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Such was the utter condemnation of the Terror from essentially the moment Robespierre was dead onward through the centuries that explaining why it happened often seems to be equated with justifying it. This leads to an intellectually unsatisfactory tendency I call ‘Robespierre stole my parking space’.In such cases, histories of the French revolution appear to place sole blame (and the tone is unequivocally blame) on Robespierre for masterminding the Terror, as if no such thing would have happened had he been elsewhere at the time.Sure, he may have invaded and completely wrecked several countries, but at least he didn’t cheer nuclear proliferation!
It’s an interesting comparison, but one that seems dated now that the War on Terror has mutated into whatever you’d call today’s terrible geopolitical situation.
Moreover, reading quotes from Bush’s speeches after 9/11 genuinely makes one yearn for the good old days of Dubya.
This is very much the view formulated and promulgated during the Thermidorian period, as described in Ending the Terror: The French Revolution After Robespierre.
Wahnich’s analysis looks beyond the Big Names of the revolution, which I found much more satisfactory insofar as I could understand it.
From this point on, the ‘terrorists’ were the Other of the republicans.
The most fervent of these, such as Victor Hugo - little suspected of counter-revolutionary ideology - constantly asserted that, even faced with such as crime as that of 2nd December 1851 [Louis-Napoléon’s coup and re-establishment of the French Empire], they would never call for revolutionary terror.The acts of those defeated by history became infamous for those of their heirs who might be of a mind to repeat them.Even if they were understood - and Hugo’s ‘1793’ bears witness to this - no situation could lead to their repetition.The original French title of 2003 literally translates as, ‘Liberty or Death: Essay on the Terror and terrorism’.On balance, I think the 2012 English title is more apposite, although the earlier one was clearly intended to place focus on the concluding pages.[St Just, 26th February 1794]The deputies of the primary assemblies have come to exercise among us the initiative of terror against domestic enemies. Do you not also have brothers, children, and wives to avenge?The family of French legislators is the patrie; it is the entire human race apart from tyrants and their accomplices.Weep then for humanity dead under their hateful yoke.[Robespierre, 28th September 1792]On this front, I recommend Virtue and Terror, a collection of Robespierre’s speeches and writings (likewise introduced by Žižek).And he may have stolen the presidency, but at least he didn’t do so with Russian backing! Anyway, this is a short but dense book largely concerned with the period of 1792 to 1794, seeking to explain how what was retrospectively termed The Terror came to occur.Although the density is manageable, it merits mention that Slavoj Žižek’s introduction is easier to read than the book itself. This may also be a function of the book being in translation, moreover the subject matter is a tricky one.