Are you Queen Thud?

Marie Antoinette's execution So here’s a big surprise. On October 16, 1793, Marie Antoinette was convicted of having been Queen of France. Revolutionary justice being what it is, she was executed the same day.

The whole farce lasted just three days, from the opening of the trial on the 14th; four if you count the part of a day her lawyers had to prepare her defence. (Or perhaps flee; defending Marie Antoinette in the face of Robespierre’s frenzied rage is far more likely to do you harm than her good.) Which shows what such trials are worth.

I don’t just mean trials by French revolutionaries, although obviously they worked on the verdict first, trial afterward premise that tyrants find so helpfully tidy. I mean the whole genre of trying people for offenses that are not, at bottom, judicial at all.

The real charge against Marie Antoinette was having been part of an unjust regime and social order. The actual formal charges included incest which again tells you what sort of proceeding it was. But she was actually convicted of depletion of the national treasury, conspiracy against the internal and external security of the State, intelligence with the enemy, all of which amount to saying she was Marie Antoinette and had the same friends and attitudes after being deposed as beforehand.

What sort of “trial” do you hold to determine that sort of thing? And there’s no question that to face such charges is to be convicted of them unless you can prove mistaken identity in a big hurry. There was no question that Marie Antoinette had been the wife of Louis XVI and had not used the post to conspire to overthrow the monarchy, abolish the established church, dispossess the nobility and so forth. And perhaps that’s a crime against history or even humanity. But it’s not a crime against any statute in force at the time.

To say so is not to say that whatever is written is legitimate. Far from it. The French Ancien régime was rotten to the core. But what do you do when you oust a tyrant from within or by war from without? It’s like the problem of what to do with the Nazi leadership in 1945. (Sorry, another Hitler analogy, but he was kind of important in an instructive way.)

Obviously you don’t say oh well chaps, you had a good run, off you go. But nor does it make much sense to charge someone with having been Himmler because the trial is rendered a farce by the fact that he is obviously guilty of mass murder, genocide, warmongering and oppression and needs to die. The trial basically goes “Are you Heinrich Himmler?” “Ja.” Bang!

Oddly, to proceed with legal formalities under the circumstances does not elevate the proceedings, it debases the law. Especially if you join forces with Stalin’s bloodstained henchmen to do it. Or Robespierre’s. There might be some point in trying lesser functionaries to determine how aware they were of what was going on. But the disagreement between revolutionaries and the establishment, or between one warring government and another, is philosophical rather than legal.

Had it been up to me I’d have deposed Louis XVI and sent him and his family into obscure exile somewhere. And I’d have shot Robespierre. Repeatedly. But if she was so bad that she deserved to die, I think it’s appropriate as it would have been with the Nazis to say that we regard them as having transgressed basic moral laws in such a way that any trial would be a summary farce so we’re skipping the farce and going straight to the summary. Blindfold? Cigarette? Goodbye!

Personally I regard Marie Antoinette as a sad and deluded rather than a wicked person. And no, she never did say “Qu’ils mangent les brioches”; it was a rural legend that attached itself to any rich important person regarded as badly out of touch with reality, which in fact she was. Her trial was a pathetic as well as an evil farce. And even she deserved better. France certainly did.