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For the audience that made a major bestseller of Simon Schama's Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution comes this exhaustively researched, character-driven chronicle of revolutionary terror, its victims, and the young men---energetic, idealistic, and sincere---who turned the French Republic into a slaughterhouse.
1792 found the newborn Republic threatened from all sides: the British blockaded the coasts, Continental armies poured over the frontiers, and the provinces verged on open revolt. Paranoia simmering in the capital, the Revolution slipped under control of a powerful clique and its fanatical political organization, the Jacobin Club. For two years, this faction, obsessed with patriotism and purity---self-appointed to define both---inflicted on their countrymen a reign of terror unsurpassed until Stalin's Russia.
It was the time dominated by Maximilien Robespierre, Georges Danton, Jean-Paul Marat and Louis-Antoine Saint-Just (called "The Angel of Death"), when Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette met their ends, when any hint of dissent was ruthlessly quashed by the State. It was the time of the guillotine, neighborhood informants, and mob justice.
This extraordinary, bloodthirsty period comes vividly to life in Graeme Fife's new book. Drawing on contemporary police files, eyewitness accounts, directives from the sinister Committee for Public Safety, and heart-wrenching last letters from prisoners awaiting execution, the author brilliantly re-creates the psychotic atmosphere of that time.
The contradictions and ironies of the Terror, when the guillotine bloodily ruled France, are well described by Fife in his part-narrative, part-character study of that dreadful era (the second recent history, after David Andress's, published last January). During Robespierre's Terror often believed to have been a bourgeois-led, peasant-backed uprising against an autocratic nobility nearly 95% of its tens of thousands of victims were, in fact, poor or middle class. And those left alive were tyrannized by the very same revolutionary fanatics who once claimed to be liberating them from the ancien r gime. Playwright and documentary writer Fife ruefully concludes they had fallen victim to "sublime nonsense": the belief that by "destroying so much real life it was possible to remake an imagined life," and "that in striving to forge a republic of love, harmony, liberty and happiness," they inadvertently birthed "a monstrous, repulsive travesty of it." Fife gives an excellent introduction to the period, which should find an eager audience familiar with Simon Schama's bestselling Citizens, though its lack of endnotes makes it difficult to confirm Fife's numerous examples of spoken speech or at least his translations of it (did Henri Admirat really say, "Come on, you low-lifes, come and get it"?). 16 pages of b&w photos.