Citoyennes of the patrie? Gender and the mobilisation of France during the revolutionary wars, 1792-1799

Beth Fisher

The execution of Louis XVI in 1792 left a gaping void in French patriotic representation, leaving revolutionary leaders, such as Maximilien Robespierre, with the monumental task of recreating the body politic. Compounding the matter was the fact that France was at the same time embroiled in a war against Austria, and would later war with Prussia, Russia and Britain. To continue the war effort and stabilise society, revolutionary leaders needed to orchestrate a national mobilising mission, aimed at both men and women in order to boost morale and prevent desertion.

This raised the question: should there be a national figurehead? The revolutionaries were wary of reverting to old regime representations of a paternal figure, and in 1792 there was no one unifying leader as Napoleon would become a decade later.[1] The answer, therefore, was to replace paternity with fraternity, allowing revolutionaries to mobilise the nation around an idea – the fatherland – rather than a father.[2] Indeed, the iconography of the radical period of the Revolution featured virtually no emblems of fatherhood and nor did it mythologise a living leader. Leading revolutionaries like Robespierre, Danton, Lafayette and Marat passed from public office without establishing a personality cult, and tended to be depicted more often in death than in life.[3]

Just as paternity was replaced by fraternity, so religion was replaced by the human condition. Instead of worshipping the perfection of a Christian God, the revolutionaries now looked to the perfection of man. In his study of The Old Regime and the Revolution, the 19th century French historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, observed that the Revolution created a new kind of faith that made its ideas accessible, in order to rally large swathes of citizens:

If, with regard to religion, the French who made the Revolution were more unbelieving than we, at least there was left in them one admirable belief which we lack: they believed in themselves. They did not doubt perfectibility, the power of man; they readily became impassioned for his glory, they had faith in his virtue […] they did not doubt in the least that they were called to transform society and regenerate our species. These feelings and these passions had become a kind of new religion for them, which […] tore them away from individual egoism [and] encouraged them to heroism and devotion.[4]

Though at first sight, this replacement of Christianity may not seem particularly relevant to the gender dynamics of military recruitment, as Tocqueville alludes to, faith in the perfection of man helped form an imagined community whereby a ‘modern’ masculinity became inextricably linked with fraternity and a devotion to the fatherland – an idea for which citizen-soldiers were willing to die.[5]

Although self-sacrifice and military duty were central to the new religion of the revolution, the roots of the concepts are found in antiquity. The revolutionaries drew inspiration from classical republicanism, and the duties citizens owed to their patrie (homeland/fatherland) was one such ancient idea.[6]

It is no surprise then, that in much of the radical iconography, the citizen-soldier was portrayed in the guise of the classical youth. In many paintings from the revolutionary period, such as David’s The Oath of the Horatti (Figure 1), the young soldier exudes a Roman-style, militaristic masculinity.

oath of horatii
Figure 1: The Oath of the Horatii, by Jacques- Louis David.

In The Oath of the Horatii, the brothers prepare to fight their enemies, the Curatii, despite the siblings of the two families being linked by marriage. As in the French Revolution, the Horatii put love for the fatherland before familial love, ignoring the pleas of their weeping sisters.

Artists like David almost never depicted actual battle scenes or the gruesome consequences of war. Instead, by drawing upon allegorical and classical references, artists were able to paint the perfect vision of man as a virtuous, selfless soldier. By idealising sacrifice (rather than mutilation or death in battle), the army was ‘one with’ society, mobilising men in defence of the republican nation, inspired by the glory of ancient Rome.

Classical republicanism was equally influential upon depictions of women in the radical iconography used to rally the nation for war. Unlike men, women tended to be depicted in far more abstract forms, usually representing the motifs of liberty, maternity, or the fatherland, rather than appearing as an individual woman. [7]

Patriotic representations of individual women also drew inspiration from the Spartan mother – an ancient Greek concept of womanhood in which females were authoritative and tasked with raising warrior sons. This ancient image was revived by Rousseau during the Enlightenment and subsequently became the basis of republican education. In Emile, Rousseau puts forward the idea that the ideal republican woman is one who is willing to sacrifice her sons for the greater good of the fatherland:

A Spartan woman had five sons in the army and was awaiting news of the battle. A Helot arrives; trembling, she asks him for news. “Your five sons were killed.” “Base slave, did I ask you that?” “We won the victory.” The mother runs to the temple and gives thanks to the gods. This is the female citizen.[8]

Rousseau’s thoughts on women’s ability to mobilise the nation were not just lofty ideals, but found real influence in revolutionary culture. Revolutionary festivals organised by women’s clubs were often variants on this theme, admonishing their sons and husbands to bravely defend the nation, and staging balls and banquets in honour of the volunteers who signed up to the army.[9]

The chaste republican mother became central to the project of social regeneration. In stark contrast to the depictions of scheming, gossiping aristocratic women of the Ancien Régime ‘bitchocracy’, women were now allegorised as the glue that held the nation together.

Figure 2: Leave Your Arrow and on Some Familiar Tunes Learn my Cherished Moral; be no longer the son of Venus, become the lover of the fatherland, unknown artist.

Ironically, the fatherland was always depicted as a mother, rather than a father (probably because of the negative connotations associated with a king-like figure). In Leave Your Arrow and on Some Familiar Tunes (Figure 2), a womanly figure of La Patrie instructs Cupid to sever his ties with Venus and instead serve the nation. Here, Cupid serves as a latent representation of the French boy, who must learn to reject frivolous love and channel his passion into a love for his nation.

The way in which women were represented in revolutionary iconography ­– as chaste, sacrificial, Spartan – evolved in tandem with the state of warfare. In Devotion to the Fatherland (Figure 3), Pierre-Antoine de Machy depicts the patriotic fervour of 1793, just after the introduction of the levée en masse. In it, mothers offer their infant sons to the enthroned woman, representing La Patrie. The soldier at the far right of the painting has learnt the lesson enshrined in Leave Your Arrow, and ignoring the protestations of his lover, pledges his love and sacrifice for the nation.

devotion to the fatherland
Figure 3: Devotion to the Fatherland, by Pierre-Antoine de Machy

This optimistic fervour later gave way to a more fearful undertone as the French army faced the Second Coalition and the very real threat of invasion.[10]  The Fatherland in Danger (Figure 4) encapsulates the severity of the situation and the even greater need for mobilisation.

the fatherland in danger
Figure 4: The Fatherland in Danger, by Guillaume Guillon-Lethière.

Painted in 1799, The Fatherland in Danger does not show the sorrowful women that are often founded in earlier paintings, but instead portrays women as leading the urgent mission of mobilisation. Surrounded by tricolour flags, the women this time encourage their lovers to join the battle, with one woman even appearing to carry weapons towards the seated figure of La Patrie.

Gender had a profound impact on the iconography of the revolutionary wars. Drawing inspiration from classical republicanism, revolutionaries deified masculinity in the guise of the citizen-soldier, and femininity in the form of the Spartan mother. Ideals of gender were used both to regenerate society, and to mobilise it for total war. Even in Georgian Britain, it became noticed that French soldiers were increasingly more patriotic and masculinised than its own. British masculinity had usually been defined in contrast to French ‘effeminacy’, but during the revolutionary wars the attitude of British officers toward their enemy began to change as they recognised Napoleon had harnessed a formidable military power.[11]  Increasingly, the British army reflected upon the national differences between themselves and Spanish and Portuguese soldiers, whom they had fought alongside in the Peninsula War.[12]

However effective gender may have been in mobilising France, the fact that both masculinity and femininity were used to define what it meant to be patriotic republican shows that, as the country experienced large-scale war, the citizen-army became inextricably linked to civil society. The soldier was no longer simply a man fulfilling an occupation, but a warrior who inherited the ancient duty to protect his community, ushering in the modern age of ‘total’ war.

Beth Fisher is currently an MA student in Modern History at the University of York, having completed her undergraduate degree in History last year at the University of East Anglia. She has specialised in the French Revolution and modern European diplomatic history, and is currently researching a Master’s dissertation on Labour Party foreign policy towards Nazi Germany, 1936-1939.



Figure 1: Jacques-Louis David, The Oath of Horatii, oil on canvas (1784), taken from, date accessed 20.3.2019

Figure 2: Unknown artist, Leave Your Arrow and on Some Familiar Tunes Learn my Cherished Moral; be no longer the son of Venus, become the lover of the fatherland, unknown artist (c. 1793), taken from Landes, ‘Republican citizenship’, p. 102.

Figure 3: P.A. de Machy, Devotion to the Fatherland (1793), taken from Landes, ‘Republican Citzenship’, p. 108.

Figure 4: Gillaume Guillon-Lethière, The Fatherland in Danger, oil on canvas (1799), taken from, date accessed 21.3.2019



[1] Alan Forrest,‘Citizenship and Masculinity The Revolutionary Citizen-Soldier and his Legacy’, in S. Dudink (ed.), Representing Masculinity Male Citizenship in Modern Western Culture (Basingstoke, 2007), p. 112.

[2] Lynne Hunt, The Family Romance of the French Revolution (Abingdon, 1992) p. 53.

[3] Ibid, p.71.

[4] Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the Revolution, edited by F. Furet (Chicago, 1998), p.208

[5] Joan Landes, ‘Republican citizenship and heterosocial desire: concepts of masculinity in revolutionary France’, in S. Dudink, K Hagemann and J. Tosh (eds.), Masculinities in Politics and War (Manchester, 2004), p. 98.

[6] Marisa Linton, Choosing Terror Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford, 2013), p. 34-35.

[7] I am yet to find a single refence to a ‘motherland’. Interestingly, France was always referred to as a ‘fatherland’, but it was common for contemporary artists to depict France as a maternal figure. It is not entirely clear why this was the case, but some historians, such as Joan Landes, have suggested that female depictions were used to bolster heteronormative behaviour, particularly within the army which, during this era, became an exclusively male space.

[8] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile or On Education (New York, 1979), p. 40.

[9] Susan Desan, The Family on Trial in Revolutionary France (Berkeley, 2004), p. 78.

[10] Landes, ‘Republican Citzenship’, p. 106.

[11] Catriona Kennedy, ‘John Bull into Battle: Military Masculinity and the British Army Officer during the Napoleonic Wars’, in K. Hagemann and J. Rendall (eds.), Gender War and Politics: Transatlantic Perspectives on the Wars of Revolution and Liberation, 1775-1830 (Basingstoke, 2010), p. 128.

[12] Ibid, p. 139.


‘Losers’, ‘usurpers’, and their linguistic and historical translation

Lani Seelinger

The Normalization regime in Czechoslovakia — as Václav Havel aptly illustrated in his widely read work, “The Power of the Powerless” — rested on a carefully constructed social contract. As long as Havel’s greengrocer was willing to put a sign amongst his goods displaying the “Workers of the world, unite!” slogan, he could reap all the materialistic benefits that the regime provided. The words on the sign, however, didn’t express the greengrocer’s deeply held belief; instead, they were a signal that he was willing to comply with what the regime asked.

Václav Havel

But what about when people didn’t comply? The government could deploy certain punishments against the so-called “unreliable” individuals — demotions, blacklisting, the refusal of exit permits, even imprisonment — but one of its most important and effective methods of attack was through the propaganda machine. In the government-controlled media, like the Rudé Právo (Red Justice) newspaper, the regime could denounce the offenders in vicious terms, though their words weren’t intended merely to convey meaning. Again, they served an additional purpose — but this time, they acted as a warning.

In 1977, 242 people signed Charter 77, a document criticizing the regime for its failure to uphold the human rights requirements of documents like the 1960 Constitution of Czechoslovakia and the 1975 Helsinki Accords. The precipitating event for the Charter was the arrest of the members of the Plastic People of the Universe, a psychadelic rock band whose messaging didn’t align with the regime. The so-called “Chartists” then banded together to express their support for the band, because they saw the arrest as being in direct conflict with the regime’s commitments to human rights on paper. The regime reacted in numerous ways, but one of the most important of these was its attacks on the signatories in the press. On January 12, 1977, an article came out in Rudé Právo called “Zkroskotanci a samozvanci,” which translates to something like “Losers and Usurpers” or “Traitors and Renegades,” in which the government denounced the dissidents who had signed Charter 77.

The article begins with a description of the regime’s enemies: “imperialism,” “ the bourgeoisie,” and the “rule of capitalism,” which together have been “looking for new

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forms and methods to mount anti-communist attacks, to disrupt the unity of the socialist countries.” This, the article claims, is what the good citizens of Czechoslovakia have to fear — and then it introduces Charter 77 as “the newest defamatory article,” which “a group of people from the failed Czechoslovak reactionary bourgeoisie and the failed organizers of the 1968 counterrevolution passed on to certain western agencies at the order of the anti-communist and zionist headquarters.”

Already, this description relies on a number of recognizable enemy forces purported to be at work in the article’s publishing. In the language of the communist regimes, the bourgeoisie was always the enemy of socialism and the people working to build it, and here too the concept repeatedly turns up. The article also refers to the Prague Spring as “the 1968 counterrevolution” — the period of liberalization that resulted in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in an effort to “protect socialism” — and a “failure”, meant as both a derisive statement as well as a warning to anyone who might try something similar. In the Cold War context, which the article also acknowledges, the West was the main antagonist, connected to all of the enemies mentioned above. By pointing to “western agencies” as the force that spread the charter, the article set up the charter’s authors as connected to Czechoslovakia’s enemies, rather than Czechoslovakia itself.

In essence, this article’s introduction illustrates the characteristics of an antagonist — the “bourgeois world” — and then describes how exactly Charter 77 is working on behalf of that antagonist against the equality, progress, and peace that the socialist system offers. The harsh denunciation of the Charter and its authors, though, only makes up a relatively small section of the article. After calling the Charter an “anti-state, anti-socialist, anti-people, and demagogic lampoon,” and describing its authors as members of the bourgeois, cosmopolitan class attempting to break up the socialist government, it quickly moves on to describing socialism as a system that is more than prepared to deal with such attempts.

“Everything against socialism is good for it,” the article reads, referring to a document calling for reform published in the lead up to the Prague Spring as an example of the sort of “bourgeois print” that the regime had readily handled in the past, despite the best efforts of numerous western media outlets, which it names in particular as the BBC, The Guardian, Le Monde, and others. These and other attempts to “dirty and malign” the system never succeeded, however, as the system was always prepared for such flimsy attack jobs, as the article’s writers maintain: “Socialism nevertheless didn’t even recoil from atomic extortion, much less from hack writers of reactionary pamphlets done to seed fear.”

In conclusion, the article moves into a full-on celebration of socialism’s successes, emphasizing the unity of the socialist countries and their progress beyond the “imperialistic circles.” Charter 77, it says, is just part of the “stream of lies” that the “reactionary propaganda has unleashed into the world about us.” The socialist system and the people within it constitute, the article concludes,

a good, honest path that will steadily guide us to the communist goals. Everyone who works honestly and contributes to the common good will find for himself life security. No mendacious defamatory article can negate history’s truth.

Throughout the article, the authors rely on terms important not so much for their meaning in the dictionary, but for their broader meaning in the national and Eastern bloc-wide discourse. We’ve already discussed the terms used to mark the enemy — reactionary, bourgeois, imperialist, Western — but on the positive side, “Life security” is a good example — in the Czechoslovak case, this meant exactly what Havel’s greengrocer was after — a job, a second house in the countryside, access to passable schools for his children. Readers may not have believed everything that the article claimed, but they would have understood the threat lurking between the lines — this, readers, is the treatment that you can expect if you join the dissident movement.

To audiences today, on the other hand, “Losers and Usurpers” reads rather as a parody, extolling the virtues of a system that would fall less than two decades after the writing of this article and denouncing the people who would emerge, in the eyes of most, as heroes. The terms that held such meaning coming from the Czechoslovak communist leaders have lost that meaning today, deprived of the discourse surrounding them. This phenomenon, however, of government propaganda and at times even normal propaganda relying on fixed discursive elements that mean more than what it says in the dictionary, is far from relegated to the past. “Losers and Usurpers,” then, serves not only as a glimpse into the past, but also as a reminder that it’s always important to approach media, especially when it comes from someone with an agenda, with a critical and discerning eye.

Lani Seelinger is a PhD student at the University of Helsinki and a remote member of the  Department of Education at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, Prague. She is also the co-creator and curator of Socialism Realised, an online learning environment aimed at forging a deeper understanding of the lives of the people in communist regimes, and a comparison of these experiences to the present. You can find Socialism Realised on Twitter at @SocialismR.

Linguistic traces of totalitarianism in Germany’s Red Army Faction: from Stalin’s Soviet Language Policy to National-Socialism.

By Léa Carresse

On the night of 18 October 1977, the remaining three key members of the first generation of the Red Army Faction died in mysterious circumstances in Stammheim prison. Another member barely survived severe stab wounds. Immediately following what became infamously known as the “death night” in West German history, the second generation of the Red Army Faction executed their hostage, Hanns Martin Schleyer, a prominent German business executive and former rabid SS officer. This marked the climax of the “German Autumn”, a series of attacks led by the Red Army Faction in 1977.

What was the Red Army Faction, better (and incorrectly) known as the Baader-Meinhof Group? In the words of Gudrun Ensslin, founder of the self-proclaimed urban guerrilla group, and among the dead on the night of 18 October 1977, the RAF embodied the expression of “the awareness of a duty of resistance in the Federal Republic [of Germany]”. Those words may seem incongruous to most readers, often brought up to see the former West German government as a shining example of democracy post-1945. And yet, it is easily argued that this was far from the truth. The FRG was filled with ex-high-ranking Nazi officials at the top of the system, many of whom would never face trial, and many more whose past would be swiftly forgotten.

A wanted poster containing details on prominent RAF members

Uncritical support of American policies by the government – such as the Vietnam war – also prompted a crisis within parts of the FRG population. In addition, the FRG had few qualms in using its monopoly of violence, exerted through police brutality and media companies such as Axel Springer, whose most well-known victims were Benno Ohnesorg and Rudi Dutschke. This existence of a form of repression triggered the creation of many underground left-wing groups who advocated for theories of self-defence and resistance. The RAF, possibly the bloodiest of these groups, saw themselves as leading the “compensatory resistance”, as Hans Kundnani so well phrased it, that their parents, fervent Nazis or passive bystanders between 1933-1945, failed to undertake. Led by two women, Gudrun Ensslin, a PhD student, and Ulrike Meinhof, a well-known intellectual and journalist, and motivated by Marxist-Leninist ideology, the RAF fought against what they saw as the imperialist, capitalist and neo-fascist order in the FRG.

It is a popular view in academia and the mass media that one of the fundamental inconsistencies of the Red Army Faction was its authoritarian system, despite its pretensions of overthrowing capitalist society and establishing anti-authoritarian structures in its place. That view, if true, is certainly reflected in the language of the many tracts that the RAF produced within the three generations that it spawned. The various tracts – and even prison letters – of the urban guerrilla fighters are filled with conscious and potentially subconscious borrowings from Soviet language, and by extension, from GDR language, as well as, more chillingly, National-Socialist language.

Borrowings from both GDR and National-Socialist discourse would hardly be surprising. Ulrike Meinhof had been a member of the illegal KPD, establishing contacts with the Stasi in 1970, and the GDR had become a safe hub for RAF members fleeing West German imprisonment until reunification, taking in for example Susanne Albrecht, who assassinated family friend and Dresdner bank chairman Jürgen Ponto. As for the presence of National-Socialist discourse, it seems that the crushing weight of intergenerational guilt haunting the RAF unfortunately and ironically translated into the reproduction of linguistic patterns that the group would have otherwise done its best to avoid. Alternatively, the similarities with Nazi discourse can be seen as a logical consequence of using Soviet/GDR discourse, if it is possible to lump Soviet and GDR discourse into similar categories.

Ensslin’s, Raspe’s and Baader’s burial in 1977. Activists hold a banner stating “Gudrun + Andreas + Jan tortured and murdered”

But what is Soviet discourse, and how could it be extended to GDR discourse? And is there such a thing as Nazi language? It would appear too Orwellian to think of a language specifically created to shape the psyche of a whole population, or, in the case of the USSR, whole populations. And yet, special “Nazi dictionaries” have been published, chock-full of the various (invented) terms acquiring particular or new definitions under National-Socialism, from the infamous “Endlösung” (Final Solution) to “Julfest”, as used in adoring letters addressed to Hitler, better known as “Weihnachten” in today’s Germany, or Christmas, in English.

One would also have to take into account various linguistic effects of Nazi discourse, whether that be through the frequent use of superlatives and a tendency to use infinitive constructions in the place of modal verbs, or a form of “ideologizing” language through the adding of pejorative prefixes to adjectives (“undeutsch” literally “unGerman”, meaning foreign, or “nichtarisch”, “Non-aryan”).

Soviet discourse appears to be more complex and harder to define. Stalin dreamt of a common socialist lingua franca once the proletariat would rule the world, and with the creation of the USSR came about a whole new lexicon, whether that came about through redefining Russian words (for example “tovarishch”, which once meant co-worker in tsarist Russia, became the well-known term “comrade” across the USSR), or the invention of words such as “profsoiuz” (“professional union”). More relevant perhaps are the (disputed) differences between East German and West German discourses, with East German discourse described as “Sowjetdeutsch” by the FRG, a deviant of the standard German that the West Germans held claim to.

This “Soviet German” consisted mostly in the creation and redefinition of terms to reflect Marxist-Leninist ideology, such as “Staatsrat” (State council) or “Produktionsgenossenschaft” (agricultural cooperative – notice the use of the word “Genosse”, which is the German translation of the Soviet term “comrade”). GDR discourse was also marked by a certain stiffness and pedantic use of language, as primarily shown through SED General Secretary Erich Honecker’s speech for the 40th anniversary of the GDR. Of course, one might have to bear in mind that these potential differences between GDR and FRG discourses might form part of the divisive myth of the GDR as being “other” to the FRG, deviant and degenerate, in desperate need of Western assimilation, rather than simply another part of the German nation under a different regime.

So how is this reflected in RAF tracts? Because Soviet and GDR discourse seems primarily based on lexicon, similarities established between both can be seen mostly in terms of vocabulary which reflect the same broad themes. Most striking is the consistent use of the term “Genosse”.  The only difference here would be that traditionally in Sovet and GDR discourse, the term “Genosse” would refer to fellow Marxist-Leninists or at least, fellow USSR citizens. In RAF tracts, “Genosse” acquires a far more ambiguous meaning in that it is also designated for RAF traitors, so that in their April 1971 tract, the RAF denounces the “viele Genossen…” that “verbreiten Unwahrheiten über uns.”[1]

Schleyer held hostage by the Siegfried Hausner Commando in 1977

Of course, a key feature of both RAF and GDR discourses is the integration and frequent use of Marxist-Leninist terms within the language, which includes terms such as “antifaschismus” and other nouns ending with the suffix “-smus” pertaining to both the chosen and enemy political ideologies, such as “Imperialismus”, “Chauvinismus”, “Militarismus”, “Sozialismus”. However, where GDR official discourse is arguably monolithic, painstakingly attached to its Marxist terms and formality, RAF discourse is fluid and lively, fluctuating from the aggressively provocative, almost vulgar to the highly academic or literary, or blending both, creating a highly original form of language.

Where RAF discourse is more similar to Soviet than GDR discourse, particularly in terms of early Soviet propaganda,  is in the use of rhetorical devices to attract the reader’s attention: slogans (“Sieg im Volkskrieg!”,[2] written at the end of an April 1971 tract); informality (both the RAF and early Soviet/Mayakovsky propaganda posters and advertisements use the informal second-person plural, instead of the formal plural pronoun use); and the use of linguistic caricature . Linguistic caricature would take the form of repetitive verbal abuse with which the RAF targets the State or passive by-standers, who are termed as “Schweine”,[3] “Superschwein”,[4] or “Hosenscheißer”,[5] where a same noun or adjective is often used to qualify the same person or institution in question, as though it is their only defining trait.

What about Nazi discourse? First of all, similarities between Nazi and GDR discourses are not uncommon, in the excessive use of superlatives for example, such as “heroisch”[6] or “episch”,[7] or in the constant impression that the GDR is in constant struggle/at war, with the use of “kämpfen”[8] and its variations. However, in RAF tracts, one could say that the similarities to Nazi discourse are primarily present in the linguistic dehumanization of the enemy, as well as in the construction of an oppositional, “you are either with us or against us”, discourse.

Hitler’s Mein Kampf infamously uses medical terminology to metaphorically designate the Jews as germs and parasites. While the RAF does not go to such lengths, it similarly denies the humanity of its enemies.Meinhof’s famous 1970 Spiegel article states: “Wir sagen, der Typ in Uniform ist ein Schwein, das ist kein Mensch […] und natürlich kann geschossen warden”. [9] The RAF borrowed the pig terminology to designate the police from the Black Panther Party, a major influence on the group. As for the oppositional discourse, this is present in National-Socialism through a multiplicity of ways; one example would be the obligatory “Heil Hitler!” to signify one’s allegiance to the Party.

Ensslin and Raspe in Stammheim

Of course, the invention of such terms as “undeutsch” also serve to reinforce the binary between who is considered of Aryan race as who isn’t, and therefore, who ought to be eliminated. In RAF discourse, this is clearly outlined in Holger Meins’s last letter where he pens “Entweder Schwein oder Mensch…Entweder Problem oder Lösung/Dazwischen gibt es nichts,”[10] as well as through the Mao quotes peppering the tracts, insisting on drawing the line against the enemy, what Ensslin describes in her prison letters as a “Trennungsstrich”, or a dividing line.

Finally, could there be a tie between both Soviet and National-Socialist traditions in RAF culture, so to speak, through the presence of the cult of personality present in all three? It is well-known that Stalin and Hitler invited adulation through all forms of propaganda. The RAF’s own kind of cult of personality could be interpreted in the given names of the commandos, usually the names and dates of death of fallen members, such as the commando Petra Schelm/15th July commando (the date at which 20 year-old RAF member Petra Schelm  was killed in a police shooting), the Holger Meins commando (who died in a hunger strike, protesting against deplorable incarceration conditions), and, more tellingly, the Ulrike Meinhof commando, after Meinhof’s death in mysterious and controversial circumstances.

Meinhof acquires a mythical, cult-like status in the April 1977 tract justifying Attorney General and former fervent Nazi Siegfried Buback’s assassination. This might firstly be shown through the use of her first name, Ulrike, rather than the last name Meinhof, used by the government in naming the RAF the “Baader-Meinhof Gruppe.”[11] This refusal to use Meinhof’s last name could therefore be interpreted as refusing to play into official discourse, in addition to “humanizing” Meinhof, so to speak, especially in the face of the “pigs” that are the State and the police. Meinhof also repeatedly appears as the sentence subject, such as “Ulrikes Zeugenvernehmung,”[12] “Ulrikes Geschichte”[13] or “Ihr Tod”[14]”. Verbs such as “verkörpert”[15], or the modal verb “sollte”,[16] demonstrate the symbolic force that the second RAF generation lends to Meinhof.

The 40th anniversary of the Stammheim “death night” combined with a reflection on traces of totalitarianism in structures and systems that claim the values of freedom, justice and equality for themselves – whether that be the FRG or the RAF, or any other state, government or group – is an interesting reminder that those in power, or those that claim power for themselves, may seldom follow through with the ideals they promulgate. It also provides an interrogation as to what resistance, revolt and revolution mean, and if it is possible to achieve ideological purity when leading resistance activities.

Though some of those apparent linguistic elements contradict the RAF’s ideology, as well as general left-wing ideology, particularly where Nazi discourse is concerned, aspects of RAF discourse still seems to live on in German left-wing circles, as evidenced for example by tweets and tracts produced by the #NoG20 movement in June of this year, or in anarchist graffiti on Neukölln streets. Such remnants testify to the enduring cultural influence of the RAF.

Léa Carresse is a French-American graduate of Oxford University (BA German and Russian, 2016). She recently delivered a paper on the linguistic analysis of Gudrun Ensslin’s prison letters to the Women in German Studies Conference at Oxford in June 2017, and was also part of a panel at an academic conference in Cambridge in May 2017. In this panel, she discussed the relevance of 1968 in Germany with several of Rudi Dutschke’s contemporaries. She is now a law student at McGill University, and intends to write a PhD on the linguistic aspects of the RAF after completing her degree.


[1] “Many comrades…spread lies about us”.

[2] “Victory in the people’s war!”.

[3] “Pigs”.

[4] “Super pig”.

[5] “coward”, literally: “someone who shits their trousers”.

[6] “heroic”.

[7] “epic”.

[8] “to fight”.

[9] “We say that the chap in a uniform is a pig, that it’s not a human being […] and so of course you can shoot.”

[10] “Either a pig or a human being…either a problem or the solution/There’s no in between”.

[11] “Baader-Meinhof Group”.

[12] “Ulrike’s witness examination”.

[13] “Ulrike’s story”. “Geschichte” also means “history” in German, so the word by extension may point to some sort of legend that Meinhof is/represents.

[14] “Her death”.

[15] “embodies”.

[16] “shall”.

I can’t speak French: Linguistic oppression in Revolutionary France and the rise of linguistic nationalism

By James Chetwood

Over the next couple of days people all over France will participate in the Fête Nationale. The events of the Revolution it celebrates not only altered the linguistic landscape of France, but it also saw the creation of a language policy which transformed language into a vehicle for nationalism, and means through which states could demonstrate their authenticity, as well as demand loyalty from their people.

It was in 1790, barely a year after the Bastille was stormed, that the first ever linguistic survey of France took place. The Rapport Grégoire established that French was the sole language in only 15 of the 83 départements, and that over 12 million citizens – mainly in rural areas – couldn’t speak enough French to carry out a conversation, and that only 3 million people could speak French ‘properly’, with even fewer able to write it. In effect, Paris and its hinterland was virtually an isolated island of monolingual French speakers surrounded by a sea of regional languages.[1]

The initial response of the Constituent Assembly was to have all new legislation

Fête de la Fédération, woodcut from a picture by C. Monet, 1790, Painter of the King

translated into all the languages spoken in France – a position supported by the federalist Girondins. But with the fate of the Revolution in the balance, the centralising Jacobin faction that took control in 1793 had other ideas. Ruling through the wonderfully Orwellianly-named ‘Committee of Public Safety’, the Jacobin ruling faction acquired far-reaching executive powers, including control of the army and mass conscription, the ability to appoint judges and juries to the Revolutionary Tribunal, the right to set prices, as well as the maintenance of public order.

While it might be a step too far to call this an ‘authoritarian régime’, many of the techniques used by the Committee have been features of authoritarian rule in the centuries that have followed. The ‘Reign of Terror’ they oversaw crushed internal insurrection in the Vendée and eliminated political enemies, executing some 17,000 people along the way. To ‘save liberty’, it was also deemed necessary both to enlighten the people of France and exercise control over their opinions. Liberty of the press was abandoned, patriotic pamphlets and journals were printed, national fêtes were organised, and the theatre was expected to contribute to promotion of the Republic and its ideals.

Language was to play a key role in this re-education of the French people. French, and French alone, was to be the language of freedom and the universal values embodied by the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme. While it may have, theoretically, been done in the spirit of equality and democracy – a national language ensured that all citizens had equal access to the benefits of the Revolution – the practical application of the policy and the language had a decidedly authoritarian bent.

In 1794 the revolutionary government passed a decree imposing the use of French throughout French territory, private schools were converted into state schools in which the language of instruction was to be French. The revolutionary wish was to see all French citizens understanding ‘the language of liberty’ and using it in their daily lives.

The mastermind of the Rapport du Comité de salut public sur les idiomes – out of which the law of 1794 was produced – was Bertrand Barère. In his report he claimed that, in Brittany:

‘Ignorance perpetuates…they do not even know that new laws exist…The inhabitants of the countryside understand only Breton; it is with this barbaric instrument of their superstitious ideas that the priests…hold people under their sway…and prevent citizens from knowing the laws and loving the Republic.’

Not only was French promoted as the national language of France – the sole means through which to transmit the laws of the Republic – but all other languages were viewed with, at best, derision; at worst, suspicion. To speak a language other than French was to be a potential enemy of the Revolution. Barère proclaimed that the ‘barbaric jargons’ and ‘coarse idioms’ that constituted the other languages of France could only serve fanatics and counter-revolutionaries:

‘The voice of federalism and superstition speaks Breton, the émigrés and those who hate the Republic speak German, the counter-revolution speaks Italian and the fanaticism speaks Basque.’

It wasn’t enough just to teach people French. To secure the future of the Republic, and to silence these dissenting voices, it was necessary to ‘crush’ all other languages and the ignorance and sedition they allowed to flourish.

While the Committee of Public Safety was disbanded a few months later, the nationalist, centralising language policies it created were to last much longer. Throughout the nineteenth century the government stepped up attempts to stamp out minority languages for official purposes. Appeal Court decisions in Corsica in 1830, 1859 and 1875 upheld decisions that only French could be used in legal documents. And in 1881, when universal primary education was introduced by Jules Ferry, it was in large part to ensure that all education was to be carried out in French (even though Corsica hadn’t been part

Le serment de La Fayette a la Fête de la Fédération, 1791, artist Jacques-Louis David

of France at the time of the Revolution).

The laws weren’t just applicable to the French hexagone either. While Napoleon may have joked that he didn’t care what language his troops spoke as long as their sabres spoke French, the French colonial Empire was also meant to be francophone. The colonies may have been thousands of miles away, but there was (in theory) to be no barrier to their eventual full assimilation into the full nation-state.[2]

While there has been a link between language and ‘peoples’ for millennia, the direct link between nation, people and language as a defining factor in national identity was a new idea, and one that the Revolution helped to create. The role these ideas played in the nationalist movements of the nineteenth and twentieth century would be significant. Language became a tool used to shape the identity of a nation, unite its people and, where necessary, to stamp out alternative identities around which people could unite. It also became a means to influence the people within a state – to mould minds and manipulate opinions – using methods employed so frequently by the authoritarian régimes of the twentieth century, and examined so eloquently by the (other) contributors to this blog.

James Chetwood has recently completed a PhD in the University of Sheffield History Department on medieval personal naming. His research flits about aimlessly between different historical periods and language phenomena in a way that is probably detrimental to his career. He’s organising a conference that you should come to:

Selected bibliography:

Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac, ‘Rapport du Comité de salut public sur les idiomes’ (27 janvier 1794), accessed online: 

Abalain, H., Destin des langues celtiques (Gap, 1989).

Ager, D., Language Policy in Britain and France – The Processes of Policy (London, 1996).

Ager, D., Identity, Insecurity and Image: France and Language (Clevedon, 1999).

Fishman, J., Language and Nationalism: Two Integrative Essays (Rowley, 1972).

Judge, A., Linguistic Policy and the Survival of Regional Languages in France and Britain, (Basingstoke, 2007).

Lainé, N., Le droit à la parole (Rennes, 1992).

[1] The numerous minority languages and dialects spoken on its territory effectively carved up the map of France. With Breton in the north-west, Flemish in the north-east, German in the east and Basque, Catalan, Italian and various Occitan varieties in the south.

[2] Language policy today in France is, in practice, only marginally less oppressive than in Barère’s day. It wasn’t until 2001 that the then Minister of Education, Jack Lang, announced that bilingual education would be recognised for the first time in France, and, although France a signatory of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the French constitution blocks ratification of it, meaning no regional languages have protected status. They usually are taught, if at all, as optional third or fourth languages in secondary school.

Image Attributions:

Image 1: Isidore Stanislas Helman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: Jaques-Louis David [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons