Tuesday, 19 April 2016

The Terror (2)

As with previous posts, I have been  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)
Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Viking, 1989)
Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (Vintage, 2007)

'Festival of the Supreme Being' 1794


The policy of dechristianisation that began in the autumn of 1793 arose out of the deism of the Enlightenment – the belief in a rational religion purged of superstition. On a less elevated level it arouse out of a long tradition of loathing the Church. It began not in Paris but in the provinces, instigated by the agents of the Terror in the Year II.

In the Nièvre in central France the representative-on-mission
Joseph Fouché  (1763-1820)
Wikimedia Commons
Joseph Fouché  presided over the policy, turning the area into a scene of religious terror. He ordered all crosses and statues removed from graveyards, and decreed that all cemetery gates must bear only one inscription – ‘Death is an eternal sleep’.

The dechristianisation of the provinces was accompanied by widespread vandalism. In Rheims the phial holding the sacred oil of Clovis used to anoint the kings of France was smashed. Images were destroyed, churches were trashed, bells were torn down, and church plate was recast into guns and cannons.

In October the Paris Commune made dechristianisation its official policy. It was marked by some dramatic events, many of them orchestrated by actors and playwrights.  On 7 November the aged Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Gobel, the constitutional archbishop of Paris, renounced his Catholicism at the bar of the Convention: ‘there should be no other public cult than liberty and holy equality’.  Soon afterwards a Commune decree closed all the churches in Paris – a measure that was widely imitated in France.

On 10 November (20 brumaire) in a ceremony organized by the virulent journalist René Hébert, a pike-wielding singer from the Opera was worshipped in Notre Dame as Liberty. Robespierre disapproved of this festival and of the whole anti-religious agenda of the Hébertistes. He believed that atheism was 'aristocratic'. The people needed religion - but it had to be a rational religion, one based on the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau rather than on the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The Terror in the provinces

In the last months of 1793 the Terror was more marked in the provinces than in Paris. While only 177 people were executed in Paris between October and the end of 1793, most of them well known, thousands of obscure people died in the provinces.

Lyon: Following the fall of Lyon in October, and its renaming as ‘Ville Affranchie’ thousands of suspects were arrested. Georges Couthon, whose policy had been comparatively moderate, was replaced by Fouché and Collot d’Herbois, who came determined to make an example of the city. On 27 November a special ‘Tribunal of Seven’ was established and within days it had handed down capital sentences on almost 300 convicted rebels.

The guillotine could not cope with these numbers. Between 4-8 December in what were known as the ‘mitrillades’, condemned men were blown into open graves by cannon-fire and grape shot. By April 1,880 Lyonnais had been condemned. Blood ran in the streets of the ruined city.

Nantes:  The Vendéan revolt was finally suppressed in December 1793. As the war turned against the rebels the port of Nantes was bursting with prisoners. From October special courts had been set up in the department of Loire-Inférieure to try them and 3,548 capital sentences were passed. The representative-on-mission, Jean-
J-B. Carrier (1756-1794)
Wikimedia Commons
Baptiste Carrier (left) thought royalists deserved exemplary vengeance. In addition Nantes was short of food and the prisons were ravaged by epidemics.

With these factors in mind Carrier approved the noyades, the wholesale drowning of rebels. On 19 November some ninety priests were executed by sinking them in a holed barge in the Loire. In the six weeks that followed some 1,800 people were drowned and their bodies were washed up for weeks afterwards. In February unease at this policy led to Carrier’s recall to Paris.

In just under a year, roughly 30,000 died in France.  Up to 10,000 of these may have died in custody, their deaths unrecorded. However, the same number died in a matter of weeks in Ireland in 1798, while 20,000 were slaughtered on a single day in Warsaw in November 1794. The 1790s was a grim decade.

The Law of 14 Frimaire

The provincial Terror and the dechristianisation alarmed and disgusted Robespierre. He saw France descending into chaos, and was fiercely antagonistic to atheism, which he saw as ‘aristocratic’. Now that the Girondins had gone he saw the radical Hébertist faction as the new counter-revolutionaries. Danton was also opposed to what he called ‘anti-religious masquerades’.

On 4 December 1793 the Revolutionary Government passed the Law of 14 Frimaire (4 December), a measure of extreme centralization, which vested all power in the Convention and the Committee of Public Safety.  With this law, the Terror entered its second phase. The proconsular autonomy of the representatives-on-mission was over. France was now to have a strong centralised government.  

The execution of the Hébertistes

The Law of Frimaire, and power struggles within the Committee of Public Safety, allowed the execution of the Hébertistes, the advocates of crowd disorder, on 24 March 1794 after they had mounted a failed coup. These mass executions before a hostile crowd marked the end of the sans-culottes as a political force; they had abandoned their so-called champions.  In April the Paris Commune was purged and remodelled. Did this mean that the Terror was over?

The execution of the Dantonists

Even before the fall of the Hébertistes, Robespierre had been seized with the idea of purging Republican government, freeing it from indiscriminate violence and atheistic vandalism and founding it instead on the rule of virtue. But this also meant an attack on any deviation from revolutionary purity, whether from the violence of the streets or from those who would seek to compromise with the enemies of the Revolution.

From December, Robespierre’s old school friend, Camille Desmoulins, had edited a journal called Le Vieux Cordelier. It was an open attack on the Hébertists, who had taken over his old club, but it was also a call for a Committee of Clemency to provide justice for those arrested under the Law of Suspects. He and Robespierre quarrelled publicly in the Jacobin Club on 7 January 1794 (18 nivôse).  This led Danton to fear that Robespierre, 'the Incorruptible', who had hitherto sacrificed his enemies, might now sacrifice his friends. On 10 January Camille was expelled from the Jacobins. This was a particularly dangerous moment for the Dantonists as they were believed be involved in a murky and complicated scandal involving the French East India Company, along with Fabre d’Eglantine, the inventor of the revolutionary calendar.

Robespierre was now increasingly obsessed with cleansing the Republic of corruption. On 5 February (17 pluviôse) he delivered a wildly applauded speech to the Convention: 
‘If the basis of popular government in peacetime is virtue, its basis in time of revolution is both virtue and terror – virtue without which terror is disastrous and terror, without which virtue has no power…Terror is merely justice, prompt, severe, and inflexible. It is therefore an emanation of virtue, and results from the application of democracy to the most pressing needs of the country.’ Quoted Scurr, 274-5)

On the evening of 2 Germinal (22 March), Robespierre quarrelled with Danton at a dinner party. Some hours later, he signed the warrant for the arrest of the Dantonists. In the middle of the night of 9-10 Germinal (29-30 March), Danton, Camille Desmoulins, Fabre d'Eglantine, and assorted others were arrested and imprisoned in the former royal palace, the Luxembourg, where they were greeted by Thomas Paine, who had been arrested because of his links with the Girondins. 

Between 2 and 5 April (13-16 Germinal) they were tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal. Desmoulins was a broken man, but Danton's speeches of defiance became the stuff of legend. They were executed on 5 April (16 germinal), with Danton making characteristic wisecracks to the end. Their execution marked a new phase in the Terror: where people might be executed for their potential rather than their actual crimes.

A bound Danton on
the way to the scaffold
public domain

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