult, however, because the Dutch, who controlled the mouth of the Scheldt refused to admit international trade for the river up to Antwerp. They were entitled to do this by long-standing treaties secured after their successful wars against Spain and France.

North of the Austrian Netherlands was the territory of the Dutch - the State which since 1579 had called itself the United Provinces of the Netherlands. These were the seven mainly Protestant provinces which had successfully kept up the revolt against Philip II of Spain and had had their independence finally recognized in 1648. In alliance with England the Dutch had since then fought off the attack of Louis XIV's France, and had grown extremely rich. Though they were great improvers in agriculture, commerce was their life's blood and to protect it and their interdepedence they had built up powerful naval forces. These in turn enabled them to maintain a great colonial empire gained in the Far East at the expense of Portugal.

More recently, however, during the American War of Independence, the Dutch and the British had been in conflict, with the Dutch ending up as the losers. By the 1780s it was becoming clear that the strain of repeated wars and internal strife was sapping the Provinces' strength. The internal quarrels arose partly from the desire of the greatest province Holland, and its chief town Amsterdam, to dominate the rest, and partly from the system of government. The United Provinces were, apart from Switzerland, the only republic of much size in Europe. Their supreme authority was their States General, or Parliament. Each province also had its own parliament and begrudged surrendering powers to the central authority. In times of crisis, however, exceptional powers were given in each province to an official known as the Stadholder and by the mid eighteenth-century the House of Orange had managed to secure this office and the commandership of the forces on an heredity basis in all the provinces. This pull towards monarchy was strongly resisted by the ardent republicans, but finally succeeded when the kingdom of the Netherlands was established in 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon.

Spain, Savoy and Piedmont, the Empire and the Austrian Netherlands were not France's only neighbours. There was also the Swiss Confederation, which had won independence from the Hapsburgs in the fifteenth century and acknowledgement of this in the seventeenth. Though little more than a permanent alliance of tiny states it held together by compromise and a fairly tolerant outlook, for some of the cantons were Protestant and others Catholic. Between them they spoke three main languages as well as local dialects. Protected by its mountains, Switzerland had a number of profitable activities including agriculture, banking, textile manufacture, mining and making of clocks, watches and toys. A republic without a nobility and with a prosperous citizenry, it was more democaratic than any other country in Europe. But some cantons, such as Bern, reserved important privileges to a small number of their inhabitants and these cantons were often in violent disagreement with the others.

None of France's neighbours by land gave her as much trouble as her neighbour across the water - Great Britain. Though small, Britain was extremely strong. She was unified by only one king and parliament for the whole of England, Scotland and Wales (and from 1801 Ireland) and she was widely envied for her 'freedom'. This meant, not that she was a democracy, but that she had some popular elements in her constitution and that she lived under the rule of established laws which protected their people from the arbitrarty actions on behalf of their rulers. One of the largest areas in Europe without internal customs barriers, and long blessed by peace within her borders she had become a leader in world commerce. She also had a strong navy to protect her and her territories. In conflict with the French she had won a great empire in India and Canada during the mid-eighteenth century - but had later suffered the humiliating loss of her original colonies - which had recently (1783) gained their independence - as the United States of America.

To great commercial and naval strength Britain had added during the second half of the eighteenth century, strength of a newer kind. Not only was her agriculture, following the enclosure of many of her old open fields, progressing at a pace almost unrivaled elsewhere in Europe, but mechanized industry was also appearing. In the coke-smelting process for the production of iron, and in machinery for spinning cotton, Britain was leading the world along new paths. With James Watt's perfection of a steam-engine (c.1774) and its application to produce rotary movement (c.1781) the Industrial Revolution was fairly launched. This development, as yet largely confined to the production of coal, iron and cotton textiles, would proceed until the life and face of the world were transformed by the growth of machinery, factory, railways, towns and population. At the moment, however, it was a process almost entirely (apart from some beginnings in France) in Britain. It gave her an economic strength which was soon to prove greater than that of any other power.

Finally, rich in the size and fertility of her countryside and the skill of her urban craftsmen, there was France. For more than a century, since the early days of Louis XIV France had been the undisputed leader of European civilization. It was from France, more than from any other country, that European society drew its ideas, its fashions, its codes of polite behaviour. It was French that was the second language of the European aristocracies - unless, as was the case in several countries, they spoke it as their first. Under a line of kings which with its branches had continued for 800 years. France seemed to possess a stability, a wealth and a culture far beyond that of most lands. Yet it was in France that revolution now erupted, and gathered such force that the Establishment of the day was overturned and its leaders were butchered. And it was from France that, as we shall see, this ferment spread until this conflict engulfed the greater part of Europe.