In Defence of the Terror

In Defence of the Terror:Liberty or Death in the French Revolution

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Provocative reassessment of the Great Terror as a price worth paying

For two hundred years after the French Revolution, the Republican tradition celebrated the execution of princes and aristocrats, defending the Terror that the Revolution inflicted upon on its enemies. But recent decades have brought a marked change in sensibility. The Revolution is no longer judged in terms of historical necessity but rather by “timeless” standards of morality. In this succinct essay, Sophie Wahnich explains how, contrary to prevailing interpretations, the institution of Terror sought to put a brake on legitimate popular violence—in Danton’s words, to “be terrible so as to spare the people the need to be so”—and was subsequently subsumed in a logic of war. The Terror was “a process welded to a regime of popular sovereignty, the only alternatives being to defeat tyranny or die for liberty.”


  • We were not waiting merely for a book like this; this is the book we were waiting for.

    Slavoj Zizek, from the foreword
  • Many of the participants in the French revolution thought long and hard about such questions, and while it is sometimes difficult to understand their thoughts, and not always comfortable to do so, it is always interesting to go back into that perennial political laboratory and try. Wahnich's provocative book is testament to that.

    Ruth ScurrGuardian
  • Our default position has become one of lazy dismissal: with all of the blood and brutality, how could we, why would we, want to consider the Terror as anything but a horror show? … Wahnich’s subversive reflection is that far from taking lives, the Terror was actually about saving them.