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Coming to Terms with Mass Violence, Then and Now

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I spend a lot of time thinking about mass violence. I think about how to define it, how to explain it, and how to describe its various forms. But more than anything else, I think about how it transforms things. Individual and social lives; the sense that one is, generally speaking, safe; familiar places; friendships and family ties; values and beliefs; people’s sense of time – all the stuff that makes up the everyday is affected somehow by the eruption of brutality. As a historian, I am interested in how the way people respond to mass violence has changed over time. Today, we use terms like posttraumatic stress disorder and transitional justice to discuss the effects of mass violence on self and society. People in earlier times did not have these terms at their disposal. They thought about, and experienced, traumatic events differently. It is my job to understand how they thought about these things, and how we have come to think about them the way we do.

My book, The Afterlives of the Terror: Facing the Legacies of Mass Violence in Postrevolutionary France, examines how the men and women, who had experienced the violence of the French Revolution, struggled to come to terms with it. What political, legal, intellectual, and therapeutic models were available to them in order to address the effects of mass atrocity on individuals and on communities? How did they think about traumatic events before the advent of modern trauma-talk?

Plaque with the names of victims of the Terror in the Broteaux Monument, Lyon. (Photo: Ronen Steinberg)

Revolutionary violence came in many forms, but my book focuses mostly on the aftermath of the Terror. The Terror was a period of state-sanctioned violence in the middle of the revolutionary decade (1789-1799). It consisted in the abuse of judicial norms for political purposes. During this period, basic freedoms were suspended, tens of thousands of citizens were executed, and hundreds of thousands were arrested. The Afterlives of the Terror follows revolutionary leaders, survivors, and ordinary citizens as they sought to bring those who they saw as responsible for the violence to justice, provide some sort of relief to victims, and commemorate loved ones in a political and social atmosphere that favored forgetting.

The remains of the victims in the crypt of the Brotteaux Monument, Lyon. (Photo: Ronen Steinberg)

One of the things they did was to worry about proper burial. The victims of the Terror were buried in unmarked mass graves. After the Terror, their relatives formed associations, collected donations, and built expiatory monuments on their burial grounds. Often, these commemorations involved exhuming and reburying the bodies. The victims of revolutionary violence in the city of Lyon, for example, were buried three times: once in 1793, in a mass grave; a second time in 1823, when they were exhumed and reburied in the crypt of the newly constructed monument; and a third time in 1906, when the monument was relocated to make way for urban development. Exhumations and reburials marked a desire to leave the Terror behind, but as the example of Lyon shows, the dead of the Terror refused to remain buried. Much of my book is about how those who lived through the Terror tried, but ultimately could not, close the books on this revolutionary chapter. The Terror was to remain a difficult past: a past that could not pass.

As I was writing this blog post, news of the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton came pouring in. As usual in these cases, which have become tragically familiar, there followed debates about how to explain the shooter’s actions, and about gun laws. These debates are important, but I found myself thinking about what’s in store for the families of the victims: the funerals, the remembering, the years of trying to make sense of devastating loss. It is difficult to generalize about these things. Every case is unique. But in post-revolutionary France, as in present-day U.S.A., mass violence transforms lives, often in unpredictable ways.

Ronen Steinberg is an assistant professor in the department of history at Michigan State University. He writes about transitional justice, the French Revolution, trauma, and for some reason, recently he’s been writing about Jean-Paul Sartre. He maintains an inexplicable interest in guillotines.

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