Forgetting Varennes

Today we commemorate the 220th anniversary of the one-week anniversary of Louis XVI’s ignoble return to Paris following his escape attempt on June 20-21, 1791. “Why on earth does this matter?” you may wonder. I chose this date, rather than June 20, when the royal family departed from the Tuileries, or June 21, when they were caught and brought back from Varennes, to underline the arbitrary nature of historical memory. The reputation of Louis XVI in our day is necessarily associated with Varennes. His ignominious return to Paris from Varennes on June 21 under armed guard is tied to the descent from favor that led to the fall of the monarchy, to the rise of the republic, and more or less directly to his execution just 19 months later, which ushered in the Terror and all the atrocities that we know.

But things did not have to be that way.

Varennes could have faded from memory long ago. After all, it is a rather insignificant little town and the arrest was a fluke. If Louis had been dressed in regal attire, or had exerted a bit more pressure on the guards, or incited his men to use armed force, or simply demanded more insistently that his family be escorted to their destination, they might have found their way safely to Montmédy. It is not very far, only 50 km (about 58 miles).

Moreover, by September 1791 His Majesty made it official that the matter was not worth remembering. He demanded that the city of Paris forget the events of June 1791, and that the National Assembly annul all legal procedures relative to his flight.* If this command had been executed, no one would remember Varennes. Perhaps France would still be a monarchy.

This commemoration of a failed command is not as trivial as it may appear. Our entire concept of historical causality, of why the Revolution took the course it did, hinges on such seemingly insignificant events. As Tolstoy reminds us, “Our false conception that an event is caused by a command which precedes it is due to the fact that when the event has taken place, and out of thousands of others those few commands which were consistent with that event have been executed, we forget about the others that were not executed.”**

This glaring, obvious and yet often forgotten truism about historical memory is important to keep in mind. Not only as we attempt to understand the past, but also, as we try to make sense of our own history-in-the-making.

Happy June 29th. Vive Varennes.

* Archives de la Préfecture de Police (Paris).
** Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans. Maude & Maude(Oxford World Classics, 2010), 1288.

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