Studied by many but understood by few is the French Revolution and the subsequent rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. Erik Durschmied begins this compilation of 'revolutions, mayhem, betrayal, glory and death' with a prologue dedicated to the obsession of 'the incorruptible' tyrant Maximilien Robespierre ('The king must die so that the country can live') and blames the ensuing anarchy upon the indecisiveness of Louis XVI. But he fails to explain why the resolute and the decisive alike died in an all-consuming flame of revolution.
Eventually, all pretenders to the republican throne, including Robespierre himself, fall pray to the insatiable thirst of Madam Guillotine, the emblematic apparatus of the Reign of Terror.
ith the French Revolution, the age of autocratic monarchy in Europe came to an end, but it also brought into being the pathology of totalitarian ideologies: purges of entire classes, brute justice of 'people's courts', trials without defence, and executions without trials. As Pierre Victorien, a victor as well as a victim of the revolution rued before going to the guillotine, "The revolution.devours its own children."
The Tyrolean Uprising during the Habsburg Empire gets an even more moving epigram from Simon Bolivar: "He who serves the revolution, ploughs the sea". The author, seems to have a soft spot for the non-ideological rebellion of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa in Mexcio's Chiapas region.
Then it's time to quote Lenin who rather recklessly declared: "Revolutions are locomotives of history. Drive them full speed ahead and keep them on rails." Exactly how to prevent a revolution from being a runaway train seems to be the question, as Russia's Red Terror, Mao's Cultural Revolution and Brother Number One's Cambodian genocide would later show.
The most heart-rending story in the book is that of Rosa Luxemburg, who was silenced by soldiers unwittingly preparing the ground for the rise of Hitler in Germany. The author quotes Oscar Wilde: 'It is personalities, not principles, that move the age' as an epitaph to her momentous life. Luxemburg lives long after her death in the memories of her admirers all over the world.
The tale of Japanese Tenno, on the other hand, is full of hyperbole about loyalty, betrayal and redemption of legendary samurais. The only notable quote in the entire section is from Emperor Hirohito: The ties between the emperor and his people do not depend on myths and legends. They are not predicated on the false conception that their emperor is divine.
The chapter on the struggles of Che Guevara in Cuba and Bolivia is riveting mainly because it is written as a news report. Commandant Guevara is hunted like a rabbit in the Dead Earth of Bolivia and killed mercilessly after his capture. The author blames, perhaps rightly, Cuban strongman Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union for cutting him loose, and absolves the CIA of complicity. If true, one of the most charismatic revolutionaries the world has ever known was done in by his own comrades. Ironically, it is Che who has become immortal as an emblem of revolution just as the non-violent revolutionary Gandhi has become the emblem of an alternative path.
Erik Durschmied, a veteran of war reporting, can't seem to forgive the American establishment for the mess it made in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution in the 70s. The Shah failed to realise the futility of divine authority in the post-war world and tried to live by the dictum of Louis XIV: d'etat et moi. The Shah ruled absolutely with complete faith in the unflinching support of the Americans. Ultimately, when the streets of Tehran began to resound with the slogan 'Death to the Shah', his sponsors in the CIA and State Department 'threw him out like a dead mouse'.
The book is racy and jumps from one chapter to the next with effortless ease. The thread running through them concerns the desirable traits of a ruler. Durschmied writes in the prologue: 'Throughout history it has been a weakness of those in power, men who failed when the situation called for strong, even brutal measures, that allowed the barbarous to take charge.'
That's certainly account of history but it fails to present the complete picture. No less often, the fault lies in the tendency of rulers to predict the future on the basis of the past. Since history runs a zigzag course linear-thinking leaders fall off its pages the way 'incorruptible' Robespierre, 'courageous' Che, 'glib-talking' Trotsky did despite their resoluteness. And just as Louis XVI, Wilhelm II, and Tsar Nicholas did due to their indecisiveness, procrastination, and frailty.
After 9/11, it has become clear that Americans are still pursuing their material dreams. But while that may be enough of an objective to live, causes to die for are much more complex.
To quote Durschmied: 'Revolutions are waged and decided in the minds of individuals, their cutting edge is words, not swords'.
Whisper of the Blade
by Erik Durschmied
Hodder and Stoughton,