Review: In Defence of the Terror

Categories: Features Reviews

Gareth Beynon reviews Sophie Wahnich's 'In Defence of the Terror' during the French revolution. Gareth argues Wahnich's work is a useful antidote to the liberal misinterpretations which refuse to put the terror in its proper context.

The ferocity of the attacks on the French Revolution and its legacy which have intensified markedly in the last twenty years or so, both from the traditional conservative right and the more fashionable liberal and post-modernist historians, has created a context in which even on the left we are too hesitant to defend the struggle for liberty, equality and fraternity or contextualise the terror. This little book offers a refreshing counter-argument to the anti-revolutionary orthodoxy.

Wahnich interprets the terror as an attempt by the government to appease the Sans Culottes demand for swift revolutionary justice with a desire to avoid a repeat of the September massacres, but on a much larger scale. Following the storming of the Toiletries Palace and overthrow of the monarchy on 10 August 1792 and news of the invasion of France by a Prussian force headed by the Duke of Brunswick on 2 September there was an all-consuming fear in Paris of counter-revolutionary sabotage against the government and the radical Parisian section. Any resistance to Brunswick and his attempt to re-impose an absolutist monarchy was to be met with death. It was feared by many that counter-revolutionary prisoners would be set free to cause carnage in the city. There was frustration at the slow pace of the judicial process of the prisoners and it was widely rumoured that elements of the Legislative assembly were deliberately obstructing the trials. Prisons were broken into and the captives summarily executed. There were also numerous attacks on Catholic priests who had been privileged by the Ancien Regime. In total some 1200 people were killed. Wahnich claims that when demands for swift revolutionary justice were raised again in the summer of 1793 it was in an attempt to impose some kind of due process on the inevitable violence to come that the government enacted the terror.

The need to keep the increasingly radicalised Parisian poor on side was another factor in the decision making process around the terror. It was the Paris Commune which put the Montagnard faction in power and they were reliant on them to stay there. Robespierre and his group had to make common cause with more radical factions like the Enragés and the Hébertistes in order to stave off the counter-revolution. It is telling that it was only after these two groups had been purged, in an attempt to scale back the terror, that the Thermidorean reaction was possible. The popularity, in Paris at least, of the terror must be taken into account in any analysis of the French Revolution.

This is a relatively short book, it has just over one hundred pages, and there is much that has been omitted, presumably for reasons of space. A chapter giving an overview of some of the more scurrilous accusations levelled against the revolution and an attempt to refute them would have been welcome. A little more background on the events leading up to the terror would also help to contextualise the events that followed, something which would be especially useful for readers without a lot of background knowledge of the revolution. I would advise having a copy of the revolutionary calendar to hand while reading this book as some dates are given according to it while elsewhere the more familiar Gregorian calendar is employed. It remains however an interesting attempt to put the events of the terror in their correct context. If you’ve been subjected to some of the guff that’s been churned out on this subject of late then reading this book will provide a cathartic antidote.

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