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  • July 28, 1794.

  • At around 2 a.m. men storm into thetel de Ville in Paris, France.

  • Revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre, along with some of his most ardent followers,

  • is arrested.

  • As to what happens next has been a matter of debate, but an injured Robespierre is dragged

  • out of the hotel.

  • He and the rest of his followers are summarily found guilty and subsequently whisked off

  • to the Place de lavolution.

  • As he's brought up to the scaffold, his face a swollen mess, mobs in the street scream

  • out their hatred for him.

  • When the guillotine blade falls down on his neck those crowds cry out in jubilation, and

  • they don't stop cheering for almost a quarter of an hour.

  • Had you been able to fast-forward in time from 1793 and watch this scene you would have

  • rightly felt perplexed.

  • This man who lost his head was hailed as the King of the French Revolution.

  • He was calledThe Incorruptible”, a selfless man that had fought for a people who'd been

  • oppressed for centuries by the wicked tyranny of the rich and powerful.

  • So, what had gone wrong?

  • Well, the Reign Of Terror happened, a year of chaos in which blood spilled all over France.

  • In his moving speeches Robespierre called for virtue, but that, he admitted, came at

  • a cost.

  • Not everyone saw eye-to-eye with Robespierre.

  • He and his allies accused many people of not adhering to the revolutionary vision, and

  • a zero-tolerance policy was taken towards them.

  • As you'll see in this video, many who were slaughtered during this reign of terror were

  • innocent, which is why the great orator of the revolution was finally cut down himself.

  • But let's go back to the start, when the terror was just fomenting.

  • The terror itself was something called the Committee of Public Safety, which was a provisional

  • government formed around four years after the Storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789,

  • when the French Revolution got off its feet.

  • In the years that followed, governing France was a complicated matter.

  • The country was beset by war with other countries and internally there was so much strife Civil

  • War was on the cards.

  • So, in 1793, the Committee of Public Safety was set up and Robespierre soon became head.

  • The committee promised to protect France from its many foreign enemies.

  • It also said that any internal dissent would quickly be quashed.

  • The committee had no qualms about admitting that to dissuade people from criticizing or

  • going against their revolutionary ideals, folks would have to die.

  • This message was explicit, not implicit.

  • It's a complex story, but you need to know that Robespierre and his allies supported

  • a centralized republican state, something aligned with a movement called Jacobinism.

  • The thing was, the Jacobin philosophy was if you're not with us, you're against

  • the revolution and a threat to thevirtuethey wanted to install.

  • There was little or no room for criticism, so left-wing politics and a progressive outlook

  • became a kind of dictatorship.

  • The committee told the people in no uncertain terms that it would rule by terror.

  • That might sound strange to you viewers right now since the word has so many negative connotations,

  • but for those Jacobins on the committee, if you wanted to make an omelet, a country where

  • virtue flourished, a few bad eggs had to be broken.

  • Robespierre didn't just see bad eggs in the streets machinating against his revolutionary

  • ideals, but he feared his own military commanders might defect.

  • In time, he would also see bad eggs in his own government.

  • Ok, so that sets the scene.

  • There was lots of paranoia and a lot of disgruntled people in France, some of whom had little

  • to eat.

  • That didn't bode well for harmony and solidarity.

  • The beginning of the terror in France was arguably when theLaw of Suspectscame

  • into effect.

  • This would weed outthe enemies of the revolution”, many of whom would take their

  • last breath as the blade of the guillotine fell down on their neck.

  • The members of the public who stood and listened to Robespierre talk about the enemies of the

  • revolution were now encouraged to do a bit of weeding out themselves, so at times men

  • and women were beaten to death in the streets by mobs.

  • Not only that, people snitched on others to get them out of the way.

  • Meanwhile, Surveillance Committees were created to keep tabs on anyone who could be deemed

  • a traitor.

  • As happened later in totalitarian governments that popped up around the world, the public

  • was also asked to carry around a card that certified they were not traitors or wrongdoers

  • in the eyes of the revolution.

  • This was called, theCertificate of Civism.”

  • Not having one on your person could lead to trouble.

  • Ironically, the law decreed that anyone who had been found out as anenemy of freedom

  • could be arrested and summarily executed, even if they were only critical of the revolutionary

  • cause.

  • Many others were killed because they were deemed to be nobles who had not committed

  • enough time to support the revolution.

  • It's anyone's guess just how many people were arrested under this law, but the number

  • given by some scholars is 500,000.

  • While the number of official executions was close to 17,000, that doesn't count how

  • many people were just killed in the street by the authorities or by mobs.

  • Then there were those who perished in the prisons where food was scarce and disease

  • was rife.

  • The number of prisoners who died while incarcerated has been put at 10,000.

  • As for demographics, it's said 8 percent who died were aristocrats, 14 percent were

  • middle class, and 72 percent were workers or peasants.

  • A further 6 percent were clergy.

  • The church was not welcome, which led to thousands of priests being exiled and hundreds executed.

  • We now call this religious purge, dechristianization.

  • The church itself had a long history of violence and corruption, so it had to go.

  • It's hard to imagine what times were like back then, but one thing for sure is you had

  • to watch what you said.

  • A loose word while drinking a beer in a tavern could mean someone listening at the other

  • side of the tavern reporting you.

  • Of course, people reported folks they just didn't care for very much.

  • This would often land the alleged transgressor in one of those filthy prisons, and in terms

  • of criminal justice, they didn't have a leg to stand on.

  • When theloi de la Grande Terreur”, “the law of the Great Terrorwas written up

  • it stated that political crimes were much worse than common crimes that happened in

  • households and in the streets.

  • It focused on arresting people accused ofslandering patriotism”, “seeking to

  • inspire discouragement”, “spreading false newsanddepraving morals.”

  • It was kind of like social media platforms' terms of service rules now, except it was

  • often one strike and you're dead.

  • The law stated, “Every citizen is empowered to seize conspirators and counterrevolutionaries,

  • and to bring them before the magistrates.”

  • So, if someone accused a person of one of those crimes, that person would then be taken

  • to stand in front of something called the Revolutionary Tribunal.

  • Obviously, the person could deny what they'd said, but if the tribunal didn't believe

  • them, it was either off with their head, or an acquittal, and nothing in between.

  • The accused were provided with no defense.

  • No witnesses were allowed to come forward and support the accused.

  • They could be killed for merely being accused of harboring a perceived thought.

  • To understand this next bit of information, you need to know the revolutionaries created

  • their own calendar, which was called the French Revolutionary calendar.

  • At the start of Spring in the month named Germinal, 155 people were executed and 59

  • were acquitted after being accused of breaching the terror law.

  • In the next month, Floréal, 354 people lost their heads and 159 were acquitted.

  • In the month of Prairial, 509 were executed and 164 were acquitted.

  • 796 people were executed in the month of Messidor and 208 were acquitted.

  • Thousands more were waiting in prisons for a trial that wouldn't ever come.

  • We think you get the picture.

  • As scholars have pointed out, these people could have been the washerwomen who lived

  • down the lane.

  • They could have been the butcher, the guy that delivered bread, or the person who once

  • mentioned in passing to a guy in the street that he thought all the summary executions

  • were perhaps just a smidgen on the harsh side.

  • And to think some of these people on the committee were just young men, men whose brains if you

  • believe neuroscientists hadn't even fully developed.

  • Take the case of Jean-Marie Collot d'Herbois, a man in his early twenties who was a member

  • of the Committee of Public Safety and a person who played a big part in all the terror.

  • He, with others, was sent to the city of Lyon to deal with a revolt there where moderates,

  • but still republicans, didn't agree with the government in Paris.

  • Lyon made war on liberty: Lyon is no more!” cried invading French Republican forces after

  • they had laid waste to their enemies and destroyed homes and buildings.

  • The orders had been given toexterminate all that goes by the name of aristocrat, moderate,

  • royalist.”

  • After the victory, theExtraordinary Commissionwas set up to decide the fate of anyone in

  • Lyon who was considered counter-revolutionary.

  • At first, 100 rebels were shot in the streets and a further 79 people went to the guillotine.

  • Later, accused rebels and moderates were forced together in a mass and fired on with cannons.

  • Almost 300 died this way, although the grapeshot used by the cannons didn't kill a lot of

  • the people.

  • The troops were then ordered to go in and stab them all to death with their bayonets.

  • This was so distressing that many of the soldiers refused to do it.

  • Regular executions ensued.

  • This was rightly called a massacre by some.

  • Most of those people who were killed were not hardcore rebels, but commoners who worked

  • in Lyon.

  • They played no part in politics but were rightly upset over low wages and Paris' reluctance

  • to make things better.

  • Others were merchants, some were priests.

  • One guy was a surgeon.

  • In all, 2,000 people in Lyon were executed.

  • This was not the way to get people on your side, and much of France now was beginning

  • to wonder if these guys running things in Paris, especially Robespierre, were possibly

  • out of control.

  • Robespierre understood such bloodshed might tarnish his name, but oh boy, was he convincing

  • when he made his speeches.

  • Still, in some darkened corridors men and women talked in hushed tones about a man that

  • had once fought against tyranny but had now become a tyrant himself.

  • One of those people was the revolutionary Jacques-Alexis Thuriot.

  • He saw what Robespierre had become, daring to say while Robespierre was talking at a

  • convention, “Look at the bugger; it's not enough for him to be master, he has to

  • be God.”

  • Thuriot soon resigned from the committee, even though he'd been a hardcore radical

  • in the past, calling even Robespierre too moderate.

  • He was a friend and supporter of Georges Danton, an important figure in the French Revolution.

  • Danton became part of the Committee of Public Safety, but when it seemed to him that progressive

  • politics had been replaced by brute oppression, he dared to say that perhaps rule by terror

  • was not the order of the day.

  • He wanted to see an end to the bloodshed.

  • He wanted to end the widespread famine.

  • He was even brazen enough to ask for peace with foreign powers, which was certainly not

  • what the National Convention had in mind.

  • Robespierre saw Danton as a threat, and so without further ado, he set a plan in action

  • to accuse him of various corruptions.

  • This was a pretext to take him out, and supporters of Danton knew it, but no one dared speak

  • up, knowing what would befall them.

  • The night before Danton was executed, he said, “It was just a year ago that I was the means

  • of instituting the Revolutionary Tribunal; may God and man forgive me for what I did

  • then; but it was not that it might become the scourge of humanity.”

  • On the day he and 14 other alleged conspirators were led to the guillotine, he said something

  • else, something that would become true, “Not a man of them has an idea of government.

  • Robespierre will follow me.”

  • He meant to scaffold, of course.

  • After Robespierre was arrested, when his mouth was filled with blood, it's alleged someone

  • shouted, “The blood of Danton chokes him!”

  • The reply he made through broken teeth was, “Is it Danton you regret?

  • ... Cowards!

  • Why didn't you defend him?”

  • It was more than Danton.

  • It was a year of blood being spilled and often the accused were no more than the victims

  • of paranoia.

  • Camille Desmoulins had defended Danton and he had also criticized his old friend Robespierre

  • for the mass executions of the public, as well as the hundreds who were in prison and

  • no doubt innocent of any crime.

  • He spoke his mind in a journal he published called Le Vieux Cordelier.

  • He wrote, “My dear Robespierre, my old school friend.

  • Remember the lessons of history and philosophy: love is stronger, more lasting than fear...The

  • Committee of Public Safety can elevate themselves to the sky; they can never reach it through

  • paths of blood.”

  • This was a dangerous thing to do, and Robespierre was told that by his more obsequious allies.

  • Don't worry he told them, Desmoulins is justan unthinking child who has fallen

  • into bad company.”

  • He then ordered the journal to be publicly burned.

  • He also doubled down on his terror campaign.

  • He wrote that anyone not in support of it was a conspirator and their fate must be death

  • and only death.

  • He then wrote theReport on the Principles of Political Moralitydefending his reasoning.

  • Part of it went like this: “If the spring of popular government in

  • time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue

  • and terror.

  • Virtue without terror is fatal; terror without virtue is powerless.

  • Terror is nothing other than justice: prompt, severe, inflexible.

  • It is therefore an emanation of virtue, a consequence of the general principle of democracy

  • applied to our country's most urgent needs.”

  • Then came the executions of people that had once been on his side.

  • He did try at least to protect his old school buddy, Desmoulins, who died on the same day

  • as Danton.

  • Desmoulins' wife was also later executed for conspiring to free her husband andruin

  • the Republic.”

  • Before his death, Desmoulins wrote, “I have dreamed of a Republic such as all the world

  • would have adored.

  • I could never have believed that men could be so ferocious and so unjust.”

  • He apparently had to be held down by a group of men after being told on the scaffold that

  • his wife was soon going to meet the same fate.

  • She did.

  • A man named Jacquesbert was among others that lost his head.

  • He'd been outspoken about food shortages among the poorest of the poor, and after calling

  • for an uprising, he and 17 of his followers went to the scaffold.

  • These executions we just mentioned were the final straw for some, although Robespierre

  • was unequivocal when he said there needed to be even more purges if his plan to bring

  • virtue to France was to come to fruition.

  • In his final speech he began, “THE ENEMIES of the Republic call me tyrant!”

  • He went on in a quite moving oration to explain how he wasn't the enemy, but the conspirators

  • were.