November 21st 1694: Voltaire born
On this day in 1694, the French Enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire was born. His full name was François-Marie Arouet, and he was born in Paris. He chose the name ‘Voltaire’ because it is an anagram of ‘Arovet Li’, which is the Latin spelling of his surname and and the initial letters of ‘le jeune’. He adopted the name after his imprisonment in the Bastille for criticising the government. He is best known for his writings promoting civil liberties and his overall writings amount to over 2000 books and pamphlets. His work influenced the thinkers of the American and French Revolutions.
August 21st 1911: Mona Lisa stolen
On this day in 1911 the Mona Lisa, a famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci, was stolen. The painting was acquired by King Francis I of France soon after it was finished in the early 16th century, and is now the property of France. The Mona Lisa has thus been on display in the Louvre Museum in Paris since 1797. It took two years for the thief, Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia, to be found. Peruggia hid the painting under his coat when he left work as he believed Leonardo’s painting should be returned to its native Italy. He was caught when he tried to sell the Mona Lisa in Florence, and upon his arrest and six month imprisonment Italians hailed him as a patriot.
July 28th 1794: Robespierre et al. executed
On this day in 1794, Maximilien Robespierre, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, Georges Couthon and many of their peers were executed by guillotine in Paris. Robespierre, Saint-Just and Couthon were leading figures in the French Revolution and were radical Jacobins. They served on the Committee of Public Safety, which ruled France during the bloody ‘Reign of Terror’ which saw mass violence and executions of ‘enemies of the revolution’. There was a coup against the Committee on July 27th 1794, which prompted a reactionary movement against the bloody policies of the Reign of Terror. For their role in the violence, Robespierre, Saint-Just and Couthon were executed.
June 14th 1940: Paris falls to the Nazis
On this day in 1940 during World War Two, German soldiers marched into Paris without resistance, and began the occupation of the city. France had fallen quickly partially due to its ill-preparedness for war, and the formidable Nazi blitzkrieg attack. Troops took over the city and hung swastikas on public buildings and monuments. Many Parisians fled, and those who remained faced four brutal years of occupation. Many reported on other people’s opposition to the Nazis, and the dissidents faced torture by the Gestapo and SS. Parisian Jews were also persecuted and sent to concentration camps. Paris was eventually liberated in 1944 following the Allied invasion of Normandy.
May 28th 1871: Paris Commune falls
On this day in 1871 the Paris Commune fell. The Commune took power in opposition to the conservative royalist National Assembly which was elected in February 1871. Republican Parisians feared the Assembly would restore the monarchy. When government officials tried to remove the cannons of the city’s guards on March 18th the Commune seized power and were elected on March 26th. The Commune enacted socialist policies such as ending support of religion and female suffrage. They adopted a plain red flag as the flag of the Commune. The Commune was brutally repressed by the national government, with 20,000 insurrectionists being killed before the Commune fell on May 28th.
March 6th 1779: Jomini born
On this day in 1779, the French general Antoine-Henri Jomini was born in Switzerland. He served in the French army during the Napoleonic Wars and later joined the Russian army. Jomini is famous for his military theory and extensive writings on strategy which continued to be used in military academies years after his death in 1869. Together with Carl von Clausewitz he is considered one of the leading figures in military theory.
February 10th 1755: Montesquieu dies
On this day in 1755 the famous French political thinker of the Enlightenment, Montesquieu, died aged 66 in Paris. He was born to a noble family in 1689. Montesquieu is best known for his theory of the separation of powers between the executive, legislature and judiciary in a government. His thinking was implemented in many national constitutions, most notably the American. He died of a high fever in 1755 and was buried in the Église Saint-Sulpice, Paris.
December 14th 1812: Napoleon’s invasion of Russia ends
On this day in 1812, Napoleon’s Grand Armée was expelled from Russia when the last French troops left, thus ending the French invasion of Russia. France’s failure was a decisive turning point in the Napoleonic Wars, and turned the tide of the war against the French and in favour of the coalition against them. Napoleon had begun the invasion in June 1812, but by the end his army of around 685,000 was down to 120,000. This was partly because his tactic of getting resources by ‘living off the land’ was thwarted by the harsh Russian winter and the Russian scorched earth tactic.
November 19th 1703: Man in the Iron Mask dies
On this day in 1703 the French prisoner known as the ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ died. He was arrested under the name Eustache Dauger in 1669/70 and was in prison until his death, and died under the name Marchioly. He was in the custody of one jailer, Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars, for his whole imprisonment. The prison official at the Bastille, where the man was held, Lieutenant Etienne du Junca, recorded on November 19th 1703 the death of an "unknown prisoner, who has worn a black velvet mask since his arrival here in 1698." Many theories exist as to his identity, including that he was an illegitimate brother of King Louis XIV, the son of King Charles II of England, an Italian diplomat, and a French general, but none have ever been confirmed.
August 15th 1769: Napoleon born
On this day in 1769 Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Corsica, France. Napoleon became French Emperor in 1804 and led France in the wars against various European coalitions in the Napoleonic Wars. France had initial success in the wars but by 1812 was in decline, partly due to Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia. Napoleon was forced to abdicate and was exiled to Elba in 1814 after defeat at the Battle of Leipzig. Napoleon returned to power in 1815, but was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo which sealed the fate of the French army, and the coalitions declared victory. Napoleon was then exiled on Saint Helena, and in 1821 died of stomach cancer.
June 20th 840: Louis the Pious
On this day in 840, King of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor Louis the Pious died in Ingelheim died aged 61/62. Louis succeeded his father Charlemagne upon his death in 814. He was the sole ruler of the Franks from 814 until his death. The Frankish Empire plunged into civil war upon his death, with his sons fighting for control of the Empire.
May 30th 1778: Voltaire dies
On this day in 1778, the French Enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire died in Paris aged 83. His full name was François-Marie Arouet, and he was born in Paris in November 1694. He is best known for his writings promoting civil liberties and his overall writings amount to over 2000 books and pamphlets. His work influenced the thinkers of the American and French Revolutions.
April 8th 1820: Venus de Milo discovered
On this day in 1820 the famous Ancient Greek sculpture the Venus de Milo (created between 130 and 100 BC) was discovered on the Aegean island of Milos by a peasant named Yorgos Kentrotas. It represents the goddess of love and beauty Aphrodite and so has been called the ‘Aphrodite of Milos’. He found the statue in the ancient city ruins of Milos in two main pieces along with fragments of the arms and a plinth which revealed the sculptor to be Alexandros of Antioch. The arms and plinth have since been lost. Kentrotas and French naval officer Olivier Voutier dug around the area and uncovered the statue and had it bought to the Louvre in Paris where it remains today.
February 26th 1802: Victor Hugo born
On this day in 1802, the French novelist Victor Hugo was born. His most famous works are the novels ‘Les Misérables’ and ‘The Hunchback of Notre-Dame’. ‘Les Misérables’ tells the story of the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris and has since been adapted into a hugely successful musical. Hugo lived to age 83 and died on May 22nd 1885 in Paris.
February 8th 1828: Jules Verne born
On this day in 1828, the French author Jules Verne was born in Nantes, France. Verne is famous for his groundbreaking science fiction novels like ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’ and ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’. He is the second most translated author in the world. He died in March 1905.