ROBESPIERRE AND THE GREAT TERROR DURING THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
By Tim Lambert
The Background to the Great Terror
The French revolution entered a new radical phase in 1792 when war began with Austria in April and with Prussia in May.
At first the war went very badly for France leading to fear and recriminations.
Moreover in the Summer of 1792 public opinion hardened against the king. At that time Paris was divided into sections with sectional assemblies. On 9 august they seized power. They joined to form the Paris Commune and they sent national guards to arrest the king. The king and his family took refuge and escaped harm. However the king's Swiss guard tried to stop the national guard and were massacred.
The Legislative Assembly then declared that the king was suspended. The Constitution of 1791 (which gave the king an important role) was now unworkable. The assembly then agreed to call elections for a new government, the National Convention, which met in September 1792.
Meanwhile on 17 August 1792 the Commune formed a tribunal to try people accused of political crimes. The first political prisoner was guillotined on 21 August.
Then, in September 1792, massacres of political prisoners took place. At that time the Prussian army was advancing into France. The Parisians were frantic and they began killing prisoners held in jails in the city. Kangaroo courts were set up and thousands of people were killed. The killings became known as the September massacres.
However on 20 August 1792 the French army halted the Prussians at Valmy.
The French revolution had now entered a new phase. The new government, the National Convention, abolished the monarchy. In December 1792 the king was put on trial. He was executed on 15 January 1793. Marie Antoinette followed him to the guillotine on 16 October 1793.
After the execution of the king Britain went to war with France. Increasingly desperate the French government introduced conscription in February 1793.
Meanwhile in conservative parts of France the revolution was becoming increasingly unpopular and conscription was the last straw. Finally in March 1793 the Vendee and parts of Brittany rose in revolt. However by December the uprising was crushed, with appalling bloodshed.
However as well as facing internal revolt the French government was faced with military defeat in early 1793. In April a kind of war cabinet called the Committee for Public Safety was formed.
In June there was another popular uprising in Paris. This time the National Convention was purged. The moderate members (called Girondins) were removed and the extreme revolutionaries (called Jacobins) took control. The French revolution now entered its most extreme phase.
In August the British captured Toulon. On 23 August faced with a dire military situation the government called for the mobilization of the whole nation for war. It was called the Levee en masse.
The Great Terror (La Terreur)
Meanwhile in March 1793 Watch Committees were formed to monitor foreigners and other suspects. In September 1793 the committees were given much greater powers. From then on anyone who 'by their conduct, their contacts, their words or by their writings' were revealed to be 'supporters of tyranny, of federalism and or to be enemies of liberty' could be arrested. Such a catch-all phrase meant virtually anybody could be arrested and executed.
In the following 9 months at least 16,000 people were executed. (The exact number is not known and it may have been much higher).
Meanwhile the military tide turned. In October 1793 the French army defeated the Austrians at Wattignies. In December 1793 Captain Napoleon Bonaparte recaptured Toulon.
Many Jacobins were deists or atheists and were bitterly opposed to Christianity. In September 1793 a movement called De-Christianization began. The church was persecuted. Churches were vandalized and closed. The church of Notre-Dame was renamed the 'Temple of Reason'.
In October a new calendar was adopted. Years were no longer counted from the birth of Christ. Instead they began on 22 September 1792, the first day of the republic. The year was divided into twelve months with names taken from nature. The seven day week was replaced by a ten day one.
However the Convention now became alarmed. The members feared for their lives, realizing that Robespierre might arrest and execute any of them. The only way to ensure their safety was to denounce Robespierre and remove him from power. This they did.
Robespierre then tried to shoot himself on 27 July but he was arrested. He was sent to the guillotine on 28 July 1794.
The apparatus of terror was then dismantled. Furthermore thousands of prisoners were released.
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Last revised 2019