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Why Robespierre Chose Terror - The lessons of the first totalitarian revolution
City Journal ^ | Apr 16, 2006 | John Kekes

Posted on 04/17/2006 5:51:06 PM PDT by Tailgunner Joe

The American attitude toward the French Revolution has been generally favorable—naturally enough for a nation itself born in revolution. But as revolutions go, the French one in 1789 was among the worst. True, in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity, it overthrew a corrupt regime. Yet what these fine ideals led to was, first, the Terror and mass murder in France, and then Napoleon and his wars, which took hundreds of thousands of lives in Europe and Russia. After this pointless slaughter came the restoration of the same corrupt regime that the Revolution overthrew. Aside from immense suffering, the upheaval achieved nothing.

Leading the betrayal of the Revolution’s initial ideals and its transformation into a murderous ideological tyranny was Maximilien Robespierre, a monster who set up a system expressly aimed at killing thousands of innocents. He knew exactly what he was doing, meant to do it, and believed he was right to do it. He is the prototype of a particularly odious kind of evildoer: the ideologue who believes that reason and morality are on the side of his butcheries. Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot are of the same mold. They are the characteristic scourges of humanity in modern times, but Robespierre has a good claim to being the first. Understanding his motives and rationale deepens our understanding of the worst horrors of the recent past and those that may lurk in the future.

Historians distinguish three phases of the French Revolution. The last, the Terror, ran roughly during 1793–94. It began with the fall of the moderate Girondins and the radical Jacobins’ accession to power. As the Jacobins gained control of the Committee of Public Safety, which in turn controlled the legislature (the Convention), the disputes among their factions sharpened. After an interregnum of shared power, Robespierre became dictator, and the Terror started in earnest. It took the form of the arrest, show trial, and execution of thousands of people, including the leaders of the Girondins and the opposing Jacobin factions, who were suspected of opposing—actively or passively, actually or potentially—the policies Robespierre dictated.

Robespierre’s constituency outside the Convention was the mob, roaming the streets of Paris, the center of the Revolution. Large parts of France were hardly involved; for most people, life went on during the Revolution much as before. The mob in Paris consisted largely of destitute sans-culottes (“without knee breeches”), who maintained themselves by a mixture of crime, prostitution, begging, and odd jobs. Robespierre and his followers incited them to action whenever political expediency called for it. But even when unincited, having nothing better to do, they formed the crowd that watched the public executions, jeered and abused those about to die, rejoiced at the severed heads, adulated the leaders temporarily in power, and cursed them after they fell. Like flies, they were everywhere as the Revolution went on its bloody way. Their enraged, expectant buzzing formed the ghastly background of the slaughter of the innocents.

Historical distance and revolutionary rhetoric must not be allowed to obscure the Terror’s savagery. The descriptions that follow are only a few among many that could be given. Stanley Loomis writes in Paris in the Terror that, in the September massacres of 1792, “the bloody work went on for five . . . days and nights. On the morning of the third, the prison of La Force was entered and here took place the murder of the Princesse de Lamballe. . . . The frenzy of the crazed and drunken murderers appears to have reached its highest pitch at La Force. Cannibalism, disembowelment and acts of indescribable ferocity took place here. The Princess . . . refused to swear her hatred of the King and Queen and was duly handed over to the mob. She was dispatched with a pike thrust, her still beating heart was ripped from her body and devoured, her legs and arms were severed from her body and shot through cannon. The horrors that were then perpetrated on her disemboweled torso are indescribable. . . . It has been loosely assumed . . . that most of the other victims were, like herself, aristocrats—an assumption that for some curious reason is often supposed to mitigate these crimes. Very few victims were, in fact, of the former nobility—less than thirty out of the fifteen hundred who were killed.”

What Robespierre had unloosed were the most depraved urges of society’s dregs. The resulting anarchy temporarily served his purpose, much as the Kristallnacht served Hitler’s, the purges Stalin’s, and the cultural revolution Mao’s. Each perpetrated the terror to frighten opponents into abject submission and establish himself more firmly in power.

Having secured Paris, in 1793 Robespierre appointed commissioners to enforce his interpretation of the Revolution outside the capital. In the city of Lyon, writes Simon Schama in Citizens, the guillotine began its work, but it was found to be “a messy and inconvenient way of disposing of the political garbage. . . . A number of the condemned, then, were executed in mass shootings. . . . [A]s many as sixty prisoners were tied in a line by ropes and shot at with cannon. Those who were not killed outright by the fire were finished off with sabers, bayonets, and rifles. . . . By the time that the killings . . . had finished, one thousand nine hundred and five people had met their end.” The commissioner in Nantes “supplemented the guillotine with . . . Ωverti