The events in France granted new hope to the revolutionaries who had failed a few years previously in Belgium, the United Provinces, and Switzerland. Similarly, all those who desired changes in Ireland, England, the German states, the Austrian lands, or Italy looked upon the Revolution with sympathy.
Several French counter-revolutionaries—ecclesiastics, nobles, and some bourgeois—left the struggle in their homeland and emigrated. As “émigrés,” many created armed groups close to the northeastern frontier of France and looked for help from the rulers of Europe. The rulers were at first neutral to the Revolution. Still, they started to worry when the National Constituent Assembly announced a revolutionary principle of international law — namely, that people had the right of self-determination. By this principle, the papal territory of Avignon was rejoined with France on September 13, 1791. By early 1792 both radicals, enthusiastic about spreading the laws of the Revolution, and the king, hopeful that War would either increase his authority or allow foreign soldiers to rescue him, approved an aggressive policy. France announced War against Austria on April 20, 1792.
The first phase
During the first phase of the War (April–September 1792), France experienced some defeats; in July, Prussia joined the War, and an Austro-Prussian army crossed the frontier and advanced quickly toward Paris. Believing that the monarchy had betrayed them—indeed, France’s Austrian-born queen, Marie-Antoinette, had privately urged her brother, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, to attack France as a resistance measure—the Paris revolutionaries rose on August 10, 1792. They managed to occupy Tuileries Palace, where Louis XVI was living and captured the royal family in the Temple. In September, the Parisian crowd broke into the prisons and killed the clergy and nobles who were kept there. At the same time, volunteers were pouring into the army as the Revolution had awakened French nationalism. In the last effort, the French forces checked the Prussians on September 20, 1792, at Valmy. On the same day, a new gathering, the National Convention, took place. The next day it announced the abolition of the monarchy as well as the establishment of the republic.
The second phase
During the second phase of the War (September 1792–April 1793), the revolutionaries achieved more success. French armies occupied Belgium, Savoy, the Rhineland, and the county of Nice. At the same time, the National Convention was divided. The Girondins wanted to organize a bourgeois republic in France. Consequently, they spread the Revolution over entire Europe, and the Montagnards (“Mountain Men”), who, with Maximilien Robespierre, desired to give the lower classes a more significant share in economic and political power. Despite Girondins’s efforts, Louis XVI was judged by the Convention, sentenced to death for treason, and executed on January 21, 1793; nine months later, Marie-Antoinette was guillotined.
The third phase
The War entered its third phase, marked by new French defeats in the spring of 1793. Prussia, Austria, and Great Britain created a coalition (later called the First Coalition), to which most of the leaders of Europe adhered. France lost the Rhineland and Belgium, and invading forces warned Paris. These reverses, like those of 1792, encouraged the extremists. The Girondin rulers were driven from the National Convention, and the Montagnards, who had the assistance of the Paris sans-culottes (workers, craftsmen, and shopkeepers), gained power and kept it until July 27, 1794. The Montagnards, who were also bourgeois liberals under pressure from the sans-culottes, and, to meet the requirements of defense, had to adopt a radical social and economic policy. They organized the Maximum (government control of prices), brought assistance to the poor, and the disabled while taxing the wealthy, declared that education should be compulsory and free, and commanded the confiscation and sale of the émigrés’ property. These radical measures provoked violent reactions: the Wars of the Vendée, the “federalist” risings in Normandy and Provence, the revolts of Lyon and Bordeaux, and the Revolution of the Chouans in Brittany. The opposition, however, was broken by the Reign of Terror September 5, 1793–July 27, 1794, which entailed the arrest of more than 300,000 suspects, 17,000 of whom were sentenced to death and executed while the majority died in prisons or were killed without any form of trial. Meanwhile, the revolutionary government raised an army that included more than one million men.
The fourth phase
With this army, the War entered its fourth phase at the beginning of the spring of 1794. A splendid victory over the Austrians at Fleurus on June 26, 1794, allowed the French to reoccupy Belgium. The success made the Terror, and the social and economic restrictions appeared pointless. Robespierre, “the Incorruptible,” who had sponsored the limits, was overthrown in the National Convention on July 27, 1794, and executed the following day. Soon after his defeat, the Maximum was abolished, the social laws were no longer applied, and efforts toward economic equality were abandoned. A reaction set in; the National Convention began to debate a new constitution; and, meanwhile, in the West and the southeast, a royalist “White Terror” broke out. Royalists even tried to gain power in Paris but were crushed by the young Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte on October 5, 1795. A couple of days later, the National Convention dispersed.