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The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France Paperback – Dec 26 2006
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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.
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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.