The machinery and reach of a modern government, when combined with aroused public passions in order to repress dissent and enforce official state ideology and “revolutionary justice”, is a frightful thing to behold. That, however, was one of the darker legacies of the French Revolution, whose “Reign of Terror” from the summer of 1793 to the summer of 1794 set a sinister example that many have emulated since.
In 1793, France’s nascent republican government was hard pressed and threatened by enemies from without and within. Foreign armies, whose ranks included many French emigre royalists, were pressing in from all directions, with the avowed intent of crushing the Revolution and restoring the monarchy. Simultaneously, civil war and armed uprisings, particularly in the Vendee, posed a grave internal threat.
In response to the emergency, the Revolutionary government determined to crush the enemy within, and on September 5th, 1793, a proposal was adopted by the National Convention to “make terror the order of the day“. Legislation was passed authorizing the harshest of measures against enemies of the Revolution, actual and suspected, and targeting aristocrats, priests, hoarders and speculators.
As Maximilian Robespierre justified what came to be known as the Reign of Terror: “If the basis of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the basis of popular government during a revolution is both virtue and terror; virtue, without which terror is baneful; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing more than speedy, severe and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue; it is less a principle in itself, than a consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing needs of the nation“.
A Committee of Public Safety was established, headed by Robespierre, and it proceeded to exercise dictatorial control over the French government. Public tribunals were set up to try suspected counterrevolutionaries, and tens of thousands were condemned to death after perfunctory “trials” that sometimes lasted no more than a minute. Eventually, even that was done away with, and legislation was enacted in June of 1794, stripping away the right to a public trial or to legal counsel. To further stack the odds against the accused and ensure more death sentences, the juries’ choices were limited to only two options: acquittal, or death.
As a result, the Reign of Terror reached its peak in the following month, which came to be known as “The Great Terror”, during which over 1400 people were executed. All the while, Robespierre and his Committee of Public Safety cast an ever wider net in search of more and more “enemies of the Revolution”. Paranoia soon became the rule, and a situation developed akin to that of the Salem Witch Trials. Anybody could be accused, and in the fevered atmosphere of the Terror, coupled with the absence of legal safeguards, an accusation was often all it took to ensure a death sentence.
That led to a backlash from Robespierre’s own party in the French legislature, whose members feared that Robespierre, having already purged his political opponents, might turn on them next. So on July 27th, 1794, in a dramatic showdown on the floor of the French National Convention, Robespierre and members of the Committee of Public Safety were stripped of their powers. Within hours they were hurriedly tried in one of their own public tribunals, sentenced to death, and guillotined.
The Reign of Terror was over, but its legacy remained. Over the following centuries, many revolutionary movements, upon seizing power, set up revolutionary tribunals to go after suspected counterrevolutionaries. Whether Bolshevik Red Terror; Nazi “People’s Courts”; Mao’s village tribunals; or the Khmer Rogue’s genocidal courts in Cambodia: all drew upon one of the French Revolution’s most sinister legacies.