Despite the difference in time periods, geographic location, and political states, France (between the years 1763-1789) and Russia (between 1914-1917) experienced a collapse in the once dominant system of detested absolute monarchy. Both cases were the result of land-grabbing and colonizing attempts that finally led to extensive warfare. With the wars raging at the behest of absolutist rulers in each country, the citizenry was becoming increasingly disenchanted with higher taxes and less benefits for the non-aristocratic, thus leading to peasant and middle-class attacks on these already war-weakened and near-crippled institutions. With this double-assault of weakened power structures due to ongoing and expensive wars over territory and the increase in citizen displeasure, the fall of both Louis XIV’s monarchy in France and Nicholas’ equally absolutist regime in Russia seems inevitable.
The Seven Years’ War was fought with Britain for reasons of expanding colonialist enterprises, presumably to garner more riches for the once wealthy state and absolute monarch. However, this war, even though brief in the historical scope of world events, was nonetheless a devastating blow to France’s already weakening economy, which was just seeing the first potential benefits and horrors of industrialization. In order to preserve these colonial interests and keep Britain at bay, more tax dollars were needed and it seemed that every week produced a new reason for high taxes on the French citizens. With a majority of the tax money actually going to this cause, and a constant need for more, the beginning of the end of absolutist monarchy appeared over the horizon. Even though this was the height of Enlightenment though it France, Louis was unsuccessful at positioning himself as an “enlightened absolutist” simply because in trying to create more opportunities for the citizens in terms of these proposed societal ideals, he created more of a bureaucracy around him, which did nothing but eat up more tax dollars.
The war and the subsequent tax hikes are to blame in large part, but the war against this system was being waged among the citizens. While the French military was away fighting the Seven Years War and solidifying Louis XIV’s interests abroad (at the cost of the taxpayers) there was no military force left behind. Thus, as one scholar notes in an essay, “liberal ideas associated with the Enlightenment created a particularly important focal point that galvanized military and constitutional reformers to advocate citizen’s armies as part of a new relationship between citizens and states” (Avant 41). This would eventually lead to the massive force that would take over during the culmination of anger and resentment at the monarchy—the French Revolution. The working class, tired of the effects of the taxes to support a war that they, as common citizens, had nothing to benefit in winning, staged their own coup, thus bringing an end to the French absolute monarchy, once and for all.
Although this may be a sketchy point to argue in this essay, part of the ultimate downfall of the monarchies in both France and Russia as it relates to war had just as much to do with the upper class, the nobility, as it did the peasantry. The war was intended to create vast riches for France (or more appropriately, Louis XIV himself), but even the massive taxation undertakings were too much for nobility that was already growing tired of the system as it was—with just one divinely mandated leader and no chance for mobility. According to one theory stated in a scholarly essay, “the French nobles, having been deprived of their political power under the royal absolutist system, had long ceased to perform their task as an intermediate constitutional power. A comeback was impossible because they had turned into an indolent and apolitical class or, a paralysed corps without movements and actions, and—even worse—without ideas. Powerless and economically isolated due to the dérogeance, French nobles lived an idle and useless life” (Ulrich 141). It is arguable that without the silent backing of some of the nobility in France between 1763 and 1789, the peasants might not have been so successful in overthrowing a monarchy that wasted their taxes on war. Since this nobility was idle (as opposed to actively involved in leading military pursuits and offensives), this made them too feel as though there would be nothing to gain from a long and expensive war. Ultimately, the downfall of the long line of absolutist rulers in France was a result of a series of abuses of power. With nothing for most of the average (and even many noble French) to gain from this battle, which some could says was based in pride—to being won out by the British—this was the last straw. Years of waste and obscene indulgences on the part of the French absolutist system were ended after one waste too many—the Seven Years War.
As this essay makes clear, there are many parallels between the Russian and French revolutions, especially in terms of the events that occurred to overthrow the absolutist monarch, Nicholas, in Russia with what happened in France. The most common factors would be: a) A long program of territory-grabbing led to financial insecurity and problems with the citizens as a result, and b) these wars would not be beneficial to any of the common citizens, thus sparking even more unrest over the taking away of rights, the more extensive system of taxation (albeit in a communist manner in this case), and ignoring the pleas of the people. As a side note, even though many of these deposing events were the result of war and the subsequent effects, each of these periods (both in French and Russian history) were marked by a strong political movement of the working class. In France, it was certainly the ideas of the Enlightenment, and in Russia, Marx brought about the same revolution-inspiring effects. One could easily posit the theory that neither of these movements would have gained so much momentum if not in the midst of wars and higher taxes (both in the human sense and economic) but that must be left aside for speculation another time.
The most remarkable difference in the events leading up to the overthrow in Russia versus France would be the absolutely devastating effect on the general population of the country during WWI. Unlike the French during the Seven Years War, the Russians during this period were able to clearly see the horrible impact of war for the purposes of land grabbing and this sparked revolutions throughout Russia during these years. Considering that “Russia took the heaviest causalities during WWI, 7.5 million by 1917” (Hunt 761) it is easier to see why the anger over war was directed at the absolute monarch, Nicholas. Although the average Frenchman had nothing to gain from the expensive and unwanted invasions abroad at the behest of the absolutist ruler, there was still some distance between the war and the final impact. They were angry because of the high taxes, in Russia, everything was enough to provoke anger—especially the war.
. Even before the actual Great War broke out, there were a number of expensive and in many senses, needless land-grabbing efforts by the monarchy in Asia and Siberia. Although the tax system was different in Russia (as opposed to France) the effects of these costly efforts caused a long series of revolutions, beginning with Bloody Sunday and continuing on until a state of political equilibrium was reached—meaning more power to the common citizen Under the absolutist monarchy of Nicholas, the waste and non-necessity of the Great War was apparent. Since in this case, there was nothing for the average man to gain in war that was ravaging the commoners on every level, there was nothing left to do but take the steps necessary to revoke power from the monarchial institution that had so long kept the ordinary Russian people under its sway. Eventually, the citizens had their way and the wastes of constant wars and spending of both nations, which to the peasants served nothing but to weaken the state, came to an end. “By 1917, some two-thirds of the peasantry had taken steps to gain title to their land and 10 percent had acquired consolidated holdings” (Hunt 766).
Although simple war cannot be attributed to the overthrowing of despotic absolute monarchs in both France and Russia, they were the motivating factors in that they caused citizens to open their eyes to the levels of waste. These wars weakened the monarchs in every sense politically, economically, and socially, and in both cases, were the beginning of the end for France and Russia’s “divinely-chosen” leaders.
Other essays and articles in the History Archives related to this topic include :• The Historical and Societal Functions of World Revolutions • A Comparison and Analysis of the French Versus Russian Revolutions • France’s Pre-revolutionary Financial Crisis: The Lead-up to the French Revolution
Avant, Deborah. From Mercenary to Citizen Armies: Explaining Change in the Practice of War.International Organization 54.1 (2000): 41
Lynn, Hunt, Thomas R. Martin, Barbara H. Rosenwein, R P. Hsia, and Bonnie G. Smith. The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures. Vol. 2. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001. 760-766.
Ulrich, Adam. Nobility and modern monarchy—J.H.G. Justi and the French debate on commerciall nobility at the beginning of the Seven Years War. History of European Ideas 29.2 (2003): 141.