The best books on the French Revolutionary Terror

Marisa Linton Author Of Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship, and Authenticity in the French Revolution
By Marisa Linton

Who am I?

I’m a historian of eighteenth-century France, above all, the French Revolution. Throughout my career, my primary goal has been to try to reconstruct the experience of revolution in all its dimensions. I have published extensively on subjects relating to the French Revolution, including the French revolutionary terror; the politics of the Jacobins; ideology, emotions, and revolution; revolutionary leaders – including Robespierre and Saint-Just; fear of conspiracy as a driver of actions; the influence of classical antiquity; women participants in the Revolution.

I wrote...

Book cover of Choosing Terror: Virtue, Friendship, and Authenticity in the French Revolution

What is my book about?

The French Revolution began with the expectation of creating a better world, but ultimately, for many of the people most committed to it, it became a personal tragedy. This book explores the experience of revolution from the point of view of the men who led it, investigating the gradual process whereby people who began as humanitarians, under pressure of the tumultuous circumstances of revolutionary crisis, war, and political destabilisation, ‘chose terror’ to defend their revolution. Terror rebounded on the men who led it – many of whom themselves became victims.

My book explores the interplay between high-minded ideologies and fraught emotions, above all, it shows the impact of expectations that revolutionaries should show exemplary and authentic integrity in public office, which would contrast with the corruption and political cronyism of the old regime.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of Terror in the French Revolution

Why did I love this book?

There is a reason why this book, published during the darkest days of World War Two, is still in print eighty years later. It is a profound study, deeply informed by Palmer’s own experience of living through a time of war, crisis, and fear. It focuses on the twelve men who served on the Committee of Public Safety and together played a leading role in revolutionary government throughout the critical period of the Year II (1793-94).

This was the first book I ever read on the period of existential crisis known as ‘the Terror’, and it helped me make sense of what was happening and why. If you want to know what it was like to be leading a government during war and revolution. Palmer’s book is the place to start. Forty years since I read it, Palmer’s book still occupies a prime place on my bookshelf.

By R.R. Palmer,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Twelve Who Ruled as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Reign of Terror continues to fascinate scholars as one of the bloodiest periods in French history, when the Committee of Public Safety strove to defend the first Republic from its many enemies, creating a climate of fear and suspicion in revolutionary France. R. R. Palmer's fascinating narrative follows the Committee's deputies individually and collectively, recounting and assessing their tumultuous struggles in Paris and their repressive missions in the provinces. A foreword by Isser Woloch explains why this book remains an enduring classic in French revolutionary studies.

Terror: The French Revolution and Its Demons

By Michel Biard, Marisa Linton,

Book cover of Terror: The French Revolution and Its Demons

Why did I love this book?

Few studies of the French Revolution by French historians have been made available in English. This is a loss for non-French readers, for it is France’s own revolution after all. No one knows the subject in such formidable depth as do their best historians, and Michel Biard is indubitably one of the very best of his generation. While I myself collaborated in the writing of this book, my principal reason for recommending it here is that it makes Michel Biard’s work more widely available. This up-to-date book appeared in French in 2020, under the title, Terreur! La Révolution française face à ses démons. This study confronts the enigma of ‘the Terror’ head-on, comparing myth and reality. Be prepared for it to challenge many of the assumptions about the French revolutionary terror familiar from school, film, and literature. 

By Michel Biard, Marisa Linton,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Terror as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the heart of how history sees the French Revolution lies the enigma of the Terror. How did this archetypal revolution, founded on the principles of liberty and equality and the promotion of human rights, arrive at circumstances where it carried out the violent and terrible repression of its opponents? The guillotine, initially designed to be a 'humane' form of capital punishment, became a formidable instrument of political repression and left a deep imprint, not only on how we see the Revolution, but also on how France's image has been depicted in the world.

This book reconstructs the Terror in…

Book cover of The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution

Why did I love this book?

This study of the gradual process whereby the idealistic revolution of 1789 descended into terror is extraordinary for its depth of understanding. It’s a profoundly humane book, one which gives weight to the genuine idealism that drove the revolutionaries, yet does not hold back from showing how, under the pressure of war, fear, and internecine politics, these same revolutionaries adopted terrifying measures in support of their goals. Tackett has an unrivalled knowledge of his source material, and one of the great features of this book is the range of voices that emerge out of the documents: men and women of all social backgrounds, revolutionary activists and observers, supporters of the revolution, and horrified opponents. Together these voices invoke what it was like to live through a revolution, both the good and the bad. 

By Timothy Tackett,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Between 1793 and 1794, thousands of French citizens were imprisoned and hundreds sent to the guillotine by a powerful dictatorship that claimed to be acting in the public interest. Only a few years earlier, revolutionaries had proclaimed a new era of tolerance, equal justice, and human rights. How and why did the French Revolution's lofty ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity descend into violence and terror?

"By attending to the role of emotions in propelling the Terror, Tackett steers a more nuanced course than many previous historians have managed...Imagined terrors, as...Tackett very usefully reminds us, can have even more political…

Book cover of Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life

Why did I love this book?

Maximilien Robespierre will always be associated in people’s minds with ‘the Terror’. In reality, he was not a dictator, but one of a group of committed revolutionaries in the National Convention. Within hours of his execution in July 1794 a myth began to circulate that he had been the sole mastermind behind ‘the Terror’. This myth was a way of exculpating the men who had also backed terror during the crisis of the ‘Year II’. Afterward, it was so much simpler for them to lay all the blame onto Robespierre. McPhee’s profound knowledge of the Revolution enables him to situate Robespierre in his context, showing not just how Robespierre affected the course of the Revolution, but how the Revolution changed Robespierre. This is simply by far the best recent study in English of Robespierre’s life.

By Peter McPhee,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Robespierre as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An intimate new portrait of one of history's most controversial figures: heroic revolutionary or the first terrorist?

For some historians and biographers, Maximilien Robespierre (1758-94) was a great revolutionary martyr who succeeded in leading the French Republic to safety in the face of overwhelming military odds. For many others, he was the first modern dictator, a fanatic who instigated the murderous Reign of Terror in 1793-94. This masterful biography combines new research into Robespierre's dramatic life with a deep understanding of society and the politics of the French Revolution to arrive at a fresh understanding of the man, his passions,…

Book cover of The Terror: Civil War in the French Revolution

Why did I love this book?

This is a gripping, wide-ranging, and detailed study of the explosive years of ‘the Terror’. Andress ranges far beyond the claustrophobic assemblies, clubs, and streets of Paris to show the country-wide impact of war, revolution, and terror. Andress has little time for revolutionary idealism, and there are no heroes in this book. His deep knowledge of his subject shines out from every page. The result is a vivid and disturbing account, dense, lively, and well-written. 

By David Andress,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Terror as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The French Revolution marks the foundation of the modern political world. It was in the crucible of the Revolution that the political forces of conservatism, liberalism and socialism began to find their modern forms, and it was the Revolution that first asserted the claims of universal individual rights on which our current understandings of citizenship are based. But the Terror was, as much as anything else, a civil war, and such wars are always both brutal and complex. The guillotine in Paris claimed some 1500 official victims, but executions of captured counter-revolutionary rebels ran into the tens of thousands, and…

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