thinking about the terror

9780199576302_p0_v2_s260x420Hugh Gough at the Dublin Review of Books:

Over the last twenty years the debate over the terror’s origins and nature has become more nuanced. It has long been accepted that there was no set plan of revolution or terror in 1789, in contrast to Russia in 1917, where Lenin had a blueprint for revolutionary dictatorship hatched from a long tradition of revolutionary activity in the nineteenth century. Instead recent research has suggested just how improvised the system of terror – if indeed there was a system ‑ was. The terror of 1793-4 evolved more as a series of reactions to events and crises than as the product of a set ideology. And it appears more coherent in retrospect than it did at the time. Much of its chilling rhetoric (of which Marisa Linton cites many examples in the book), and many of its more draconian decrees, were designed to buy off the threat of popular violence and respond to the sense of fear pervading a deeply divided political culture. For terror was as much a feeling of personal and national insecurity – which prompted a belief in the need for violent action ‑ as it was a punitive form of government. After the fall of the Bastille, for example, several administrators were brutally decapitated and their heads paraded around the streets impaled on pikes. Over the following weeks fears of counter-revolutionary retaliation spread rapidly around Paris, including rumours that decapitated patriot heads had been found in suitcases and scattered round the grounds of the Palais Royal, severed by a bloodthirsty former slave of the Barbary pirates who was now in royalist pay. In reality there were no heads or slaves, but the ongoing mood of latent panic erupted into periodic popular violence, as in September 1792, when over a thousand prisoners were brutally massacred on the streets of Paris because of largely unfounded fears that they were enemy agents. That violence in turn forced politicians to organise a legal terror to avoid total anarchy and to adopt an aggressive rhetoric which threatened more than it ever intended to deliver.

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