The Terror: The Shadow of the Guillotine: France 1792-1794 by Graeme Fife is a fascinating look at France as it was torn apart by the French Revolution. As the publisher notes, Fife draws on contemporary police files, eyewitness accounts, and directives from the sinister Committee for Public Safety, and heart-wrenching last letters from prisoners awaiting execution.
Here is a brief synopsis of the book from the publisher:
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 is the first book I have ever read of the French Revolution and I would not suggest reading this book as your first dabble in the French Revolution. I say this not to demean Fife’s book, but to warn any ignorant French Revolution readers that you need to know the general timeline of major events of the Revolution and what occurred on those dates. Fife refers fleetingly to many of the major events (e.g. storming of the Bastille). In addition, I do think some maps may have helped – I found myself looking on the Internet for maps of Paris and France to visualize where the events were occurring.
With that said, Fife does an excellent job of bringing the Revolution to life. You can sense the insanity of the leaders as they grip the whole country in a state of fear – at the height of the Terror, a citizen never knew whether they were going to be arrested one day and sent to the guillotine the next. Fife shows how the Committee of Public Safety led by Robespierre (pure evil) spiraled into paranoia and insanity.
After reading this book, I now understand why France is as messed up as it is. Any country going through this baptismal of fire will be affected by the upheaval of a society in such a short period of time. I don’t think that the Russian Revolution was the first Communist Revolution – the French Revolution was.