Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 December 2020
It is a truth now acknowledged, which the future will have trouble reversing: not only is France no longer a great nation, but in the not so distant future it will no longer be a nation at all. Especially within the European project, her illusions of grandeur have been clearly overtaken.
This simple factual statement is far from pessimistic. On the contrary, it is utterly optimistic, because historians rewrite the past in the light of what they make of the times they live in. The perspectives on the Helvetic, Batavian, and Cisalpine republics, presented by Annie Jourdan, Antoine Broussy, and Antonino de Francesco, all confirm and uphold this rule. As it turns out, the Swiss, Dutch, and Italian peoples have not exactly been ruled by French agents. France did not simply occupy territories, pillaging the wealth of her neighbours, whereas the patriots in southern and northern Europe did not passively subdue to French manipulations.
It is possible to sustain that France's slow retreat from the first ranks in world politics and its transformation into a beacon of human rights is precisely what makes new approaches possible; approaches that shed a different light on the complex history of interaction and exchanges, historical transfers and shared political experiences between the Sister Republics and the Directory. Now that France is reduced to a second-rank power, it no longer has to be afraid of weakening a reputation it no longer has. This is the message of the introductory remarks on the following three articles, which remind us of the nineteenth-century historiographies that were written when France was the country where it had all originated: the imperial order, revolutionary disorder, the terror of liberty, and the happiness of equality. France is no longer what it has once been, so the history of the French revolutionaries and their counterparts in other countries can be written differently, without provoking too virulent a reaction in France.
It is therefore time to rediscover the specificity of the different republican experiences, which have, as foundational realities, had major consequences for the political modernity of all three examples here presented. In this introduction, I will attempt to demonstrate how the experience of war disturbed and yet transformed these republics into something other than what historians have recently portrayed in the historiographical debate about modern versus classical republicanism.