What was the Terror?
J.-C.M: Put simply, the Terror is a great example of "fake news" - an invention that has taken root in the collective memory. Everyone seems sure that the Terror ended with the fall of Robespierre on 9 Thermidor - though I myself often wondered about this; it is in all the textbooks. But, bizarrely, there is little agreement about when it began: Was it with the debate of 5th September 1793? The September Massacres? Or perhaps the very first Revolutionary violence, the decapitation of Launay, the governor of the Bastille in July 1789...?
I have been working on this question for more than fifteen years. First of all, let me say that Terror was never made "the order of the day" - not in 1792, nor in 1793, nor in 1794. Terror was never a political system accepted by the Convention. Indeed, on several occasions deputies refused to make it the order of the day - a fact which has been surprisingly neglected by historians. Robespierre in his final speech of 8 Thermidor twice stated that he was against the system of Terror. This speech has been much less cited than that of February 1794 on the link between Terror and Virtue; but even this speech has been misinterpreted: Robespierre is saying that, since the sans-culottes do not have virtue, they should not be allowed to exercise terror.
The common political culture of the deputies was based on Montesquieu, who had categorised "terror" as the defining principle of "despotism". All the Revolutionaries, with the exception of Marat, refused the possibility of a dictatorship or despotism. Danton and Robespierre explicitly defended themselves against the charge of aspiring to dictatorship on several occasions.
It was not until Tallien's speech of 11 Fructidor (28th August 1794) that the term "Terror" was used to define the system of government before July 1794. According to Tallien, the "system of Terror" had been decided by the Convention, on the initiative of eight named individuals including Robespierre.
Is the invention of the Terror the theme of your book?
Yes. Les échos de la Terreur seeks to understand how Tallien's analysis became uncontested "gospel" to explain the actions of the Convention in the preceding months. Every historical tradition since the Revolution has accepted the existence of a "system of Terror" without ever going back to the sources. Without being comprehensive, I show how the reality of the Terror has come to appear in all sort of human sciences, in the arts and in political debate. One good example is Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit which integrates the Terror into a comprehensive philosophy of history.
How have you proved that the Terror did not exist?
What never existed was a political system founded on the principle of terror - that is, the will to terrorise, kill and systematically imprison an entire population. There were acts of violence between 1792 and 1794, but these did not result from the policy of a strong, inquisitorial, "totalitarian" state. They were provoked, or allowed to happen, by the conflict between different Revolutionary groups (notably the Montagnards and the sans-culottes). The invention of the idea of the Terror made sense of this chaotic period and centred the blame on Robespierre.
Briefly, these are the facts: From Spring 1793 certain groups of sans-culottes wanted measures of terror. Demands became strong in August when the Republic was threatened, particularly by the War in the Vendée. On 5th September the question was debated in the Convention; although the deputies gave an impression of general approval, they resisted pressure to make Terror "the order of the day". An attempt was made to avoid open conflict with the sans-culottes by the creation of a "Revolutionary Army" - without, however, allowing it a tribunal or a guillotine. The independence of the Parisian sections was also curbed. Nonetheless the sans-culottes dominated repression in Lyon and, above all in the Vendée, where they were in control from September to December 1793.
So: At the end of 1793 Terror was not in place; the Convention listened to the sans-culottes whilst attempting to control their actions?
Yes. There was a political interplay between the Convention and the sans-culottes. This affirmation contradicts the historical tradition that the Convention directed the country without opposition.
Further confirmation is provided by the complicated situation surrounding the Law of Suspects (17th September 1793). The main objective of this legislation was to force the Republic's various committees of surveillance to submit their decisions to the Committee of General Security. It thus represented the start of a move to confine popular repression within a legal framework.
The Parisian sans-culottes controlled the Ministry of War. They were opposed by the Committee of Public Safety, particularly Carnot, who directed the armies at the frontiers. In Autumn 1793 the sans-culottes failed to gain decisive victory in the Vendée and their military power began to falter.
The imposition of Revolutionary government in December 1793 sought to affirm the legitimacy of the Convention. Power was concentrated in the Convention and the two Committees. Until then the Committees had been subject to regular re-election, but now the Committee of Public Safety continued de facto without regulation. The Constitution was totally suspended. There were no longer any democratic institutions and all "powers" were conflated within the Convention. Revolutionary tribunals and other commissions were suppressed and their functions centralised in Paris under the Committee of Public Safety. For the first time Barère and Robespierre were in a strong enough position to express their disapproval of the repression carried out on the initiative of the sans-culottes in Lyon, Marseille, Bordeaux, Nantes.
We have now come to the period of what has been baptised a posteriori "the Terror", that is to say of a state organisation capable of planning and executing measures of repression by violence. It should once again be underlined that the Convention and the sans-culottes were not complementary forces but rivals for power. The excesses of 1793 were linked directly to the competition between them, which resulted in free rein being given to individuals invested with extraordinary powers (Représentants en mission, commissaries of the Ministry of War etc.) The majority of these men did not commit atrocities, but a minority unquestionably did - their names are remembered by history: Carrier, Fouché, Tallien, Ronsin....
We have no ready vocabulary to describe what actually happened between September 1793 and September 1794: perhaps we should refer to "the dictatorship of the Committee of Public Safety"?Tallien's analysis was readily accepted as it made sense of the period.
By your reasoning, the government of 1793-94 was collegial within the framework of the Convention. So why were all the evils blamed on one man? What is the origin of the "black legend" of Robespierre?
We should not run away with the idea that the "black legend" was born a posteriori. It was in place by June 1794 when Robespierre was still alive. It coincided with his assumption of a major role in the Committee of Public Safety. Robespierre joined the Committee only in July 1793 when Danton refused to serve any longer. Before that his power was very limited - he failed, for instance, to carry the vote in favour of the King's execution without trial.
Robespierre was not a major player at the beginning of the Convention. But what about later?
He began to take on responsibilities from September 1793, but it was in December 1793 that he first exercised a important influence over the Committees. On 6th December he imposed religious freedom and condemned atheism. This was a move against the sans-culottes, particularly in Lyon and Nantes, whom he had previously supported. His policy was sustained by Barère, the key figure in the Committee of Public Safety at this time. From December 1793 until April 1794 Robespierre and his allies (Barère, Saint-Just, Carnot) pursued the centralisation of violence under the control of the Convention. This involved the suppression of the Revolutionary tribunals outside Paris, the abolition of the "Revolutionary Army" and the execution of opponents (the Hébertists, but also Danton and his associates).