Reign of terror

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Caricature of the reign of terror by James Gillray (1793): “The zenith of French glory: the peak of freedom. Religion, justice, loyalty and all you ghosts of unenlightened spirits, farewell! "

The reign of terror , the reign of terror or the horror ( French La Terreur , "The Terror") was a period of the French Revolution from the beginning of June 1793 to the end of July 1794, which was characterized by the brutal suppression of all persons suspected of being opponents of the revolution to be. The reign of terror was directed by the Welfare Committee, a committee of twelve men. It was led first by Georges Danton and then increasingly by Maximilien de Robespierre .

The reign of terror began with the uprising of the Parisian sans-culottes against the Convention from May 31 to June 2, 1793 and the adoption of the constitution of June 24, 1793 , which never came into force. It reached its peak in June and July 1794; this time is also called The Great Terror (French la Grande Terreur ). It came to an end with the arrest and execution of Robespierre and the takeover of power by the Thermidorians on Thermidor II (July 27, 1794).

Depending on the estimate, 25,000 to 40,000 people were victims of the terror. The high number of victims, for example in the suppression of the uprising in the Vendée, is not fully counted.

Causes and conditions

Maximilien de Robespierre, around 1790, anonymous portrait ( Musée Carnavalet )

The National Convention decided on September 5, 1793 to introduce terrorist measures to suppress all "counter-revolutionary" activities. About 21,000 "monitoring committees" were formed. The Revolutionary Tribunal acted as a court of law against political perpetrators. No appeal against his judgments was possible. There were similar tribunals in the provinces. The security committee met weekly with the welfare committee . This commissioned the revolutionary committees with the listing of suspicious persons.

Robespierre justified the terror with its goal, virtue. In a “virtuous state” “the people should be guided by reason and the enemies of the people should be ruled by terreur ”, he declared on February 5, 1794 before the National Convention:

“Terror is nothing more than immediate, strict, indomitable justice; so it is the outflow of virtue; it is less of a particular principle than a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to the most urgent needs of the fatherland. "

If the republic is threatened from within and from without, it needs the horror, "without which virtue is powerless." The radicalization and brutalization of the French Revolution came with the First Coalition War , which started in 1792 by Austria and Prussia , then also by Great Britain led to the rescue of the French and to the defense of its own monarchies, as well as increased by internal uprisings.

Economic policy had to be completely subordinate to the main goals of the government - equipping the army and overcoming the famine. For this purpose, maximum prices , the so-called maximum (maximum général) , were set for the most important goods. This enabled the state buyers to buy cheap grain for the army. The poor could get enough supplies at the relatively low prices. The Parisian sans-culottes were therefore among the supporters of the reign of terror. But there was also the problem of the black market . The Welfare Committee fought against it with draconian measures by imposing the death penalty on "hoarders" and "usurers".

The historian Gerd van den Heuvel sees social-psychological causes for the reign of terror . Already in the 1780s there was evidence of a great willingness to explain negative developments with conspiracies and conspiracies, such as the Grande Peur or an imagined aristocratic conspiracy that was behind the contradictory behavior of the commandant of the Bastille, Bernard-René Jordan de Launay on July 14th Is said to have stuck in 1789 and cost de Launay his head. Conspiracy ideologies grew in popularity with real events that seemed to confirm them, such as the king's attempt to get abroad or the assassinations of Jean-Paul Marat , Robespierre and Jean-Marie Collot d'Herbois , especially as these were purposefully inflated :

“The fear of the plot, of dark machinations and perfectly targeted action by alleged opponents hardly corresponded to reality, but it did correspond to the need for one's own consciousness. The 'conspiracy' and the latent 'horror' into which it plunged the patriots justified not only taking action against the evident counterrevolution , but also the possible hostility towards revolution, not the deed, but already countering the non-conforming conscience with preventive terreur . [...] If the conspiracy and its fight by terreur represented a possible interpretation of the revolution up to the summer of 1793, this ideology formed the government's raison d'être in year II . "

Casualty numbers

The reign of terror led in France to archive documents that have been evaluated by Donald Greer, at least 16,594 death sentences carried out by guillotine , of which more than 2500 in Paris. 1306 of those executed in Paris are buried in the Picpus cemetery, others on the Cimetière des Errancis , the Cimetière de la Madeleine and the Cimetière de Sainte-Marguerite .

This does not include victims who were killed without trial or who died in captivity. Their number is estimated by some historians at around 40,000, and by others around 25,000. A total of around 85% of those executed belonged to the former Third Estate , including farmers with 28%, workers with 31%. 8.5% were from the nobility, 6.5% from the clergy . Around 80% of the death sentences were passed for treason or rebellion, 9% for opposition crimes and only a few percent for economic offenses such as "accaparement" (buying up goods for the purpose of usury ). After the start of the reign of terror in 1793, a total of around 500,000 arrests and around 300,000 residence restrictions were made.

Mass drownings in the Loire in December 1793, cynically called "Baptism of Nantes", etching by Samuel Gysin after a drawing by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux (1816)

The main focus of the executions was in the province. Of the 16,500 or so executions examined by Greer, 15% took place in Paris, 19% in the southeast and 52% in the west. In the Rhône Valley, a Girondist uprising in Lyon was bloodily suppressed in October 1793 (over 2000 executions). The Vendée uprising cost over 150,000 lives - a comparison of the censuses of 1790 and 1802 showed a deficit of 200,000 in the population, which of course was partly due to the circumstances surrounding the terror (emigration, decline in the birth rate, impoverishment). In Nantes on the Loire , from 1793 to 1794, the envoy of the convent Jean-Baptiste Carrier drowned numerous victims on specially prepared ships in the river. Another focus was the Chouannerie in the Mayenne department and the front-line provinces of the Revolutionary War.

The end of terror

For the sans-culottes , the reign of terror became uninteresting with the introduction of maximum wages when details were published on July 23. Although there was a 50% wage increase compared to the wage level of 1790, since there had been inflation before the maximum laws, this apparent increase was in fact a wage reduction in many areas. In addition, the persecution led to a desolation of political life in the sections, with which the Welfare Committee lost its power base.

Last but not least, the terror lost its military purpose after the victory of the French army in the Battle of Fleurus (June 26, 1794). However, the killing continued in the provinces, especially in the Vendée.

The guillotine had meanwhile also raged among the Jacobins themselves . Two groups deviating from Robespierre's line - the 'ultra-radicals' around Hébert and the 'moderates' around Georges Danton - were eliminated in quick succession in March and April 1794. When Robespierre announced further 'purges' among the members of the convention on July 26th, the frightened MPs mostly banded together against the leadership group and arrested them on the following day, the 9th Thermidor , in the convention. Now it became clear that Maximilien de Robespierre, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just and their closest followers had lost the support of most of the population of Paris. Only a minority were ready to fight for their return to power. Shortly afterwards, they were guillotined.


In the short term, the terror caused the French nation to combine forces in military struggle, which led to victory over the internal and external enemies. In the longer term, however, the revolution was significantly weakened by the temporary reign of terror: on the one hand, because many staunch Republicans, especially leaders, fell victim to the guillotine - according to the word about the revolution that eats its own children . In addition, the ideas of freedom, equality and fraternity have been discredited by the blood of the many thousands who were executed - a long-term effect that was felt not only within France.

Contemporary reception

"The Radicals' Arms" - the weapons or the coat of arms of the radicals, caricature by George Cruikshank (1819)

The Terreurs aroused fear and terror all over Europe. In view of this, Schiller dealt with the question of “ revolution and terror ” several times , for example in the Glocke and in Wilhelm Tell . In Germany in particular, a large number of citizens who had initially celebrated the revolutionary awakening in Paris and France turned away from the French republic in fright and adopted conservative attitudes.

Historical research

Terror is valued differently in research. The Marxist historian Albert Soboul (1914–1982) sees it as “essentially an instrument for the defense of the nation and the revolution against the rebels and traitors”. Although the aristocrats and their supporters were excluded by the terror, they could not have been “classified into society” anyway. Through the terror the authority of the state had been restored, it had helped in the "development of the feeling of national solidarity" across all class egoisms and above all through the violent implementation of the necessary economic policy measures for the victory of the revolutionaries in the coalition wars and thus for the " Save the Nation ”.

The liberal historian François Furet (1927–1997), on the other hand, believes that the terror of 1793/94 was a “derailment” of the revolution. The seizure of power by the masses interrupted and disturbed the peaceful social development of the reforms from above from 1789 onwards. For him, the Jacobin reign of terror is a forerunner of the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century.


Memorial to the 2780 Parisian victims of the revolution in the Conciergerie

In the conciergerie , where the sessions of the Revolutionary Tribunal took place, the names of 2,780 people who were sentenced to death during the revolution in Paris are posted in a former cell room.

See also


  • Alfred Cobban : The Political ideas of Maximilien Robespierre during the Period of the Convention. In: The English Historical Review . Volume 61, No. 239, 1946, pp. 45-80, JSTOR 554837 .
  • Bill Edmonds: Federalism and Urban Revolt in France in 1793. In: The Journal of Modern History. Vol. 55, No. 1, 1983, ISSN  0022-2801 , pp. 22-53, JSTOR 1878977 .
  • Patrice Gueniffey: La Politique de la Terreur. Essai sur la violence révolutionnaire. 1789-1794 (= Collection TEL. 323). Gallimard, Paris 2003, ISBN 2-07-076727-2 .
  • Marcel Hénaff , Lawrence R. Schehr: Naked Terror: Political Violence, Libertine Violence. In: SubStance. Volume 27, No. 2, 1998, ISSN  0049-2426 , pp. 5-32, JSTOR 3685647 .
  • George Armstrong Kelly: Conceptual Sources of the Terror. In: Eighteenth-Century Studies. Volume 14, No. 1, 1980, ISSN  0013-2586 , pp. 18-36, JSTOR 2738366 .
  • Mona Ozouf : War and Terror in French Revolutionary Discours (1792–1794). In: The Journal of Modern History. Vol 56, No. 4, 1984, pp. 579-597, JSTOR 1880323 .
  • RR Palmer : Twelve Who Ruled. The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ 1941, (Numerous reprints).
  • Chantal Thomas, David F. Bell: Terror in Lyon. In: SubStance. Volume 27, No. 2, 1998, pp. 33-42, JSTOR 3685648 .

Web links

Wiktionary: reign of terror  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ "La terreur n'est autre chose que la justice prompte, sévère, inflexible; elle est donc une émanation de la vertu; elle est moins un principe particulier, qu'une conséquence du principe général de la démocratie, appliqué aux plus pressants besoins de la patrie ” , quoted from, accessed on January 18, 2018.
  2. Gerd van den Heuvel : Terreur, Terrorist, Terrorisme. In: Handbook of basic political and social terms in France. 1680-1820. Booklet 3 = Ancien Régime, Enlightenment and Revolution. Volume 10. Oldenbourg, Munich 1985, ISBN 3-486-52731-2 , pp. 89-132, here p. 109 ff.
  3. ^ Donald M. Greer: The incidence of the terror during the French revolution. A statistical interpretation (=  Harvard Historical Monographs 8, ZDB -ID 255018-0 ). Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Massachusetts) 1935.
  4. ^ William Doyle: The Oxford History of the French Revolution. Reprinted edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford et al. 1990, ISBN 0-19-285221-3 . Greer himself estimates it at 35,000 to 40,000.
  5. ^ François Furet , Mona Ozouf: Dictionnaire critique de la Révolution française. Flammarion, Paris 1988, ISBN 2-08-211537-2 .
  6. ^ Albert Soboul : Dictionnaire historique de la Révolution française. PUF, Paris 2005, ISBN 2-13-053605-0 , p. 1023.
  7. ^ Georges Lefèbvre : The French Revolution. Volume 2. Columbia University Press, New York 1964, p. 120.
  8. ^ A b Jean Tulard , Jean-François Fayard, Alfred Fierro: Histoire et dictionnaire de la Révolution française. 1789-1799. Laffont, Paris 1987, ISBN 2-221-04588-2 , p. 1114.
  9. ^ François Furet, Mona Ozouf: Dictionnaire critique de la Révolution française. Flammarion, Paris 1988, ISBN 2-08-211537-2 , p. 162.
  10. ^ Greer quoted from Georges Lefebvre: The French Revolution. Volume 2. Columbia University Press, New York 1964, p. 119.
  11. Albert Soboul: The Great French Revolution. An outline of their history (1789–1799). 4th edition of the reviewed German edition, special edition. Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 1983, p. 353.
  12. ^ François Furet, Denis Richet : La Révolution française (= Collection Pluriel. 950). Paperback edition, Hachette, Paris 1999, ISBN 2-01-278950-1 , chap. 5.
  13. ^ François Furet, Ernst Nolte : Hostile proximity. Communism and Fascism in the 20th Century. An exchange of letters. Herbig, Munich 1998, ISBN 3-7766-2029-3 .