War against Austria and Prussia

By late 1791, popular sentiment favoured military action against nations, namely Austria and Prussia, which were unhappy with the manner in which the French monarchy was being treated and had threatened to launch retaliatory military action.

Engaging in an international war was especially championed by the Girondins, like Brissot, who wanted to stop foreign nations from protecting French noble émigrés and wanted to spread revolutionary ideals across the whole of Europe, and believed that this would be a short war and an easy victory for France. There was also support for such a war from conservatives who viewed this as a chance to strengthen the monarchy, with King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette hoping that such a war would allow foreign armies to invade France, crush the revolution and restore their throne. Nevertheless, there were some who opposed such a course of action, notably Robespierre. He believed that this international war would distract from the real issue of the so-called ‘enemy within’, those counter-revolutionaries as from the Vendée. This was a minority opinion however, and on 20 April 1792, France officially declared war on Austria and Prussia.

The war was a complete disaster for French forces. The troops were poorly equipped and poorly led, as many of the most decorated generals and military leaders had been nobles who had since fled the country. The situation was so dire that Paris was already under military threat by mid-June 1792. A general atmosphere of fear, anger and suspicion was created in France, exacerbated by the economic problems caused by poor harvests of 1791, high inflation and grocer’s riots across Paris. The sans-culottes subsequently became more aggressive in this environment, perceiving themselves as the defenders of the nation against the enemies within. Overall, the war further radicalised the nation, shifting the Revolution’s popular movement even closer to violence. It was this that prompted both the First and Second Invasions of the Tuileries, as well as the September Massacres.

By 11 July 1792, the Legislative Assembly declared ‘la patrie en danger’ (the nation in danger) which marked a total war emergency for the nation. It galvanised the nation and concentrated much of decision-making towards the national war effort, with the National Guard – a formerly bourgeois institution – opened up on 30 July 1792 to include and enlist the service of more common people, and pikes were distributed to the general population in Paris on 1 August 1792. This sharpened the threat posed by the common people towards the Royal family, and others such as non-juring priests who were deemed to not be openly patriotic and in support of the Revolution.

On 25 July 1792, the Commander of the Austrian-Prussian army – the Duke of Brunswick – issued the Brunswick Manifesto to Paris, in which he warned that if the Royal family were harmed in any way he would subject the entire city to “military execution”1. Yet in direct contrast to its intended effect, the manifesto provoked widespread outrage and intensified the radical rhetoric of the people and their hatred of the King, calling for his deposition.


See Also


Extended war against the Grand Coalition

  1. Fenwick, J & Anderson, J. Liberating France. p.149