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The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France [Paperback]

David Andress

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Book Description

Dec 26 2006
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, a leading historian of the French Revolution, presents a radically different account of the Terror. In a remarkably vivid and page-turning work of history, he transports 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 believed they were still fighting for freedom but whose survival was threatened by famine, external war, and counter-revolutionaries within the fledging 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?

Combining startling narrative power and bold insight, The Terror is written with verve and exceptional pace-it is a superb popular debut from an enormously talented historian.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 441 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux; Reprint edition (Dec 26 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374530734
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374530730
  • Product Dimensions: 20.8 x 14 x 3.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 431 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #467,246 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

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. 3 maps. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Covering the crescendo of the French Revolution, historian Andress narrates its most radical phase, from Louis XVI's attempted flight abroad in 1791 to the 1794 guillotining of Maximilien Robespierre. To readers primed by Simon Schama's Citizens (1991), Andress will be a trustworthy guide to an extraordinary period in which hardly any event or personage is historically uncontroversial. In retrospect, the foiled royal escape was the turning point, convincing revolutionaries and the Parisian crowd of two things: the Revolution was incomplete, and counter-revolution was a genuine conspiracy, not fantasy. Grasping this dual aspect of the febrile revolutionary mentality, Andress meticulously recounts the progressive eclipse of moderate factions in the midst of foreign invasion and internal revolt throughout France. It was to master this crisis that the National Convention instituted the Terror, succeeding ruthlessly but undergoing a series of lethal political crises over revolutionary purity. At his explanatory best when invoking the interpersonal animosity and suspicion that preceded a faction's dispatch to the guillotine, Andress viscerally re-creates the Reign of Terror's deadly spectacle. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  15 reviews
28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A complete telling of a bloody period in French history Aug. 9 2006
By David Roy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The Terror, by David Andress, tells the complete story of the bloody period of the French Revolution, where men and women could have their heads cut off by the guillotine just for having been suspected of harboring "counter-revolutionary" thoughts or expressing dissatisfaction with the ruling Convention. The book pulls no punches, explaining everything in excruciating detail and not hesitating to describe the executions of some of the more prominent figures of the day. Unfortunately, the book is marred by being overly politicized, as well as having some dreadfully boring prose. Combining these two issues together, you get a middle of the pack book that could easily have been a lot better.

Andress does a great job of covering the entirety of the Revolution, beginning with King Louis XVI's flight from Paris in June 1791. The first chapter delves into this issue, beginning with the event and then going back to fill in the details that led to it. In fact, this is a common technique in The Terror, with Andress jumping forward in time a bit (usually beginning with some notable event or other items of significance) and then painting the backstory. Thus, the book gets off to a rollicking start with the horribly planned and executed attempt to flee. It's almost comical if you don't realize where it's all going to lead. Andress then proceeds to go step by step through the Revolution, detailing the attempts to write a constitution (for the first year after Louis was recaptured, the revolutionaries did try to set up and get Louis to agree to a constitutional monarchy). When this failed, the National Convention assumed power. A form of legislature that had 745 deputies, it was always heavily factionalized and was often purged during the Terror that gripped France for the next couple of years. Andress brings many of the characters to life, from Robespierre to Danton and many others. Once things began rolling, things go from bad to worse as first one faction is eliminated and then another. Infighting was rife, yet the Convention was still able to keep the foreign armies, yapping at France's door, in check. This occurred despite massive food shortages, inflation, and awesome displays of violence and revolt in outlying French cities. The city of Lyon was utterly destroyed as an example when government forces finally cowed all of the rebels.

Andress writes all this in a very clear manner, but unfortunately it's also rather dry. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what's wrong with it, but I had trouble staying awake while reading this book. When I picked up this book, no matter how I was feeling, I would start yawning within a couple of pages. I loved the detailed information that Andress provided, so it had to be the prose that did it. I've rarely had that problem with history books, so I know I know it's not the subject matter. This made the book very hard to get through. According to the advertising copy, this is Andress' first book "for general readership," and I'm afraid it shows. The book is very bloody, with vivid descriptions of some of the beheadings, and maybe it was thought this would keep the book lively, but it doesn't work.

The other main problem with the book (and I'm aware that not everybody will find this a problem) is that the beginning and ending of the book are quite politicized. I agree that we can all learn from history and try not to make it repeat itself (except the good things, of course), but I really don't like history books that are written with an agenda. If you're going to make your case, let the events do the talking (though that can lead to some biased history books, so maybe that's not a great thing either). There's no need to handhold me through it. I'm sure it didn't help that I found some of the comparisons spurious anyway, so maybe if you agree with him, you won't be bothered by it. Personally, I think it really hurt what was an interesting book.

With that being said, I do have some compliments for the book. While I didn't like the way Andress presented it, I did love the exceptional detail he provides into all aspects of the Revolution and the Terror that occurred at the end. There are a lot of people involved, some betraying others and some friendly until circumstances decide otherwise, and Andress is able to keep it fairly clear. I did have some trouble following it, but that brings me to the other wonderful thing about this book. Also included at the end is a timeline of major events, a glossary of terms and organizations, and a cast of characters. All of these things are incredibly useful in keeping everything straight (I kept mixing up the National Convention with the Commune) and I'm really glad Andress included them.

Another great thing is that he covers a lot more than just the Revolution itself. Not much is heard about the many wars and battles fought during this time, with England, Austria, Prussia, and even Spain seemingly trying to take advantage of the turmoil, but Andress covers all that too. He details the counter-revolutionary forces that gave the Convention problems (both real and imagined) as well as some of the fighting. This isn't a military book, so the specific battles are glossed over a bit, but he gives the results and why they are important. I was very pleased that the book was this complete.

The Terror is not for the squeamish, and you may get bored. But if you have an interest in the French Revolution and the Terror that it sparked, this is a valuable book with lots of great information. It's worth trudging your way through the prose. And who knows? You may even find it easier than I did. I will say that you won't be disappointed.

David Roy
33 of 41 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars History Awakened. May 2 2006
By Bernard Chapin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I'm very glad David Andress wrote this book. It covers a subject sadly overlooked by our popular culture. The author's narration is quite thorough and enjoyable. Unlike some of the other works on the subject, Mr. Andress does not shy away from detailing the most gruesome elements of the Terror. Although not pleasant, the specifics tell us much about the psychology of the time and the mindset of the principals. In particular, this volume gave me a better picture of St. Just than I had previously and portrayed him in totality not only as a radical.

Another highly enlightening aspect of the work is the fact that not only political ideals but party programs are elucidated. We find that Heberte and Robespierre, along with the Girondists, knew frighteningly little about how the state functioned at all. These were not detail oriented people and results of their decisions often showcased just how naive they were.

While the book is easy to recommend I cannot give it all five stars because I disliked some of the politicizing Andress engaged in both in the introduction and the conclusion. I found his allusions to the War on Terror to be obtuse and unsubstantiated. Of course, this is my personal taste as, with history, I only want the facts from a historian. I'll take objectivity over color whenever possible. I grant that there is no such thing as 100 percent objectivity, but I want to draw conclusions on my own.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well Written and Thoughtful July 2 2007
By S. Jones - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I would rank this among the best of the latest titles on the French Revolution. Andress covers the so-called radical phase of the revolution with great skill and detail. A revisionist text, The Terror is freed from the old right-left dogmas that haunted the writers of earlier histories of the French Revolution even as late as the cold war era.

Andress is not without sympathy for the leading actors, but neither is he willing to excuse them their crimes. He does make it clear however that they were driven by a so-called "Concert of Europe" which sought to stamp out liberty and democracy in its cradle. In the process he does a solid job of the task to explaining how a Revolution born in the ideals of universal rights could descend into such bloodletting.

Perhaps one of the author's most inciteful, disturbing and likely controversial conclusions is to find parallels between the political and religious fundementalisms of 1789-1795 and today; between the Terror and the War on Terror; between the era of Robespierre and the rise of the national security state.

While the book is great in detail and an excellent choice for those familiar with the events of the French Revolution, I probably wouldn't recommend it as a first choice to a casual reader.

One thing I might add for certain. The Terror: Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France proves that the euphoric proclamation by some that we had somehow reached "the end of history" now seems naively premature.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Danton and Robespierre July 5 2006
By Frank J. Konopka - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a very concise history of the French Revolution, with emplasis on the period which was called "The Terror". That was the time when the most executions occurred, including the king and queen, and also members of the revolutionary councils, etc.. It seems that, at that time, anyone with a grievance could "finger" someone as a counter-revolutionary, and that was basicaly a death sentence. It's a gruesome work, but it tells a cautionary tale of a revolt gone out of control, even of those who initiated it. This is this author's first book for a general readership, and his lack of being able to comunicate his thoughts in a easily readable format is quite apparent. On the whole, it was a good book to read.
13 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars disappointing May 31 2006
By Doug R - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The author steps on his own story with tendentious justifications for the terror. Despite having such vivid material to work with, his narrative never really gains much steam. It's much inferior to R. R. Palmer's classic Twelve Who Ruled. Or, if you're looking for a modern interpretation, try Doyle's Oxford History of the French Revolution instead.

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