The circle of terror

Marisa Linton reveals how the architects of the bloodletting that swept Paris after the French Revolution ended up among its victims...

Camille and Lucile Desmoulins

This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

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In his prison cell, during the long hours before dawn, Camille Desmoulins, radical revolutionary and deputy to the National Convention, wrote a last letter to his wife, Lucile, in which he struggled to comprehend the sudden turn of events that had brought him to that terrible place.

It was the spring of 1794, the height of the revolutionary terror, and the prisons were crowded with thousands of people who had fallen foul of the sinister Law of Suspects. But Desmoulins was in a different category to most prisoners – for he personally knew his accusers, the men who had signed his arrest. Several of them had been his friends, among them Maximilien Robespierre, known to Desmoulins since their schooldays. For five years Desmoulins himself had been at the forefront of the revolution, and now the revolution itself had turned on him. “My dear Lolotte,” he wrote, his tears staining the paper, “I, whom men who called themselves my friend, who call themselves republicans, have thrown into a cell, in solitary confinement, as though I were a conspirator!”

The revolutionary government had its reasons for his arrest – complicated, unedifying, tortuously political reasons. The previous winter, Desmoulins, a talented but reckless journalist, had begun to write a new newspaper, Le Vieux Cordelier, in which he put pressure on the already jittery government.

Desmoulins not only called for a policy of clemency to wind down the Terror, but challenged the authority of the two committees that led the revolutionary government – the Committee of Public Safety and the Committee of General Security. The committees had already organised the arrest, trial and execution of a group of extreme radicals, the Cordeliers, self-appointed spokesmen for the militant working people of Paris, the sans-culottes.

Increase in terror

Desmoulins, in Le Vieux Cordelier, had repeatedly attacked Hébert, leader of the Cordeliers, who had called for an increase in terror and the violent suppression of the Catholic church. Now, the committees, in part as a trade off to show their evenhandedness and intolerance of any opposition, decided to crack down against Desmoulins’ moderate group too.

It was at a midnight meeting of these two committees that the arrest of Desmoulins and several of his fellow deputies – including Georges Danton – had been agreed. Danton, like Desmoulins, was a member of the radical group, the Jacobins. He was also the former minister of justice and a one-time member of the Committee of Public Safety. If he could be arrested then no deputy was safe.

When news broke in the Convention that Desmoulins, Danton and the rest had been arrested in the night, there were murmurings of anger and dismay, but in the end the deputies accepted the arrests – partly out of fear for themselves. The deputies listened as Robespierre’s colleague on the Committee of Public Safety, the young, handsome and alarmingly intense Saint-Just made the formal denunciation. He stood very still, only occasionally moving his right arm in a sweeping down gesture that reminded one eyewitness of the falling blade of a guillotine, as he disclosed a long list of vague allegations. Danton, Desmoulins and their friends, Saint-Just said, were part of a conspiracy, secretly in league with their apparent enemies, the extremist Cordeliers, together with the foreign powers at war with France, plotting to bring down the revolution from within.

Three days later the accused faced their trial. Danton, a bull of a man and a prodigious orator, argued till his voice gave out, but to no avail. A further decree was obtained from the Convention to silence their protests and exclude them from their own trial.

On 5 April they were condemned to death as traitors and conspirators against the Republic. As the tumbrels carried them towards the waiting guillotine, past the shuttered windows of the house where Robespierre lived, Danton cried out: “Within three months, you will follow me!”

Stalinist show trial

This tragic episode, sometimes known as the Danton Affair, has long been seen as an iconic moment in the revolution. Playwrights, film makers and novelists, ranging from Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death to Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, have portrayed its enigmatic protagonists and the dark and claustrophobic world of revolutionary politics in which they lived. More than one commentator has compared it to a Stalinist show trial, as in Andrzej Wajda’s film Danton, with Robespierre playing a cold-blooded Stalinist figure, while Danton is portrayed as the humane and likeable – if venal – hero.

But what is less understood is that the Danton Affair was part of a pattern. A surprising number of revolutionaries fell victim to the revolutionary terror, both before and after the affair. Of the 749 deputies in the National Convention, 86 died violent deaths during the life of the Convention (between September 1792 and October 1795). Most died under the guillotine, some by their own hand, and almost a third in total were arrested – both before, during and after the fall of Robespierre in July 1794. It was a phenomenon that I refer to as the ‘politicians’ terror’.

The second thing that is not well understood is that the trial of Danton and Desmoulins was not typical of how most trials were conducted. The revolutionaries used rough justice, and decisions were swift and not subject to appeal, but in most cases heard before the Revolutionary Tribunal there was some attempt to establish guilt or innocence. Overall nearly half the accused were found not guilty, and even after prosecutions in Paris intensified in June and July, nearly a quarter escaped death.

The trials of revolutionary leaders, however, were particularly ruthless in the way they were conducted, precisely because the men who initiated them were afraid for themselves if they failed – fearful either that their intended victims would turn the tables and seek revenge, or that they themselves might be denounced by the sans-culotte militants if they were seen to show weakness and favouritism to men who had been their friends. As one deputy later put it: “You had to be the first to attack, because whoever stayed on the defensive was lost.”

It had not always been thus. Back in the early months of the revolution in 1789 when the Bastille fell, when the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was written, when the deputies of the National Assembly gave up their privileges and declared the French people to be equal under the law, people like Camille Desmoulins reacted with wonder, hope and boundless enthusiasm. Many wept tears of joy – though some of the nobles, ominously, seeing their privileged world collapse around them, wept tears of rage.

Until the revolution, politics had been the exclusive business of the king and his ministers. Now a new kind of man came into being – the professional politician. The deputies were plunged into a new political world, one in which they tried to establish their credibility with the crowd as men of integrity, untainted by old-regime corruption.

Radical democrats

Robespierre, Desmoulins and their friends were part of a radical democratic and egalitarian group. None of these men entered revolutionary politics intending to become killers. In 1791 Robespierre tried to get the death penalty abolished altogether as a barbaric, inhumane punishment. Shared ideals and the common cause brought them together. They became successful, men who counted in the new world of revolutionary politics.

Profits from his political journalism had finally given Desmoulins the means to ask the girl he had long loved, Lucile Duplessis, to marry him. She was a small, graceful and elegant blonde from a wealthy family, and before the revolution she would have been out of his social league. As he waited anxiously for her answer she astounded him by crying and laughing at the same time out of sheer happiness. Their wedding in December 1790 was attended by many of the brightest young revolutionaries, men whom Desmoulins was proud to call his friends. His witnesses included Robespierre, and another mutual friend, Jacques-Pierre Brissot.

The future seemed assured under a constitutional monarchy, but over the next two years the situation deteriorated. Successive events – the attempted flight of the king; the declaration of war on the foreign powers harbouring French royalists; a succession of unexpected military disasters and betrayals by high-profile leaders; the overthrow of the monarchy in a pitched battle in Paris – all spiralled into a dangerous destabilisation of politics.

When, in September 1792, the Convention met and established a republic, the atmosphere was tense. The Republic was said to be ‘one and indivisible’, but behind this proclamation of unity, new factional divisions formed among the deputies, and in many cases former friends became bitter enemies. Most damaging of all was the general conviction – born largely of political inexperience – that opponents could not be legitimate in their views, but must have bad intentions. Mutual suspicion, calumny and fear intensified.

Secret enemies

A new faction, the Girondins, dominated the Convention’s early months. Their leader was Brissot, who had become the enemy of Desmoulins, Robespierre and the Jacobin faction. Desmoulins wrote a pamphlet Brissot Unmasked, which claimed that Brissot was a secret enemy of the revolution.

It was one of the Girondins who first proposed that the immunity preserving deputies from arrest for their opinions be removed but, ironically, it was the Girondins themselves who were the first faction to suffer from the ending of immunity. In October 1793, 21 of them, including Brissot, were condemned to death amid dramatic scenes. One of the condemned stabbed himself. Seven of the guests at Desmoulins’ wedding were among those convicted. In the public gallery Desmoulins himself, stricken with remorse for his clever denunciations of his former friends, broke down and wept.

The Girondins went to the guillotine defiantly singing the Marseillaise and crying “Long live the Republic!” The executioners worked so rapidly that the actual killings took only 36 minutes, and so vigorously that several of the heads flew through the air to land at the base of the scaffold. After the first few executions people in the crowd began to move away, horrified at what they were seeing – the reality of the guillotine in action.

The next political faction to perish en masse was that of the Cordeliers. Their leader, Hébert, had used his newspaper Le Père Duchesne, in which he adopted the brutal persona of a sans-culotte to mock his enemies for their cowardice when their turn had come to face ‘the national razor’. Now the executioners entertained actual sans-culottes by stopping the descent of the blade inches above Hébert’s neck, a game they played four times, before the blade was allowed to slam home, and his screams at last were silenced. Just a few days later came the turn of Desmoulins, Danton and their friends. In his defence Desmoulins had made the painful admission: “I was always the first to denounce my own friends.”

But the most extensive wholesale slaughter of a political faction took place with the fall of Robespierre, Saint-Just and their supporters. Over the three days of 28, 29 and 30 July 1794, more than 100 people met their deaths under the guillotine in the Thermidor coup. Since these people had all been declared “outlaws” by the Convention for defying its decrees ordering their arrest, they were not given even the semblance of a trial, but appeared before the Revolutionary Tribunal only to have their identities officially confirmed. Among them was René-François Dumas, who until the previous night had been president of the tribunal that now condemned him.

Heroes and villains

In the 220 years since their deaths, there has been much mythologisation of the revolutionary leaders, a tendency either to whitewash or to blacken their reputations. This is particularly the case for Danton and Desmoulins – so often seen as heroes – and for Robespierre and Saint-Just – just as regularly stigmatised as villains. The truth is rather more complicated – as it often is.

Many of the revolutionary leaders were perpetrators as well as ultimately victims of terror. The fact that many acted out of fear, or the conviction that they were defending the Republic, may help to explain their choices, but does not lessen the horror of what they did. For their womenfolk, however, the moral case is more straightforward. They did not perpetrate terror themselves, but nevertheless suffered bereavement, public shame, and often the confiscation of their families’ goods and property, while a few of them literally became victims of the politicians’ terror.

Camille Desmoulins’ last tear-stained letter to his wife still rests in the National Archives, but Lucile herself never saw it. By the time he wrote it she was already under arrest. It was claimed that she had tried to use bribery to stir up a prison revolt in a pitiful attempt to save her husband’s life. She was condemned only days after Camille. In the tumbrel taking her to her death she rode with the widow of Hébert. Their husbands had done so much to destroy one another, yet at the foot of the guillotine the two women embraced, in defiance of revolutionary politics, in defiance of death.


In context: The French Revolution turns sour

By the spring of 1794, the French Revolution had been raging for nearly five years. The revolutionaries of 1789 had set up a constitutional monarchy with a National Assembly, and the king’s absolute powers were curbed by law. But many royalists refused to accept it; they fled France to become émigrés, and urged the foreign powers to make war on revolutionary France.

In June 1791 French king Louis XVI attempted to become an émigré, fleeing with his family, but was intercepted at Varennes and returned to Paris. In 1792 war broke out with Austria and Prussia; it went badly from the start.

On 10 August the Parisian street radicals, the sans-culottes, led a pitched battle to overthrow the monarchy. A new Assembly was set up, the National Convention, which declared France a republic. Britain, Spain and the Dutch Republic joined the conflict, and a civil war ignited in the Vendée, leaving the Republic beset on all sides.

The Convention set up a Committee of Public Safety, along with a Committee of General Security, to take on executive responsibilities of government. Under pressure from the sans-culottes and their leaders, the Cordeliers, the Convention’s deputies voted for the Law of Suspects which formed the basis of a legalised terror. This law saw almost 3,000 so-called enemies of the revolution die under the guillotine in Paris in just 12 months.

In October 1793 terror was used against revolutionary leaders themselves, when the Girondin faction was sent to the guillotine. Now the revolutionary leaders were faced with the dilemma of whether to maintain the Terror to ensure the Republic’s survival.


Men of terror

Leading revolutionaries whose methods were turned on them

Camille Desmoulins (1760–94)
Desmoulins’ attempts to make a career as a lawyer suffered due to his stammer. In July 1789 he was in a cafe at the Palais Royal, where he urged people to storm the Bastille. He became a talented, volatile journalist and wrote Le Vieux Cordelier, the chief vehicle for the ‘Indulgent’ faction to attack the revolutionary committees and the Terror. He was arrested in March 1794, tried and executed.

Georges Danton  (1759–94)
At the outbreak of revolution, Danton (below) was a lawyer. After the monarchy fell, he became minister of justice. He had undisclosed sources of wealth, and was probably corrupt. He called for a Revolutionary Tribunal, saying: “Let us be terrible to spare the people from being so.” He sat with the Jacobins in the Convention, and supported the use of terror. Yet there were rumours about his commitment. He was executed along with Desmoulins.

Maximilien Robespierre (1758– 94)
Robespierre was a lawyer who became a radical revolutionary, a deputy in the first National Assembly, and a leader of the Jacobin Club. Popularly known as ‘the Incorruptible’, he only held power in the last year of his life, after joining the Committee of Public Safety. He is seen as an apologist for the Terror, though the extent to which he controlled it was exaggerated by the men who overthrew and killed him in the 1794 Thermidor coup.

Louis-Antoine Saint-Just (1767–94)
The youngest member of the Convention, Saint-Just had a meteoric career as a revolutionary leader. In Paris he gained a chilling reputation for taking on the role of spokesman for the Committee of Public Safety in denouncing successive political factions: the Girondins, the Cordeliers, and the Indulgents. He tried to defend Robespierre in Thermidor, but ended by dying alongside him.

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Marisa Linton is reader in history at Kingston University. Her most recent book is Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship and Authenticity in the French Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2013).