The Deaths of Louis XVI
Regicide and the French Political Imagination. Literature in History
The public beheading of Louis XVI was a unique and troubling event that scarred French collective memory for two centuries. 19th-century historians considered it an alarming miscalculation, a symbol of the Terror and the moral bankruptcy of the Revolution. In this book, Susan Dunn investigates the regicide's pivotal role in French intellectual history and political mythology. She examines how thinkers on the right and left repudiated regicide and terror, while articulating a compassionate, humanitarian vision, which became the moral basis for the modern French nation. Their credo of fraternity and unity, however, strangely depoliticized this supremely political act of regicide. Using theoretical insights from Tocqueville, Arendt, Rawls, Walzer and others, Dunn explores the transformation of violent regicidal politics into an apolitical cult of ethical purity and an antidemocratic nationalist religion. Her book focuses on the fluidity of political myths. The figure of Louis XVI was transmuted into a Joan of Arc, and the notion of his sacrifice contributed to the disquieting myth of a mystical community of self-sacrificing citizens.
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What Reviewers Are Saying
"Written with a clear focus, a strong narrative line, and a critical tone, Susan Dunn's book mobilizes an array of contemporary writers and political theorists to provide a counter-voice, which modulates into her own voice, to nineteenth-century French intellectuals."--Michael Walzer, Institute for Advanced Study