The Great Terror

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By early 1793 Robespierre and his supporters had complete control of the Convention and thus of France. Always left-wing, the incorruptible now set out to create a systematic reign of terror against all perceived enemies of his beloved and virtuous republic. The instrument of this terror would be the Revolutionary Tribunal, under the Public Prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville. By June 1794 he would say that "heads are falling like roof-tiles!". This was the time of the 'great' terror.

As early as September 2nd 1792 there had been violent riots and massacres organised by 'people's tribunals' in Paris and some other cities. Although terribly bloody and often unjust, however, these were more in the nature of a violent outburst than any systematic purge. It was as a result of the genuine danger of counter-revolution in the provinces that extreme measures were pushed through the assembly in Paris1 and then ruthlessly carried out by the trusted commissioners sent out to the provinces by Robespierre and his colleagues on the Committee for Public Saftey.

There are several key decrees and laws that can be seen to have opened the way to the brutal and overwhelming violence of Robespierre's regime. On September 17th 1793, with the Girondins out of the way the Convention passed the Suspects Law, granting extensive powers to police and denying suspects almost any rights. Then there came the decree of October 10th which stated that the government would remain revolutionary until peace was achieved. Robespierre was not ashamed to describe his regime as "Fearsome towards the wicked, but favourable towards the good." and to declare that his government drew its strength from "Virtue, without which terror is iniquitous and terror, without which virtue is powerless." When the backlog of suspects to be tried the CPS passed the Prairial Year II Law (June 10 1794) effectively reducing the 'trial' process to a simple appearance before a judge without the right to speak and prompt sentencing. At this stage Robespierre and his supporters were seeking simply to eradicate all those they perceived as enemies of the republic, and justice must not be allowed to slow them down.

This intense period between June 10 1794 and the fall of Robespierre and his regime on July XX 1794 quickly became known as the 'Great Terror' and it may be said that by taking his principles so far Robespierre made even the dedicated revolutionary population of Paris feel that enough was enough. In all the Terror is estimated to have sentenced some 17,000 to death and claimed as many as 40,000 lives including the many summary executions, mass drownings and other atrocities. Huge crowds whooped at the spectacle of the hated noblility and clergy being publicly decapited. They cheered just as loudly and fervently, though, when Samson lifted the one-time incorruptible defender of the Republic's disembodied head for their approval. The times were fickle



This entry is part of the French Revolution University Project.

1Once it had been purged of the moderate and provincial Girondin opposition

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