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The Reign of Terror


By William Doyle

Two hundred and twenty years ago this week, 5 September 1793, saw the official beginning of the Terror in the French Revolution. Ever since that time, it is very largely what the French Revolution has been remembered for. When people think about it, they picture the guillotine in the middle of Paris, surrounded by baying mobs, ruthlessly chopping off the heads of the king, the queen, and innumerable aristocrats for months on end in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity. It was social and political revenge in action. The gory drama of it has proved an irresistible background to writers of fiction, whether Charles Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities, or Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel novels, or many other depictions on stage and screen. It is probably more from these, rather than more sober historians, that the English-speaking idea of the French Revolution is derived.


Unquestionably the Terror was bloody. Over 16,000 people were officially condemned to death, as many again or more probably lost their lives in less official ways, and tens of thousands were imprisoned as suspects, many of them dying in prison rather than under the blade of the guillotine. But the French Revolution did not begin with Terror, and nobody planned it in advance. Robespierre, so often (and quite wrongly) regarded as its architect, was a vocal opponent of capital punishment when the Revolution began. But revolutions, simply because they aim to destroy what went before, create enemies. In France there were probably far more losers than winners, and not all of those who lost were prepared to accept their fate. So from the start there were growing numbers of counter-revolutionaries, dreaming of overturning the new order. How were they to be dealt with?

After three years of increasing polarisation, it was decided to force everybody to choose by launching a war. In war nobody can opt out: you are on our side or on theirs, and if you’re on theirs, you’re a traitor. If the war goes badly, it becomes increasingly tempting to blame it on treason, and to crack down on everybody suspected of it. By the first quarter of 1793, the war was going badly. The first proven traitor to suffer official punishment was the king himself, overthrown in August 1792 and executed the following January. After that the new republic found itself on the defensive against most of Europe. The measures it took to organise the war effort, including conscripting young men for the armies, provoked widespread rebellion throughout the country. By the summer huge stretches of the western countryside were out of control, and major cities of the south were denouncing the tyranny of Paris. When news came in early September that Toulon, the great Mediterranean naval base, had surrendered to the British, the populace of Paris mobbed the ruling Convention and forced it to declare Terror the order of the day. It seemed the only way to defeat the republic’s internal enemies.

Many of the instruments of Terror were already in place. A revolutionary tribunal had been established in March, and the guillotine had first been used a year earlier, designed as a reliable, fast, and humane way of executing criminals. Now they were systematically turned against rebels. Most victims of the Terror died in the provinces, after forces loyal to the Convention  recaptured centres of resistance. This was mopping up a civil war. The vast majority of them were not aristocrats, but ordinary people caught up in conflicts that they could not avoid. Naturally, however, it was high profile victims who caught the eye, especially when, in the early summer of 1794, political justice was centralised in Paris. Often called the ‘great’ Terror, these last few months actually represented an attempt to bring the process under control. By then people were so sickened by the bloodshed (for unlike hanging, decapitation did shed a lot of blood) that the main site of execution was moved to the suburbs. The emergency was in fact over, and repression had done its work. The fortunes of war had also turned, and French armies were winning again. So everybody was looking for ways to end an episode of which the republic was becoming increasingly ashamed. Eventually a scapegoat was found, Robespierre, who had too often stood up to defend the increasingly indefensible.

Terror had built up slowly, and the proclamation of 5 September 1793 merely confirmed what was already happening. But it ended quite suddenly in July 1794, when it was possible to pin the blame shared by many on one incautiously vocal figure and a handful of his henchmen. But however ruthlessly, Terror had saved the republic from overthrow. Nor should we forget that other combatant states at the time resorted to repression of their own. In 1798, 30,000 people died in the great Irish rebellion, in a population only a sixth that of France. The British monarchy could be every bit as ruthless as the French republic, when it had to be.

William Doyle, Professor of History, University of Bristol and author of The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction and Aristocracy: A Very Short Introduction. Read Professor Doyle’s post on aristocracy here.

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Image credit: (1) Execution of Marie Antoinette in 1793, [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons; (2) “Enemies of the people” headed for the guillotine during The Reign of Terror [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

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