Friday, 12 March 2021

Jean-Clément Martin: The Terror as "fake news"

The following is a translation/summary of an interview with Jean-Clément Martin on the theme of "the Terror", which was published in the magazine Historiens et Géographes in May 2019.

The intention of the interviews in this series is to allow historians to present their ideas in a straightforward fashion for the benefit of school teachers who need to cover the material in their classes.  As such, it gives J.-C. M. a good opportunity to summarise his highly controversial views on the Terror in a relatively abridged form. 

Most references are to J.-C.M's book Les échos de la Terreur which was published in September 2018.

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).

Was it the evolution of Robespierre's politics from May 1794 that led to his fall at the end of July?

From May onward his personal prominence in the Committee grew.  He took over as his own several measures proposed by other deputies, notable the Festival of the Supreme Being.  This was part of a programme of national celebrations elaborated by a whole group (Barère, Billaud-Varenne, Fouché and the Committee of Public Instruction).  He was centre-stage at the Festival, highlighting the fact that he had crystallised power within the Convention around him. He angered and alarmed atheist deputies who did not want a return to Catholicism or a reopening of the churches - and who feared Robespierre was about to become the new pope of the Revolution.

Robespierre gave the impression of concentrating power in his own hands, but is it the case that he had a devoted group around him?

 Indeed.  To understand Robespierre you must look at those around him.   From May/June 1793 onwards he was surrounded by friends, supporters and men under obligation to him.  All the institutions of power  - political, economic, military, police - fell into their hands.  A coherent group took over the Town Hall, the National Guard, the Revolutionary Tribunal, the Military School and - most importantly of all - the Commune, and hence the sections of Paris.   Opponents  like Tallien, Carrier, Fouché and Barras were recalled from the provinces and, in effect, forced to submit to Robespierre's judgment.  From June 1794, under the Law of 22 Prairial, deputies could again be sent before the Revolutionary Tribunal - and it was the Committee of Public Safety who referred all suspects.  

So did Robespierre intend to become central in this way, or did those around him provide the momentum?  This question is difficult to answer.

What was the popular image of Robespierre at the time?

From June 1794 rumours began to circulate against him: for example that he had become "king" of the Revolution or that he wanted to marry Louis XVI's daughter.  He made a tactical error in intervening to have the mystic Catherine Théot released from prison.  

The Prison Conspiracies claimed more than a thousand people in a month-and-a-half,  and Robespierre and the Law of Prairial were held responsible.  The phrase "La nausée de guillotine" was current at the time, and the reproaches targeted Robespierre.  It should be added that, at the beginning of July 1794, Fouché was elected president of the Jacobin Club, which was considered a victory for Robespierre's opponents.

So did this rising discontent lead to 9 Thermidor and the fall of Robespierre?

The general context was the type of political quarrels which were frequent during the Revolution.  However, the immediate explanation for the fall of Robespierre can be found in the event planned for 10 Thermidor (28th July 1793): a Festival marking the entrance into the Panthéon of  Bara and Viala, Revolutionary heroes whose commemoration was the invention of Barère and Robespierre.  As with the Festival of the Supreme Being, Robespierre was to be at the centre. He was to have the National Guard, plus 3,000 "enfants" of the École de Mars at his command.  The deputies who opposed him feared that they would be arrested;  so threatened did they feel, it was said that they constantly changed seats in the Convention and did not sleep in the same place for two nights in a row.

The 10 Thermidor was a Revolutionary journée like those which had accompanied the fall of the Girondins, the Hébertists or the Dantonists.  The format was always the same.  For the preceding month or so, there was a press campaign;  allies were sought in the Convention, then, at the chosen moment the trap was sprung.   It was the same here; the coup d'état was put in place for 9 Thermidor.  In my opinion, it may have preempted a move by the Robespierrists against their opponents planned for 10 Thermidor.  The 9 Thermidor was the conclusion of opposition which had started to be organised in June 1794.

What were the consequences of the death of Robespierre?

On the day after the death of Robespierre, more than a hundred of his supporters were executed.  It was the most thoroughgoing purge that had ever taken place during the Revolution: only twenty or so sans-culottes had been executed in March and the same number of Dantonists in April; out of seventy Girondin deputies imprisoned, thirty were executed, but the rest returned to the Convention in 1795.  In addition, there was a wave of "preventive" arrests which involved another hundred or so, among them well-known individuals like the painter David.  In effect everyone associated with Robespierre was targeted, a whole faction of opinion.  This point is important;  it explains why no-one subsequently defended the memory of Robespierre.

On 11 Thermidor Barère condemned him as a despot and tyrant.  On 11 Fructidor Tallien characterised  as "the Terror" policies for which Barère, Vadier and five other deputies were responsible with Robespierre [The seven were: Barère , Billaud, Collot, Vadier, Amar, David, Voulland] . In my view, Tallien carried through a successful coup-d'état, eliminating all those who, like  Barère,  remained in office from the Spring of 1793. Another group of Revolutionaries arrived in power with Tallien, notably Barras and Fouché.  Barère and Vadier were pursued and disappeared.  In the public view only two individuals remained responsible for the "Terror" - Robespierre and Carrier.  After September 1794 the latter was characterised as an "accomplice" of Robespierre, when in reality the two had been in constant conflict,  indeed Carrier had been among those who brought about Robespierre's downfall.  At this point the "black legend" was firmly cemented in place.

Can you present to us this "black legend" of Robespierre?

It developed in the weeks which followed the execution of Robespierre,  from August, and above all September 1794.  Numerous rumours were circulated; and they have proved tenacious, since they can still be found today on the internet: the tanning of human skins; the massive numbers of executions, the plan for a"sanguiduc" to evacuate the blood from the guillotine.  No-one contested them.  The first criticisms did not appear until 1850:  Louis Blanc was one of the first to rehabilitate Robespierre and be listened to in France.  It is remarkable that Robespierre's image could be blackened for such a long time. Throughout the 19th century commemorations of the Revolution remained hostile to him:  it is no accident that it is Danton, "the good Revolutionary" whose statue stands on the place de l'Odéon in Paris.  Even today, despite numerous historical studies, Robespierre is still a little known, controversial figure, hated by sections of the French political classes.   I have no personal desire to rehabilitate Robespierre as the archetypal revolutionary.  However, I want to show the complexity of his personality, explain the exact (and limited) part he played in events and assess his actual responsibility for the acts of violence committed.  We will all gain from an understanding of the interplay of politics and politicians during the Revolution;  it is the task of history to understand the mechanisms of power in the past, which are not so very different from those we know today.


Nicolas Charles. "Comment enseigner.... La Terreur", Historiens et géographes, Association des professeurs d’histoire et de géographie, 2019.

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