Adam Gopnik: Was the French Reign of Terror Really Terrible?

Roundup: Talking About History

Revisionism in history knows no boundaries. Just in the past few years, we have been told that that comet may have glanced right off the dinosaurs, prodding a few toward flight and feathers; that the German blitzkrieg barely meandered across Europe; and that Genghis Khan was actually a sharing and caring and ecumenical leader, Bill Moyers with a mustache and colorful folk costume. So it was inevitable that we would get a revisionist history of the French Reign of Terror—the period from September, 1793, to July, 1794, when the Committee of Public Safety, in Paris, invented the modern thought crime, cut off the heads of its enemies, and created the apparatus of the totalitarian state. Since the time of Burke, through Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution and, above all, Dickens’s “Tale of Two Cities,” the imagery of the Terror—of the sansculottes knitting as tumbrels rolled—has been lodged deep in our imagination. “All perished, all , Friends, enemies, of all parties, ages, ranks, Head after head, and never heads enough For those who bade them fall,” Wordsworth wrote, in disillusioned horror, after it was over; and we see the heads falling still.

Yet our sense of such an iconic moment is bound to be partial—icons are flat. The real question about revisionist history is whether it turns something flat into something three-dimensional or just hangs it on the wall upside down. This revisionist history, now that it has crossed the Atlantic, turns out to be subtler and more interesting than some of the British reviews might have suggested. Written by the academic historian David Andress, the new book is called “The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $26), and the subtitle emphatically semaphores the new position. Andress is hardly an apologist for the Reign of Terror, and he is both too smart and too decent to scant its horrors. But he is in battle with the now standard view, which was entrenched by the French historian François Furet in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, and made most memorable and dramatic by Simon Schama in his 1990 book “Citizens.” This is the view not that the Revolution mutated into the Terror by contingency and ill luck but that in some tragic sense the Revolution was the Terror: that the Terror was implicit in the entire rationalist program of starting over from Year One. The first necessity for a blank slate is an omnipotent eraser, and the guillotine was the one at hand.

Against this, Andress believes that the Terror was an episode in a sporadic civil war that stretched from 1789 to 1871—a bloody and ugly episode, certainly, but no bloodier and not much uglier than others that we write about less often. (Far fewer people were killed by the guillotine than in the Napoleonic battles of Austerlitz and Borodino.) More important, Andress sets out to demonstrate, the Terror was also a consequence of the reactionary encirclement of France by the other powers of Europe. Those powers had learned nothing and forgotten nothing; they had it in for Republican France, and intended to restore a vengeful absolutism to the throne. What drove the Terror was not a crazed intellectual desire to extend the Revolution to every corner of existence but a desperate desire to maintain its achievements in the face of opposition. Robespierre and his group were revolutionary butchers, but they were butchers surrounded by vampires. “It is necessary to maintain a sense of proportion,” Andress writes in his introduction....

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