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151 of 157 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A remarkable, life-changing read
This monumental book attempts to chronicle the French Revolution from its inception to the end of the Reign of Terror in 1794, using a slightly different style than most conventional histories. In the preface, Schama notes that studies of personalities have largely been replaced by studies of grain supplies, indicating a pattern to seek explanations for historical events...
Published on November 15, 2004 by M

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276 of 325 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very well written, but ultimately unconvincing
This is a popular work of history, and it is easy to see why. 1) Schama has a wonderful eye for anecdote, starting with the tale of the plaster elephant at the site of the Bastille, to how Talleyrand could not conduct a proper mass to save his life, to how Lafayette tried to escape from the Austrians and all too typically failed. 2) The book is lavishly illustrated with...
Published on May 25, 2001 by pnotley@hotmail.com


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151 of 157 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A remarkable, life-changing read, November 15, 2004
By 
M (Syracuse, NY USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Paperback)
This monumental book attempts to chronicle the French Revolution from its inception to the end of the Reign of Terror in 1794, using a slightly different style than most conventional histories. In the preface, Schama notes that studies of personalities have largely been replaced by studies of grain supplies, indicating a pattern to seek explanations for historical events and trends in obscure economic factors, rather than in the personalities of the leading figures involved. This Schama is determined to fight against, and he resurrects the nineteenth-century chronicle, with its emphasis on people, high and low. The first section is largely concerned with the Old Régime, which the author reveals a dynamic and rapidly changing society, where the pace of change was indeed too fast instead of too slow, as the popular perception goes. He meticulously shows the rise of revolutionary and nationalist culture, as well as of a new economic order, and the incapacity of Louis XVI and his governments to deal with the new realities. The accounts of the demise of the Old Regime and the beginnings of Revolution are extremely detailed, but also move at a fast pace, with numerous stories of the participants interspersed in the narrative. Schama's use of primary sources is exhaustive, and sometimes even tends to be overwhelming, but the overall effect is an impressive display of historical writing at its finest. But it is in relating the power struggles within the National Assembly and the Convention that Schama truly shines. We hear the strident rhetoric of the Brissotins and later the Jacobins, calling for the bloody consummation of the Revolution. We are at the side of the major players as they are elbowed aside, which often means assassination or execution. We are taken to the provinces, where the Vendéan revolt and the subsequent massacres of thousands by the revolutionary authorities provide horrifying preludes of twentieth century violence and genocide. Indeed the most striking aspect of the book is just how much the forces of totalitarianism in our time owe to their Jacobin predecessors. The speeches of Saint-Just and Marat could have just as easily been uttered by Lenin. The vast outdoor pageants and revolutionary festivals conceived by Jacques-Louis David could measure up considerably well to Albert Speer's monstrous but impeccably designed rallies for Hitler. Schama pulls off an astounding effect, for as the reader progresses in the story, the revolutionary fervor almost creeps out of the page, and one feels the all-encompassing madness. The ending of the book is bleak, showing a disturbing lithograph of Robespierre decapitating the last executioner amidst a forest of guillotines and in the shadow of a giant chimney of cremation bearing the inscription "Here lies all of France." The Terroristes' own pathetic endings provide no closure, merely a bitter aftertaste of disgust.

Schama's contentions are well-reasoned and he succeeds magnificently in exposing both the workings and the soul of the Revolution. His view is a bit too complex to encapsulate in a few words, but it largely centers on the idea that violence was not just another "aspect" of the Revolution, but was always a crucial part of it. The two were effectively inseparable. The roots of this violence were to be found in the patriotic culture and in the enormous influence exercised by Romanticism and especially by the writings of Rousseau, wherefrom came the notions of patriotic sacrifice and patriotic death. Schama claims, with considerable credibility, that the Revolution did not achieve any of the significant reformist objectives of 1789 (indeed, the Jacobins were almost immediately forced to impose economic paternalism), and worse, it inaugurated an era when violence determined the direction of the state more than anything else. What the Revolution did create was "a military-technocratic state of immense power and emotional solidarity," but "its other principal invention had been a political culture that perennially and directly challenged it." The meaning of the entire book, and indeed of the Revolution itself, is summarized next: "Suddenly, subjects were told they had become Citizens...Before the promise of 1789 could be realized, it was necessary to root out Uncitizens." Citizens is a remarkable book, a life-changing read that will reveal mankind at its darkest but also at its most complicated, and that will fiercely bring to life one of the most momentous events in history.
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61 of 63 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars If you read one book about the French Revolution..., February 4, 2005
By 
This review is from: Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Paperback)
Citizens is a very well written history of the French Revolution covering a massive amount of events, details and personalities with a good deal of background to boot. I am no expert on the subject but I have read a few books on the French Revolution including "The Oxford history of the French Revolution" and "Twelve who Ruled". I found that Citizens at succeeded where the other two failed: it managed to remain interesting. This is of course is because of Simon Schama writing style. The history of the French revolutionary period of course really is fascinating but the problem with it is unless you are scholar of French history you will need to have a decent amount of background to put the events of 1789-95 in perspective. That being said it can also be said that if you are going to read a single book on the subject Citizens provides the background and explanation required to get a true sense of what happened during the revolutionary period.

It is understandable that readers find that there is too much anecdote and detail in this book however I argue that it is all for a purpose. Simon Schama is one of those writers that doesn't simply want to provide readers with the chronology but he wants to enrich the events with information and details that not only shed light on what happened but provide a volume of supplemental knowledge that in pieces may do little but together solidify the reader's understanding of the subject. This is vastly important to getting a grasp on this book. I believe Schama uses anecdotes not as flourishes but as mnemonic devices for the readers understanding as well.

It is not meant to be a quick read. Citizens is very deliberate. Schama's verbose style is also this works beauty. Anyone who has seen him speak or seen his television programs understands that he wants to envelop his audience completely not only as way of maintaining their attention but as a service for their time spent. As a reader too, we spend time behind a book for a purpose: to learn. Schama understands this and furnishes us with enough information that we don't need to waste our time sifting through other books to gain understanding of this of the material.

Finally, to discuss the argument. Schama provides a good counter to the argument that the revolution was a people's movement. Naturally, you need power to take power, argues Schama, the revolution was not a movement of the people but the middle class who cared little for the proletariat. They certainly used them when necessary but not out of altruism but to achieve their aims. This accounts greatly for much of the horror of the period.

Of course it is not complete. Schama, or any worthy author of history, wouldn't ever make this claim. However it is a very good starting point for all readers of history and good basis to start studying more specific aspects of the period. I recommend Schama greatly because of his style. If you have enjoyed his other works you certainly will be pleased and if you are looking for a strong book to start understanding the revolution this is an excellent book for you.

--Ted Murena
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276 of 325 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very well written, but ultimately unconvincing, May 25, 2001
By 
pnotley@hotmail.com (Edmonton, Alberta Canada) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Paperback)
This is a popular work of history, and it is easy to see why. 1) Schama has a wonderful eye for anecdote, starting with the tale of the plaster elephant at the site of the Bastille, to how Talleyrand could not conduct a proper mass to save his life, to how Lafayette tried to escape from the Austrians and all too typically failed. 2) The book is lavishly illustrated with many compelling contemporary images. Not only do we see the passion for science in chandeliers resembling Montgolfier balloons, but we see the patriotic enthusiasm in revolutionary coffee cups and the revolutionary calendar. We are also blessed with Schama's skill as an art historian. Everyone recognizes David's The Oath of the Horatii, but how many now the bloodthirsty conclusion to the tale? Schama does, and this helps his point about the sanguinary and murderous side with the obsession with classical virtue. 3) Schama is a very effective writer, and few will be able to read his accounts of the September Massacres or the suppression of the Vendee or the execution of the Malesherbes family during the terror without a shudder of revulsion. Moreover he is capable of discussing a wide variety of topics, whether it is the nature of the fiscal crisis of the Bourbon monarchy or the cultural construction of the citizen. 4) In contrast to Richard Pipes' The Russian Revolution, Schama is able to consult the most recent literature to support his attack on the French revolution. He cites Chaussinand-Nogaret on the progressive, entrepreneurial and capitalist nature of the aristocracy. He builds on Darnton to emphasize the pornographic libels against Marie Antoinette. He builds on the Anglo-American empiricists like Behrens and Doyle to attack the idea of a bourgeois revolution, and the ideological emphasis of Furet and Baker to argue that 1789 was merely the Terror with a lower death count. 5) The result is a work with a compelling thesis, that the Ancien Regime was in many ways a progressive regime, advancing towards capitalism, abolishing torture and increasing toleration for Protestants. Unfortunately bad luck and ideological fanaticism caused the revolution to go wildly off course, ending in a disaster of massacre, bloodshed and ruin.
So what's wrong with the book? 1) Well, anecdote can be misleading. At one point in order to emphasize the Convention's proto-totalitarian nature he points to their discussion of a deputy's plans to take children away from their parents so that they could be educated by the state. But Isser Woloch and Jean-Pierre Gross have shown that this particular discussion was more an act of respect to the deputy, who had recently been assassinated, than a serious proposal. Their actual plans for public education were far more moderate and liberal. And while readers may agree with Schama that it is of great symbolic importance that the great painter Delacroix was fathered by Talleyrand, Delacroix's most recent biographer, Barthelmy Jobert strongly argues that it didn't happen. 2) Schama's emphasis on culture and ideology as the winds that smashed the revolution against the rocks are full of problems. American revolutionaries also cited classical antiquity with apparently no ill effects. The two most famous sayings of the American Revolution, "Give me liberty or give me death," "I regret that I only have one life to give to my country," both come from Addison's Cato. Can it really be said that everyone lost their heads over Rousseau, when his admirers, like the Masons and the quasi-Protestant Jansenists, split both ways when the revolution came? 3) It is one thing to quote recent scholarship. But other recent scholarship strongly points out the problems with Schama's account. Gwynne Lewis has pointed out that the nobility cannot really be said to be as capitalist and entrepreneurial as Schama believes. Timothy Tackett has pointed out that the revolutionary deputies were not so besotted with abstract ideology as revisionists believe, while the nobility's deputies were richer, of older lineage, and more Catholic and less liberal than Schama would lead us to believe. Alan Spitzer has pointed out that the evidence of a fundamental fiscal crisis cannot be so easily disposed with. He also points out that one reason why foreign trade collapsed so heavily in the 1790s was because so much of it depended on slavery, which the Convention abolished. Barry Shapiro has pointed out that counter-revolutionary plots were not a paranoid delusion, and that the revolutionary government in its first years had a moderate and responsible attitude towards them. Paul Spagnoli has pointed out that the revolutionary decades saw a clear increase in life expectancy which was not matched in the rest of Europe. Allan Kulikoff has pointed out that the American republic took decades to recover from its own brutal war of American independence. 4) Schama's basic position is elitist and shallow. He equates progress with unregulated markets, views popular movements for democracy with contempt and suspicion and enthuses over a forward looking bureaucracy/elite which could have solved France's problems if political discussion had not gotten in the way. One should point out that Spain, Italy, Germany and Japan have tried this path to the modern state, and they ended up with fascism. Russia tried this path and the State collapsed so badly that only Lenin's Bolsheviks could pick up the pieces. If we are to praise this neo-Burkean vision of the Revolution, we should remember that shortly after Burke's own death 50,000 Irish would be slaughtered by the forces of Order, leaving a legacy of rancid sectarianism for future centuries.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Citizens, January 25, 2000
This review is from: Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Paperback)
'Citizens' is written in a narrative style that gives life to a fascinating period in human history. The detailed descriptions of contemporary issues in art, literature and politics is a new feature in a description of the French Revolution.
In what is a novel approach to the history of the Revolution, Simon Schama devotes almost half of his work to a description of the Ancien Regime, including a very vivid glimpse into the lives of the Peers of the kingdom. By doing this his desciption of the lives of ordinary Frenchmen and Frenchwomen is not as satisfactory. He does, however, re-create the importance of the ordinary people in the lead-up to the Fall of Bastille, as well as the 'radical' phase of the Revolution.
The events surrounding the Fall of Bastille are well described with the effect that the reader feels part of the amazing and rapid changes of 1788-1790.
The period from the ratification of the Constitution of 1791 to the coup of August 10, 1792, is one of the most interesting and crucial turn of the Revolution. 'Citizens' descibes the rise of the republican movement excellently. The uncertainties of the time are shown vividly.
The feeling of destiny which marked the period of the beginnings of the First Republic, and its lead-up to the terror of the Committee of Public Safety, is seen both through the forceful and patriotic perspective of the revolutionaries, as well as the human and moderate eyes of those opposed to the radical solutions of this phase of the Revolution.
This is, however, where the narrative suffers. Schama's description of the Terror is emotional and filled with implicit and explicit condemnation. Although this is a natural reaction to the excesses of the period, it is a result of the benefit of hidsight. The National Convention was at the time genuinely trying to create a better system of government and the events of 1793-94 should be viewed through the eyes of the contemporaries. This is not to say, as the revolts in the Provinces show, that at the time there were no people opposed to the Terror.
Unfortunately, the inspired narrative ends with the fall of Robespierre. Although undoubtedly the intention of the author in pointing out how the Revolution made a full circle back to to tyranny, this is a sad result for those wanting to see how the Revolution lead on to the rise of Napoleon. Without this link-up the many important changes which originated during the Revolution and outlasted it are not given their due credit. The Revolution, after all, went on for another five years after the end of Terror.
Overall, 'Citizens' is an excellent book for those who wish to see the French Revolution through human eyes and in splendid detail. Anyone wanting a glimpse at the glamour of the Ancien Regime at its last, and Enlightenment philosophy in action, should definitely take the time to read 'Citizens'.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful account of a bloody time, July 25, 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Paperback)
This is a brilliant account of a bloody time, when the parties in power toppled like dominoes, when men did not hesitate to execute other men in the names of morality and virtue, and a time when governmental control was lost. Some of the best parts of this book were the section on Beaumarchais, the royal family's doomed flight, and the fall of the Girondins. This is a very detailed book with the first 200 pages as a sort of introduction to what France was culturally and politically in 1789 and how that was a dramatic change from about 1770. This is a new view of the Revolution where the author shows how it was the aristocrats, turned citizen-nobles, who led the Revolution and not the people. The people were the sheep and power was determined by who could control the violence of the people and use it to their own advantages. This book also contains a lot of characters and sometimes that can get confusing, many times I had to refer to the index in order to read back on a particular character. Because of that and a few, but rare, dry spots I give this book 4 stars and I highly recommend it to both historian and non-historian. As to a previous reviewer's comment on why it ends with the death of Robespierre and not the final rise of Napoleon is because after the death of Robespierre the actual Revolution was over. In the years from 1794-1799, it was just waiting for Napoleon to seize power. Once again, buy this book you will not be disappointed.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars terrific read, October 22, 2000
This review is from: Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Paperback)
This massive, exhaustively researched history reads more like a novel than an academic text. Schama has turned to the good old-fashioned style of narrative history in the tradition of Carlyle and has made his chronicle more than readable by the layperson.
I have only a few minor quibbles with this tour de force: Schama does make some minor errors of fact (errors which should have been caught by a copy editor, such as making not one but two mistakes over the age of one of the players); and he spends so many pages in exploring prerevolutionary France (over a third of the book!) that the crucial years 1793-94, in the final fourth of the book, seem to get short shrift. My guess is that Schama intended to spend more time with the Terror but was rushed to press by his publisher, who wanted to get the book in print in time for the July 1989 bicentennial.
Quibbles aside, a breathtaking and splendidly written history of the French Revolution.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Tremendous Performance, August 13, 2005
This review is from: Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Paperback)
Citizens is a truly wonderful example of narrative historical writing - a "tremendous performance", to borrow a favourite expression of Simon Schama. The author prefers a more old-fashioned interpretation of the French revolution, which presents the revolution as a drama and focuses on the characters that determine the unravelling of the plot. This choice provides the book with the memorable stories, such as the royal family's comically feckless flight from Paris in 1791, that make it such a delightful read. It is a liberating experience to find a general historical survey that does away with the conventional, stultifying analytical distinctions between economic, social and political factors. Instead, the reader can interact directly - as well as chronologically, which makes it easy to dip in and out of - with the actors and the events without having to navigate around tedious discussions of causal significance or complex arguments with other historians.

But it is the skill with which Schama recounts events like the fall of the Bastille that makes this book unique and easily the most enjoyable modern history of the revolution in English. The embellishing vocabulary (readers are advised to have a dictionary to hand), the recurring motifs (the revolutionary obsession with heads, whether on pikes or as busts) and the vivid build-up of tension are the true strengths of this so-called chronicle. It is perfect for the novice reader and the enlightened amateur alike. Citizens demands re-reading for the richness of its description to be fully appreciated, especially its masterful reconstruction of the fascinating and sometimes disturbing culture of the old regime, which is probably the most accessible that exists. The only disappointment is that it ends with Thermidor, in 1794. After 800 pages, one is still hoping for more, which is the highest recommendation possible for this genre of historical writing.
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent but revisionist narrative of the French Revolution, May 2, 2002
This review is from: Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Paperback)
The French Revolution is one of the decisive landmarks in human history. Though feudalism was long past much of it's vestiges (social, political and economic) remained in some form or other in Western Europe. By the end of Napolean's reign it had all been swept away. Even Metternich couldn't put Europe back together again.
For better or for worst the French Revolution set the tone for much of what would follow in Europe. At its worst the Terror was a glimpse into the horrors of the Nazi's and Stalin's great purges. At its best the ideals of the revolution set the tone for free elections, representative government and constitutional law. For revisionist historians it's the former that is the great legacy while for those of the old school it is the latter that is the primary message.
Schama's "Citizens" is above all a great narrative history well documented and thought out. Like most who lean toward the revisionist side he is somewhat sympathetic to the regime and the nobility. That information should certainly aid the reader while navigating this well written work.
You can't help but admire the combination of writing and research that marks this great book. One note, Schama's area of expertise was not originally the French Revolution but rather the Dutch trading empire and it's aftermath. The strengths of Citizens is non stop chronicle of the actions and interactions of the key members of the revolution's story, from Louis the XVI's incompetence to Robspierre's chilling demeaner.
This is an almost epic narrative of the age. It unfortunately, but because of its size, understandably ends far too soon for a complete grasp of the whole era and its aftermath. Definately recommended for students and casual readers of history.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Superb within its scope, February 29, 2004
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This review is from: Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Paperback)
What a challenge it must be to engage a subject as complex as the French Revolution. In inimitable style, Shama tackles the subject lucidly and well.
There are certain aspects of "Citzens" that are immediately apparent: First, the book is big -- 875 pages (in paperback) of good-sized pages. Second, from the introduction on, it is transparent that Schama has a gift with words. The man can write.
Other aspect of "Citizens" are also commendable. Schama will bring his viewpoint in for an individual closeup or a series of compelling anecdotes and then pan back to more general context and analysis. In doing so, he strikes a balance between those works that provide drier explanations of events and those that focus solely upon dramatic vignettes and lose the context within which they transpired. His lead-in is particularly valuable. He spends many pages demonstrating how changes in France were inherent in the years before 1789; the Bastille falls only half-way through the volume. Also remarkable is Shama's integration of illustrations and commentary upon them. "Citizens" is, in significant part, art history as well as social, political, and economic history.
Still there are criticisms to be made. Some well-known figures such as Danton and Mme. Roland are but bit players in his narrative. Furthermore, because the book ends with "9 Thermidor" in mid-1794, there are some five years of the Directory that do not come within the scope of this volume.
Schama's analysis is self-consciously revisionist. His overarching theme is that the Revolution was steeped in violence and that control of the means of coercion lay at the foundation of every political challenge. He argues his points compellingly.
Apart from the tinge of frustration that may come with its seeming incompleteness, "Citizens" is a rich read and a solid addition to any set of volumes that address the turbulent, fascinating, complex, and ghastly epoch known as the French Revolution.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars If you read one book about the French Revolution. read something else., June 19, 2009
This review is from: Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Paperback)
But if you read several, then read this one too. This book is doubtless very interesting to people versed in the subject matter. However for a typical American reader with a typical American knowledge of French history (i.e. next to none) it borders on incomprehensible. From the start, you're reading about people (Talleyrand and Napoleon III), wars (The War of Polish Separation anyone?) that most Americans have never heard of. And these are not introduced to an unfamiliar audience. Instead the author just assumes you know the basic facts of such (to an American) obscure personages and events; and proceeds to put his own interpretation on these items.

Don't get me wrong: Citizens is a well-written, well-researched, interesting book. It's just not a good place to start learning French history or learning about the French Revolution. In fact, I'd say you'd need a knowledge of French history at least at the level of a French high school graduate to begin to appreciate it.
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Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution
Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama (Paperback - March 17, 1990)
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