Many unnamed Christians died in the city of Rome due to a brutal persecution under the Roman emperor Nero in the year 64 and are now known as the “First Martyrs of Rome”. Men and women like these, who are the first to die for their Catholic faith in a region, are often called protomartyrs.
115 men who died on a single night in the eighteenth century—not the twentieth—could be accurately called protomartyrs of communism.
Some of us were taught in school that the French Revolution was just like our own American Revolution. According to this interpretation, just as the colonists fought for freedom from the tyranny of British rule in the late eighteenth century, so the French fought for freedom from the tyranny of monarchs at nearly the same time. However, when one compares the goals, tactics, and terms of the American Revolution to the French Revolution, the French Revolution looks a lot more like a communist revolution than a battle over unjust laws and taxation.
It must first be noted that two pivotal leaders in our modern understanding of communism—Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin—wouldn’t be born for decades when the French Revolution erupted. However, when Karl Marx proposed his economic theories in the nineteenth century, he proposed them not as something new, but as a particular kind of communism among the many theories of communism that were already being debated.
The ideals of communism had been percolating in French salons for some time before the French Revolution began in the late 1780s. For example, it is generally accepted that the term “communism” comes from the French word “communisme”, from a French philosopher who first described his ideas about communal ownership of property under this title in 1785.
Once you start seeing the similarities between the French Revolution and later communist revolutions, it is easy to see them everywhere. What did the French revolutionaries call their new government? The Paris Commune. How did both the French revolutionaries and Lenin’s communists gain control of their respective countries? Through deadly violence and false propaganda. What was the goal of both groups of revolutionaries? To tear down all existing leaders and political structures and establish new ones, of course with themselves in charge of it all.
While the American Revolution is commonly called the “War of Independence”, the French Revolution is often referred to as the “Reign of Terror”—and with good reason. While most of the violence of the American Revolution was largely on battlefields between armed forces, a staggering level of violence occurred in the city streets of France as ordinary citizens were summarily executed by guillotine after the barest imitation of a trial. And while most of the American colonial leaders spent years negotiating with the king of England to try to avoid bloodshed (although there were some hotheads), the French revolutionary leaders were all hotheads who demanded action, violence, and complete control, right now.
Perhaps the most obvious similarity between communist revolutions, such as the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the eighteenth-century French Revolution is that these revolutions were led by men who possessed an absolute hatred of Christians, and the Catholic Church in particular.
The revolutionary government of France enacted a law in 1790 which denied papal authority over the Church in France. All clergy and religious were ordered to swear an oath that they would uphold this law and obey the laws of the Republic over any laws of the Church. Those who refused were taken prisoner. Ninety-four men were imprisoned for this reason in the Hotel des Carmes, a Carmelite monastery in Paris; this number included three bishops, eighty-five priests, three deacons, a religious brother, a seminarian, and a layman.
As described in The Revolution Against Christendom,1 the Paris Commune issued a proclamation that was spread all over the city on September 2, 1792, hysterically stating: “THE ENEMY IS AT OUR GATES.” In reality, the Prussian army was nowhere near Paris’ gates, but the Commune’s leaders had almost certainly been secretly distributing copies of a pamphlet, a pamphlet which claimed that there was a plot to assassinate ordinary citizens that very night. By circulating this false propaganda, the Commune not only provoked fear in Parisian citizens about their own safety, it also made citizens afraid to interfere in acts of violence occurring in their neighborhoods.
With guns booming and alarm bells ringing all over the city, a group of armed militia arrived at the Hotel des Carmes monastery. This group included some felons who had been released that day to assist in the Commune leaders’ premeditated plan: the murder of Catholic clergy. One of the militia leaders demanded to see the archbishop of Arles, the most senior clergyman in the prison. As the armed men approached him, Archbishop Jean-Marie du Lau d’Alleman fell to his knees, prayed briefly, and rose saying the words reminiscent of our Lord, “I am the man you are looking for.”2 He was immediately killed by a pike shoved into his chest.
The leader of the militia, Stanislas Maillard, corrected his men. “Don’t kill them so quickly,” he said, “we are meant to try them [first].” All the imprisoned clergymen were taken by twos (in order to speed up the process) and were ordered to take the oath of allegiance to the Republic. Each “trial” took just a few minutes, though not a single man agreed to take the oath. All ninety-four were all taken away to another part of the monastery and killed. The massacre continued all night long. A seemingly demonic and murderous frenzy enveloped Paris for four straight days.
The prisoners of the Hotel des Carmes were not the only clergy who were killed on that terrible night. Another group of militia was sent to the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Pres in Paris, where twenty-one other clergymen were imprisoned. Those men too refused the oath—refused to abandon their faith in Christ and His Church—and were killed. Both groups of men have been acknowledged as martyrs and blesseds and are now commemorated by the Church on September 2. They are commonly called the Martyrs of September.
Obviously, not every French Catholic bishop, priest, and religious was killed on this single night. But during the Reign of Terror, many faithful Catholic clergy, religious, and laymen were subjected to trials where the verdict of death was a foregone conclusion. Perhaps the most well-known group of martyrs of the French Revolution is the sixteen Carmelite nuns, lay sisters, and tertiaries of Compiegne who were guillotined on July 17, 1794; the moving story of their martyrdom was made into an opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites, in 1956, and was the subject of Gertrud von le Fort’s 1931 novel The Song at the Scaffold.
Like all the protomartyrs of past centuries, these 115 blesseds were forced to choose between their faith and their lives without warning. Although they were surely aware of the dangers of following the Crucified Christ and of cultural risks at the time, they suddenly found themselves confronted by an unknown enemy, a political reality that hated Christ and Christians.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!