In Afghanistan, a few days ago, President Karzai’s brother was assassinated by his bodyguard. What hope for peace? When repressed peoples want change, revolution is rarely the end; it is only the beginning.
The Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction has just been won by Frank Dikotter’s book Mao’s Great Famine (1958-1962). I had already read a history of the Great Famine some years back so I cannot imagine how many more horrific details Dikotter has uncovered during his trawl of provincial archives; what I had read years ago was dreadful enough. This time I think the Republic of China has banned the book. No state likes to remember its past in any other way but glorious and the people who died as other than heroes.
The collectivisation of farming methods and the enforced militarisation of the citizens produced the greatest government-induced famine the world has known. People denounced each other for hoarding food or keeping chickens; local communist cadres, in charge of food distribution, pretended all was well when the higher echelons of government descended on them and, in some cases, painted the trees with mud so that the officials passing in a motorcade would not realise that the population was so hungry that they had eaten the bark off the trees.
Apparently, some people were obliged to bury their children alive and others hid the fact that they had eaten theirs. Altogether, 45 million people were supposed to have died. Mao Zedong was quoted as saying in 1959: “When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” The local communist cadres were able to withhold food from anyone of whom they disapproved. Old, sick and weak individuals were often regarded as unproductive and hence expendable.
The French celebrate their National Day, “Bastille Day” or the 14 of July (Le Quatorze Juillet). Most people now see it as a day off work and a chance to catch up with the family in another great orgy of feasting. It used to be that every village had a “bal” of some sort with an accordion player. I remember seeing lots of street parties on the 14th of July in the Paris area, and they were often advertised as Bal-Musettes, or those along river banks just outside Paris were called Guinguettes. The booze was cheap, and fun was to be had. They seem to have dropped out of fashion and the most we can expect in the countryside is a bit of a firework display.
Bastille Day celebrates two things – the storming of the prison/armoury to get weapons and the establishment of the French Republic with its declaration of the Rights of Man. The French, at the time, were ruled by an absolute monarch and three levels of government called the Three Estates. The nobility and the church were the first two estates and the third estate represented the common people. When the latter saw that the meetings the king called were not according them their rightful powers, they decided on an armed uprising and attacked the Bastille to gain weaponry. Feudalism was abolished by 4th August and the Declaration of the Rights of Man proclaimed.
When I first came to France many moons ago, my French penfriend’s family took me to the Champs Elysees to watch the huge parade which opened with parades of cadets from the various military schools. This was followed by other troops (I particularly remember the Camel Corps), horse-guards and motorised units. It all took a long time under the summer sun, and I think probably De Gaulle was driven past too.
Nowadays, the French invite their allies to take part so there is the Household Cavalry, and the Band of the Royal Marines. When I went, there was a huge tri-coloured flypast too. I think I found it boring at age 14! I don’t know that I should find it more interesting at my advanced age, as militaristic parades are not my forte.
The aftermath of the revolution was just as horrific as Mao’s Great Famine. People were butchered for what they represented (nobility, clergy, political opponents). Churches were wrecked (think Bamayan and destruction of 2,000 years of heritage), and Christianity outlawed. This led to a dispute between Danton and Robespierre and even more terrifying ordeals for the population. It was called the Reign of Terror. Nobody remembers this as they watch the fireworks on Deauville Beach, but 12th July marches in Belfast are still causing “troubles” during the “marching season”.
The Orange Order however, is by far the most prolific marching group. Typically, each Orange Lodge will hold its own march at some point before the 12th of July, accompanied by at least one marching band.’ (Wikipedia) The forces of order were out with their rubber bullets and water cannons two days ago, just about the same time that an assassin struck in Afghanistan.
When will they ever learn?
“Bastille Day” and Stormign the Bastille” courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain
“Northern Ireland clashes” courtesy of Euronews
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