Tuesday, 12 April 2016

The Terror (1)

Nine emigrants go the the guillotine
(October 1793) public domain
For this post, I have been especially indebted to the following books: 
David Andress, The Terror: Civil War in the French Revolution (Abacus, 2005)
William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1989)
Antonia Fraser, Marie Antoinette: The Journey (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001)
Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Viking, 1989)
Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (Vintage, 2007)

‘Nobody had dreamed of establishing a system of terror. It established itself by force of circumstances.’  Quoted Doyle, Oxford History of the French Revolution, p. 266. 

Nevertheless, the Terror was the policy of the Jacobin government from the autumn of 1793 until its abandonment in August 1794. It is associated above all with Maximilian Robespierre and with two institutions, the Revolutionary Tribunal and the Committee of Public Safety.  On 6 September two hardliners were elected to the Committee:  Billaud-Varenne and Collot d’Herbois.

What was the Terror? 

It was the period beginning on 5 September 1793 and ending with the death of Robespierre in July 1794. Famous victims included Marie Antoinette, the Girondins and eventually the Dantonist faction, but the bulk of the victims were ordinary people. 

In the course of the Terror, around 16,000 people were formally condemned to death, most of them in the provinces. An unknown number died in custody or were lynched without trial. Nearly 2,000 were executed in Lyon after the city fell to the revolutionaries. Over 3,500 were guillotined when the revolt in the Vendée was finally suppressed after terrible loss of life on the battlefield and the murder of an estimated 10,000 rebels and civilians in retreat. The most horrific event of the provincial Terror occurred in Nantes, the scene of the noyades.   At a rough estimate 30,000 died (though it should be noted that more people died in Ireland in 1798 and in Poland in 1794). In Paris, the scene of these executions was the Place de la Révolution. 

The Terror was accompanied by a policy of de-christianization – churches were closed and the calendar redrawn.

It was triggered by war, resistance within France to the Revolution, the increasingly violent actions of the sans-culottes in the face of economic hardship. It also developed its own momentum.

The ideology of the Terror

The Terror was  inspired by the quest for 'virtue' and the hunt for 'the enemy within'.
‘The point was to ensure the triumph of the good, pure, general will of the people – what the people would want in ideal circumstances – and this needed to be intuited on their own behalf until they received sufficient education to understand their own good.' Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity, p. 211.

The Law of Suspects

On 17 September the Law of Suspects ordered the incarceration of all ex-nobles, women and children included, unless they could prove their attachment to the Republic, and empowered watch committees to arrest anyone who had in any way shown themselves hostile to the Revolution.  Also to be detained were those who had failed to prove their liberty to a Surveillance Committee. More than fifty places of detention operated in Paris under this law. Up to 10,000 people, arrested under this law may have died in custody in over-crowded prisons; others were murdered or lynched with no official record. 

On 29 September the Convention was finally pressurised into granting a ‘General Maximum’ on foodstuffs. Prices on a wide range of goods were restricted to 1790 levels, with an increase allowed for transport costs. Those who sold over the new price were to be denounced as suspects.   The result was a food shortage as goods were stripped from the shelves and not replaced. 

In October the Committee of Public Safety took on the central direction of the entire state apparatus, the Revolutionary Armies, the regular armies, the ministers and local authorities. It became the government, answerable to no-one but itself.

The republican calendar

On 5 October the republican calendar was adopted, backdated to 22 September 1792.  In the words of its creator, Fabre d’Eglantine, it would be a new ‘empire of images’, a liberation from the Gregorian calendar. It celebrated the agricultural year, renamed the twelve months and created a ten-day week.
"Vendémiaire" (22 September -21 October)
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The execution of Marie-Antoinette

The queen’s trial began on 14 October and was an opportunity for the revolutionaries to vent their hatred.   On 9 July she had been separated from her son and during the two-day trial she was accused by the journalist, René Hébert of having sexually abused him. The undoubtedly damning evidence, letters produced by Fouquier-Tinville, that she had been in treasonable correspondence with the Austrian court and had betrayed French military plans, was almost buried under the many slanders.  After a two-day trial she was convicted and was guillotined on 16 October.
'Marie Antoinette on the Way to the Guillotine
by Jacques-Louis David -
Licensed under Public domain
via Wikimedia Commons

The execution of the Girondins

The show- trial of the twenty-one detained Girondins began on 24 October. Since 5 September most of them had been imprisoned in the La Force prison. Brissot, who had fled to the provinces, had been captured at Moulins.  The indictment accused them of being agents of counter-revolution and of foreign powers and of assassinating Lepeletier and Marat.   But at first the trial did not go according to plan as they defended themselves ably. At Robespierre’s suggestion, the Committee of Public Safety obtained a change in the rules of the Revolutionary Tribunal: Fouquier-Tinville was empowered to end a trial after three days by securing the jury’s agreement that their ‘consciences had been sufficiently enlightened’ as to the facts.  On the following day they were convicted. On hearing the verdict, the Jacobin journalist, Camille Desmoulins, shouted out, ‘My God, I am sorry for this!’ They were executed on 31 October, twenty-two people killed in thirty-eight minutes.

On 6 November Philippe Egalité was executed. On 9 November Madame Roland was guillotined.  When he heard of her death, Roland committed suicide by impaling himself on his swordstick near Rouen. 

Another prominent woman had already been guillotined. This was Olympe de Gouges, ostensibly executed on 3 November for sedition and wishing to restore the monarch - in reality for being a political woman.

The fall of Lyon

Meanwhile the federalist revolt in the south was crumbling. On 18 September Bordeaux was taken. Lyon fell on 9 October. On 12 October the Convention decreed that the city should be wiped from the map. What this meant was made clear on 26 October when the representative-on-mission, Georges Couthon, began the process of demolition that would leave only the houses of the poor and buildings of ‘public utility’ standing.  Lyon was to be renamed ‘Freed Town’ (Ville Affranchie). A triumphal column raised over the ruins was to bear the subscription: 
‘Lyon Made War on Liberty. Lyon is no more’. 
Eventually some sixteen hundred of Lyon’s finest houses were razed along with the city’s fortifications.

The war turns

At the end of 1793 French fortunes improved on the battle front, due in part to the levée en masse. On 17 October the Republic defeated the Vendéans at Cholet. Under their new leader, Larochejacquelein, the remnants of the army crossed the Loire, with a huge train of non-combatants, hoping to link with a British landing that never came. After failing to take Angers and Le Mans, they were decisively crushed at Savenay on 23 December.

 General Westermann wrote to the Committee of Public Safety (though the authenticity of the letter is disputed): 
‘There is no more Vendée, citizens, it has perished under our free sword along with its women and children. I have just buried it in the marshes and mud of Savenay. Following the orders you gave me I have crushed children under the feet of horses, massacred women who at least…will engender no more brigands. I have no prisoners with which to reproach myself.’ Quoted Schama, p. 788.

The Terror had come to the west.

In the Mediterranean Toulon was recaptured on 19 December by the young artillery officer, Napoleon Bonaparte. 

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