April 28, 2008

French revolutionary terror was a gross exaggeration, say Lafayette experts

The French public was led to believe that heads rolled willy-nilly and that blood ran in the streets of Paris in 1793-94, when, in fact, that just wasn't the case.

Delivering the lecture "The Terror After the Terror: From Propaganda to History" on April 23 in Cornell's Kroch Library, Howard Brown, chair of the Department of History at Binghamton University and the author of "Ending the French Revolution: Violence, Justice, Repression," argued that in the years immediately after the revolutionary terror in France from 1792 to 1794, a flood of publications and pictorial representations "amalgamated the various episodes of 1793 to 1794 into a single terror."

In reality, most parts of France did not experience violence during the Terror, Brown said. It was only after the media "exaggeration" of the experience that the Terror became a collective national trauma rather than an experience of individual suffering.

His talk was part of the final event, organized by Rare and Manuscript Collections and sponsored by the French Studies Program, for the exhibition "Lafayette: Citizen of Two Worlds," which celebrated the 250th anniversary of the birth of the Marquis de Lafayette.

One of the first biographies of Lafayette, the general famed for his participation in the French and American revolutions, was printed in Ithaca in 1841, and Kroch Library is home to a major collection of 11,000 original documents, manuscripts, letters and artifacts on Lafayette and the French Revolution. Formed in the 1960s with support from Arthur H. and Mary Marden Dean, Cornell's Lafayette Collection is unparalleled outside France.

First by initiating a sense of collective trauma and then by historicizing it, Brown said, the ruling power -- the Thermidors -- made the Terror a foundation for future French political thought.

Brown said that "by turning the experiences of the Terror into a 'collective trauma,' [the ruling power] helped to create a stronger sense of national identity, based not so much on citizenship as on suffering."

Brown then cited examples of publications from the period after 1795 that showed how, over time, portrayals of the terror became more accurate, to "historicize the experience of revolutionary violence."

The event also included a panel discussion with Brown; the exhibition's curator, Laurent Ferri; and Cornell Ph.D. students Desmond Jagmohan (government) and Cory Browning (French and Romance studies). The panel examined the importance of this creation of a "collective trauma" in today's political environment.

Chandni Navalkha '08 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.