The Guillotine (Part Three: The Terror)
“Citizens, we have reason to fear that the Revolution, like Saturn, will successively devour all its children, and finally produce despotism, with the calamities that accompany it.” — Pierre Vergniaud
“…and its name is vengeance”
In Part 1 we recounted the long history of the guillotine, and in Part 2 we saw how its emergence as the generalised form of execution is interconnected with the rise of the “individual” and the “citizen.” The story of the guillotine now, and only now, begins to reach the Revolutionary Terror it is so associated with. Pelletier was executed in April 1792. In August the Jacobins would storm the Tuileries Palace, imprison King Louis XVI, and usher in universal suffrage and the Republic. The first traces of the Terror appear in September, as fear of encroaching Prussian armies resulted in a wave of conspiratorial paranoia and a subsequent massacring of the Parisian prison population. Over 1,000 people were massacred, mostly common criminals, with a large number of women among them.
It warrants to pause and compare the depiction of the September Massacre above to the depictions of the Agasse brothers’ execution in Part Two, or the depictions of the guillotine thus far. Compare the centrality and fluidity of the people, the thronging crowds, the collapsed women begging for their lives, the visceral and forceful depiction of hammering a person to death. This is what revolutionary violence often looks like: an improvised, spontaneous, outpouring of violence.
It is not until the next year that the guillotine is used to execute royalty, and King Louis XVI was put to death on 21 January 1793. This is the image we usually conjure up of the guillotine: the revolutionary executioner of the nobility. In context of Part 1 and 2 we can see it is more complex than this. There is a thread of egalitarianism here, but equality in the sense that the commoner can enjoy being dismembered in the same way as a king. There is a thread of revolution here, not the spontaneous uprising of the masses, but the revolutionary elite meticulously organising the execution of the new law using the instruments of the state.
We know the infamy of the guillotine springs not from its origins (either in history, or first use in Republican France) nor due to this one single use against Louis XVI, but its use as an instrument of Revolutionary Terror. From May 1793 to June 1794, the guillotine would remain permanently erected at the Tuileries Palace and that one alone would execute well over 1,000 victims. Across France, over 16,000 were sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Tribunals, thousands more dying in prisons, and hundreds of thousands more arrested and persecuted. The guillotine is not just an object in isolation, but a function in a system that it now represents.
This system was headed by the Committee of Public Safety, which I will anachronistically say is quite Orwellian in name. The Committee was granted extraordinary powers in order to try and safeguard the Revolution, as France descended into both civil and interstate war. It was through the Committee and in response to this turmoil that the Terror was born. The Terror was designed by the rulers of the State, for the safeguarding of the State. As François Furet puts it, “the first duty of power was to maintain it: that was the function of Terror.”
However, whatever its origins, the shape of the Terror is important to consider. If we take March 1793, the creation of the Revolutionary Tribunal, as the start of the Terror proper, the next few months through summer and spring were the least bloody period. This period coincides with the most fraught period for the Republic, with the Prussians and Austrians making significant advances, the Federalist revolts, the victorious Vendean peasant uprising, and royalist insurgents taking control of Lyons, Toulon and other areas. The Republic’s position would improve in Autumn: the foreign war would begin turning with victories in September and October; Lyons was recaptured in October; and the Vendean Grand Army was also defeated. Executions under the Terror, however, would reach their peak in December 1793 and January 1794, and then again peak in Spring 1794 despite there being no more cataclysmic threat at home and France’s armies now on the offensive.
Edgar Quinet would note that “The Great Terror nearly everywhere revealed itself after the victories. Can we maintain that it caused them? Can we argue that, in our systems, effect precedes causes?” The Terror was not so much targeted at the avowed enemies of the Republic, but instead at the internal factions vying for control following victory. The vast majority of victims were not the aristocracy — only around eight per cent — but overwhelmingly from the lower and middle classes, who tore into each other as they descended into a conspiratorial paranoia. Engels, who was by no means shy when it comes to authoritarian violence, wrote to Marx:
We think of this as the reign of people who inspire terror; on the contrary, it is the reign of people who are themselves terrified. Terror consists mostly of useless cruelties perpetrated by frightened people in order to reassure themselves. I am convinced that the blame for the Reign of Terror in 1793 lies almost exclusively with the over-nervous bourgeois, demeaning himself as a patriot, the small petty bourgeois beside themselves with fright and the mob of riff-raff who know how to profit from the terror.
It comes as no surprise that among the guillotines most famous victims are name after name of proud and dedicated revolutionary: Jacques Pierre Brissot, Georges Danton, Georges Couthon, Charlotte Corday, Pierre Gaspard Chaumette, Jacques Hébert, Camille Desmoulins, Olympe de Gouges, Antoine Fouquier-Tinville, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, and of course Maximilien Robespierre himself, to name just a mere fraction.
Liberté ou la mort!
Because so many who went under the blade were its very proponents, they — in many cases — made an effort to die well. They sang, danced, and quipped as they took to the scaffold. On 31 October the Girondins sang the Marseillaise as they rode their carts to the guillotine. Those sent to the scaffold were convinced that it was possible to prove the justness of their cause by dying well. That even in the face of their own demise, they still believed that the Revolution and its guillotine were just and worthy of respect. “It is the ending that crowns the work,” Charlotte Corday would say the day before her execution. Through death, they could reaffirm their belief in liberty. Brissot would write regarding the Girondin’s debate on suicide or execution that:
Buzot… showed us that death on the scaffold was more courageous, more worthy of patriots, and above all be more useful to the cause of liberty.
This was, of course, not always the case. When the common-born Madame Du Barry was taken to the guillotine, she grew terrified and hysterical in the face of death. She shrieked and begged to the onlookers and fought with the executioner. Although she struggled in vain, an onlooker would describe in their memoirs:
Madame Du Barry… is the only woman, among all the women who perished during the dreadful days, who could not stand the sight of the scaffold. She screamed, she begged mercy of the horrible crowd that stood around the scaffold, she aroused them to such a point that the executioner grew anxious and hastened to complete his task. This convinced me that if the victims of these terrible times had not been so proud, had not met death with such courage, the Terror would have ended much earlier. Men of limited intelligence lack the imagination to be touched by inner suffering, and the populace is more easily stirred by pity than by admiration.
These executions were all public and part of a grand national performance. Under the ancien regime, the centrepiece was the tortured body of Damiens; under the Republic the centrepiece was the machinery of the state — the guillotine. Damiens was expected to die horribly, representing the personal damage he had committed against the sovereign-as-a-person, as a king. The guillotined were expected to die honourably, as equal citizens under the law, who had accepted the rationalism of the state even if they [allegedly] transgressed its principles. The audience could see the power and the wrath of the King in the torture of Damiens, and similarly the order and process and equality of the Republic in the guillotine. Madame Du Barry’s outburst broke the spell; she stepped outside the allocated role of the performers, and by doing so revealed the harsh truth behind the performative façade. This was in fact an issue of life and death, with thousands being massacred before the audiences’ eyes.
It is unsurprising that it is the image of the guillotine that is invoked by modern day revolutionaries rather than other forms of terroristic violence during the French Revolution. Aided by the distance of history, it stands as formidable and imposing, but also sanitised. During the Terror most deaths were not in fact under the guillotine, but being shot, languishing in prison or beaten. At Nantes, people were herded into galleys, chained down, the galleys sank, and the people drowned in their thousands. These mass executions of wailing men, women and children, gasping for air, pulling against chains, and clawing at their watery tombs, is a little too visceral to be invoked by any but the most sadistic revolutionary. (The organiser of these mass drownings, Jean-Baptiste Carrier, was yet another revolutionary victim of the guillotine.)
“Let Revolutionary Men Be Romans”
On 26 July (or 8 Thermidor in the revolutionary calendar), Robespierre declared to the National Convention that a conspiracy existed at the very highest levels of the revolutionary government. By not specifying who was part of this plot, it aroused the fears of all who thought they may be implicated in the plot. There was little choice but to band together for the swift and decisive overthrow of Robespierre the next day. Robespierre’s execution by guillotine was merely the pièce de résistance of the unravelling of the Terror — a symbolic climax, but with broad movement on either side.
The people of Paris had grown sickened by the endless procession of the condemned carted to the scaffold. The cemeteries had been filled, and protests were raised each time a new one was to be opened. The sympathy of the masses was turning to the victims of the guillotine. Rumour had it that the Committee of Public Safety had in fact been infiltrated by Royalist agents, who were carrying out executions to insight hatred against the Republic. Reflecting on these developments, Kropotkin notes that each execution “hastened the fall of the Jacobin Government” and that the “Terror had ceased to terrorise, a thing which statesmen cannot understand.” Tocqueville would write that once the Terror “had become impossible, and public spirit flagged, the entire apparatus of political power collapsed at once.”
Marx details the unravelling of Robespierre’s regime as linked with bourgeois society breaking out “in powerful streams of life.” Freed from the trammels of feudalism, the “real” relations of modern bourgeois society — the society of industry, universal competition, of private interest freely pursuing its aims, of self-estranged natural and spiritual individuality — would assert itself against the utopian and idealistic vision of Robespierre and his cohort. This vision, built on an imagined and idealised vision of the Roman Republic and liberty therein, was entirely unsuitable to the modern age.
The Jacobins had tried to mould a new society based on their ideals. The decimalisation of the calendar and the clock, the celebration of the younger Agasse brothers, the invention of the Cult of the Supreme Being; these were all attempts to engineer and manufacture a brand new society, ironically inspired by an ancient one. “Que le hommes révolutionnaire soient des Romains,” Louis Antoine de Saint-Just would proclaim, “Let revolutionary men be Romans.” But the 18th century French were not, in fact, Romans.
We can make use of this quote from Marx for a second time:
Just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language.
Strip away our romanticisation of the French Revolution and the likes of Saint-Just begin to look farcical. A man born into a well-off family, a man who could afford to be rebellious at school and home — who stole from his mother to go galivanting about. A young man, only twenty-two when revolution broke out, as young and hot-headed as any other twenty-two year old is at that age. His compatriots saw him as arrogant, stubborn and cocksure. Sprung into a position of power, he play-acted Romans, dreamt of Sparta, and wielded the machinery of the State to do so. He was dead at 26, not even mature enough to be a member of the 27 Club, killed by the very institutions he had helped establish. It is little wonder that civil society would tire of this regime and, in the words of François Furet “society re-asserted its independence” from the State.
Do we see a parallel? Young men — and lets be honest, it is all too often men — with revolutionary fire, exalting and adopting ideals from an earlier time, a time they likely do not fully understand, and that are not at all appropriate for modern circumstance. Borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes, like that of the guillotine? Is there a modern day Saint-Just among us who, even unconsciously, is ready to again put thousands to death to immanentize the eschaton?
In Part Four (the final part, I promise) we trace how the guillotine was remembered by revolutionaries in the nearer aftermath of the Revolution. How, rather than a symbol of revolution, it was largely seen as something suffocating and tyrannical. Not something to be emulated or invoked, but to be overcome and overthrown.