The Terror by David Andress

Madame la Guillotine: the humane killer
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

He begins by comparing the sufferings in France after 1789 with the casualties of the American Revolution of 14 years earlier - not to excuse either, but to remind us that the freeing of the American colonies was by no means benign. Pre-revolutionary France, too, could be an unpleasant place. The guillotine, symbol of the Terror, was devised as a humane means for the state to dispose of its enemies. Compare the merciful Widow (as the mechanism came to be known) with the punishment prescribed for Robert Damiens, a retarded servant who in 1757 tried, unsuccessfully, to stab King Louis XV with a penknife: he was tortured with sulphur and boiling oil, fastened to horses and, when these failed to tear him apart, he was dismembered and burnt at the stake, in a procedure lasting several hours.

Andress starts his narrative with King Louis XVI's attempt to join the Royalist opposition abroad, the so-called "flight to Varennes". This marked the end of any plausible attempt at a constitutional monarchy and strengthened elements who favoured indicting the King. There are good descriptions here of the revolutionary clubs and other factions involved. The King's execution, in January 1793, caused consternation among the rulers of Europe and led to open war. The creation of an army that could withstand assault by the European allies was one of France's most impressive achievements in this period.

There was internal opposition as well, including a civil war in the West. No wonder the new state suffered from paranoia about security. It sent out its "representatives on mission" to fire the population with revolutionary zeal and check their republican credentials. One of these was Marc-Antoine Jullien. Born in 1775, he was brought up according to Rousseauist principles and arrived in Paris at the age of 17, with his father, a member of the Convention. Robespierre was a family friend and, despite Jullien's youth, the Jacobin leader appointed him as a representative of the Committee of Public Safety.

Nantes, where Jullien arrived early in 1794, was under the control of the notorious Jean-Baptiste Carrier, whose pastime was drowning priests: he would pack them into leaky barges and launch them into the Loire. He had no time for the 19-year-old pipsqueak newly arrived from Paris, who told him that his policies were alienating support for the Revolution. But Jullien stood up to him, at the risk of his life, and his reports to Paris were largely responsible for the older man's dismissal.

The representatives had more pleasant occupations, for example presiding over renaming ceremonies at which people would prove their enthusiasm for the new order by replacing Christian names with handles like "Sans-Culotte-Montagne" (just as in Russia, in the early days after the 1917 Revolution, children would be given names like "Marlen" - for Marx-Lenin - or "Elektrifikatsiya"). Back in Paris, the Revolutionaries had reorganised the Calendar, giving poetic names to the months, and Robespierre was hard at work promoting the cult of the Supreme Being, to replace Christianity - with himself as God, according to his enemies.

Jullien's final mission was to Toulouse where, at the height of the Terror, he proved almost as savage as Carrier. He narrowly escaped execution when Robespierre fell. Later, this teenage terrorist went into journalism, eventually editing a periodical called La Revue Encyclopédique - intended as a continuation of the great 18th-century Encyclopaedia that was supposed to have inspired the ideas of the Revolution. Someone described him as a rather drab little man, full of good intentions. In many ways, Jullien, intense, well-meaning and murderous, exemplified the Terror. He lived until the arrival of the Second Republic, in 1848.

In some profound sense, idealism, paranoia and even a kind of innocence were the essence of the Terror. Its instigators believed utterly in their own virtue and in their cause: the cause of freedom that had to be defended at whatever cost. They believed passionately in the ideals for which they fought with such savagery. Andress gives a persuasive account of why a rather unremarkable man like Robespierre and idealistic youths like Saint-Just (or Marc-Antoine Jullien) acquired such power and pursued their cause with such ruthlessness. In his final chapter, he dismisses the idea that the Revolution was the start of a history that ended with the collapse of Soviet Communism. On the contrary, his final chapter sees us living now in an age when people can be imprisoned without trial, when freedoms are eroded and populations controlled by politicians convinced that such measures are necessary in the defence of liberty. To make a comparison between the Terror and the War on Terror, he argues, may not be just "a slippage of words".