The best Reign of Terror books

5 authors have picked their favorite books about the Reign of Terror and why they recommend each book.

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Terror

By Michel Biard, Marisa Linton,

Book cover of Terror: The French Revolution and Its Demons

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. 


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...

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

By Marisa Linton,

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.

Fatal Purity

By Ruth Scurr,

Book cover of Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution

Intriguingly, Ruth Scurr’s approach is to give Robespierre ‘the benefit of any rational doubt’ in all the major decisions facing him as a politician. Almost like Robespierre’s best friend, she tries ‘to see things from his point of view’ when seeking to explain his acts. The result is a study that subtly draws the reader in, yet is far from a whitewash. Indeed the more problematic aspects of Robespierre’s character and policies including his drift towards violence, repression, and terror stand out all the more starkly as a result of this fundamentally sympathetic and thoughtful approach.


Who am I?

France has always been my special inspiration in life and I am lucky to have made a career writing about its history. Many of my books are framed in a long-term perspective. Paris: Biography of a City (2004)  and The Cambridge Illustrated History of France (1994), for example, take the story back to the earliest times and comes up to the present. Wanting a complete change and a new challenge, I shifted focus dramatically in my current book: the history of a city in a single day – the dramatic day in the French Revolution when the Parisians overthrew Maximilien Robespierre.


I wrote...

The Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris

By Colin Jones,

Book cover of The Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris

What is my book about?

More than any other political figure from the French revolutionary era, Maximilien Robespierre divides historians: some see him as an embodiment of totalitarian evil, others the shining champion of the popular cause and of individual freedoms. In my recently-published The Fall of Robespierre: 24 Hours in Revolutionary Paris (Oxford University Press), I tried a novel approach by exploring how this enigmatic figure behaved over the 24 hours of the political crisis that led to his overthrow and death by guillotine.

As he saw his plans for the Revolution rejected point-blank not only by fellow politicians but also by the ordinary people of Paris whose welfare he had always championed, his fall took on the features of Greek tragedy. 

Paris in the Terror

By Stanley Loomis,

Book cover of Paris in the Terror

Loomis bases his account on the life and work of three principals in the Revolution: Jean-Paul Marat, the sanguinary demagogue, self-styled ‘People’s Friend’ and proponent of some of the grimmest excesses of the Terror; Danton, the moderate, whose increasing distaste for those excesses and his clash with Robespierre ultimately took him to the scaffold; Robespierre, the prissy, virginal, orphaned lawyer who had once argued passionately against the death penalty and then oversaw the herding of droves of citizens – mostly not aristocrats but largely what the French call the "menu peuple", humble artisans, shopgirls, social nobodies – to the guillotine. Inflexible as a Commandment, he became increasingly obsessed with ‘virtue’ in the twisted belief that legislation alone can enjoin decent behaviour or "civisme". Danton, the ebullient bon viveur rebuffed this nonsense cheerily: ‘Virtue,’ he said ‘is what I do with my wife every night.’

Loomis writes vividly, his book is…


Who am I?

I have been a professional writer for over 40 years. Much of my work has been focused on biographies and historical drama for radio. Both topics involve extensive research. The French Revolution has always fascinated me. The stories about the wild extremes of human behaviour exercise a morbid power on the imagination. I have written much on the subject and the people caught up in, and often generating, the madness and inhuman folly. I have, I believe, developed a particular feel for the period and the lesson it teaches us. My book about the Terror is the culmination of many years of study and deliberation. I write well, vividly, and forcefully and I speak and read French.


I wrote...

The Terror: The Shadow of the Guillotine - France 1793-1794

By Graeme Fife,

Book cover of The Terror: The Shadow of the Guillotine - France 1793-1794

What is my book about?

In my book, I seek to lay out, in as clear and uncomplicated a fashion as possible, the origins and development of the revolution, from the early promise of a buoyant slogan ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ to its trashing when a cruelly vindictive spirit took over and perverted the tone and mission of a movement towards a new compassion and consideration of public welfare. 

Meticulously researched and drawing on many French sources the story is here in as direct a form as I could make it. A big sweep of history, by no means comprehensive – that would become unreadable – but it covers all the signal events from the storming of the Bastille and onward. 

Robespierre

By Peter McPhee,

Book cover of Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life

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.


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...

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

By Marisa Linton,

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.

The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution

By Timothy Tackett,

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

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. 


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...

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

By Marisa Linton,

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.

The Gods Will Have Blood

By Anatole France,

Book cover of The Gods Will Have Blood

I have read no better evocation of how the mechanics of the Terror actually proceeded and intruded on the populace. The story is compelling, the characterisation vivid, the overall effect to make the reader shudder with disbelief that such disgusting activity should have been fenced round with nay, enshrined in, the supposed legitimacy and defence of law, the very safety of a government’s measures to protect the public. Cicero invoked, here: the supreme point of law is the safety of the people. The reference of the title is to the human sacrifices in the Inca culture. At one point, such was the volume of bloodshed from the guillotine in the Place du Trône [present day Place de la Concorde] a veritable river, as the merciless blade of the ax (the sword of justice’) plunged down in it its grooves onto one neck after the other, day after miserable, gory day…

Who am I?

I have been a professional writer for over 40 years. Much of my work has been focused on biographies and historical drama for radio. Both topics involve extensive research. The French Revolution has always fascinated me. The stories about the wild extremes of human behaviour exercise a morbid power on the imagination. I have written much on the subject and the people caught up in, and often generating, the madness and inhuman folly. I have, I believe, developed a particular feel for the period and the lesson it teaches us. My book about the Terror is the culmination of many years of study and deliberation. I write well, vividly, and forcefully and I speak and read French.


I wrote...

The Terror: The Shadow of the Guillotine - France 1793-1794

By Graeme Fife,

Book cover of The Terror: The Shadow of the Guillotine - France 1793-1794

What is my book about?

In my book, I seek to lay out, in as clear and uncomplicated a fashion as possible, the origins and development of the revolution, from the early promise of a buoyant slogan ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ to its trashing when a cruelly vindictive spirit took over and perverted the tone and mission of a movement towards a new compassion and consideration of public welfare. 

Meticulously researched and drawing on many French sources the story is here in as direct a form as I could make it. A big sweep of history, by no means comprehensive – that would become unreadable – but it covers all the signal events from the storming of the Bastille and onward. 

Choosing Terror

By Marisa Linton,

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

After 1792 French revolutionaries had to confront European armies and internal counter-revolution in a battle for the survival of the Revolution – and their own lives. The Jacobins saved the Revolution, but an enormous cost in human life. Marisa Linton takes us inside the personal dimensions of this deadly struggle, examining how personal friendships and alliances among revolutionary leaders disintegrated into recrimination and killings. By the Year II (1793-94) the policies of “terror” unleashed at the armed enemies of the Revolution had been extended to other revolutionaries believed to lack the authenticity necessary to the practice of republican “virtue”. Linton unravels the deadly logic of suspicion at a time of violence and acute fear which underpinned this “politicians’ terror”.  


Who am I?

I have spent much of my adult life studying the French Revolution with students who, like me, are engrossed by the drama, successes and tragedies of the Revolution, and the scale of the attempts to arrest or reverse it. Why and how did an apparently stable regime collapse in 1789? Why did it prove to be so difficult to stabilize a new order? How could claims to “liberty” and “equality” be balanced? And why was there a period of “terror” in 1793-94? When the Revolution was finally over, how had France and other parts of the world been changed? The answers to those questions remain open and continue to fascinate. 


I wrote...

Liberty or Death: The French Revolution

By Peter McPhee,

Book cover of Liberty or Death: The French Revolution

What is my book about?

The French Revolution has fascinated, perplexed, and inspired for more than two centuries. It was a seismic event that radically transformed France and launched shock waves across the world.

In this new history, I sought to create a fresh account of one of the world’s great revolutions—its origins, drama, complexity, and significance. Was the Revolution a major turning point in French—even world—history, or was it instead a protracted period of violent upheaval and warfare that wrecked millions of lives? We also need to examine the varying experiences of most French citizens who lived outside the gates of the city: the provincial men and women whose daily lives were overwhelmed by revolution and war. The stories of individuals who struggled to cope in such unpredictable times enable us to enter the social and cultural world of the eighteenth century which was transformed by France’s age of revolution. Life would never be the same again for anyone.

The Terror

By David Andress,

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

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. 


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...

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

By Marisa Linton,

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.

Killing Women

By Rod Sadler,

Book cover of Killing Women: The True Story of Serial Killer Don Miller's Reign of Terror

This is a relatively new book, but not only does it take you through the case of serial killer Don Miller it explains how difficult it can be for the survivors to move on with their lives. In general, most people think that once the trial is over  that everyone can move on with their lives, but that’s not always the case. Killers like don Miller come up for parole, and that’s when the second part of the journey continues for these survivors. It becomes really hard to move forward with their lives when they have to relive the murders at every parole hearing until either the killer is released or dies.


Who am I & why this topic?

When writing about true crime it is important for me to write about the victim’s lives before, during, and even after the crime happened. Unlike the rest of us, after the trial ends, their life continues dealing with the after-effects including parole hearings for the murderer. I've written 12 true crime books and I am the host and producer of the popular true crime history radio show House of Mystery on NBC news talk radio network throughout the U.S. & Canada. I am autistic and I have a master’s degree in Music from the University of Washington in Seattle, and a bachelor of Arts in Criminology from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C. Canada. 


I wrote...

Murder Times Six: The True Story of the Wells Gray Murders

By Alan R. Warren,

Book cover of Murder Times Six: The True Story of the Wells Gray Murders

What is my book about?

On August 2, 1982, three generations of a family set out on a camping trip – Bob and Jackie Johnson, their two daughters, Janet, 13 and Karen, 11, and Jackie's parents, George, and Edith Bentley. A month later, the Johnson family car was found off a mountainside logging road near Wells Gray Park completely burned out. In the back seat were the incinerated remains of four adults, and in the trunk were the two girls.

Murder Times Six shines a spotlight on the crime that captured the attention of a nation, recounts the narrative of a complex police investigation, and discusses whether a convicted mass murderer should ever be allowed to leave the confines of an institution. Most importantly, it tells the story of one family forever changed.

Twelve Who Ruled

By R.R. Palmer,

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

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.


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...

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

By Marisa Linton,

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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