Sunday, August 1, 2021

Robespierre's 9 Thermidor

 From HNN:

The history of the French Revolution can, in particular, often boil down to a matter of days of action (or journées) starting on 14 July 1789 and ending with the coup d’état of 9 November 1799 (18 Brumaire, Year VIII in the short-lived Revolutionary Calendar), a day which saw Napoleon Bonaparte seize power and take France off on quite different journey. In between, historians invariably structure their narratives of this decade around the overthrow of Louis XVI’s monarchy on 10 August 1792 and the events of 27 July 1794 (9 Thermidor, Year II). The latter is usually seen as the end of the period of the Terror when the enemies of Maximilien Robespierre in the National Assembly forcibly removed him from power. After being sentenced by the Revolutionary Tribunal, he would be guillotined the next day.  As a member of the Committee of Public Safety, Robespierre had, it is said, presided over the period of Terror since 1792, drawing on the active support of the Parisian people, the so-called sans-culottes. 9 Thermidor was a turning point because Robespierre’s fall inaugurated the end of the Terror and the defeat of Parisians who had supported him.


But, is it possible that 9 Thermidor, while indeed a pivotal and historic day in French history, is so regarded for the wrong reasons? In my new book, The Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris, I base my conclusions on a kind of micro-history of the day and suggest that this is, indeed, the case.  How do I come to this conclusion?  It is down to the vast amount of surviving testimony from individuals at every level of Parisian life, which allows us to get deep into the motivations of those caught up in events on the day. Staying ‘up close’ to the actions and the actors tells a quite different story.


First, the main politicians who plotted against Robespierre were not at all aiming to end terror. While they certainly thought that removing Robespierre would prevent him taking government in a direction that would threaten their own necks, most of the ringleaders supported policies of Terror and indeed continued it after 9 Thermidor. The ending of those policies came later and gradually in late 1794 and early 1795.  


Second, Robespierre’s fall was achieved not simply by a parliamentary coup but by the mass action of Parisians. Robespierre’s political opponents had him and his closest allies arrested within the assembly, but thought the job done and dusted when they broke up for a late lunch. What happened next was completely off the script: Robespierre was turned away from the prison to which he had been consigned, and by early evening was on the run within the city. Moreover, the city government, the Commune, came out in his support and sought to mobilize a huge army of Parisians at the city hall (the Hôtel de Ville) in the east of Paris to sweep Robespierre to power at the expense of his enemies.


Historians have noted how impressive the Commune’s forces were and how serious a threat they posed. But they seem not to have really noticed how many of those mobilized by the Commune – added to many who joined the action later that evening – emphatically turned their backs on the Robespierre cause. By midnight it was clear that huge Parisian crowds were marching against the Commune under the orders of the national assembly which had chosen one of their own, deputy Paul Barras, as leader of the city’s armed forces. Barras toured the city on horseback ensuring the loyalty of Parisians.  A couple of hours later Robespierre was captured – possibly after trying to kill himself. He and his allies in the Commune went to the guillotine the next day. (Read more.)


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