The Holocaust to Liberty

The French Revolution and “The Terror”

The French are proud of their Revolution, claiming it to be the prime example of a people seizing and protecting liberty for itself. In reality, it was a frenzied, paranoid bloodbath.

On 14 July 2005, President Chirac motored down the Champs-Elysées in a polished-up army jeep. A column of tanks rumbled by cheered on by flag-waving crowds. Fighter jets roared overhead. In the evening, there was a spectacular fireworks display centred around the Eiffel Tower. In a televised address, the president reminded viewers that the day’s celebrations commemorated a moment in history when “the world looked to France as she proclaimed “liberté, egalité, fraternité for all.” 

Bastille Day is a national holiday celebrating the French Revolution. Regarded as a central event in Western civilisation, the Revolution is usually cited by historians, both French and foreign, as a blazing example of a nation granting itself political and social liberty. Since the Revolution actually introduced industrialised killings, systematic repression, military dictatorship and world war, this view seems skewed. But it it does reveal the Revolution’s true significance in history; as the first occasion in which quite obvious terror was justified because it was on behalf of “the people”, a thumbs-up previously reserved for “God” and “The King”.

From the start, the Revolution was built on such delusions. The storming of the Bastille in July 1789 was not, as legend has it, a triumphant battle in which a crowd of Paris’ poor overran a fortress to free the prisoners of a cruel king. The “crowd” was several thousands strong and armed with canon seized from military depots around Paris, and it was opposed by 110 soldiers. Only seven inmates were inside, not one of whom was a political prisoner. Moreover, the jail was more like a white-collar, country-club facility; prisoners brought in their own furniture, servants and even sexual partners. All the soldiers were massacred after they had surrendered. “Gracious God”, said one American observer, Gouverneur Morris, “what a people.”

The fall of the Bastille, regarded as the beginning of the Revolution, was not really out of the ordinary. It was just one in a long cycle of riots and civil disturbances which ebbed and flowed across France, provoked by poor harvests and a wartime economy. On the same day the Bastille fell, crowds had sacked the nearby convent of Saint-Lazare which acted as a charity hospital. A month before, the Paris mob had junked a wallpaper factory. It was the same in the provinces with noble houses occasionally being burned and barns looted. It was like a day out.

The reason that this was allowed to go on was that the king, the pudgy, vague Louis XVI, was far from an absolute autocrat. None too bright, his ministers had already persuaded him to call a parliament which had evolved into France’s first representative government, the National Assembly. It took some prodding but he signed over power peaceably enough. The Assembly promulgated the document that turned France into a constitutional democracy and a beacon of liberty, on paper. This was the famous “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” based on the three principle of liberté, egalité, fraternité.

None of these principles were put into practice from the get-go. The constitution of 1791 with its press censorship and right of arbitrary arrest would not have been out of place, observed Tom Paine, American revolutionary and freelance troublemaker “in the enslaved domains of the Tsar of Muscovy.” The French jailed him for uppitiness.

What the Revolution did provide was talk, and plenty of it. For months speaker after speakers in the Assembly (which evolved into the National Convention), echoed outside by wave after wave of pamphlets and posters, worked themselves into a froth trying to out-Revolution all the other revolutionaries. “A huge conspiracy is taking place against the liberty not only of France but of the whole human race”, said one parliamentarian, Hérault de Sechelles, in a piffling debate on whether priests should be compulsorily married. “The enemies of the people”, suggested another in the same debate, the self-named Anacharsis Cloots, “must be smothered in their own blood.” Soon the Convention talked itself into declaring a revolutionary war on Austria and, when it went badly, began a witch hunt against anyone who was, in the words of Maximilien Robespierre, a lawyer from Arras and leading light in the new Committee for Public Safety, “against freedom in our pure republic.” Such words keyed up the populations of France’s cities, especially Paris, to a hysterical pitch. 

The Reign of Terror (la Terreur) began. The first big massacres of the Revolution kicked off in September 1792. The prisons of Paris were filled with priests who had protested when the Revolution had confiscated Church land. With them were members of the old Royalist army suspected of being politically unsound, shopkeepers accused of price gouging and reporters caught by the censorship laws. Under the direction of the Paris Commune which had taken control of the city, gangs entered the gaols on the evening of 2 September. The lucky prisoners were shot, the rest were bayoneted or clubbed to death and, in some recorded cases, chopped up with a butcher’s saw. Official figures record that 1,400 were killed over the next few nights. The authorities took over responsibility for exterminating the real or imagined enemies of the Revolution. A guillotine was set up in the Place de La Révolution in front of the Tuileries Palace. King Louis was rushed through a show trial and and executed. 

His queen, Marie Antoinette, soon followed. An indication that even the most enragé Jacobins thought the charges against Marie-Antoinette were weak, she was additionally accused of lesbianism and incest with her own infant son, the Dauphin. After their deaths, he was kept in darkened solitary confinement in the Temple prison where he died two years later either of disease or strangled, aged ten. 

In terms of revolutionary logic, killing of the head of the old regime made a kind of spiteful sense, although the revolutionaries had bafflingly failed to prevent 150,000 aristocrat families fleeing France and into the arms of its increasingly hostile neighbours. What followed was a frenzied, paranoid bloodbath. 

Political cliques, one after the other, seized control of the government, and immediately ordered their predecessors to the guillotine until it was their own turn for the chop. The government itself became a centralised police administration which wasn’t above using using paid mobs from the streets to beat up or kill its opponents. (When it was realised that the famous beauty of one of the few remaining aristocrats, the Princesse de Lamballe, might gain sympathy if she were publicly guillotined, the authorities had her released from La Force prison and straight into the arms of a pre-hired gang waiting outside who stripped her, raped her, cut off her head and breasts, mutilated her genitalia and stuck the parts on pikes which they paraded around Paris.) 

For nearly a year, the guillotine worked away as busily as a sewing machine. All dissent of any kind was classified by the Revolutionary Tribunals as “counter-revolutionary” and became punishable by death (one unlucky farrier lost his head for blowing his nose on a red rag, considered to be the colour of the Revolution). Residents living in the streets close to the Place de la Révolution the place complained that the stench of blood was lowering their property prices. The chief executioner of Paris, Charles-Henri Sanson, became so adept at his job that at the height of La Terreur, he was able to despatch twelve victims in thirteen minutes. Not until the advent of the gas chambers was political killing so efficiently automated. 

The number of people who died in Paris is still fiercely debated between historians. The officially sanitised records show that only 2,800 were executed in the capital over eight months; however, Sanson’s diary mentions that in just one three day period, he himself despatched 300 victims. Modern historians like Simon Schama estimate 10,000 died in Paris alone.

Another 30,000 died in the provinces as revolutionary commissioners set out to purge the major towns. In Lyon, Collot d’Herbois used cannon for his mass executions; Carrier drowned his prisoners in boats at Nantes; while Fouché in Toulon liked, amongst other methods, to herd them into cavernous wine cellars and then wall the places up. “Tonight we will execute 1213 insurgents”, he wrote to a friend. “Adieu – tears of joy flow from my eyes.”

The revolutionaries did not have it all their own way. A royalist counter-revolution sprang up in the Vendée region, the Deep South of France, and pitchfork-wielding peasantry eagerly took their revenge on their snotty revolutionary cousins in the local towns in what is now called the “White Terror”. This outbreak was followed by bloody repression with massacres aplenty on both sides during 1793 and around 100,000 fatalities.

Mercifully, it didn’t last. The Revolution ended the way that revolutions usually do: with a military dictator. Fearful that their own heads might be the next to bounce into the basket, government officials engineered an army coup. They hoped that at least a little of the freedom that the Revolution had been supposed to provide could now be delivered. Some hope. The man they chose to lead their coup was a certain General Buonaparte. He had no doubts what the high talk and deaths of the last few years had been all about: “Vanity made the [French] Revolution; liberty was only a pretext.”

The final outcome of the Revolution was Emperor Napoleon I and a totalitarian regime far more revolutionary than the Revolution ever was – and its cost to France and the world not tens of thousands but millions of lives.


“Liberté” During the Revolutionary period, liberty was a meaningless word to the 500,000 slaves working the French sugar plantations on Sainte Domingue (later Haiti). In 1790, the Nation decreed to exempt the colonies from the constitution and French troops cooperated with planter militias to disperse anti-slavery demonstrations on the islands. On 22 August 1791, the slaves rose in rebellion and after a bitter war, succeeded in establishing Haitian independence in 1804 at the cost of 75,000 French and 200,000 Haitian dead. 

“Egalité” Equality was not even applied in France itself since the poor were not allowed to vote in elections. The Constitution of 1791 imposed a property qualification which left around fourth-fifths of French male adults without the vote. The Constitution of 1793 (there were many such constitutions) proposed universal male suffrage but it was immediately suspended by the Jacobins in favour of “revolutionary government until the peace.” However, there never was any peace.

“Fraternité” Obviously this didn’t apply to half of France’s population, its women. They had been promised a political voice and economic independence by the new regime. By the end of the Revolution, a woman could not even attend the Assembly as a visitor unless she had a signed pass and was accompanied by a male adult. One law stipulated that groups of more than five women gathered together in public should be broken up by troops. Such new restrictions caused an outcry amongst the many articulate female supporters of the Revolution until one of them, Olympe des Gouges, was stripped naked, whipped on the street and eventually guillotined for “obstructionism”.

Six Degrees of (Cranial) Separation

A defining feature of the Revolution was that the governing clique invariably had the clique it succeeded sent to the guillotine before being guillotined in turn by the clique that would replace it. This pattern can be seen most plainly by examining the fates of six representative personalities involved in the Revolution.

King Louis XIV (1754 – 21 January 1793). Monarchist.. Vague, fumbling French king, unlucky enough to be the symbol of autocratic repression in France at the start of the Revolution though really about as dictatorial as a wet sheep. Accepted the position of constitutional monarch but eventually tried to flee Paris. Arrested for treason, among the members of the National Convention voting to execute him was:

Philippe Egalité (‘Philip Equality’). Constitutional monarchist. The “street-name” of Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans (1747 - 6 November 1793). A favourite cousin of King Louis but, a prototypical limousine liberal, joined the National Convention and voted for his death. Alway suspected that he himself wished to replace Louis as king. His eventual arrest and execution on general charges of being a filthy aristocrat was warmly supported by:

Madame Roland, the name used by Vicountess Jeanne Marie Roland de la Platiere (1754 – 8 November 1793). While holding no political position, she was the wife of a senior Constitutional republican politician (called Girondins) though it was recognised she was the brains of the partnership (she was arrested, he wasn’t). A journalist, activist and general busybody, her execution was fixed by:

Jacques Hébert (1757 - 24 March 1794) Extreme republican (called Cordeliers), one of the nastiest personalities of the Revolution, editor of obscene political newspaper “Père Duchesne” and police chief He said of Mme. Roland’s death “She asked for it, the bitch.” Was himself led screaming and begging to the block having fallen foul of;

Georges Jacques Danton (1759 - April 5, 1794). Moderately extreme republican (called Montagnards). Toad-faced compulsive orator and notably corrupt Minister of Justice. Proudly created the notorious Revolutionary Tribunal which purged the National Convention of his political enemies but then ordered the execution of its creator when it fell under the control of:

Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre (1758– 28 July 1794). Ultra-extreme republican (called Jacobins). Colourless, periwigged administrator in silk knee-britches. Abolished religion and appointed himself high priest of the “Cult of the Supreme Being”. Architect of the Terror, made the mistake of announcing a new wave of arrests was imminent but without listing names – he was arrested and executed himself by those fearful he was talking about them, chief amongst them being... etc etc.

“Madamoiselle Guillotine”. The guillotine, the Revolution’s most dramatic symbol, is named after the “humanitarian” physician, Joseph Ignace Guillotin. A member of the French National Assembly, he recommended that executions be performed by a beheading machine rather than by hanging since it was quicker. In 1791 the Assembly adopted a design by Dr. Antoine Louis, secretary of the College of Surgeons, and it was first used on 25 April 1792, to execute a highwayman named Pelletier. During the Terror, executions by guillotine were a popular entertainment attracting great crowds of spectators. Vendors would sell programmes listing the names of those scheduled to die. Regulars would come day after day and vie for the best seats. Parents would bring their children. Audiences to guillotinings told numerous stories of blinking eyelids, moving eyes, mouth movements, even an expression of “unequivocal indignation” on the face of the decapitated Charlotte Corday (executed for assassinating the extreme Jacobin, Jean-Paul Marat) when her cheek was slapped by an executioner playing up to the crowd. These symptoms may be only random muscle twitching or automatic reflex action. Technically, the massive drop in cerebral blood pressure caused victims to lose consciousness in 5-10 seconds. The device was called a louisette or louison after its inventor's name, but because of Guillotin's famous speech, his name became associated with the machine. Toward the end of the Terror, the good doctor only just avoided ending up on his own device. After his death in 1814, his children tried to have the device's name changed. When their efforts failed, they had to change their name instead. 

The Kindly Commissioner. The revolutionary commissioner sent to purge Nantes, Jean-Baptiste Carrier, considered the guillotine too slow. He preferred to have his victims packed into barges which were then towed into the river Loire and capsized. To add a sexual frisson, young couples were stripped naked and tied face-to-face before drowning. The water became so polluted with corpses that fishing was banned. Carrier also held that the guillotine was an unsatisfactory method of beheading children under six, tending to chop their heads in half since their necks were too small a target for the blade. One executioner collapsed and had a heart attack after beheading four little sisters. Considerate to the feelings of his staff, Carrier refused to allow five hundred further youngsters scheduled for execution to go to the guillotine – instead he had them shot in a field.

Children of the Revolution. “We need the real, nation-wide terror which reinvigorates the country and through which the Great French Revolution achieved glory.” Vladimir Lenin, Russian revolutionary and dictator, 1920.

Revolution to Dictatorship: Step-by-Step


May 5

Meeting of the Estates-General

June 17

National Assembly declared

July 14

Storming of the Bastille

Aug. 4 

Feudal rights abolished

Aug. 27

Declaration of the Rights of Man


June 20-25

Royal family tries to flee France but is arrested


Growing power of the clubs

July 14

Constitution signed by the king

Sept. 30

Assembly dissolved


April 20

War declared against Austria


September Massacres


Jan. 21

Execution of Louis XVI

Feb. 1

War declared against Britain, Holland, Spain


Royalist revolt in the Vendée


Power centreed in Committee of Public Safety

June 2

Arrest of 31 Girondist deputies (moderates)


Establishment of food controls

Oct. 3

Execution of Girondists

Nov 10

Replacement of Christianity by ‘Cult of Reason’.


Mar 24

Execution of Hébertists (extremists)

April 6

Execution of Danton and the Montagnards (moderate extremists)

June 10

Law of 22 Prairial (allowing arbitrary arrest and execution)

July 27

Execution of Robespierre and the Jacobins (extreme extremists)


April 1

Bread riots in Paris

Oct. 5

Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops fire on Paris crowds showing them once and for all who was boss now


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