Revisionism in history knows no boundaries. Just in the past few years, we have been told that that comet may have glanced right off the dinosaurs, prodding a few toward flight and feathers; that the German blitzkrieg barely meandered across Europe; and that Genghis Khan was actually a sharing and caring and ecumenical leader, Bill Moyers with a mustache and colorful folk costume. So it was inevitable that we would get a revisionist history of the French Reign of Terror—the period from September, 1793, to July, 1794, when the Committee of Public Safety, in Paris, invented the modern thought crime, cut off the heads of its enemies, and created the apparatus of the totalitarian state. Since the time of Burke, through Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution and, above all, Dickens’s “Tale of Two Cities,” the imagery of the Terror—of the sansculottes knitting as tumbrels rolled—has been lodged deep in our imagination. “All perished, all , Friends, enemies, of all parties, ages, ranks, Head after head, and never heads enough For those who bade them fall,” Wordsworth wrote, in disillusioned horror, after it was over; and we see the heads falling still.
Yet our sense of such an iconic moment is bound to be partial—icons are flat. The real question about revisionist history is whether it turns something flat into something three-dimensional or just hangs it on the wall upside down. This revisionist history, now that it has crossed the Atlantic, turns out to be subtler and more interesting than some of the British reviews might have suggested. Written by the academic historian David Andress, the new book is called “The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $26), and the subtitle emphatically semaphores the new position. Andress is hardly an apologist for the Reign of Terror, and he is both too smart and too decent to scant its horrors. But he is in battle with the now standard view, which was entrenched by the French historian François Furet in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, and made most memorable and dramatic by Simon Schama in his 1990 book “Citizens.” This is the view not that the Revolution mutated into the Terror by contingency and ill luck but that in some tragic sense the Revolution was the Terror: that the Terror was implicit in the entire rationalist program of starting over from Year One. The first necessity for a blank slate is an omnipotent eraser, and the guillotine was the one at hand.
Against this, Andress believes that the Terror was an episode in a sporadic civil war that stretched from 1789 to 1871—a bloody and ugly episode, certainly, but no bloodier and not much uglier than others that we write about less often. (Far fewer people were killed by the guillotine than in the Napoleonic battles of Austerlitz and Borodino.) More important, Andress sets out to demonstrate, the Terror was also a consequence of the reactionary encirclement of France by the other powers of Europe. Those powers had learned nothing and forgotten nothing; they had it in for Republican France, and intended to restore a vengeful absolutism to the throne. What drove the Terror was not a crazed intellectual desire to extend the Revolution to every corner of existence but a desperate desire to maintain its achievements in the face of opposition. Robespierre and his group were revolutionary butchers, but they were butchers surrounded by vampires. “It is necessary to maintain a sense of proportion,” Andress writes in his introduction.
Well, what was the Terror? What are we to be proportionate about? It was, in effect, the second, panicked stage of the French Revolution. Like the American one, the French Revolution proceeded in stages, from appeals to the King to the rejection of him. Despite its subsequent reputation as a killing spree, it actually advanced more cautiously than the English one, more than a century before, which had also—as the British sometimes forget—culminated in regicide and massacre. Andress writes as crisp and up-to-date an account of the Revolution’s origins as I have read. He explains how the financial crisis of the French treasury precipitated a political crisis, and how the slow stirrings of constitutional reform blossomed into a demand for fundamental change—in particular, the demand for the Third Estate, the common people, to have a role in governance. Yet Andress also underlines the fact that, throughout these first stages, what was wanted by the great mass of statesmen and by the National Assembly—the makeshift but representative gathering of the people who had declared the Rights of Man—was a constitutional monarchy along British lines.
It was the secret flight of the King’s family from their palace in Paris to Varennes on the night of June 22, 1791, that precipitated the Terror. The weak and well-meaning King Louis XVI (who had taken up locksmithing, out of a belief in the virtues of “useful” craft and trade) got talked into fleeing toward the border of the Austrian Netherlands, where loyalist troops waited. Andress places some of the blame for this folly on the queen, Marie-Antoinette, who, true to her popular reputation, could not accept that things had changed or see that a monarchy non-absolute in power would be better off in the long run. The King’s flight was a galvanizing event for the revolutionary radicals in Paris; it at once vindicated their fears and justified their excesses.
Again and again, though, Andress leaves Paris and the familiar characters to delve into regional politics and economics. He is a member of what might be called the prices-in-the-provinces school of academic history, a practice that emphasizes events outside the capital and makes much of weekly economic fluctuations; what was spent for bread in Lyons, not what was said over coffee in Paris, shaped the course of events. Throughout the Terror, he points out, far more revolutionary bureaucrats were engaged in intricate and doomed bakery price-control schemes than were working the guillotine. He gives names and jobs to all the players in the tragedy, not in order to make heroes of individual agents but to replace the blood-maddened mobs of the Burkean imagination with actual groups and guilds and clan gatherings. Andress is at pains to demythologize the horrors these revolutionaries committed, which he does, sort of, making it plain that they were not mindlessly bloodthirsty but selective and, in their way, sane. One of the early rumblings of the Terror—the massacre of aristocrats and clerics in Paris in September, 1792—was in fact quite well regulated. The killings were semi-legal, with kangaroo courts quickly convened and a majority of the harmless prisoners released. And some of the worst horrors have been made worse still by time and legend. It turns out that Marie-Antoinette’s friend the Princesse de Lamballe, who, according to long-established history, was murdered by the September mob, her naked body pierced and mutilated, was merely decapitated, and her fully clothed body brought directly to the police station, where—a very French touch, this—“within hours, corpse and head were reunited.” This is some comfort, but perhaps not quite as much comfort as Andress thinks, either to the Princesse or to us.
The Committee of Public Safety— one of the first great Orwellian euphemisms—was formed to bring the massacres under control, or, as it turned out, to centralize, rationalize, and mechanize them. By then, the Convention (the successor of the National Assembly) had turned from its more or less orderly and bourgeois phase into a gathering of radical clans, who met every day in a former church to argue, drink, speechify, and accuse. It was as if S.D.S. had seized power in Washington in 1968 and Mark Rudd, Abbie Hoffman, Jane Fonda, and two or three ambitious renegade generals were all suddenly trying to run the country, while their followers smoked pot and played Jefferson Airplane records, oscillating between a vague, messianic utopianism and a baleful, apocalyptic vengefulness.
The drift toward absolute radicalism was dictated by the circumstances. In an ordinary political meeting, the action is bowl-shaped: everything flows toward the center. In a revolutionary meeting, the terrain is cambered, and everything flows toward the extreme right or the extreme left. Either a general or a fanatic was almost certain to prevail in those circumstances—a man with guns or a man who could hypnotize the men with guns.
The man to emerge was Maximilien Robespierre, who led the drive to decapitate the King, and became the chief magistrate of the Terror. Robespierre’s life is the subject of “Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution” (Metropolitan; $30), by Ruth Scurr, a youngish scholar who teaches at Cambridge. A more conventional account of the intersection of a single life and time than Andress’s book, “Fatal Purity” is in its way just as rewarding, because of what Robespierre represents: the ascent of the mass-murdering nerd—a man who, having read a book, resolves to kill all the people who don’t like it as much as he does. There is a case to be made that the real singularity of the Terror was the first appearance on the stage of history of this particular psychological type: not the tight-lipped inquisitor, alight with religious rage, but the small, fastidious intellectual, the man with an idea, the prototype of Lenin listening to his Beethoven as the Cheka begins its purges. In normal times, such men become college professors, or book reviewers or bloggers. It takes special historical circumstances for them to become killers: the removal of a ruling class without its replacement by a credible new one. In the confusion, their ethereal certainties look like the only solid thing to build on.
Robespierre, Scurr explains, was a provincial lawyer, well-educated and prim—he had been a scholarship boy at the excellent Collège Louis-le-Grand. After virtuous years in the provinces as a lawyer, often pleading against unjust convictions of the old regime, he arrived in Paris as the Revolution was beginning. He became a leader among the Jacobins, the radical group who met in a Dominican monastery associated with the Rue Saint-Jacques, which gave them their name, and who were in conflict with the Girondins, the Menshevik-like moderates, many of whom came from the area of the Gironde, around Bordeaux.
Bourgeois in manners and personal morals, Robespierre soon became the leader of the Montagnards—the Mountaineers, so-called because they took seats high up in the Convention assembly. He became a leader through negative force, and through the ascetic reputation that gave him the nickname “the Incorruptible.” At the height of the Terror, he still lodged with a respectable working-class family, the Duplays, who made sure that there was white bread and jam for their beloved boarder, and oranges to aid his digestion. He flirted, but only flirted, with the Duplay daughters. He chose a life of unspectacular rectitude. He loved to read, and it was said that he slept with a copy of Rousseau’s “Social Contract” under his pillow. Unlike his great, loose-living and loud-talking rival Danton, he was too unimaginative to be personally ambitious in an obvious way. Instead, he was a devotee of the idea of vertu—virtue, though the French word conveys the kind of encompassing gravity of purpose that used to be suggested by the phrase “moral seriousness.” He never forgave Danton for joking that vertu was what Danton showed his wife every night.
The fact that no one was naturally inclined to follow him made him the man left standing after all the obvious leaders had worn themselves out shouting. Jean Anouilh, in “Poor Bitos,” a now forgotten play from the nineteen-fifties, tried to draw the character: grave, charmless, touchy, proud, easily mocked, and just as easily, and murderously, offended. It is a type who could almost be mistaken for a secularized version of the religious inquisitor, burning heretics not out of hatred but out of love for the higher cause. But Torquemada and the other inquisitors were full-time fanatics who would modestly admit to the description. Robespierre and his closest collaborators were, in their own view, not fanatics but men of feeling and mind; they just happened to be right, that’s all, and what was one to do with the people who insisted that they weren’t?
Robespierre and his chief aide, the eloquent Saint-Just, made regicide seem not just necessary but noble. As Scurr sees it, their joint obsession with vertu set them apart from their more pragmatic contemporaries. By being the keenest voice for the execution of the King, and by pitching that plea in a tone not of personal vengeance but of the necessary work of the Revolution, Robespierre came to dominate. His tone was reflective and ideological rather than vicious or overwrought. The King, sadly, had to die for the sake of the Revolution—the true Revolution, which must be built on terror because it could not be compromised. In a speech, he later explained:
If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs. . . . Indulgence for the royalists, cry certain men, mercy for the villains! No! Mercy for the innocent, mercy for the weak, mercy for the unfortunate, mercy for humanity.
The tones of a new kind of abstract absolutism echo. Even the Inquisitor, on the whole, assumed that the majority of his subjects were true believers; heretics were always a minority—a diabolical minority, but a minority still. For Robespierre, the Revolution exists outside the virtuous revolutionaries, outside history, as a transcendent shimmering ideal to be served; anyone can be an enemy of the revolution, and it is possible for the enemies to outnumber the revolutionaries.
This note of mad spiritual striving rings out in all his words, and both Scurr and Andress make it plain that, whatever else he may have been, Robespierre was never a rationalist. He was a Romantic, and, specifically, a religious Romantic. It was Rousseau’s vision of the workings of a mystical general will, not Voltaire’s vision of toleration achieved through popular education, that moved him. “Robespierre in particular believed fervently that outright atheism was a trait spawned in the decadence of the aristocratic salons of the Old Regime,” Andress writes. He opposed “dechristianization” and the persecution of priests. The national crisis could be solved not by reason but only by faith and tradition. At the height of his power, he organized, with pride, a vast Festival of the Supreme Being, where an effigy of atheism was set alight and burned to the ground as the crowd and choirs sang. He had spoken before of his belief in an “Eternal Being who intimately affects the destinies of nations and who seems to me personally to watch over the French Revolution in a very special way.” Far from marking the extreme limits of secular reason, the Terror was a faith-based initiative, the guillotine the instrument of another kind of auto-da-fé. The Terror wasn’t mad science; it was new faith.
Both Scurr and Andress grimly track the course of the next eighteen months, as Robespierre, holding various posts, oversaw the execution of almost two thousand men and women in the Place de la Révolution. Trials were held in which no defense witnesses were called and the jury had only to be persuaded that there was “moral proof” of the accused’s opposition to the Revolution. After Marie-Antoinette, her hair gone white with worry, was sentenced to death, the radical Hébert, whose “Père Duchesne” letters had set a new high for obscenity in a revolutionary cause, exulted at “having with his own eyes seen the head of the female veto separated from her fucking tart’s neck.”
But soon enough it was Hébert’s turn, and he was guillotined for being an ultra, a “false revolutionary,” in Robespierre’s words, “who would prefer to wear out one hundred red caps”—once a symbol of radicalism—“than do one good deed.” (Andress tells us that the executioner waved a red cap “under his nose as he lay helplessly screaming beneath the waiting blade.”) Then the moderates went, led by Danton, whose coarse joke to Robespierre became part of his indictment. Andress recounts, succinctly, the feuds and rivalries among the bewildering sects and sub-sects of the revolutionaries, and does a good job of dealing with the Terror outside Paris. (Some of the worst atrocities happened in the provinces, where counter-revolutionaries were lined up and executed by having grapeshot fired at them en masse, with hideous inefficiency.) He also points out that the fear of counter-revolution that was always the Jacobin rhetorical trump card wasn’t without warrant; revolutionary France was a fear state but not yet a true police state, and spies and agents did come in and out of Paris with paranoia-inducing regularity.
This sense of beleaguerment helps explain a central mystery of the Terror regime: not how the ideologues kept their hold on the other ideologues but how, despite obvious signs of looniness, they kept their hold on the apparatus of power, on the army and the police. The modern method has usually been for the party or the dictator to have a private source of organized violence, Cheka or S.S., more ruthless than the normal ones. But the Jacobins had no militia or secret police. Andress suggests that, heartbreakingly, an idea of legitimacy, however warped, still seemed to move the French people. The Convention was the accepted source of authority, and soldiers and executioners alike followed its orders to a remarkable degree and accepted its rules and decisions, even as the Revolution turned on the revolutionaries.
The Terror was sadistic and it was cruel. The guillotine may have been a more “humane” form of death than the drawing and quartering of the ancien régime, but its rituals were not. Its victims, robbed even of minimal dignity, were forced to travel to their deaths in open carts, and then laid on planks and decapitated, as the crowd cheered and the blood sprayed and the heads, capable of expression only seconds before, were held up, usually frozen in a grimace. Whole families were killed, one by one, and forced to watch as each went to the scaffold; the aged Malesherbes, who had bravely campaigned for civil liberties under the old regime, had to witness his daughter and granddaughter and their husbands die before it was his turn.
It is often said that terror of this kind is possible only when one has first “dehumanized” some group of people—aristocrats, Jews, the bourgeoisie. In fact, what motivated the spectacle was exactly the knowledge that the victims were people, and capable of feeling pain and fear as people do. We don’t humiliate vermin, or put them through show trials, or make them watch their fellow-vermin die first. The myth of mechanical murder is almost always only that. (If one good thing emerged from Daniel Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners,” it was the demonstration that, contra Hannah Arendt, the actions of the Nazi murderers were not detached and bureaucratic but actively sadistic and cruel.) The night before their execution, the victims, understanding that the purpose of the spectacle was to degrade them by an elaborate theatre of power and powerlessness, rehearsed the routine of their death in order not to break down on the scaffold.
By the summer of 1793, the madness was so evident that even a member of the Convention had to wonder whether he would be next. Andress makes the good point that the Jacobin terroristes remained idealistic and argumentative even to the end. Robespierre and Saint-Just, instead of arming their own militia, as they might well have done—they started a military academy—went on perorating, until, on July 27, 1794, the members of the Convention turned on them, out of fear for their own necks. Enough of the soldiers, surprisingly, turned with them, and Robespierre, his brother, and Saint-Just all went to the guillotine the next day. The crowd cheered their deaths, too. Soon a new terror of reprisals was launched, by the Gilded Youth, a band of royalist thugs.
Scurr ends her book with a hard-edged survey of Robespierre’s stoical last hours. Andress ends his with a comparison between the Reign of Terror and our own “war on terror,” even though our use of state violence to stop terror is more like one of the overreactions of the ancien régime than like anything that he has described. The terror of the state and the panic that terrorism of the late-nineteenth-century anarchist kind puts into the state are simply different things, allied only by a word. More persuasive is Andress’s attempt to release the Revolution, and the Terror, from the hold of the Burkean critique of rationalism. It was not an excess of encyclopedias that moved the murderers.
Even if we accept that the revolutionaries were not the only bloody-minded madmen in Europe, do we end our reading with a new sense of proportion? Whatever academic scholarship may insist, surely a sense of proportion is the last thing we want from history—perspective, certainly, but not proportion. Anything, after all, can be seen in proportion, shown to be no worse a crime than some other thing. Time and distance can’t help but give us a sense of proportion: it was long ago and far away and so what? What the great historians give us, instead, is a renewed sense of sorrow and anger and pity for history’s victims—for some luckless middle-aged Frenchman standing in the cold gray, shivering as he watches the members of his family being tied up and having their heads cut off. Read Gibbon on the destruction of the Alexandria library by the Christians, or E. P. Thompson on the Luddites—not to mention Robert Conquest on the Gulag—and suddenly old murders matter again; the glory of the work of these historians is that the right of the dead to have their pain and suffering taken seriously is being honored. It is not for history to supply us with a sense of history. Life always supplies us with a sense of history. It is for history to supply us with a sense of life.
Or death. For there is something new in the Reign of Terror, and that is its absolutism. You couldn’t escape it. In the old regime, if you were determined to stay out of politics, politics could stay out of you. In revolutionary France, the modern development was that you could not withdraw, or go into self-exile—you could not even repent or adopt the other religion. You could only wait and hope not to die. When the Abbé Sieyès, asked what he had done during the Terror, answered, “I lived,” he was making more than a mordant joke; he was identifying the new thing that had come into the world, which was a will to killing that made merely living achievement enough.
The bloodlust of the time makes the attempt to trace the Terror to any single intellectual source, or peculiar circumstance—to Enlightenment rationalism gone mad, or to the paranoia of the encircled Republicans—feel inadequate to the Terror’s essential nature, which was that it didn’t matter what the ideology was. The argument that a taste for the ideal and the tabula rasa leads to terror, after all, would be more convincing if its opposite—a desire for an organic, authentic, traditional society—didn’t lead to terror, too. The Red Terror led to a White Terror; Robespierre’s head had hardly fallen before the Gilded Youth were attacking the now helpless Jacobins. It sometimes seems as if history had deliberately placed Hitler and Stalin side by side at the climax of the horror of modern history simply to demonstrate that the road to Hell is paved with any intention you like; a planned, pseudo-rationalist utopianism and an organic, racial, backward-looking Romanticism ended up with the same camps and the same carnage. The historical lesson of the first Terror is not that reason devours its own but that reason cannot stop us from devouring each other.