Ruth Scurr

The men of blood get their comeuppance in Revolutionary France

The arrest and execution of Robespierre and Saint-Just in July 1794 are described in hourly detail in Colin Jones’s account of Paris in the grip of Terror

The execution of Robespierre, Saint-Just and their supporters on 28 July 1794. [Getty Images]

Colin Jones’s hour-by-hour reconstruction of the fall of Maximilien Robespierre, the French revolutionary most associated with the Terror, is inspired by Louis-Sébastien Mercier, who believed that only by getting ‘up close’ to the ‘infinitely small’ details would it be possible to understand the truth about a Revolution that was stranger than fiction.

Mercier (1740-1815) was an early science fiction novelist, a journalist, politician and Parisian. He was not an eyewitness to the fall of Robespierre because he was in prison in 1794, one of 73 moderate members of the governing Convention who had been arrested and held as ‘Robespierre’s hostages’. The Convention was a representative body of 749 deputies, charged with designing a republican constitution for France. But only 200 were required for quoracy, so the Convention could function without the 73 moderates and without the many others who had been sent out ‘on mission’ to impose order on a country riven by foreign and civil war.

On 28 July 1794, 9 Thermidor, Mulberry Day in the revolutionary calendar, Robespierre and his close colleague Saint-Just planned to make speeches at the Convention that would lift the veil on the most recent counter-revolutionary conspiracies, foreign plots and corruption. Saint-Just was known for carrying his head around as though it was the holy sacrament, and Robespierre was nicknamed ‘the Incorruptible’.

Many of the condemned smiled as they mounted the scaffold – in a silent sign of symbolic resistance

They were a sanctimonious and terrifying pair, determined to set the new republic on a path of virtue, and concerned about the ‘impure breed’ of people who might blight the social and economic sunlit uplands they saw ahead. Together they had pushed through legislation known as the 22 Prairial Law, by which it became easier and quicker to identify and execute ‘enemies of the people’.

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