Paris, in the midst of wars against much of Europe, sent columns of republican troops into the Vendee to squelch the rebellion. Maximilien Robespierre, the tyrannical leader in Paris, said, "We must stifle the internal enemies of the republic or perish with it."
The National Convention, the revolution's ruling body, told its troops in the field, "Soldiers of liberty, it is necessary that the brigands of the Vendee be exterminated."
It took four years and terrible killing to do the job. Historian Reynald Secher recently estimated that the republican troops killed 118,000 people, or about 15% of the Vendee's population. He said women were singled out for death as potential reproducers of brigands. Small children were killed as possible spies. In their march of destruction, Secher said, the republicans demolished one out every five buildings in the region.
Secher calls the war in the Vendee "Franco-French genocide."
In a similar vein, Pierre Chaunu, a well-known historian at the Sorbonne, shocked many French by insisting that "the sadistic imagination" of the republican soldiers in the Vendee equaled that of Nazi SS troops, Soviet Gulag guards and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
"We can no longer tear out this shameful page . . . from the history of the revolution," he said.
A visitor to Cholet, the main town of the Vendee, now finds an industrial city of 60,000 with a museum that honors the martyrs of the uprising.
Talking over lunch at his 19th-Century home, Maurice Ligot, the mayor of Cholet, laughed when asked if the townspeople would take part in the bicentennial celebration two years from now.
"Oh, yes," he said, "we will have a commemoration here. But we will commemorate what happened to us.
"But, you know," Ligot, a soft-spoken, dignified 59-year-old politician who also represents the Vendee as a deputy in the National Assembly, added, "our people are not royalist at all. The Monarchist Party receives very few votes here. The people rose up in the Vendee not for the king but for religion and liberty."
The city of Cholet, in fact, voted for Mitterrand, a Socialist, in the 1981 presidential election. Yet, even as the mayor denied monarchist sentiments, the local museum displayed a special exhibition paying homage to Louis XVI, including a maudlin calligraphic portrait with the king's features fashioned from the handwritten words of his final message to the French people.
Even the Vendee sometimes finds it difficult to make up its mind about the revolution.
During World War II, French Resistance fighters came into the main square of Cholet in the middle of the night and dynamited a monument to the martyrs of the Vendee uprising, decapitating several of the figures. Cholet was anti-revolution but not pro-fascist; approval of the monument by the Nazi German occupiers and the collaborationist Vichy government had sullied the monument even though it honored the heroes of Cholet.
"Soon after I was elected mayor in 1965," said Ligot, "some people asked me if I could restore the monument. I was rather inexperienced, and it sounded like a reasonable request to me.
"But, when I brought it up at a council meeting, it caused an uproar. Some of my closest associates said, 'But we were among those who blasted the monument.' "
In the end, a compromise was reached. The monument was restored but placed in a secluded park.
It is easy to understand why the French are confused by their revolution. It did away with the absolute power of the French monarchy, one of the most powerful and privileged in Europe, and proclaimed liberties that still serve as the foundation of French democracy. Yet its leaders were quick to turn from these principles in their struggle against enemies of the revolution.
Degenerated Into Tyranny
The revolution degenerated into fearful, bloody tyranny. Revolutionary tribunals around the country guillotined several thousand nobles and other dissenters; mobs seized political prisoners from jails and hacked them to death, and troops in the Vendee and elsewhere slaughtered counterrevolutionaries.
Napoleon Bonaparte put an end to the revolution with his military coup in 1799. For almost a century afterward, French history was marked by a struggle between republicans who believed in the revolution and monarchists and other conservatives who abhorred it.
The revolution was glorified by republican intellectuals in the 19th Century. Jules Michelet, one of the most popular historians at the time, called the revolution the "living spirit of France . . . the triumph of right, the resurrection of justice, the tardy reaction of thought against brute force."
He described the bloody tyranny that followed as no more than "violent, terrible efforts it (the revolution) was obliged to make in order not to perish in a struggle with the conspiring world."