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A French Genocide: the Vendée

Author: Reynald Secher

University of Notre Dame Press, 2003

In 1789, the Vendee region in western France welcomed revolution. Common people there looked forward to relief from a taxation that had grown especially heavy during the support that France's king, Louis XVI, had given to the American War of Independence. They looked forward also to relief from the forced work on roads and other projects. And they had grievances against the opulence of clerics. Secher writes:

The Vendeans were thus nearly unanimous in wishing for change; they therefore gave a very favorable, indeed an enthusiastic welcome to the fundamental principles of the Revolution of 1789.      

Soon they were disappointed. The central government tried imposing its organization upon the Vendeans rather than letting the Vendeans organize themselves. "Patriotic" contributions to the revolution – higher taxes – were also imposed. Police powers from outside were increased against the Vendeans. The central government made the Catholic Church a state-run organization, banning priests who would not join the new Church and forbidding them to perform services that the Vendeans had long been accustomed to. The Vendeans shunned the festivals of the new Church. In one area, nuns were dragged into the public square and forced to take an oath to the new Church, and other excesses by agents of the revolution took place. Eager enforcers of the Revolution sometimes killed Vendeans.  

War between the Vendeans and the central government erupted in early 1793 and lasted until early 1795 – a time when revolutionaries were killing each other – the Reign of Terror. Those favoring war against the Vendeans saw the enemies of their Revolution far and wide, as having grown in strength and the Vendeans as needing to be stopped in order to prevent the spread of counter-revolution. War against the Vendeans was done in the name of national unity. Secher quotes one as saying "We must crush the internal enemies of the Republic or perish along with it." The Vendeans were labeled as brigands who "must be exterminated." A call went out to "depopulate the Vendee." The Vendeans were spoken of as a race apart, and a call was made to "purge the soil of freedom of that cursed race."

Of the Vendeans, Secher writes that "At least 117,257 people disappeared between 1792 and 1802," that more than 14 percent of the Vendeans were exterminated.

Secher describes the war against the Vendeans differently than have some who supported the Revolution. The Vendeans were fighting for more than a return to power of royalty. In the Vendee, he writes, resistance against the central government was popular, a fight that the Vendeans saw, in Secher's words, as "a crusade for individual liberty, the security of persons and the preservation of possessions." It was, Secher suggests, in keeping with the Revolution's own declaration of the right to rebel against the violation of "the rights of the people."