A good idea from ... the French Revolution

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The Independent Culture
IF YOU'RE a dictator (Milosevic, Hitler) looking for tips on how to hold on to power, it is a seriously good idea to take some time off to read up on the French Revolution.

The first rule is to start a war with a neighbouring country. Wars force people to support regimes which they would have felt free to disagree with in peacetime, and allow the regimes to take extraordinary measures against dissenters. Anyone who does not like the government can be called a traitor and killed. In 1792 the French revolutionaries' declaration of war on the German princes at once radicalised the atmosphere in France. In the Legislative Assembly that spring, Guadet, a deputy, made a speech that ended: "We will defend ourselves against the German princes, or we shall die here." The whole assembly responded by standing up and shouting "Yes, we swear it!" Another deputy, Isnard, then screamed, "We want equality, even if we can only find it in the grave!" - this went down equally well.

Another essential for any serious regime of terror is a revolutionary ideology, which will constantly remind the people of your cause. Flags are crucial for this; the French came up with the tricolore, which had to be flown from public buildings and became, like the Swastika, an immediately recognisable sign that one sided with the regime.

The French revolutionaries politicised every aspect of life. In Paris, 1,400 streets were renamed because the old ones referred to a king, queen or saint. Notre Dame became The Temple of Reason, Montmartre became Mont Marat. Language changed too. The queen bee became a "laying bee" (abeille pondeuse), in 1794, a delegation petitioned to abolish vous, "as a result of which there will be less pride, less discrimination and a stronger leaning towards fraternity". Letters had to be ended with "greetings and brotherhood", rather than, "your most humble and obedient servant". Christian holy days were changed to celebrate new revolutionary values; 22 November, formerly Saint Cecilia's day, became the Day of the Turnip. People renamed themselves. It wouldn't do to be called Louis in 1794, better to be Brutus. Children were given new names too, many of them drawn from nature; Pissenlit (dandelion) became popular for girls.

With an ideology in place, picking out dissenters - with the help of a secret police - becomes easier. During the Terror, 17,000 people were killed in France - many of them on the slenderest charges: the suspicion that they did not support the revolution because they played chess with monarchical pieces (a taboo), or didn't know who Spartacus was.

It can seem as though a biased press, rallies of hysterical supporters and nihilistic nationalist wars are, along with the car and nuclear bombs, uniquely 20th-century inventions. A look at the French Revolution shows us where Milosevic et al have been getting some of their charming ideas.