An Intellectual History of the French Revolution

RobespierreHugh Gough at The Dublin Review of Books:

Anyone looking for a neat explanation of the French revolutionary terror faces the problem of choice. Since the collapse of Jacobin rule after Robespierre’s execution in Thermidor Year II, debate has raged over how an event that began with the promise of liberty and fraternity degenerated so rapidly into fifteen months of mass imprisonment and death. During 1793 and 1794 around three hundred thousand people were jailed, many of them dying from disease and neglect, a further seventeen thousand were guillotined or shot and a quarter of a million killed in civil wars, of which the Vendée was by far the most deadly. After Thermidor the revolution’s opponents argued that terror on such a scale was inherent in the entire revolutionary project from the outset, part of a “genetic code” of violence and intolerance deeply embedded in the revolutionary gene. The revolution’s supporters, on the other hand, defended terror as the product of difficult circumstances, a regrettable but necessary expedient to combat the threats posed to the republic by civil war and military invasion.

Each side, in other words, blamed the other back then and have continued to do so ever since, taking up entrenched positions that have dominated historians’ and the public’s attitudes for over two hundred years. Along the way new avenues of interpretation have widened the argument, bringing on board issues such as social conflict and food shortage, the importance of Enlightenment thought, changes in sensibility, the influence of personality and even the serendipity of sheer accident.

more here.