Jonathan M. House. Controlling Paris: Armed Forces and Counter-Revolution, 1789-1848. New York: New York University Press, 2014. 324 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4798-8115-4.
Reviewed by Julia Osman (Mississippi State University)
Published on H-War (January, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Jonathan M. House’s Controlling Paris: Armed Forces and Counter-Revolution 1789-1848 is an extremely timely and important book. Not only does it answer many questions regarding military force and its use in large-scale riots or smaller domestic disturbances, but it lays the groundwork for similar studies and provides many places for scholars to further his research. While he published the book with the War and Culture series of NYU press, House is not so much interested in culture or using the methods of cultural history as he is in tracking the precise use of military and paramilitary forces in response to domestic uprisings. In addition to describing how these forces stopped or failed to stop riots from escalating into revolutions, House asks important questions about the political leanings of the officers and soldiers and how those might have influenced their response. While there are plenty of works on the crowd and riots or demonstrations in France from the French Revolution through the nineteenth century, none of them focus, as House does, on the relationship between government officials and the military forces at their disposal to put down rioters. He places the Municipal, National, Mobile and Republican Guards as well as the standing French army in the center of his study of on the revolutions that rocked France from 1789 to 1848. House assesses which tactics did and did not work and shows how politicians and military officers adjusted their troops and tactics over time. During the June Days of 1848, they achieved a means to effectively obstruct civil disorder, and riots following 1848—including the Paris Commune (which ended abruptly once the army entered Paris)—could not explode into revolution. To make his case, House makes use of a dizzying array of sources from official military memoirs to newspapers, correspondence, and published works contemporary with the riots.
House begins his study with a very general look at how the various governments during the French Revolution responded to mob violence—almost too general. While the French army, militia, and uprisings of the 1789 Revolution are to provide only background for his deeper look at 1848, he has a tendency to rely too heavily on blanket statements. For example, he depicts the French public equating soldiers with the police in a few brief sentences, but French citizens’ relationship to and opinion of the French army was a dynamic one that constantly transitioned during the Revolution, and more explanation and evidence there would have helped House make his case. He provides a concise and serviceable account of the Revolution in general, and forgoes any substantial discussion of the tangled historiographies that surround it. While specialists on the French Revolution might wish for more detail and precision here, House effectively shows that the primary loyalty among Revolutionary troops was to their commanders or ideals, not the French government, and such loyalties helped elevate Napoleon Bonaparte to power.
House then considers the period of the Revolution of 1830 through the collapse of the July monarchy and the February days in hindsight, knowing that the Revolution of 1848 is not far off. He looks at how the combination of exasperated troops, poor planning, and divided command kept the army from responding to rioters effectively. The most valuable part of the chapter may be his discussion of the political leanings of members of the National Guard, which were so varied that the Guard could “provide considerable support to either side in a crisis” (p. 42). Many of the uprisings stopped short of blooming into full-scale revolutions, as the rioters’ ideals were politically extreme enough that most members of the National Guard did not object to combatting them.
For the several following chapters, House pauses in his chronological narrative to consider the major military and paramilitary forces that the government used in the Revolution of 1848. Here, his work is interesting and valuable. The French army was stretched thin leading up to 1848, as armed force was required in areas outside of Paris. House considers three centers of influence here: the war minister, the Commission for the Organization of National Defense, and Jean-Baptieste-Adophe Charras, a professional soldier who actually administered the War Ministry throughout 1848. His descriptions of the Sedentary or “fixed” National Guard focus on the variety of people involved and their different perspectives on politics and military force. The National Guard and other paramilitary organizations consisted of so many different groups—including the Vésuviennes, a short-lived group of militant women committed to national defense, socialism, and women’s rights— each with their own philosophy, motives, and constitution that it difficult to generalize or explain their actions or motivations fully. The Garde Nationale Mobile gets a full treatment, thought it likewise was difficult to generalize accurately, as the young men who comprised this force meant to supplement both the police and army were infamous for their indiscipline, yet were highly motivated soldiers. While in these chapters House adds a good deal of color, detail, and specificity to the major military and paramilitary forces about to engage in the Revolution of 1848, he also seems to have difficulty analyzing this variety beyond providing contradictory descriptions or overgeneralizing the status of the troops. This is where more cultural history methodology would help him articulate that nuance and the multifaceted nature of the military organizations that he is trying to get at, and move beyond detailed descriptions to more fruitful analysis. It is in these chapters that his rare quotes from primary sources seem most absent, and the reader most misses the “voices” of the troops that he is discussing. Blanket description does not suffice here to give life to the men and few women who comprised these troops; including and analyzing parts of the documents he uses as sources would have helped the reader envision and understand these troops more.
House’s final chapters consider these various military organizations in action during the 1848 Revolution in three distinct phases: May 15-16, May 17-June 22, and the June Days. After reflecting on attempts to control Paris in the earlier revolutions, and having learned about each military organization in turn, these chapters feel like the pay-off. Even though readers of this book will likely know how the Revolution of 1848 unfolded and how it ended, there is an element of suspense and curiosity here, as House has well prepared the reader to see these groups in action. House details the confusion that led up to May 15, where a demonstration for French intervention on the behalf of Poland surprised everyone by ending in the dispersion of the elected government of the French Republic. House cites “a combination of poor preparations, hesitant commanders, [and] tired and bored militiamen” as the reasons for the simple march becoming so explosive (p. 64). In the intervening days, between the May 16 uprising and the end of the National Workshops on June 23, House looks at the multiple developments that provided a background for the insurrection of the June days. While the military and paramilitary forces of Paris held riots back successfully during this period, House characterizes it as one of growing tension. The final chapter outlines the military course of the June Days and pays particular attention to the tactical elements. House also refreshingly looks at the issue of supplying the army while in Paris, which other military histories tend to neglect. He also emphasizes the leadership of multiple commanders as evinced by the high casualty rates among top-ranking officers. The larger narrative is one of trial and error, as commanders gradually discovered how to effectively take down the barricades.
This chapter, and his conclusion in general, leave the reader with a greater understanding of the many complexities involved in responding to uprisings in Paris with different kinds of military force. Yet at the same time, House’s work hints at so many elements at play here, that there are many questions about this period that still remain and could be developed into their own studies. One example is his light treatment of the officers who cut their military teeth in the colonial wars in North Africa, and who proved, he argues, to be the most effective element of the military forces. Yet House does not explore why that is or what elements of the North African conflict prepared these men so well for domestic disturbances in Paris. Doing so might have been too tangential to his purposes, but he has opened the door for other scholars to explore this and other questions. House’s work can also seem disjointed or disorienting, as he makes huge leaps in time (he goes from the French Revolution to the 1830 Revolution very suddenly), but again, it serves the narrative while pointing to areas and elements in need of further research.
While such leaps and lack of general background does not make his work ideal for undergraduates or anyone approaching this time period for the first time, this book is a must-read for anyone studying rioting, protest, or military response. House rightly notes in his introduction that such a study speaks to much more recent events, such as the Arab Spring—and, indeed, other contemporary urban protests come to mind as well—in which the use of force, and the politics and motives of the individuals who comprise that force, come into play. At the same time, he is keenly aware of the specific context of the 1848 Revolutions and the riots that proceeded it, such as the relative technological equity of both the rioters and the military forces sent to contend with them, as well as the significance of Paris. While historians have long been aware that Paris does not represent the whole of France, here House makes the valuable point about the “political and administrative significance of Paris” that other European cities at the time could not claim (p. 7). He also answers a valuable question on the effectiveness of barricades and how they are both tactically and psychologically powerful, if operationally less effective. With multiple military forces often working in tandem, and in riots and revolutions already infamous for their complicated nature, House does his best to separate, categorize, describe, and analyze the various aspects of the uprisings and the military and governmental responses in an organized fashion. His constant signposting, while perhaps a little awkward, helps the reader navigate his text and see his conclusions quickly. In short, this book is an excellent example of exploring new questions in well-trod ground, of using the past to say something relevant to the present, and of leaving the reader full of information, yet still seeking more.
. For example, George Rude, The Crowd in the French Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967); and Micah Alpaugh, Non-Violence and the French Revolution: Political Demonstrations in Paris 1787-1795 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
. Sam Scott, The Response of the Royal Army to the French Revolution: The Role and Development of the Line Army 1787-93 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973); and John A. Lynn, The Bayonets of the Republic: Motivation and Tactics in the Army of Revolutionary France, 1791-94 (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996).
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Julia Osman. Review of House, Jonathan M., Controlling Paris: Armed Forces and Counter-Revolution, 1789-1848.
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