The Terror The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France

David Andress

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

480 Pages


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For two hundred years, the Terror has haunted the imagination of the West. The descent of the French Revolution from rapturous liberation into an orgy of apparently pointless bloodletting has been the focus of countless reflections on the often malignant nature of humanity and the folly of revolution.

David Andress presents a different account of the Terror, transporting the reader from the pitched battles on the streets of Paris to the royal family's escape through secret passageways in the Tuileries palace, and across the landscape of the tragic last years of the Revolution. The violence, he shows, was a result of dogmatic and fundamentalist thinking: dreadful decisions were made by groups of people who believe they were still fighting for freedom but whose survival was threatened by famine, external war, and counter-revolutionaries within the fledgling new state. Urgent questions emerge from Andress's trenchant reassessment: When is it right to arbitrarily detain those suspected of subversion? When does an earnest patriotism become the rationale for slaughter?


Praise for The Terror

"Andress writes as crisp and up-to-date an account of the Revolution's origins as I have read."—Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker

"A vivid and powerful narrative of the years 1789-95 . . . The narrative is . . . fast-moving, from the storming of the Bastille to the execution of King Louis XVI to the paranoid politics of the National Convention."—David Gilmour, The New York Times Book Review

"If you want to learn where the paranoid element in French politics comes from, read David Andress's The Terror. Its cascade of intrigues and counterintrigues, purges, plots and counterplots—plus notable imaginary plots—provides the answer . . . He has written a readable, informative, depressing book—the former characteristics making the latter more palatable. He has turned a grim and intricate narrative of crime and foul play into a cautionary tale and an exciting adventure story that bears out the most famous line of Sartre's No Exit: 'Hell is other people.'"—Eugen Weber, The New Leader

"The first full-length study of the Terror, as a discrete phenomenon, to appear in many years (and the first serious one in English since R. R. Palmer's Twelve Who Ruled in 1941) . . . Andress has done a remarkably good job. He provides a brisk background, and then marches vigorously through events from the summer of 1792 to the summer of 1794: from the fall of the French monarchy to the fall of Robespierre and Saint-Just on the day that the new Republican calendar called the Ninth of Thermidor. He writes clearly and authoritatively, draws deftly on recent scholarship, and provides a sure guide through some of the most compressed and tangled political undergrowth in history."—David A. Bell, The New Republic

"David Andress has given the reader a meticulous account of the Terror, in all its confusing twists and turns . . . While never failing to convey the drama and horrors of the Terror, Andress resists the temptation to exaggerate or turn drama into melodrama. He has written a book which stands beside Simon Schama's Citizens."—The Times Literary Review

"This is the most authoritative treatment we are likely to have for many years."—William Doyle, The Independent

"A tour de force. There is nothing to beat it."—Robert Stewart, The Spectator

"In such alarming times, it is important to understand what exactly terror is, how it works politically, and what, if anything, can be done to combat it. The historian David Andress has made a serious contribution to this central subject of our times with an accessible account of the way terror overtook the French Revolution at the end of the 18th Century."—Ruth Scurr, The Times (London)

"[A] well-researched, well-written, and highly revisionist work."—Andrew Roberts, The Sunday Times (London)

"Much important work on the French Terror has been done over the past 20 years by French, English, and American historians, and there is now a need to synthesize this into an accessible narrative history . . . This is David Andress's aim, and one which he generally achieves in this well-written and handsomely produced book." —Munro Price, The Sunday Telegraph

"[A] meticulous, readable account of the French Revolution's poisonous politics and blood-soaked methods of conflict resolution. Author of several scholarly works about the Revolution, Andress draws upon his expertise to successfully expand on the characters and forces involved in one of history's most significant events . . . Mercifully for those unfamiliar with the history, Andress includes a timeline, glossary and list of characters to help the reader navigate through a myriad of information. A useful contribution to understanding the terrible and prolonged tragedy that engulfed France."—Kirkus Reviews

"According to Andress, the French Revolution ushered in an era that has had an essentially positive impact—a view that few recent historians have shared. Simon Schama in Citizens and François Furet in Interpreting the French Revolution see the revolution as an aberration and point to the bloody excesses of the Reign of Terror (1793-94) as the inevitable culmination of a misguided attempt to change French society. For his part, Andress skillfully evokes the context that led to state-sponsored terror, and although he condemns the brutality of such intransigent revolutionaries as Danton, Saint-Just, Robespierre, and their fanatical minions, he asserts that it was the iron will of these zealots that sustained the ideals of a new epoch, where the rights of humankind took center stage . . . [H]is thesis is thoroughly grounded in all the pertinent primary and secondary sources on the era and readably presented. This is the best book on the French Revolution to be published in years and is recommended."—Library Journal

"Andress offers a visceral account of the guillotining of King Louis XVI in 1793: 'he was strapped to a tilting plank, which dropped his head into a brace, and the blade . . . plunged from above.' While the British historian's graphic depiction of numerous executions is a high point of his account of the Terror, he explicitly states it was not the most salient point of the revolution. Countering the historiography of the last generation, including Simon Schama, who said, 'violence was the revolution itself,' Andress focuses not just on the killings but on the 'grand political pronouncements, uprisings and insurrections,' from the varying ideologies of the dissident parties to the upheaval of the counterrevolution that rendered France unstable for more than a decade, resulting not just in violence but also in social upheaval. And Andress follows the Terror beyond its conclusion to Napoleon Bonaparte's coronation as emperor in 1804, which brought the revolution 'full circle,' creating a strong central government that scorned democracy and popular sovereignty, the revolution's central tenets. His focus on such paradoxes and on the Terror as the culmination of a complex historical process rather than an unprovoked outbreak of violence, makes for a bracing historical reassessment."—Publishers Weekly

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Read an Excerpt

In the brief midsummer darkness of 20-21 June 1791, Louis XVI, King of the French, fled his capital and his people. Using secret passageways in the Tuileries palace, the royal family were spirited away by a small band of loyal followers, leaving...

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  • David Andress

  • David Andress, a leading historian of the French Revolution, is Reader in Modern European History at the University of Portsmouth and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

  • David Andress