The Reign of Terror began in France when Bertrand Barère, a member of the Committee of Public Safety, made a speech in favour of it that ended with the exclamation, “Let’s make terror the order of the day!”

Although there is debate amongst historians regarding the exact date that the Reign of Terror began, Barère made his speech at a time that Paris Commune was agitating for a more proactive approach against enemies of the revolution. Less than two weeks later the National Convention passed the Law of Suspects. This led to the arrest of both declared and suspected opponents of the government. This was one of the key causes of the more than 16,000 executions that took place during the Terror.

The following February Robespierre himself justified the government’s policy as ‘nothing more than speedy, severe and inflexible justice’. While some historians disagree with Robespierre’s argument that the Terror was necessary to combat counter-revolutionary elements in French society, there can be little doubt that France’s fortunes improved during its time.

However, the Terror had also begun to face opposition. By the end of 1793 two factions – one calling for an escalation, the other for moderation – had emerged. Although the leaders of both groups were executed, Robespierre’s dominance of the Committee of Public Safety was now seen as a threat to the National Convention itself.

In the session on 27 July 1794, members of the Convention turned against Robespierre and his allies. Shouts of “Down with the tyrant! Arrest him!” were heard in the chamber. Robespierre and 21 followers were arrested, and later executed, in what became known as the Thermidorian Reaction.

At around 11pm on the 20th August 1968, troops from the USSR, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary entered Czechoslovakia in an invasion that brought the Prague Spring to an end. The invasion, known as Operation Danube, led to almost half a million soldiers crossing the border to bring Alexander Dubček’s reforms to an end.

The Prague Spring began in early January, shortly after Dubček became the leader of Czechoslovakia. Keen to push forward with de-Stalinisation within the country, he granted greater freedom to the press and introduced a programme of ‘socialism with a human face’ by which he intended to decentralise parts the economy and introduce some limited democratic reforms.

This new openness saw open criticisms of the Czechoslovakian government begin to appear in the press, which concerned the other Warsaw Pact countries. János Kádár, the leader of Hungary who came to power after the fall of Imre Nagy in 1956, even warned that the situation in Czechoslovakia seemed “similar to the prologue of the Hungarian counterrevolution”.

Concerned that Dubček’s reforms might spread to other Eastern Bloc countries and threaten the USSR’s security, the Soviet leader Brezhnev chose to open negotiations with the Czechoslovakian leadership that lasted into August. The talks ended in compromise, but Brezhnev continued to be unhappy with the situation and began to prepare military intervention.

Overwhelmed by the military invasion, Dubček asked his people not to resist. 72 Czech and Slovak soldiers and 108 civilians were killed, with a further 500 civilians injured. It later emerged that members of the Czechoslovakian government had asked for Soviet assistance against Dubček’s reforms.

On the 19th August 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev, the President of the Soviet Union, was placed under house arrest in what is known as the August Coup. Opposed to Gorbachev’s reforms, the leaders of the coup believed that the new Union of Sovereign States, which had been approved in a union-wide referendum, threatened the complete disintegration of the USSR. A number of individual states had already declared their independence, but the New Union Treaty would devolve much of the Soviet Union’s remaining power to individual states.

It was while Gorbachev was on holiday in Foros, a resort in the Crimea, that the coup was launched. On the 17th August, the coup’s leaders met with Gorbachev and demanded that he either declare a state of emergency or resign. Although the specific details of the conversation are unclear, the outcome was that Gorbachev refused.

Gorbachev was placed under house arrest, and the leaders of the coup – known as the Gang of Eight – created the State Committee of the State of Emergency to govern the USSR due to Gorbachev suffering from an “illness”. The changes in government were announced on state media on the morning of the 19th but, having chosen not to arrest Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the coup faced a blow when he began speaking against it. Two days later, the military supporting the coup failed to take control of the Russian parliament building in the face of civil resistance.

The coup collapsed on the 21st August, but the USSR was left seriously weakened. Just over four months later the Soviet Union was officially dissolved.

On the 10th August 1792, French revolutionary troops stormed the Tuileries Palace in Paris. Referred to by some historians as ‘the Second Revolution’ the events of the 10th August suspended the monarchy under King Louis XVI.

The royal family had lived in the Tuileries since the October Days of 1789 saw them brought back to Paris from Versailles. Louis and his family were virtually imprisoned, as proved when crowds barred them from moving to their summer residence in April 1791. This may have influenced Louis to carry out the failed Flight to Varennes two months later, after which the family were more officially held under house arrest in the Tuileries Palace.

The relationship between the royal family and the people of Paris continued to decline throughout 1792. The king did himself no favours by vetoing a range of decrees passed by the Legislative Assembly, but the situation grew worse with the threat of invasion from foreign armies. By the time of the Brunswick Manifesto on 1st August that lent foreign support to the royal family, the crowds of Paris held Louis and the concept of monarchy in absolute contempt.

On the morning of the 10th August, crowds massed outside the Tuileries. With Louis opting to take shelter in the Legislative Assembly building, his Swiss Guard who were left to defend the palace were eventually overrun after they ran out of ammunition. Approximately 800 people on the king’s side were killed, and Paris was put in the hands of the revolutionaries while the royal family were sent to the Temple prison.

On the 30th July 1792, a group of volunteer soldiers from the city of Marseille were the first to introduce and sing “La Marseillaise” in Paris. Written by the French army officer Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle and originally called “Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin” or “War Song for the Army of the Rhine”, it was designed to rally soldiers in Strasbourg during the French Revolutionary Wars. However, the song was soon adopted as the marching song of the National Guard of Marseille after one of the volunteers sang it at a patriotic gathering in the city. The song became the official French National Anthem three years later, on the 14th July 1795.

The song was written when the French revolutionary army was facing significant military difficulties in the War of the First Coalition. Facing the combined forces of both Austria and Prussia, the disorganised and numerically inferior French army had suffered a number of defeats in the first weeks of the war. This helps to explain the militaristic lyrics of the song, since it was written at a time when France was facing the very real threat of invasion and defeat.

The song’s close ties with the French Revolution meant that it often suffered at the hands of those who were against the revolution. For example, when Louis XVIII – the deposed Louis XVI’s brother – was declared king of France after the defeat of Napoleon, he banned La Marseillaise outright. The song was restored to its position as the French national anthem in 1879.

On the 13th July 1793, the radical French journalist Jean-Paul Marat was stabbed to death in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday.

Marat, the second of nine children, had left home at sixteen in search of opportunities to pursue his interest in medicine. Having decided to move to northern England in 1770, he settled in Newcastle upon Tyne where he gained a reputation as a highly effective doctor, but also developed an increasing suspicion of the established political order.

Marat moved back to France six years later where his medical skills earned him the patronage of various members of the aristocracy. He used the wealth he earned from this position to establish a scientific laboratory where he engaged in research regarding fire, heat, electricity and light. Although he was visited by the American polymath Benjamin Franklin, the French Academy of Sciences was sceptical of his conclusions, and relations between Marat and the powerful Academy quickly broke down.

Despite Marat’s wealth and privilege, he maintained his passion for social justice throughout the years preceding the French Revolution. As Louis XVI struggled to secure his rule in the late 1780s, Marat put his scientific and medical career on hold, and instead dedicated his time to writing arguments in favour of political, economic and social reform. In the wake of the Storming of the Bastille on the 14th July 1789, he established his own radical newspaper which soon adopted the name L’Ami du peuple (“The People’s friend”).

Marat’s writings were vicious in their attacks on all those he perceived as being enemies of the people, by whom he meant the lower classes of the Third Estate. His newspaper often called for violence against the upper class and members of the government, even resulting in him fleeing to London for a few months in early 1790. On his return to Paris he continued his fierce criticism of the government, and even began to target less radical revolutionaries with his call for their execution as enemies of the people. He continued to have to go into hiding on occasion, and began to utilise Paris’ extensive sewer network, where it is believed he developed the debilitating skin condition that later saw him confined to a medicinal bath for hours on end.

Despite his reputation as a radical agitator, Marat was elected to the National Convention in September 1792 where he was a passionate supporter of the decision to declare France a Republic. He soon turned his anger on the members of the Girondin component of the National Convention who opposed the execution of the King. Within six months these moderates had been ousted from the government, and Marat turned to working from home due to his worsening skin condition.

On the 13th July 1793 Marat granted an audience to a young woman from Normandy while he soaked in his medicinal bath. The 24-year old Charlotte Corday claimed to have information about Girondin deputies who had escaped Paris, and presented Marat with a list of names of supposed traitors. Corday, however, was actually a Girondin sympathiser. After Marat told her that he would arrange for the execution of the Norman Girondins, she pulled out a five-inch kitchen knife and stabbed him once in the chest, severing a major artery and causing him to die almost immediately of massive blood loss.

Corday was placed on trial and was guillotined in Paris just four days after killing Marat. She claimed in her trial to be a supporter of Republicanism, but described Marat as a ‘monster’. She explained that she had ‘killed one man to save 100,000’, but the assassination contributed to the growing fear of counter-revolution that fuelled the subsequent Terror – in which thousands of moderate and conservative Frenchmen and women were guillotined on charges of treason.

In the immediate aftermath of the murder, Marat was virtually deified by the revolutionaries. At his funeral, the Marquis de Sade – the infamous sexual predator who had joined with the most radical elements of the National Convention after being freed from prison – gave the eulogy. Marat’s bathtub, and the knife that he was killed with, were later bought by the Musée Grévin in Paris and are now on display as part of a waxwork scene depicting the assassination.

Interestingly, Madame Tussaud’s waxwork museum had also offered to buy the bathtub – but their letter got lost in the post and arrived after a sale had already been agreed. Madame Tussaud’s in London does, however, own the guillotine blade that beheaded the former queen Marie Antoinette on October 16th 1793. The founder of the museum, Marie Tussaud, was a famed wax sculptor before the revolution, and had even had her hair cut in preparation for execution during the Terror due to her connections to the aristocracy. However, it was decided that her talents could better serve the Revolution, and so she was spared in order to create death masks of the guillotine’s many famous victims.

The guillotine is, of course, synonymous with the worst violence of the French Revolution, but the machine was actually created to represent equality. In France prior to 1789, beheading as a form of execution had been reserved for the nobility.  Commoners were usually subjected to longer and more painful deaths through hanging, or worse. To end the privilege of the nobility, and to bring about equality in death as well as life, the new revolutionary National Assembly therefore made decapitation the only legal form of execution.

It was recognised that manual beheading was, however, still a gruesome way to carry out the death sentence.  Mary Queen of Scots, who I mentioned earlier as someone who visited the town of Buxton where we are recording this episode of HistoryPod, was only beheaded after three blows of the executioner’s axe. The Yorkshire town of Halifax had tried to improve the precision of beheadings with the creation of the Halifax Gibbet – a guillotine-like machine in which an axe head was fitted to the base of a heavy wooden block that ran in grooves between two tall uprights – a whole two centuries before the French invention. However, this device didn’t make it out of Yorkshire. In the face of continued manual beheadings therefore, on 10th October 1789 French physician Joseph Guillotin argued that the new government of France should ensure that every execution was both swift and mechanical. The National Assembly agreed, acknowledging that capital punishment should simply end life, not purposefully cause pain as well.

Another physician, Antoine Louis, was appointed to lead a committee to develop a quick and efficient decapitation machine.  Although Guillotin was a member of this committee, it is actually therefore Antoine Louis who should be credited with the device’s invention, even though it carries Guillotin’s name.

The first execution using the device was conducted on 25th April 1792.  Nicolas Jacques Pelletier, a French highwayman found guilty of killing a man during one of his robberies, had the dubious honour of being the guillotine’s first victim. Contemporary accounts reveal that the execution went smoothly – much to the disappointment of the crowd who expected better ‘entertainment’.  Excited to see the new machine in action, they were disappointed at its speed and efficiency…although this was, of course, the whole point.

The crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin mutinied on the 27th June 1905, an uprising that was immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film.

Potemkin entered service in early 1905 after her gun turrets were fitted, and therefore did not take part in the disastrous Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. Instead, by the end of June she was off the coast of Ukraine completing maneuvers. It was here that rotten meat allegedly containing maggots was brought on board to feed the crew. Dissatisfied with the ship’s doctor’s opinion that it was fit for human consumption, the crew complained to the captain.

The ship’s second in command, Commander Giliarovsky, confronted the sailor’s delegation and killed spokesman Grigory Vakulenchuk. This triggered the mutiny, in which seven of the ship’s eighteen officers including Giliarovsky and the Captain were killed. The crew chose quartermaster Afanasi Matushenko to take control.

Having hoisted the red flag, the Potemkin set sail for Odessa where a general strike was underway. Here they brought the body of the revolutionary spokesman Vakulenchuk ashore and laid it on the Odessa Steps, where it acted as a focal point for locals to show their support for the sailors. However, by the evening the authorities received orders from the Tsar to take firm action. Estimates say that up to 2,000 civilians were killed.

The Potemkin left Odessa the next day and sailed for Constanța in Romania. The ship was surrendered to the Romanian authorities in return for the sailors receiving safe passage. Potemkin was handed back to the Russian navy, and was renamed Panteleimon.

The ‘May 16th Notification’ of 1966 effectively started the Cultural Revolution in China.  The notification suggested that the Communist Party had been infiltrated by enemies of Communism, and that only Mao Zedong’s leadership could remove the traitors.

Even senior party officials were subjected to the purges of the Cultural Revolution, although the greatest suffering occurred within the greater population at the hands of fanatical Red Guards – groups of Communist Party members, many of them still at school.

The Red Guards were moved by revolutionary fervour to rid China of the so-called ‘Four Olds’ – old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas.  Spurred on by Mao’s desire for a ‘great disorder’, the Red Guards shut down and sometimes looted religious buildings, burned books, destroyed historical sites, and even desecrated the grave of Confucius himself.

If the Red Guards needed a guide it came in the form of the Little Red Book, a collection of quotes from Mao of which 350 million copies had been printed by December 1967.  However, the Red Guards often interpreted the words to suggest the most extreme actions – public humiliation, torture, and even murder.

By the time the Cultural Revolution had completely ended in 1976, an estimated minimum of 400,000 people had died through torture, execution, or suicide.  However, the number is likely to be much higher.  In 1981, the Communist Party itself declared that the Cultural Revolution had “brought serious disaster and turmoil to the Communist Party and the Chinese people.”

On the night of 18th April 1775, Paul Revere rode from Charleston to Lexington with his message that “the Regulars are coming!”  The action that was to signal the start of the American Revolutionary War has passed into legend, but whether he referred to the approaching army as ‘Regulars’ or ‘Redcoats’ is unclear.  However he certainly didn’t say that the British were coming.  At the time the American settlers would still have seen themselves as British, albeit living in a colony and ruled by a faraway King.  It’s also highly unlikely that Revere shouted his warning as he passed peoples’ houses.  His mission was secret, and the countryside was known to contain army patrols and royalist sympathisers.

By the time British troops entered the town of Lexington the next morning, 77 militiamen had assembled.  Their leader, Captain John Parker, knew that his men were outnumbered and so gave an order that is now engraved on a stone at the site.  “Stand your ground; don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”

The leaders of both sides ordered their men not to fire, but a single shot from an unknown source rang out.  The Battle of Lexington lasted for just a few minutes, killing eight militiamen and wounding a further 10.  Moving on to the town of Concord, however, the British met significantly more opposition.  The American Revolution had begun.

On the 1st April 1924, Adolf Hitler was found guilty of treason for his role in the Beer Hall Putsch and sentenced to five years in jail. His comfortable Festungshaft (which translates as fortress confinement) in Landsberg Prison lasted for only eight months before he was released for good behaviour. His detention provided him with the opportunity to write Mein Kampf, his blueprint for power, and to rethink the tactics he would use to take that power in Germany.

The Beer Hall Putsch, also known as the Munich Putsch, had begun on the 8th November 1923 when Hitler led an attempted coup against the Weimar Government by trying to seize power in the Bavarian city of Munich. Despite a successful first evening, however, the coup was quickly stalled the following day after the police and army engaged the relatively small Nazi Party in open street fighting.

Hitler hid in a friend’s house, and his arrest for treason two days later could have been the end of his political career. However, he chose to defend himself during his public trial which acted as a propaganda platform. Hitler openly admitted trying to overthrow the government but claimed that he was not guilty of treason since, in his words, “There is no such thing as high treason against the traitors of 1918.”

The trial secured Hitler enormous media attention, and catapulted him and the Nazi Party to national prominence. Despite being imprisoned and banned from public speaking, Hitler was able to rebuild the Nazi Party following his release along less revolutionary lines that eventually saw him appointed Chancellor in January 1933.