The years 1789 to 1799 marked a turning point in European history. In France, calls for political reform were overtaken by a revolution that swept away the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the power of the Church. The revolution was followed by a REIGN OF TERROR.
In 1789, the French aristocracy and leading churchmen led privileged lives and had great power. However, the middle classes wanted more power for themselves. Taxes were high, the country was bankrupt, and the poor were starving. King Louis XVI failed to bring in reforms in time to stop a revolution.
On July 14, 1789, the people of Paris were afraid that the army had been ordered to attack them. They armed themselves and marched to the Bastille, a royal fort used as a prison, in search of gunpowder. They attacked and captured the fort. The revolution had begun.
Robespierre became one of the most radical leaders of the revolution. He whipped up a climate of fear, and soon his opponents were being sent to the guillotine. He himself was seized and beheaded without trial in 1794.
The French Revolution succeeded in overthrowing a corrupt and unjust system of government, but it soon ran out of control. First, aristocrats were executed, and then the revolutionaries turned on each other in a bloodbath. The Reign of terror had begun, in which the state governed by fear.
During the Reign of Terror (1793–1794), about 40,000 people were executed or murdered. A guillotine was set up in the Place de la Révolution in Paris. This wooden frame contained a sharp blade that dropped onto the victim’s neck. Although it was supposed to be a humane method of execution, its efficiency meant that hundreds were dying every day.
The creator of the Reign of Terror, Robespierre, was seized by his opponents in the National Convention and beheaded in 1794. In 1795 there were major uprisings. Order was restored by a soldier named Napoleon Bonaparte. Power passed to a five-man group called the Directory, and by 1799 Napoleon had seized power for himself. The revolution was over.