Interpreting the Terror - Circumstance or ideology?

Term Paper, 2004

12 Pages, Grade: B



1. Introduction

2. The scholarly discourse

3. Popular Terror

4. Circumstances

5. Turn of the tide

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The Terror of the French Revoltion has devided the world of scholars right from the beginning. It is a crucial issue which was often connected with emotions and political attitudes, when it was approached. Many questions rose when relating the violence and the Terror with the genuine ideology of the French Revolution. Was it a part of it right from the beginning? Or shall we see the Terror as an accident incompatible to democracy and the origins of the French Revolution? This essay attempts to depict the reasons for the terror with the aim to be able to judge the Terror. To judge means to be able to distinguish between different sorts of Terror and to place the judgement into the scholarly discourse. The depiction will leave out the description of developments but rather pick certain events and breaks to show why and how Terror was used. Furthermore the essay will leave out the end of the `Great Terror` as well as the `White Terror`.

2. The scholarly discourse

There are three major camps, which are determined by their way of interpreting the Terror. There are scholars with a `view from the right`, which traditionally tried “to condemn the terror as the founding event, in a long and bloody series of events which goes from 1792 to the present day: from intra-French genocide in the catholic Vendee to the Soviet gulag […].[1] On the other hand there is the so called ´circumstance´ argument – stressed by the traditional left scholars – which rather explained the Terror with regard to the specific historical situation France was. In this notion the circumstances explain and legitimate the Terror as a weapon of selfdefense. Thus for some Liberals and the Left the Terror became the legitimate reflexive action of the revolution, that regarded itself in danger; the outcome was that the Terror was not an actual part of the Revolution but the result of the actions of the enemies of the latter.[2]

Neither agreeing to the ´right´ nor to the ´Left´ in the last decades the so called ´Revisionists´ took another approach with critizising that the ´circumstance argument´ focusses more on the revolutionary rethoric of their actors than on the reality. The apologetic speeches and texts from the revolutionaries in their eyes were used to explain the Terror. This the Revisionists negated.[3] The key point of the Revisionists was that the Revolution was not by accident or because of the circumstances connected to the Terror, but that the Revolution contained the radical ideology which led to the Terror right from the beginning. Even more: it was an integral and inseparable part of it. To sum it up: “Conservatives condemn the revolution, revisionists regard its legacy as ambigious and circumstance historians see it as positive. Both conservatives and revisionists base their interpretation mainly on ideology, while circumstance historians are more concerned with social and political events.”[4]

3. Popular Terror

In the beginning of the depiction shall be the early Terror, that is clearly to be distinguished from the later Terror under the ´revolutionary dictatorship`.

If one looks at the events from the beginning of the revolution to the fall of Robbespierre there is a clear development. When the storming of the Bastille took place the protagonists were the Parisian crowd. The killing of the Intendant of Paris and his father in law was done by the people of Paris who accused them to hoard food in order to ´starve´ the city. With the marching of an originally female crowd to Versailles, which led to the dead of some of the Guards as well as the overthrow of the monarchy and the protracted massacre in Septembre 1792 in the prisons the Parisian crowd let its anger go and got their vengeange through their Terror from below.[5]

This kind of Terror is obviously to distinguish from later developments when the Terror became the´order of the day´ and was imposed and led by a revolutionary government. Behind this insurrections stood no institution, no quasi-legal process of justice – it was a spontaneous rage of the people under certain circumstances or for particular demands. The September Massacres in a sense should be seen as the climax of this insurrection, since the crowd´s anger led to the death of over 1.000 prisoners, many of them mere criminals and no enemies of the revolution, at which the attack actually was aimed.[6] Although especially the September Massacres are to some extend incomprehensible the slaughter was still done by the crowd and no revolutionary government demanded or led such action. I therefore would like to define these events, including the September Massacres, as Terror from below, originated in the masses of Paris. Since there is no direct link to the Terror of the Committee of Public Safety but rather to the anger and the demands of the Parisian population I would like to headline this kind of insurgencies as ´Popular Terror` and emphasize that it mustn´t be mixed up with the `Great Terror` of the revolutionary government, which took on unimagined and institutionalized dimensions. Maybe one should even label the early Terror as collective (mass-)violence rather than as Terror at all. The latter term should then define only the actual “Great Terror”.


[1] Hugh Gough, The Terror in the French Revolution, London, 1998, p.3

[2] David D. Bien, Francois Furet, the Terror, and 1789, in: French Historical Studies, Vol. 16, No.4 (1990), p. 777f.

[3] Mona Ozouf, War and Terror in the French Revolutionary Discourse (1792-1794), in: The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 56, No. 4 (1984), p.580

[4] Gough, p.7ff.

[5] Colin Lucas, Revolutionary Violence, the People and the Terror, in: Keith Baker ed., The Terror (Vol.4 of The French Revolution and the creation of Modern Political Culture), Oxford 1994, p. 62

[6] Arno J. Mayer, The Furies – Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolution, Princeton 2000, p. 177ff.

Excerpt out of 12 pages


Interpreting the Terror - Circumstance or ideology?
University of Auckland  (History)
History 324 - Old Regime and Revolution in France
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ISBN (eBook)
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495 KB
Interpreting, Terror, Circumstance, History, Regime, Revolution, France
Quote paper
Martin Röw (Author), 2004, Interpreting the Terror - Circumstance or ideology?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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