Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 December 2020
Over the past fifty years, historians have come to see the closing decades of the eighteenth century as fundamental to the rise of a ‘modern’ concept of time. This is largely due to the German historian Reinhart Koselleck, who wrote a number of articles on this topic during the 1960s and 1970s. Both for Koselleck and other historians connected to the German begriffsgeschichte school, the ‘shock of revolution’, and in particular the French Revolution, has been the most important catalyst for new ideas about time and a ‘rupture in continuity’, that is to say the notion, widespread among contemporaries, that they were living in modernity and that the future was unknown.‘With the [introduction of the French] revolutionary calendar,’ Koselleck writes, ‘the attempt to let a new era of time already begin with that caesura was officially sanctioned and celebrated as a revolution.’
This view has been very influential. One cannot, for example, fail to hear its echo in the following quote taken from a more recent article (2003) by Lynn Hunt:
A new relationship to time would turn out to be the single greatest innovation of the revolution […] Revolution meant rejecting the past, introducing a sense of rupture in secular time, maximizing and elongating the present in order to turn it into a moment of personal and collective transformation, and shaping the future in accordance with the discoveries made in the present. Time became an issue; it ceased being a given.
The French Revolution did not stop at the border, and historians such as Ernst Wolfgang Becker and Peter Fritzsche have recently attempted to show how the revolutionary experience irreversibly changed the concept of time not only in France but also in other parts of the Western world. ‘It is difficult to overemphasize,’ Fritzsche writes, ‘the extent to which the prolonged nature of the French Revolution disrupted Western conceptions of historical continuity.’
As one of the aims of this book is a critical reevaluation of the relationship between France and its Sister Republics, I will take this assertion as the point of departure for my contribution, in which I intend to nuance the view that it was primarily the experience of the French Revolution that reshaped the concept of time everywhere in the West.