by Willow Kang Liew Bei
Propaganda has been used for decades to sustain regimes and influence the views of entire populaces. Some notable examples can be found from the Nazi rule in Germany, and, more recently, in Russia to encourage Russians to support Putin’s actions in the Ukrainian crisis. Looking back on the long history of propaganda as an essential tool for success for politicians and military rulers, one might wonder when propaganda began to play a significant role in shaping society. To answer this, we need to rewind our clocks to 1789, the first year of the French Revolution.
The French Revolution marked the start of a period of enormous social change in Europe. The ending of the French Revolution did not fully meet the Revolution’s goals, as it led to multiple massacres and a brief period of violent repression during the Reign of Terror. Yet, many legacies of the French Revolution remain to this day. The French Revolution was sparked by widespread discontent with the aristocracy who neglected the lower classes of French people. Its leaders, one of which was the intellectual Jean-Paul Marat, sought to improve living conditions for the lower classes, found a liberal and equal ruling system, and promote freedom of speech. This is a huge contrast to the absolute rule of the aristocracy. Clearly, both the passive and active support of a majority populace was necessary to sustain the revolution. In the end, the French Revolution did more than that. The French Revolution set a precedent for a representative, democratic governing system that can be seen in many parts of the world today. In addition, it also set out the basic tenets of equality for all citizens, basic property rights, and the separation of church and state. As Napoleon’s army conquered more foreign lands, the ideals of the French Revolution also spread throughout Europe. Despite these successes, we must not forget that, behind the scenes, is always a driving force working for ideological change. To achieve such an overhaul of the social order in a sizable land naturally requires the populace to be systematically bombarded with propaganda.
Propaganda comes in many forms that would have popular appeal and be welcomed by the masses. More subtle forms of propaganda include dress codes, imagery printed on everyday products, and festivals. The most potent forms of propaganda, however, lie in those that appear in newspapers and pamphlets. Newspapers were the ‘social media’ of the past. In any one newspaper lay the opinions of a diverse group of people. There were radical columnists, government critics, and journalists, who had the power to spin events in a way that would induce anger in the public. Perhaps the most momentous of such were articles that reported after the Reichstag Fire in 1933. Following the sworn-in of Hitler as Chancellor of Germany, the Reichstag building, home of the German parliament, was set on fire by an unknown arsonist. Hitler framed a Communist who was found at the crime scene for the attack and used this excuse to pass the Enabling Act, a policy which effectively gave him complete control over Germany. Hitler had anti-Nazi newspapers silenced, which left only pro-Nazi newspapers. The public was misled by the propaganda in the newspapers to believe that the Communists had the intent of destabilizing Germany, and hence were more inclined to support Hitler. There are many more similar incidents throughout history, showing us how potent newspapers can be in influencing the viewpoints and ideologies of a population.
In the French Revolution, someone, too, must have taken on the mantle of ‘propagandist’. Jean-Paul Marat was one of the prime leaders and propaganda masterminds of the Revolution. Like other early leaders, he was an intellectual. Before his revolutionary days, Jean-Paul Marat worked mainly as a physicist and scientist, while publishing the occasional political work. Marat first studied medicine in Paris but failed to acquire any qualifications. After moving to France, Marat francized his surname as ‘Marat’, which was previously ‘Mara’. Although he had no accolades, Marat formed many relations with different intellectuals from the scientific world, amongst which were Scottish physicist William Buchan and chemist Pierre Macquer. Marat traversed between France and England, spending much time in the latter in the years just before the French Revolution. His earliest political work is titled The Chains of Slavery, which is described as ‘an attack on despotism addressed to British voters’. Following that, his books have mostly faded into obscurity, but A Philosophical Essay on Man gained enough traction to be translated into French and published in Amsterdam. Despite his two popular philosophical works, he was still mainly concerned with making a reputation for himself as a scientist at that time. In 1780, almost a decade before the French Revolution, Marat published the Plan de législation criminelle (English: ‘Plan for Criminal Legislation’), showing that he resonated with the ideas of critics of the French aristocratic system. There is evidence that Marat had been corresponding with American revolutionary Benjamin Franklin at this time. Around this same time, the Academy of Sciences rejected his bid to be elected to the Academy. Marat had thought that he could refute Isaac Newton’s work and sought to prove it to the Academy. Some historians, like Louis Gottschalk, have cited this as a contributing reason to why Marat joined the Revolution, opponents of the established social and scientific order. Although Marat stated that he still believed that the monarchy could solve the French people’s problems, he published in a supplement to his pamphlet Offrande à la patrie (English: ‘Offering To Our Country’) his view that the King was more concerned with his personal financial problems than the needs of the people.
Ultimately, in September of 1789, Marat became the editor of the newspaper L’Ami du Peuple (English: ‘The Friend Of The People’), where he became an influential voice in expounding the most radical measures that can be taken against the aristocracy. Marat’s conversion into a revolutionary can be inferred from the increasing radicality of his written works, from the milder philosophizing to the heavier political arguments. Marat is admittedly a good writer. He used extreme language that paralleled the speeches of twentieth-century dictators to arouse hatred of the aristocracy in his readers. Marat took care not to use tedious language and never made long-winded arguments. He made it clear that he was appealing to everyday laymen, instead of other academicians. Thus, his contents were also vague and lacked notions of who the ‘enemies’ of the French people were. Marat simply targeted anyone who spoke out against the cause of the French revolutionaries. The future of France, the evil of the aristocracy, and a ‘passion’ for the improvement of French nationals were repeating themes in his articles. Marat’s works got progressively more violent, and this will eventually lead to the massacres in the Reign of Terror. Some excerpts of Marat’s works are as follows:
“All among you who are fervent patriots will be arrested; the people’s writers will be dragged into the dungeons, and the Friend of the People, whose last breath will be for the Fatherland, and whose faithful voice still calls you to freedom, will have as a burning oven for a tomb. A few more days of indecision and there will be no more time to come out of your lethargy. Death will surprise you in the arms of sleep.”
“O my Fatherland! What a terrible fate the future reserves for you! A fatal decree of pitiless destiny will always tie over your eyes the blindfold of illusion and error in order to prevent you from profiting from your resources and to deliver you, defenselessly, into the hands of your cruel enemies! What haven’t I done to make the scales fall from your eyes? Today there remains no means of putting off your ruin, and your faithful Friend has no other obligation to you than that of deploring your sad destiny, than that of shedding, over your too great disasters, tears of blood.”
“One had to witness the session of last Monday to see just how poor the Assembly is in enlightened and upright members, in friends of freedom and the public good; just how vile and corrupted, how gangrened; how much it is the enemy of the revolution, how much it is prostituted to the will of the prince.”
From the excerpts, it is evident how Marat received such appeal amongst the French public. His works are passionate and dramatic, almost as if a monologue from a play. But it is also evident how his writings were able to stir up discourse, by provoking individuals to violent action and introducing to them a blind hatred of the aristocracy. By using indeterminate language, he seemed to be able to sympathize with the plight of the impoverished classes of France. Next, he weaved promises of the Revolution into his writings, thereby attracting more people to support the Revolution. Marat made his presence felt in the streets, but it was not long before he became one of the representative leaders of the Montagnards, the most radical faction within the National Convention. Marat’s calls for the use of violence against counter-revolutionaries may have indirectly led to the Reign of Terror. The Reign of Terror was a period of state-sanctioned violence, characterized by mass executions and arrests without trials. Marie Antoinette, as well as members of the Girondin, a moderate faction of the National Convention, were victims of the Terror. Altogether, 300,000 suspects were arrested, 17,000 were officially executed, and around 10,000 died in prison, without trial. Like Georges Danton and Maximilien Robespierre, two other influential initiators of the French Revolution, Jean-Paul Marat was not to die a peaceful death. On 13 July 1793, Charlotte Corday, a young Girondin supporter, stabbed Marat to death in his own bathtub. Since Marat had been forced to retire from the National Convention due to his worsening skin disease, Marat had been writing his articles from home, often soaking in a medicinal bath. Following his death, a grand funeral was organized for Marat, which almost had the effect of an apotheosis. The National Convention painted Marat as a martyr for the revolutionary cause and embalmed his heart as a symbol of preserving the values that Marat inspired. Until the Thermidorian Reaction, Marat remained a glorified figure.
Jean-Paul Marat was an excellent writer, whose literary talent unfortunately led to many violent deaths, including his own. In spite of that, the legacy that Marat’s writings leave behind for us can impart valuable lessons about the potential of propaganda to inspire chain events in history. Marat’s writings fuelled the French Revolution and have partly led to the violent Reign of Terror. In Marat’s time, newspapers were the primary medium for the spread of propaganda. In contrast, social media is now a viable alternative to physical newspapers, and increasing numbers of people are social media users. Social media is even more accessible than newspapers, and we scroll through thousands of texts, videos, and images every day. This way, social media is an extraordinarily powerful medium for propaganda. Lately, we have experienced the part that propaganda has to play in causing people to side against one another in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. By looking into history, we are thus more aware of the capabilities of hidden propaganda in the media we consume every day. As well-informed citizens, we must be even more on guard against various forms of indoctrination, or risk falling into the same problems that Jean-Paul Marat’s writings had cost the French people.
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About the author:
Willow is a writer from Singapore. After school, her preoccupations include editing for The Incognito Press, and spitting her thoughts out onto paper. Otherwise, you can find her attempting to use her coffee cup for scrying, while sitting by a dog-eared tome.