History Lessons

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Excerpted from Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker review of “The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France,” by David Andress and “Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution,” by Ruth Scurr.

Robespierre was never a Rationalist…It was Rousseau’s vision of the workings of a mystical general will, not Voltaire’s vision of toleration achieved through popular education that moved him…[over] the course of the next eighteen months [Robespierre] oversaw the execution of almost two thousand men and women in the Place de Revolution. Trials were held in which no defense witnesses were called and the jury had only to be persuaded that there was “moral proof” of the accused’s opposition to the Revolution…Andress recounts, succinctly, the feuds and rivalries among the bewildering sects and sub-sects of the revolutionaries…this sense of beleaguerment helps explain a central mystery of the Terror regime: not how the ideologues kept their hold on the other ideologues but how, despite obvious signs of looniness, they kept their hold on the apparatus of power…

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