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Between 1793 and 1796, the Vendée war pitted Catholic and royalist rebels in western France against the republican troops of the revolutionary government. During this period, around 200,000 Vendéens will be massacred. The Vendée, depopulated and ruined, will take nearly a century to recover. Some historians have gone so far as to speak of a genocide. Thus Reynald Sécher does not hesitate to draw a parallel and speak of the Vendée genocide, a term totally rejected by some historians like Jean-Clément Martin. Historiography therefore seems to split into two groups: the "whites" supporters of the term genocide, and the "blues" who refuse to let this term taint the Republic. What is it really ?
The Vendée insurrection
To summarize in a few words the Vendée events of 1793 let us say that the National Convention (constituent assembly of the First Republic) ordered two major measures which led to a revolt in the West as early as July 1793.
First measure: the obligation of priests to take an oath to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. This constitution made unilaterally by the Republic tends to give primacy to the Republic to the detriment of the Pope for the management of religious affairs among the French clergy. Some of the priests refuse to take the oath out of fidelity to the Pope and find themselves prohibited from office then hunted down, deported, executed ... The parishioners generally support their refractory priest, refuse the new priests called jurors, and see the decisions of the Republic as a direct attack on their religious convictions.
Second measure: the Republic orders the levy of 300,000 men to support the armies at war against foreign monarchies who want to stifle the Revolution. However, in the West, we are not necessarily very enthusiastic about the idea of going to be killed (the length of military service has in fact no limit) on the Rhine for a Republic that beheaded Louis XVI. .
Things got out of hand in March 1793 when young conscripts refused to leave and attacked the representatives of the Republic. This revolt could only lead to bloody repression and the refractories organized themselves around a few Vendée leaders from the nobility or the people such as Cathelineau au Pin en Mauges, Stofflet à Maulévrier, d'Elbée, Bonchamps, Charette, Sapinaud ... revolt covers a vast region which is grouped under the name of military Vendée but which in fact includes the Vendée but also part of the Loire-Atlantique, Maine-et-Loire and Deux-Sèvres.
The Vendée war, a civil war
Without going into the details of the war that followed, the Vendeans won a series of military victories until the defeat of Cholet on October 17, 1793. The remains of the Vendée army then crossed the Loire to rush to Granville where they hope for help from the English navy. The failure in front of Granville marked the beginning of a disastrous return to the Loire, hunted down and exterminated by the republican armies and in particular by General Westermann who won a decisive victory at Savenay on December 23, 1793. He wrote about this:
"There is no longer a Vendée. She died under our free saber with her wives and children. I have just buried him in the marshes and woods of Savenay. I crushed the children under the feet of our horses, massacred the women who, at least these, will no longer give birth to brigands. I don't have a prisoner to blame myself for. I have exterminated everything ... We do not take prisoners, because we should give them the bread of freedom, and pity is not revolutionary."
The Vendée is not, however, completely destroyed since Charette still holds the Poitevin marsh. But above all the Vendée was scary, and it continues to scare. Throughout the Vendée, rebellious prisoners are killed: in Angers, Noirmoutier, Nantes ... To this is added the organization of the Infernal Columns, mobile columns that crisscross the Vendée, burning and killing everything in their path. For example, the Cordellier column passing through Lucs-sur-Boulogne will kill 563 ...
This odious strategy is counterproductive since it inflames the conflict until the peace of Jaunaye concluded in February 1795 and guaranteeing religious peace. However, war resumed in June and until the arrest, death sentence and execution of General Charette on March 29, 1796.
The massacres committed in Vendée: a genocide?
The current definition is that of the UN voted on December 9, 1948 in resolution 260:
"Crime committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part a racial, ethnic, national or religious group "
It is a legal term (since it is intended to describe a reprehensible action) largely anachronistic re-used in the historical field in an attempt to qualify a series of past events, and consequently to end in at least a moral condemnation of actors, even heirs (political, ideological…) of these actors.
The first important notion of the definition is intentionality. It should therefore not be a question of "blunders", of isolated, unpremeditated acts, but of a destructive will emanating from an authority, in this case the Convention.
In the case of the Vendée massacres, we will meet, so to speak, both. That is to say, bloodthirsty acts arising from personal initiatives such as the representative of the Carrier Convention, which exterminates prisoners in Nantes: shot, guillotined or drowned after having sometimes suffered physical abuse. This behavior earned Carrier to be recalled, then judged during the fall of Robespierre. But we also note acts of violence carried out under cover of the Convention, or at least with its approval: this is the case in particular of the killings organized by the Colonnes Infernales de Turreau which from January to May 1794 devastated a Vendée already very weakened militarily. since the defeat of Cholet (October 17, 1793) and the Virée de Galerne. At the head of these columns, General Turreau initially refused to take the initiative of a policy of extermination on his own and asked for written orders from the Convention. He wrote to the representatives of the Convention a whole series of letters which remained unanswered:
"When I desired to see you assembled near me, I did not claim to have recourse to your authority for any of the military details, but I wanted you to determine in a precise manner the conduct I should take in the Vendée with regard to people and property. My intention is to set everything on fire, to reserve only the points necessary to establish the cantonments suitable for the annihilation of the rebels. But this great measure must be prescribed by you, I am only the passive agent of the will of the legislative body which you can represent in this part.
You must also pronounce in advance on the fate of the women and children whom I will meet in this rebellious country. If they have to be put to the sword, I cannot carry out such a measure without a decree which covers my responsibility. I am far from presuming that you wanted to expose to compromise the one who until now has not ceased to serve the cause of freedom well."
(Letter to the representatives of the people, January 16, 1794)
"I repeat, Citizen Representatives I regard as essential the measure of burning towns, villages and farms if we want to completely end the terrible war in the Vendée; otherwise I could not answer for destroying this horde of brigands who seem to find new resources every day. So I hope you will approve it. I ask you for the grace to answer me by the same mail. I need your answer all the more since I find myself abandoned by your colleagues at this moment. The People's Representatives near this army, despite my requests, are not with me. I am sending you a copy of a letter I wrote to them inviting them to do so. You will see that I am being left to my own strength and yet never a Republican General had more need to be supported by the power of the People's Representatives."
(Letter to the Committee of Public Safety, January 19, 1794)
"Here, Citizens representatives, is the third letter that I am writing to you without obtaining an answer, I beg you to tell me if you approve of my provisions and to inform me by an extraordinary courier of the new measures that you would adopt so that I will comply immediately. ."
(Letter to the Committee of Public Safety, January 24, 1794)
"I was forced in such an important operation to take full responsibility; I did not even have the advantage of receiving your approval and I would compromise the success of my project if I waited to act until I had obtained it ... Cruel alternative! ... but whatever I have did what I thought I had to do; my conscience has nothing to reproach itself with and I have no doubt that you do justice to the purity of my intentions."
(Letter to the Committee of Public Safety, January 31, 1794)
The silence of the Convention may be subject to interpretation, some will say "whoever says nothing consents". It is clear, however, that Turreau does not manage to obtain a written order to order him the organized massacre of the Vendeans and the destruction of the territory ... He therefore takes the initiative to continue an extermination policy which may make one think of his methods. colleague Westermann. He orders his soldiers:
« All the brigands who will be found with weapons in hand will be passed through the bayonet. We will do the same with the girls, women and children who will be in this case. People who are only suspicious will not be spared. All the villages, farms, woods, brooms and generally anything that can be burned will be delivered to the flames. I repeat, I consider it essential to burn down towns, villages and farms; with their inhabitants, if possible. »
And, in February, the long-awaited response from the Convention arrives! Lazare Carnot, member of the Public Safety Committee, having read the measures implemented in Vendée, endorses his methods:
"You complain that you did not receive formal approval of your measures from the committee.
They seem good to him and your intentions pure; but far from the theater of your operations, he awaits the great results to pronounce in a matter on which he has already been deceived so many times as well as the National Convention.
The intentions of the Committee must have been communicated to you by the Minister of War. We ourselves complain that we hear from you too infrequently.
Exterminate the brigands to the last is your duty; Above all, we order you not to leave a single firearm in the departments which took part in the revolt and which could still use it. Arm the freedom soldiers with them. We will regard as traitors all the generals and all the individuals who would think of rest before the destruction of the rebels is entirely consummated. Once again collect all the weapons and bring all those in need of repair here without delay. We are sending you a decree which seems appropriate to support your views."
However, if we do have an extermination intention emanating from a political authority, can we say that the massacres committed in Vendée are genocide? This would require that these massacres also correspond to the second part of the UN definition, that is to say that the objective is the total or partial destruction of a racial, ethnic, national or religious group.
Do the Vendeans form a racial, ethnic or national group targeted as such? No, firstly, the Vendeans form at best a regional and cultural identity group, and they are not the only ones targeted by the massacres. There are repressions against rebels in Brittany against the Chouannerie, but also in Toulon, in Lyon, and to some extent throughout France to varying degrees. What characterizes the military Vendée is not so much the phenomenon as its scale.
Do the Vendeans form a religious group targeted as such? We obviously note that religious conviction played a major role in this confrontation. The Vendée army declared itself Catholic and Royal, it fought with and for the priests refractory to the civil constitution of the clergy, it valued in its ranks figures of particularly pious men who were said to be holy like Jacques Cathelineau or Louis de Lescure… On the other side we note that the year 1793 is marked by a forced de-Christianization of France… But religion was not the only trigger for the conflict, let us think above all of the lifting of 300,000 men requested by the Republic and the refusal of this conscription in the western countryside. Last but not least, there is no mention in the Republican orders of a destruction of the Catholics, but always of a destruction of the brigands, that is to say of the opponents of the Republic.
It is therefore clear that according to these international criteria recognized by the UN there was no genocide in Vendée.
Can we definitely say that there was no genocide in Vendée?
Well neither ... Of course, the UN definition seems to exclude the Vendée case, but the UN definition is insufficient and far from neutral. If we consider the destruction of a racial, ethnic, national or religious group to be genocidal: then why not consider the destruction of a political group to be genocidal? Because in the end this is how we could define the Vendéens, opponents of the Republic initially wanting to escape conscription and have freedom of worship, but who crystallize this expectation around a project that is supports a monarchical return allied to the Papacy.
However, if the UN definition does not take political groups into account, it is quite simply because of pressure from the USSR which did not want this definition to cover the famine organized in Ukraine in 1932/3 ...
While such a biased and subjective definition can satisfy a lawyer, it cannot satisfy a historian. Besides, what interest would the historian have in using the term genocide? Is it more serious to genocide with a bayonet blow a Jewish child in the womb of his mother than to massacre under the same conditions a royalist and her child? The gait makes no sense. It only makes sense for those who want to turn a historical study into a legal debate (with a certain contradiction to the notion of Pardon dear to the Catholic and Royal Army). The term genocide is biased and it does not shed any new light, no new understanding, of what the terms of massacre or extermination, which are already sufficiently meaningful to describe the tragedy orchestrated by the Republic, can provide.
To go further on the wars of Vendée
- Bertaud Jean-Paul, The French Revolution, Perrin, 1989.
- Martin Jean-Clément, The Vendée and the Revolution, Perrin, 2007.
- Sécher Reynald, La Vendée-Vengé: the Franco-French genocide, PUF, 1986.