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French Revolution
French Revolution

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4.6 The Terror in action

The year of authorised state terror from July 1793 to July 1794 was ‘the climactic year of the Revolution’ (Palmer, 1971, p. 113). Under the Committee of Public Safety, now including Robespierre, ‘revolutionary tribunals’, backed in every commune by a ‘revolutionary committee’ or ‘watch committee’ (comité de surveillance), were set up throughout France, staffed by members of the local Jacobin clubs and the sans-culottes to root out counter-revolutionaries, real and supposed. Deputies of the Convention were sent into the provinces as ‘representatives on mission’ to enforce the orders and reassert the control by the central government which had been devolved when the departments were created in 1790. The ‘rights of man’ were suspended. Anyone seeking public employment had to apply to the watch committee for a certificat de civisme as proof of ideological soundness. Possession of a certificate became virtually mandatory under the Law of Suspects of September 1793, which authorized indefinite imprisonment without trial. It is reckoned that half a million men and women were detained under it (Jones, 1988, p. 115).

A decree of June 1794 introduced by Robespierre declared that ‘the tribunal is instituted to punish the enemies of the people’ (Furet, 1996, p. 146). The Law of Suspects defined ‘enemies of the people’ under a catch-all description as those who showed themselves to be ‘partisans of tyranny … and enemies of liberty’. Suspects were accused, tried and executed in batches. There was no appeal against sentence. The accused were deprived of the right to be defended by counsel and to call witnesses. To be accused was as good as to be condemned; conviction rates rose from 30 per cent to 70 per cent, and the Revolution began to devour its own – men who had played a leading part in events since 1789, particularly the Girondins. Jacobins such as Danton and Camille Desmoulins (1760–94), who tried to stem the tide of terror, were themselves denounced by Robespierre and condemned to death.

Between September 1793 and July 1794 perhaps 17,000 people were sentenced to death by revolutionary tribunals and executed, three-quarters for alleged counter-revolution. 85 per cent of those guillotined were commoners rather than nobles – Robespierre denounced 'the bourgeoisie’ in June 1793 – but in proportion to their number, nobles and clergy suffered most. Some 1,200 nobles were executed. Among the last victims of the Terror were the celebrated chemist Antoine Lavoisier (1743–94) and the poet André Chénier (1762–94). The Enlightenment philosopher Condorcet (1743–94), who laid the foundations of a system of universal education decreed in 1793, and who proclaimed his faith in humanity's future in an eloquent Sketch on … the Progress of the Human Mind (1793), committed suicide while awaiting execution. Including 10–12,000 summary executions without trial, especially in western France, and another 10–12,000 deaths in prison among those detained for revolutionary offences, a total of around 35–40,000 seems a likely toll of those who perished under the Terror (Bouloiseau, 1983, pp. 210–11; Jones, 1988, p. 115). The farewell letters of Olympe de Gouges and Amable Clement attest to the indiscriminate savagery of the Terror. (There is a presumption in favour of the truth of ‘deathbed’ statements.) The victims protest their innocence, patriotism and loyalty to the principles of 1789.

Robespierre was foremost in whipping up passions for a campaign of extermination against counter-revolution. In Paris 1,376 people were guillotined in seven weeks in June and July 1794 – the so-called ‘Great Terror’ – more than in the preceding 15 months. In Lyons there were mass executions by firing-squad because the guillotine was considered too slow (taking around two minutes per victim). In the Vendee region the ‘representative on mission’ authorized mass drownings in the River Loire and a decree was implemented ordering nothing less than ‘the destruction of the Vendee’ (Furet, 1996, p. 139). Rebellious Marseilles and Lyons were renamed respectively ‘City-without-name’ and ‘Liberated City’ (ville-affranchie).

François Furet sees the Terror as more than the suppression of political opposition by the Jacobin elite in power: the final ‘Great Terror’ was unleashed when it was already clear that the Revolution was emerging victorious against its internal and foreign enemies. The Terror, Furet argues, was part of a revolutionary philosophy, ultimately inspired by the Enlightenment. Its followers not only believed in the perfectibility of man and the regeneration of society on new lines, but in that cause and in the name of ‘the people’ also believed themselves justified in ‘extirpating’ through ‘terror’ all who stood in the way of that vision. Mme Roland, wife of the Girondin leader, and, like him, a victim of the Terror, exclaimed from the scaffold: ‘O Liberty, what crimes are committed in your name!’ (Grand Dictionnaire Encyclopédique Larousse, 1985, p. 284).