If we look at what the nobles, private interests were doing to have foreign powers repress their own population to subdue them into serfdom, it would come across as justified.
It wasn’t even a week into the revolution that French nobles started urging their relatives abroad to come and repress the ‘uprising’. With ‘relatives abroad’, you can understand aristocrats, even kings in power in other countries. And they started conspiring to that end. Calling foreign armies in, to repress their own countrymen.
Today we call it treason.
And if you put it into proper terms, you would call that fascism, today – asking an external power to come to repress a popular revolt/initiative, so that you can use your own force on them to keep your people repressed. In order to exploit them as cheap labor.
That was how it was for over a thousand years in France.
People would live as serfs tied to land, and would labour for negligible returns on the farms or the properties of their lord. The lord would live in extravagant luxury, especially in the last century before the revolution.
While they lived in extravagant luxury, millions of people would perish silently due to famines, sickness, and other poverty induced conditions. With no say in politics of their country or their condition.
If they revolted against the conditions, they would be brutally massacred. The feudal history of Europe is rife with endless such massacres in which the fed-up serfs and citizens would revolt against a local lord because of conditions and maltreatment, trusting that the king would see their point and exert justice, only to find king’s army brutally massacring all of them on behalf of the local lord.
Popular revolts in Late Medieval Europe
Funniest would be the revolts which happened due to lords’ brutality, which would end up with lords brutally slaughtering the peasants.
Any popular initiative, organization, attempt to change things, even progress in terms of societal conditions were repressed in any way possible. It was the people’s duty to ‘know their place’.
French revolution came after massive famines of a decade leading up to the revolution. During which the aristocracy ramped up the repression in the country in reaction to increasing suffering and accompanying dissent.
Imagine that you were a Frenchman in rural France, whose relatives or people from his village died during the famine because your local lord enforced his ‘feudal dues’ and still collected whatever cut he saw his right from the harvest or your produce. Imagine that this happened for generations.
And now during the revolution, after having their people suffer and die under horrible conditions with no say in the society just for their privileges and luxuries, the nobility of France was bluntly committing treason, seeing it ‘their right’ to do so in order to continue the very repression and exploitation just like how it was before.
And imagine that they succeeded.Imagine that soon after the revolution numerous major European powers invade France to repress the people and reinstall the French king. Whereas the nobility and their collaborators start a civil war with those people whom they were able to get to back them.
What the administration was to do? Keel over and give way? Not to do anything about the treason?
Its easier to forgive a treason if the treason fails. Dealing with a treason as it is in effect is not a joke.
You are talking about people who are doing everything in their power to make your country break, helping foreign and internal hostile forces which seek to suppress you to succeed in doing that, in any way possible – from fiscal means to taking up weapons and killing people to assassinations to political conspiracies.
Prosecutions started, as it would start in any given country today if it was facing a real existential threat and had a particular population segment conspiring with external forces to make that threat succeed.
But this was 18th century. Modern espionage, investigation and criminal techniques, intelligence concepts were not even imagined yet. You did not know who could have been who, doing what, with whom. All you had was witness accounts, accusations which could be considered substantially valid and the like.
This created an atmosphere in which allowed anyone who would be suspecting anyone else or anyone who had a beef to settle with anyone else, to accuse those people.
The accusations would be taken seriously according to their believability. Precisely as how the very nobles were conducting criminal investigations just before the revolution, as per feudal customs and practices.
Yeah, that’s a part which we didn’t mention – the nobles had justice powers in their locale most of the time, and they would deliver ‘justice’ to the accuser and accused according to their own judgment – based on believability of the accusation, social standing and status of the accuser and the accused – exactly like how they were delivered judgment during revolution. With the exception that they were judged as equals, as opposed to how they judged other people.
Fervent accusations, paranoia and suspicions flew around, and many people were tried and executed.
Many as in ~2600 in Paris, and 25,000 across entire France.
When they say ‘reign of terror’, you think that its some massive massacre in which anyone is slaughtering anyone and blood is filling the streets and whatnot.
The entire tally of ‘reign of terror‘ is 25,000 people.
Its as much as the very nobility during feudal times would massacre while putting down an average revolt.
Except, this time the target of the executions was mostly the nobility, and their collaborators. Hence the abhorrence of the event, hence words like ‘terror’.
No such word or termage was used for the events in which more people were massacred by nobility for revolting against their conditions throughout middle ages, renaissance, baroque or enlightenment eras. Ever.
This ‘reign of terror’ was incessantly and fervently condemned in literature afterwards. Naturally so, as ordinary peasants didn’t write literature, and the privileged classes who did were not going to praise or rationalize prosecution of themselves.
Mark Twain puts it very aptly:
“THERE were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror—that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.”
A quote from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – Mark Twain
So long story short:
It was not a ‘Reign of Terror’, the attempt at prosecution was justified, the application of justice was lacking and deficient for lack of advances in criminal justice, and it was not something incredibly horrible as the privileged literature of later times depicted.