The Terror Beyond 9 Thermidor
Jean-Joseph-François Tassaert, The Night from 9 to 10 Thermidor Year II (The Arrest of Robespierre), c. 1796 (detail)
by Erica Edwards
The Afterlives of the Terror: Facing the Legacies of Mass Violence in Postrevolutionary France
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019. 240 pp
Ronen Steinberg examines how the French nation grappled with the Reign of Terror during and after the French Revolution from the 1790s to 1830s. Building upon the work of Bronislaw Baczko and Howard Brown, Steinberg analyzes the various responses to the Terror of the generation who lived through and survived it in The Afterlives of the Terror. He argues “that the distinct difficulties around coming to terms with the Terror, and the particular debates that this process gave rise to, were derived from the political and social transformations of the Revolution. Popular sovereignty led to debates about accountability after the fall of [Maximilien] Robespierre, for if the citizens were the sources of power in the Republic, they shared in the responsibility for its actions” (p. 14). He adds “that the same radicalizing dynamic, which was predicated on a complete break with the past, also made it very difficult, and perhaps even impossible, to leave certain pasts behind” (p. 15). Indeed, as historians mark 1789 as the break with the Old Regime, Steinberg uses 9 Thermidor to delineate between the Terror and its aftermath.
In his introduction, Steinberg clearly lays out his conceptual framework. He begins by explaining the difficulties for historians in writing about the Terror, identifying two main themes. First, he asserts that one cannot neatly separate the facts from “one’s political and moral worldviews” because of the polarizing nature of the subject of violence (pp. 7-8). Secondly, he situates the Terror within the various episodes of mass violence during the French Revolution, using the September Massacres as a prime example. However, he does not mention colonial violence during the Revolution, such as that in Guadeloupe, Martinique, or Saint-Domingue. Yet he attributes the abolition of slavery to the Terror, even though the metropolitan leaders only affirmed what enslaved peoples of African descent had done for themselves. To overcome the difficulties in writing about the Terror, Steinberg relies on approaches commonly used to study the Holocaust and other genocides in the twentieth century. In particular, he uses the concepts of transitional justice and trauma, as these are helpful in better understanding how peoples cope with “the aftermath of mass violence” (p. 11). In his discussion of these concepts, he introduces a German word, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which he translates to “mastering or coming to terms with the past” (p. 13). He cautions that he does not analogize the Reign of Terror and the twentieth-century genocides; instead, he only uses the concepts to aid his analysis of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century responses to the Terror.
Steinberg organizes his book into five thematic chapters. The first chapter addresses the Thermidorian naming of the Terror. Using a speech by Jean-Lambert Tallien one month after the Terror ended in which he described its system of power, Steinberg explains how the French Revolution birthed “the modern definition of terrorism” (p. 18). However, later in the chapter, he admits that there was not a singular definition of terror during the French Revolution. Nevertheless, the revolutionary leadership began to write a history of the Terror in its immediate aftermath, beginning with naming it and then debating the relationship between violence and the social order. They did so through newly formed attitudes toward cataclysmic events, such as political violence, war, and natural disasters. Secularization and the public sphere had shaped these new attitudes. No longer seeking answers through religion only, the people took to the public sphere to debate the effects of violence on society, starting with the storming of the Bastille and the death penalty. Steinberg notes that in 1791, Robespierre, the man most associated with the Terror, argued against the death penalty, believing “shame would be a much more useful deterrent” (p. 26). Thermidorian narratives described the Terror as “a system of oppression” under the leadership of Robespierre that ended with his fall (p. 28). In an effort to capture the difficult past of the Terror, Louis-Marie Prudhomme produced an invaluable yet fragmentary six-volume source collection for historians, A General and Impartial History of the Errors, Offense, and Crimes Committed during the French Revolution (1797), which includes many images, lists, and tables, some of which Steinberg includes in this book.
Chapter 2 examines the trials of public officials after the Terror as the logical consequence of the Revolution’s social, political, and judicial reforms—not reactions against revolution. Through the cahiers de doléances, Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen, and 1791 penal code, French revolutionaries began to establish formal mechanisms of accountability that justified the regicide in 1793 and were instrumental in the transitional justice at the end of the Terror. Initially, Thermidorian leaders struggled to rectify individual accountability with mass crime because of the democratization of the French Revolution. Steinberg rhetorically asks, “If the répresentants en mission represented the Convention, and the Convention embodied the sovereignty of the French people, how could one hold public officials accountable for the Terror without, ipso facto, implicating the entire chain in the crime?” (p .49). Yet there was public demand to hold public officials accountable, and a vengeful White Terror wrought violence in southern France. Steinberg marks the beginning of the trials with that of Jean-Baptiste Carrier, who had been on mission in the Vendée to put down a rebellion. Steinberg calls it a “watershed moment” that “did much to establish an official narrative of the Terror” (p. 53). Joseph Le Bon was the last man associated with the Terror that the Thermidorians held accountable. His trial was particularly intriguing as it brought forth competing “notions of virtue” (p. 63). Although Le Bon did not dispute his part in the Terror, he launched a defense against claims he had perpetrated sexual violence, something Thermidorians often associated with répresentants en mission.
Unknown artist, Real depiction of the Guillotine at Paris, c. 1795
Steinberg focuses on les biens des condomnés, or property restoration to widows and children of victims of the Terror, in his third chapter. Just as the government seized property from the church and émigrés and made them biens nationuax, the revolutionaries confiscated property from those “suspected or convicted enemies of the people” (p. 69). In these cases, property confiscation aided the government in excluding citizens from the body politic, and property restitution was a step to bringing people back into the body politic after Robespierre’s fall. Steinberg reveals some commonalities in the petitions for restitution, namely the important role of women. Literate widows wrote most of them, seeking confiscated property and “the rehabilitation of memory” (p. 73). With a focus on the two-year case of Emilie Prax from 1795 to 1797, Steinberg shows how 9 Thermidor was not the end of the Terror for the widows. He also presents the arguments of those who opposed restitution, the most striking being that restitution “put individual interests above the public good” (p. 82). Although restitution began inadvertently with one representant en mission just after Robespierre’s fall, the Convention codified it in the summer of 1795.
The fourth chapter takes up the topic of remembrance. Steinberg explains how most victims of the Terror ended up buried in mass graves—les cimitiéres des suppliciés, and their surviving families established memorials at and often visited the gravesites. He places their deaths in the context of shifts in Enlightenment thinking wherein secularization emphasized the loss of loved one instead of the soul’s salvation. Further, revolutionaries politicized death, as seen through the creation of the Panthéon and the exhumation and mutilation of royal corpses at Saint-Denis. After the Terror, the people saw the mass graves as a reminder of the violent episode, and they sought to resituate the cemeteries within society. Invoking Emil Durkheim, Steinberg shows how the burials transformed from the profane to the sacred through Thermidorian commemorations. In this chapter, Steinberg moves beyond Thermidor to address memory in the Napoleonic era and the Restoration. Under Napoleon Bonaparte, literature was the space for commemoration, and Steinberg uses Jean Joseph Regnault-Warin’s La cimitière de la Madeleine (1800) as an example. Under the Restoration, commemoration took the form of expiatory chapels.
Steinberg explores the “ghostly presence of the Terror” in his fifth and final chapter (p. 117). He explores a pamphlet published in 1795 that details a correspondence between the living and dead. He uses it to examine attitudes toward trauma in the late eighteenth century and how trauma renders people incapable of recounting the story of it. Recognizing why the term trauma is problematic, Steinberg proposes using Raymond Williams’s “structure of feeling” instead, as it “refers to different ways of thinking that are competing to emerge at any particular moment in history” (p. 123). In this vein, Steinberg discusses how the French people dealt with the dead and the end of the Terror through Thermidor, the Napoleonic era, and the Restoration. One way was through Etienne-Gaspard Robert’s phantasmagoria, a lantern show depicting “images of spirits rising from the dead” (p. 125). Another way was through medicine, as European physicians debated death by guillotine. Steinberg introduces examples from Germany and Italy as well as France, highlighting the geographic breadth of the Terror’s legacies. The Terror further influenced medicine around mental health. While eighteenth-century physicians emphasized the balance of the mind and body through vitalism, some saw the experiences of the Terror as beneficial. However, before the nineteenth-century emergence of psychiatry, physicians described something like “modern notions of trauma and PTSD” (pp. 141-142). Under the Restoration, the French resumed the debates on the death penalty discussed 2. In the 1820s and 1830s, the loudest voices calling for the abolition of the death penalty often had ties to the Terror, such as François Guizot, whose father went to the guillotine.
In his conclusion, Steinberg draws parallels between the difficult past of the Terror and twentieth-century events. He discusses transitional justice through the Nuremberg trials and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He also marks the differences. For instance, he notes the “symbiosis between liberal-democratic regimes and transitional justice” not necessarily present in “our time” (p. 150). He also discusses redistributive justice in the revolutionary era, something not as central in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Overall, this is one of the most reader-friendly monographs in French Revolutionary historiography. Steinberg’s organization, use of subheadings, and accessible writing style make this work not only a pleasure to read for experts in the field but also ideal to assign to undergraduate students in an upper-division course who would have some understanding of the Terror. What’s more, it is available as a free ebook through the Cornell University Press website.
. See, for example, Laurent Dubois, A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Jeremy D. Popkin, A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011); William S. Cormack, “Revolution and Free-Colored Equality in the Îles du Vent (Lesser Antilles), 1789-1794,” Journal of the Western Society for French History 39 (2011): 155-165; Cormack, “Victor Hugues and the Reign of Terror on Guadeloupe, 1794-1798,” Proceedings of the Meeting of the French Colonial Historical Society 21 (1997): 31-41; and Cormack, Patriots, Royalists, and Terrorist in the West Indies: The French Revolution in Martinique and Guadeloupe, 1789-1802 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019).
About the Author
A native of Oklahoma, Dr. Erica Johnson Edwards specializes in French Revolutionary history and the French Atlantic world. She is author of a monograph, Philanthropy and Race in the Haitian Revolution, part of the Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies Series (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). She is also co-editor of a volume, The French Revolution and Religion in Global Perspective: Freedom and Faith (Palgrave MacMillan, 2017). She has published articles in the Journal of the Western Society for French History and the Journal of Transnational American Studies. Her research interests include religion and slave revolution in the greater French Caribbean.
First published at the H-Net. Republished here under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
The frontpage image is a detail from a cartoon showing Robespierre guillotining the executioner after having guillotined everyone else in France.
The full print of the top image can be viewed at the British Museum.
The second image on this page can be viewed at the Department of Prints and Photography of the National Library of France.