This paper will take an in depth look into the Reign of terror, a period that occurred during the French revolution. It will look into the reasons for the occurrence of the Terror, the events that characterised it and its relevance to terrorism today.
The period between the years 1793-1794 was a time referred to as the Reign of Terror in revolutionary France (Thompson, 2009). This period began exactly a year and a month after the start of the French revolution and was initiated by the heightened rivalry between two political factions, the Girondins and the Jacobins. The French revolution was riddled with both internal and external conspiracies. Internally the revolution was against the French nobility mainly Louis XVI who had ran the country into debt because of engaging in many wars. The Roman Catholic Church was also against the revolution. Externally, France was involved in revolutionary wars with other countries (Burke, 2010). The civil war was the reason for the increase in rivalry between the two political groups but the Jacobins emerged as the party with the authority owing to the support they received from the people. The terror began in 1793 when the Convention, constituting of the legislative and constitutional assembly, arrested Girondist leaders after sections of Paris backed after the National Guard called for political and administrative purges (Thompson, 2009). The government then set up a Committee of Public Safety and since Girondist leaders had been arrested, Jacobins gained total control of the committee and Maximilien Robespierre a prominent Jacobin became the overall leader of the committee (Thompson, 2009). The committee of public safety was in place to ensure that the reforms of the French revolution were preserved and that internal anti revolutionary activities were suppressed.
This committee was also tasked with raising new armies and ensuring that the armies and the cities were well supplied with food. For this to be effectively carried out, support from the populations was required. This committee of public safety directed the Revolutionary government and its leaders were known as the Terror leaders because they were dictatorial in their leadership. Robespierre was the mist influential of the Terror leaders and he and his fellow committee members invoked measures to fight domestic and foreign powers that were opposed to the revolution (Thompson, 2009).
The terror was characterised by enactment of policies that used violence as a means to repress any anti revolution uprisings. A Committee of General Security was in place to smoke out treason within the local communities and keep them under control. Legislations were increased such as the law that demanded farmers’ turnover their grain to the government. In addition to this, a law referred to as the Law of Suspects was enacted on September in 1973 and it gave definitions of what amounted to treason and those that were to be arrested for such activities (Thompson, 2009). To stress the point that the Revolutionary Tribunal was not going to spare anyone opposed to the revolution, the guillotine was set as the national symbol of justice. It was referred to as the National Razor and anyone who spoke ill of the state were immediately condemned to death by this contraption (Thompson, 2009). It is estimated that thousands of people who included aristocrats, clergymen and citizens lost their lives. Those who did not lose their lives through the guillotine lost it through mob justice.
Emergence of counter revolutionists only seemed to worsen the legislations and terror imposed by the Revolutionary tribunal. For instance, the uprising in Vendee was the incentive the terror required to intensify its terror leading to mass drowning that were carried out in Nantes (Thompson, 2009) and the enactment of a new law by the Committee which required courts to rule with only two verdicts, death or acquittal. With this new law, mass executions increases in numbers. Informers were positioned everywhere within France and anyone who was overheard criticizing the revolutionary government for voicing their political views was immediately sent before the Tribunal and thereafter to the guillotine. To crown the extent of the Terror, the executions were used as education lessons to the others. The Terror claimed the lives of many among them prominent people in history such as Marie Antoinette, Madam Roland and Louis XVI who was executed before the terror began (Burke, 2010).
Opposition toward the revolution and the terror was both internal and external as was the support for it. Internally most aristocrats, the clergy and the church, local farmers and workers were among those opposed to it. Externally, Edmund Burke who served in the British House of Commons was opposed to the French revolution and to the terror itself. He was a member of the Whig party which referred to itself as the Old Whigs to counter the parties who were in support of the French revolution and who were known as the New Whigs (Burke, 2010). Burke stood for everything the Terror and the committee of public safety stood against such as respect for kings, nobility, priests and the fear of God (Burke, 2010). However, the terror was to come to an end after members of the Committee began to disagree with each other and with the Committee of General Security. Some Jacobins feeling that Robespierre had gone too far with implementation of the Terror and with the fear that the new purge Robespierre was planning could backfire on them, joined forces with the CGS and together they over threw Robespierre. Robespierre was sent to the guillotine and he became the last victim of the Terror. The irony in this was that Robespierre was the mastermind of the Terror and he was the one to bring an end to it.
Relevance to terrorism
The reign of Terror is related to terrorism as it utilised terror as a means of coercion in order to instil the goals of its implementers (Cindy, 2000). Robespierre was the epitome of the modern day terrorist and he can be regarded as an inventor of what terrorism is today. In his own words, Robespierre justified the use of terror terming it as justice that was prompt, severe and inflexible (Cindy, 2000). These are the same sentiments echoed by terrorists today.
The Thermidorian era which followed the Reign of Terror executed those who were involved in this Reign. Despite the Terror claiming thousands of lives, it can be lauded for saving France from anarchy and military defeat (Thompson, 2009). However as much as this cause was just, the measures undertaken to achieve this were unjust and this reign had to come to an end.
Burke, E. (2010). Reflections on the French Revolution. New York, NY. General Books LLC.
Cindy, C. & Combs, C.C. (2000). Terrorism in the twenty-first century. Denver, CO. Prentice Hall.
Thompson, J. M. (2009). Robespierre and the French Revolution. San Antonio, TX. English Universities Press,