The French Revolution of 1789 and Its Impact

By Gail M. Schwab; John R. Jeanneney | Go to book overview

21
Republican Revolution or Absolutist Reform?

Uffe Østergaard

Enlightened Absolutism as a political regime and a political philosophy in 18th century Denmark and France. 1

The first links in the long chain of reforms and revolutions, projects and delusions, rebellions and repressions that led in the eighteenth century to the collapse of the old regime are to be sought not in the great capitals of the West, in Paris and London, or in the heartland of Europe, in Vienna and Berlin, but on the margins of the continent, in the unexpected and peripheral places, on the islands and peninsulas of the Mediterranean, among lords and peasants in Poland and Bohemia, and in Denmark and Sweden to the north. There emerged the passions and hopes, and the revolts and protests of the sixties and seventies, which proved in the end to be incompatible with the political and social realities inherited from traditions of the past. The end of the old regime presented itself at first as a peripheral event in the Europe of the Enlightenment. ( Venturi 1979: IX)

Thus, Franco Venturi, the unrivaled master of the history of Enlightenment Europe, introduces the English translation of his third volume of The End of the Old Regime. In the same spirit, I have embarked on my somewhat more modest rethinking of "enlightened absolutism" as a political regime and philosophy. Seen from today, the very notion of absolutism seems obsolete and doomed. The term "enlightened despotism" was invented by German historians in the nineteenth century primarily as a defense of the Second German Empire of Kaiser Wilhelm and Otto von Bismarck in the scholarly battle between German autocracy and British and French democracy. Germany lost the two world wars, and so did "enlightened despotism" as a political philosophy, even though it held the ground in a rearguard action in the proceedings of the International Committee of Historical Sciences between the wars (see its Bulletin 1928, 1930, 1933, and 1937). But despotism is not absolutism, just

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