The ‘first terror’ of the French Revolution is a barbarous chapter in the pages of history. The mass killings of the French prisoners by vehement mobs sure sends a chill down the spine. Historyplex gives the summary and the significance of the September massacres during the French Revolution.
Les Nuits de Paris written by the French novelist, Restif de la Bretonne and published in 1793 gives a first-hand account of the brutal September Massacres.
Errant ‘mob rule’ persisted throughout the French Revolution, that expressed displeasure against the aristocratic class as well as the religious authorities. The year 1792 was rather significant mainly because of the display of the brutal mob violence. That was the time when France was threatened by Prussian attack, and angry mobs fueled by radical leaders took to streets in Paris killing political prisoners in the fear of a counter-revolt.
The citizens felt obligated to stay vigilant in order to find rebels and traitors that were antagonists of the Revolution, particularly the clergy and the nobility. The religious clergymen were the primary targets and under the suspicion of leading a counter-revolution, because they backed the sovereignty of the king. The nobility were the envied high class that dictated the oppressive rules and hence they were also considered as possible traitors. Hence an uprising broke out on the streets of Paris where the mobs handled the suspected traitors in a way they deemed necessary – by carrying out unrelenting public massacres.
Historic Facts & Causes
The French Revolution radicalized with the fall of Bastille, the rise of the Jacobins and their radical leader Jean-Paul Marat, who played a significant role in influencing the crowds against the nobility and the clergymen through his popular daily pamphlet ‘L’Ami du peuple’ (The Friend of the People). The overthrow of Louis XVI from the royal throne and the establishment of the republican government.
The sudden shift in powers proved to be fatal for the royal family. Marie Antoinette’s association with foreign powers lead to the ‘Declaration of Pillnitz,’ thus inviting a possibility of invasion of France. Around the same time, an official declaration by Austria and Prussia in support and protection of the French monarchy urged England to aid France in ceasing the French Revolution.
In face of such events, the Constituent National Assembly decided to declare war against the allied forces of France. The Girondists and their leader Jacques-Pierre Brissot supported the war as they patronized the monarchy. However, the Jacobins refused to war as they felt it would end the French Revolution. France finally declared war on 20th April, 1792.
The allied forces marched over to France and planned to siege Paris. Further Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick issued the ‘Brunswick Manifesto’ on 1st August 1792, which threatened the citizens of Paris with dire consequences in case the French royal family is subjected to any harm, thus earning the ire of the Paris mobs.
On 17th August, 1792, the public commune formed a tribunal to try people accused of political crimes. Many from the nobility and the church ended up in prisons on accusations of being political traitors and aiding the monarchy. Meanwhile during this political confusion, the allies took over Verdun on 2nd September 1792 and advanced unopposed towards Paris.
Parisians became obsessed with rumors that the political inmates who had overcrowded the prisons, were preparing a jailbreak in order to avenge the citizens. Even more dreadful were the rumors passing around that the prisoners had somehow managed to fortify themselves with weaponry. A series of separate rumors led to wide speculations that the inmates were planning on an armed escape to lay a sudden siege over the city.
The anxiety and uncertainty among the Parisians was intense and widely amplified through the radical pamphlets by opportunity-grabbing leaders. Parisians seemed to agree with their notions of ‘one must kill the devil before he kills us’. The obsession with the prison conspiracies, the thirst for revenge against the nobility, the fear of the advancing Prussian army, and the ambiguity over who was in control of a state led to the beastly September Massacres.
Summary of the Event
Perhaps the last straw that instigated the Parisians to carry out these atrocities was the fiery speech delivered by Georges-Jacques Danton, a revolutionary Jacobin leader on September 2nd 1792 in which he ordered, ‘When the tocsin sounds, it will not be a signal of alarm, but the signal to charge against the enemies of our country… To defeat them, gentlemen, we need boldness, and again boldness, and always boldness; and France will then be saved.‘ Maybe he meant the show boldness on the battlefield against the Prussians but most of the Paris citizens mistook it for boldness needed in fighting within France against the supposed high-class traitors.
The killings began on the same day when a group of priests held as prisoners were being transferred to L’Abbaye prison (near Saint-Germain-des-Prés on the Left Bank) were attacked by armed mob. The angry crowd lynched all the 24 priests who were being transported, some of the priests attempted to escape the bloody carnage, none being successful.
After these killings the mob went into the prison and killed other prisoners too. From there they spread violence from one prison to another with a trail of blood over the next five days. Horrific acts of violence were committed by these unsympathetic citizens who made fellow prisoners watch their counterparts bodies being raped, mangled, and ripped off. Mutilated bodies were being paraded through the streets of the capitol on wagons, their decapitated heads decorated atop long pikes.
Most famous among these killings was the rape and mutilation of Princesse de Lamballe, Marie Antoinette’s friend and Superintendent of her Household on 3rd September, 1792 in front of the La Force prison. The angry mob in a debauch of vehemence, apparently stripped, tormented, and frightfully mutilated her body, they then fixed her head on the pike and paraded her body for a whole day in front of the window where the royal family were held as prisoners so that Marie Antoinette could see her remains. After which they dumped her body near a boundary stone on the Rue Saint Antoine.
Before each slaying, Parisians who had encroached upon the prison would carry out a mock mob trial, during which they would grip their arms, stained in blood from a former massacre and shout insults onto the prisoners. The causes cited for the deaths did not matter; the prisoners had no chance to oppose the crowd.
Many of these murderers belonged to the radical group of Jacobins, the Jacobin Club was considered as the most powerful political system during the French Revolution.
The aftermath of this savagery was the streets of Paris witnessing the dead decomposing corpses, few of the bodies got a decent burial. The rest were thrown into the river Seine besides hundreds of bodies thrown into storehouses and cellars. In all, about 1,400 prisoners were killed, of these, more than 220 were priests and three bishops who refused to accept the Revolutionary church reorganization, 100 Swiss guards, and many political and noble figures. The victims mainly included a large number of children and women.
Pope Pius XI beatified 191 of the clergymen who were killed during the massacre on 17th October, 1926. The Lucerne Lion monument in Switzerland immortalizes the Swiss guards who lost their lives during the deadly killings.
Acting out on baseless rumors, the people of France felt they were defending Paris from the rebels and the traitors. This vehement show of people was unmatched to the strength of the National Guards and the National Convention who watched helplessly, the extent of violence with which hundreds of unarmed innocents were being dragged onto the streets and slaughtered.
The massacres paved a way for the revolutionists of France to wipe out those whom they felt had unjustly treated them and to show the advancing Prussian army that they were a formidable force. The mobs symbolically butchered many of the political and aristocratic prisoners because they represented the monarchs, and also to prohibit them from getting rescued by the Prussians.
September Massacres are the ugly face of people’s rule when politics gets mingled with revenge.