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The French Genocide That Has Been Air-Brushed From History

For the most influential historians who held positions of power in major French institutions, the French Revolution was not a research topic but an origin myth—the heart of their secular faith’s cosmology.

· 18 min read
The French Genocide That Has Been Air-Brushed From History
Le massacre de Machecoul by François Flameng

The Secret History

On March 4 2011, the French historian Reynald Secher discovered documents in the National Archives in Paris confirming what he had known since the early 1980s: there had been a genocide during the French Revolution.1 Historians have always been aware of widespread resistance to the Revolution. But (with a few exceptions) they invariably characterize the rebellion in the Vendée (1793–95) as an abortive civil war rather than a genocide.

In 1986, Secher published his initial findings in Le Génocide franco-français, a lightly revised version of his doctoral dissertation.2 This book sold well, but destroyed any chance he might have had for a university career. Secher was slandered by journalists and tenured academics for daring to question the official version of events that had taken place two centuries earlier.3 The Revolution has become a sacred creation myth for at least some of the French; they do not take kindly to blasphemers.

Keepers of the Flame

The first major Revolutionary mythographer was the journalist and politician Adolphe Thiers (1797-1877), who became the first President of the Third Republic of France in 1871. He made his name in the 1820s with a bestselling 10-volume history of the Revolution. Purely as history his work was sloppy and unreliable; but the point was to celebrate the subject, not examine it. Thiers does not excuse atrocities in the Vendée; indeed he scarcely mentions them.

Unlike Thiers, Jules Michelet (1798-1874) actually looked at documents when researching his seven-volume history of the Revolution (1847–53). Michelet, more than any other historian, is responsible for the official mythology representing the Vendée rebellion as a would-be civil war instigated by deluded, credulous peasants who did not understand that they were fighting against Progress itself—a kind of 18th Century version of the gilets jaunes protests.

Michelet blames the women of the Vendée for being “sincerely, violently fanatical” in relentlessly harassing their husbands until they drove them to take up arms against the Revolution. They were “champions of counterrevolution”; he criticizes them for their “love of the past; their force of habit; their natural weakness; and their pity for the victims of the Revolution.” With “unbelievable ingratitude, injustice and absurdity” they forced rebellion on their menfolk.

To Michelet’s credit, he does admit at least some of the Revolutionaries’ “excesses,” but only after insisting that there were atrocities on both sides. Yet he conspicuously avoids dealing with evidence of tens of thousands of civilian deaths in the Vendée—even those enumerated by the former Revolutionary soldier and politician Jean-Julien Savary (1753-1839), whose Guerres des Vendéens et des Chouans contre la République française (1824–27) Michelet described as “the most instructive work on the history of the Vendée.”

The first state-appointed mythographer of the Revolution was François Aulard (1849-1928), who held the inaugural Chair in the History of the French Revolution at the Sorbonne from 1891 to 1922. Aulard’s Histoire politique de la Révolution française (1901) institutionalized Michelet’s views on the Vendée rebellion. The rebels were insignificant, superstitious peasants (p.376) who were somehow also a great danger to the Republic (p.378). They may have been part of a grand international conspiracy for which convincing documentation has not yet been found.

Aulard seems not to have noticed the unprovoked mass slaughter of civilians by the Revolutionary Army in 1794. Yet he founded the Society for the History of the Revolution, edited the scholarly journal La Révolution Française, published countless collections of material over almost half a century of professional research, and trained his students to examine primary source materials systematically, insisting that they provide full documentation of all evidence. His mastery of archival resources was second to nobody’s. Something must have been wrong with his approach to history.

The ex-Communist historian François Furet (1927–97) has written about the activist historians who devoted themselves to the study of the French Revolution throughout the twentieth century.4 They were openly, passionately pro-Revolutionary. For the most influential historians who held positions of power in major French institutions, the French Revolution was not a research topic but an origin myth—the heart of their secular faith’s cosmology. How could they celebrate it if it led to genocide?

The ‘Inexplicable’ Vendée

The Vendée is a region in the west of France whose residents became renowned for their piety after Protestants were driven out of the area in the wake of King Louis XIV’s Edict of Fontainebleau (1685). Throughout the 18th century, the Vendée was, culturally, politically and economically, a backwater. The closest major city, Nantes, remains noted for its role in the slave trade.

Vendéens seem to have welcomed the French Revolution, at least initially. Everybody was annoyed with high levels of taxation. Even the pious were fed up with what they had to pay to the Church. The problem was not so much with the clergy as with parish assemblies (fabriques), which controlled parish finances. Vendéens had little quarrel with the local nobility, who as a rule stayed in the region and knew the peasantry well. Few of them spent any time in Paris, Versailles or even Nantes. The nobles too resented centralized administration.

Conflicting Religions

On November 2 1789, the newly-created National Constituent Assembly (NCA) in Paris (formerly the National Assembly) declared that all revenue-generating Church property in France was to be nationalized. On April 19 1790 Revolutionary legislators decided to help themselves to the rest of the Church’s property. It would be sold; the wealth would be redistributed by the Revolutionary government.

On July 12 the NCA passed a law, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, that completely subordinated the Catholic Church to the Revolutionary government, and forbade Catholic allegiance to any foreign authority (for example, the Vatican, or the Pope). There would be no more recognizing the authority of bishops who had been appointed by non-French powers. Clergy were also ordered to swear allegiance to the Revolutionaries. They were now to be made civil servants, completely subject to the new French state.

Most priests and bishops not only condemned the new Civil Constitution of the Clergy, but refused to swear the oath that would subject them to civil officials. Revolutionary authorities were concerned that people were still loyal to the clergy rather than them. In October the Directory of the Lower Loire was compelled to remind the clergy that they were being stubborn and had to do as they were told. But most priests remained disobedient.

On November 10 1790, 103 priests from the diocese of Nantes signed a sharply-worded letter of protest to the NCA condemning their authoritarianism. Legislators were shocked and angry at the ingratitude. A few months later the Bishop of Nantes ordered his clergy to reject the Civil Constitution. Nine out of ten did not need to be told. The Revolutionary authorities had no choice but to appoint new bishops from among those few priests who had sworn to subject themselves to the NCA.

On June 26 1791, the NCA declared its right to deport or exile “refractory” clergy who had refused to swear the oath. Only obedient “constitutional” clergy who had pledged their allegiance to the NCA were allowed to carry out any duties. Soon there was a shortage of priests; most parishes now had nobody legally to carry out baptisms, weddings, or funerals. Churches were locked up by authorities. Yet citizens continued to show up to church on Sundays, even when the doors were sealed and the priest was imprisoned or in hiding. Force was necessary to maintain the NCA’s new regulations on religion.

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The people refused to show up to Masses celebrated by “constitutional” priests. Indeed the “constitutional” clergy were widely ridiculed as cowards, traitors and infidels. Frequently they were subjected to physical assault. But they were public officials now, and could be protected by the armed forces if necessary, particularly when the faithful showered them with dirt, manure and rocks, or kicked them and spat in their faces.

On September 20 1792, the National Convention (NC) replaced the NLA, which had supplanted the NCA, which had been formed in July 1789 from the original National Assembly (established in June 1789). The Revolutionaries’ position on the clergy remained consistent. They did not want good priests, or intelligent priests, or well-educated priests, or priests who knew their parishes and the needs of their parishioners: they wanted priests who would obey them, follow orders and not talk back. The clergy stood in the way of their plans to conscript three hundred thousand men for the Revolutionary army.

Civil Disobedience

On March 6 1793, all Catholic churches not served by “constitutional” clergy were permanently closed. On March 7, a recruitment law went into effect. Revolutionary leaders, legislators, municipal authorities, administrators and government functionaries in general were of course exempt from military service.

In the Vendée, the NC’s call for conscription was not received with universal enthusiasm. When the District Commissioner at Thouaré tried to announce the official decree to the people, he was met with forty peasants armed with sticks who chanted “holy freedom, sacred freedom.” One of them shouted:

You have killed our king, you have chased away our priests, and you have sold off the property of our Church. Where is the money? You have spent it all. Now you want our bodies? No! You will not have them!

Other peasants at Saint-Julien-de-Concelles asked:

What? You expect us to go fight for this government? To go fight at the command of men who have turned the administration of this country upside-down, executed our king, sold all the Church’s land and want to subject us to priests we do not want whilst they send the real leaders of our Church to prison?

They told the Revolutionaries to get their hands out of the people’s pockets and give them back their old priests. If they were as free as Revolutionary propaganda said they were, why were they not free to work in their fields and be left alone?

The revolt in the Vendée began in earnest on March 10 with coordinated attacks across the countryside, mainly on officers of the National Guard who were stationed outside officially-sanctioned churches to protect the “constitutional” clergy inside.

Riots erupted in the towns. Roaming mobs began to ransack Revolutionary offices, armed with hoes, pitchforks and other agricultural equipment. Mayors and “constitutional” clergy alike were physically attacked. At Machecoul and Challeau, the municipal administration buildings were burnt to the ground. Officials and Revolutionary “patriots” were forced to flee the countryside and seek shelter in wealthy bourgeois enclaves in towns where their principles were more welcome.

Revolutionary officials in Paris had no choice but to pay attention to the people’s rebellion. The NC was itself in some turmoil: influential politicians were trying to replace the ineffectual Executive Committee with what would eventually be called the Committee for Public Safety. Whilst the government tried to reorganize itself again, Revolutionary authorities gathered intelligence in the Vendée. They would have to make an example of the rebels or they would lose control of the rest of the country.

Clearly the Revolutionaries were faced with a conspiracy so menacing that everyone touched by it would have to be exterminated in case the moral pollution was contagious. Forty-five thousand troops were sent to put down the rebellion.

Hillbillies with Pitchforks

The rebels’ volunteer army numbered between 25,000–40,000 peasants whose main fighting experience consisted of drunken brawls in village taverns. They had no uniforms; most wore “sabots” (wooden clogs) instead of boots. Yet they consistently managed to beat back well-armed, experienced professional soldiers. A few had hunting rifles and were excellent shots; but the vast majority were armed with pitchforks, shovels and hoes. When the Revolutionary forces retreated, the reblels went back home to attend to their farms so that their families would not starve.

Revolutionary generals did not expect them to fight so fiercely. Of course, the rebels had no reinforcements behind them, and they knew that if they did not repel the Revolutionaries their homes would be destroyed, and their families butchered. The Vendéens were not paid for their fighting. Their main rewards for winning a battle was not being slaughtered for a little while longer. Under the circumstances, their discipline was outstanding, as even the Revolutionary generals admitted.

The Revolutionaries did not enjoy losing to a gang of peasants, and began officially to describe them as “brigands.” Now that they were “brigands” they could be treated like the criminals that they were. As the “constitutional” priest Abbé Roux, vicar of Champagne-Mouton, assured his Revolutionary masters on May 7 1793, in front of his remaining parishioners:

The sons of the Charente region await your orders to exterminate these brigands who are tearing apart our beloved nation. You, Citizens, stand firm at your posts: do not lose sight of the traitors and conspirators: never forget that if you show mercy, you will be feeding vampires and vultures within the precincts of this city, and one day they will drink deeply of the blood of those who saved them from the vengeance that their crimes deserve.

Justice for Brigands

From April 1793, local authorities began to round up suspected brigands in groups of 30 or 40 and execute them without trial. But as General Beysser noted in a dispatch to his colleague General La Bourdonnaye on April 11:

…a man’s death is soon forgotten, while the memory of burning down his house lasts for years.

Revolutionary forces usually ensured that there was nobody at home when they burned down brigands’ houses. They also started firing cannons at churches.

The Revolutionary armies established foundries for cannons in friendly territory: there were many churches throughout the Vendée that they had not yet fired upon. Also, in the interests of public safety, they had to go house to house to confiscate as much metal as they could find. Anything could be used as a weapon against them, even a fork. The Revolutionaries also confiscated church bells wherever they could. Not only to be melted down for cannonballs: also, some brigands seemed to be using them for signaling.

Conveniently, the Revolutionary authorities still had enough money left over from the sale of Church lands to pay for surveillance committees and other security officials. They established two criminal tribunals in the Vendée to reassure loyal citizens that even brigands who were not immediately shot would encounter some form of justice. Revolutionary armed forces were encouraged to take property from the families of brigands, particularly when the men were away fighting and there was nobody at home to defend the weak, the sick or the elderly.

By the end of June the Revolutionary armies were struggling to maintain order: their men were refusing to fire on the brigands; some were even deserting their posts, and abandoning the cause of Progress. But the Revolutionaries, unlike the brigands, could actually replace men who were killed, wounded or AWOL. Another 20,000 battle-hardened soldiers were dispatched to the Vendée. As General Salomon had reminded his men (June 17 1793) while they waited for reinforcements:

This is a war of brigands: it calls for all of us to become brigands. At this point we have to forget all military regulations, fall en masse on these criminals and hound them relentlessly: our infantry must flush them out from the underbrush and the woods so our cavalry can trample them in the plain. In a word: we must not let them regroup.

They had already begun to destroy windmills and bell towers; now they started systematically demolishing houses and chateaux, and any other structures that looked like they might serve in the future as safe houses for brigands. They did not yet have the manpower to burn down forests or ravage agricultural land to any significant degree; at least they could let the brigands know that they had nowhere to hide.

Purification Begins

The Revolutionary Army now outnumbered the brigands, and was far better armed. As the summer went on they began to regain territory and drive the brigands back. Now the killing could begin in earnest. The Revolutionaries preferred not to take prisoners. There would be no clemency or mercy for the brigands. As winter approached it was clear that the insurrection would not survive for long.

The Committee for Public Safety sent Jean-Baptiste Carrier to Nantes: he arrived on October 20 1793 and stayed there until the middle of February. Carrier pioneered the technique of drowning brigands to save money on bullets. During his four months as the Committee’s representative in Nantes, 452 alleged brigands were acquitted and released from prison, 1,971 were executed by normal means, 3,000 or so died of disease, and 4,860 were drowned. Perhaps 3,000 prisoners survived.

At first, drowning was used to deal with “refractory” clergy. On November 16 1793, 80 priests were drowned together in a boat; on December 5 or 6 a further 58 were disposed of in the same manner; 10 days later drowning was opened up for brigands more generally, and 129 Vendéens were drowned.

It became customary to drown brigands naked, not merely so that the Revolutionaries could help themselves to the Vendéens’ clothes, but also so that the younger women among them could be raped before death. Drownings spread far beyond Nantes: on 16th December, General Marceau sent a letter to the Revolutionary Minister of War triumphantly announcing, among other victories, that at least 3,000 non-combatant Vendéen women had been drowned at Pont-au-Baux.

The Revolutionaries were drunk with blood, and could not slaughter their brigand prisoners fast enough—women, children, old people, priests, the sick, the infirm. If the prisoners could not walk fast enough to the killing grounds, they were bayoneted in the stomach and left on the ground to be trampled by other prisoners as they bled to death.

General Westermann, one of the Revolution’s most celebrated soldiers, noted with satisfaction that he arrived at Laval on December 14 with his cavalry to see piles of cadavers—thousands of them—heaped up on either side of the road. The bodies were not counted; they were simply dumped after the soldiers had a chance of strip them of any valuables (mainly clothes).

No brigand would be allowed to return home: Westermann and his men slaughtered every possible brigand they could find, until the roads of the area were littered with corpses. December 29 was a particularly successful day, with a bumper crop of 400 Vendéens who were butchered from behind. But General Westermann’s single finest day of slaughter took place at Savenay, on December 21. As he announced, to an appreciative and grateful Committee for Public Safety:

Citizens of the Republic, there is no more Vendée. She has died beneath our sabre of freedom, with her women and children. I have buried her in the woods and marshes of Savenay. Following your orders, I have crushed her children under the hooves of my horses, and massacred her women … who will give birth to no further brigands now. There is not a single prisoner who could criticise my actions—I have exterminated them all….

At Savenay, 3,000 brigands were killed, with another 4,000 taken prisoner to be shot later on.

The Revolutionary generals also decided to end the lives of Vendéens who had stayed home during the rebellion or had somehow managed to return home. As early as December 20 soldiers were combing the countryside in search of candidates for extra-judicial executions. Some compared the process to hunting rabbits: none of the prey was armed. They were never guillotined, because these were mere peasants and artisans; there were few onlookers who would be particularly interested in watching them die.

The Crusade for Liberty

The Vendéen department of the Revolutionary government issued an official proclamation on 12th Frimaire of Year Two of the Revolution (December 2 1793) promising peace and security to the citizens of the region:

It is time…for the French to come together as one and the same family. Your people have disappeared; commerce has been annihilated; farming has withered away thanks to this disastrous war. Your delusions have resulted in many evils. You know it. Even so, the National Convention, which is as great as the people it represents, has forgiven and forgotten the past.

It is decreed by law…that all the people known as rebels in the Vendée … who lay down their arms within a month of the decree, will neither be sought out nor bothered just because they rebelled.

This law is not a fake amnesty. We have come in the name of the National Convention, who put us in charge of executing the law, to bring peace and consolation, speaking the language of clemency and humanity. If the bonds of blood and affection are not entirely broken, if you still love your country, if your return is sincere, our arms are open: let us embrace like brothers.

In fact, it was a fake amnesty. On January 17 1794, General Turreau set out with two armies of six divisions each on a ‘Crusade of Liberty’ to deal with what remained of the brigands. He ordered his lieutenants to spare nobody: women and children were also to be bayoneted in the stomach if there was the slightest hint of suspicion. Houses, farms, villages and thickets were all to be set on fire. Anything that could burn would have to burn. Soldiers in the ‘Infernal Columns’ of the Crusade had explicit instructions to wipe out every last possible trace of resistance or rebellion.

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Crusaders for Liberty were relatively sparing in their use of the bayonet. Men, women and children were more often shot, or burned alive in their houses. Some of the Crusading soldiers had the idea of lighting ovens, stoking them and baking Vendéen families in them. Babies were not spared; nor were toddlers or small children. The usual practice was to kill babies in front of their mothers, then kill the mothers. Young girls were often drowned, after first being raped. Widows were usually beaten, insulted and drowned. Though there was no established standard procedure.

Not all brigand corpses were dumped, or left in the ruins of their homes. Many bodies were skinned for their leather. On April 5 1794 at Clisson, General Crouzat’s soldiers burned 150 women alive to extract their fat to use as grease. Though on the whole the soldiers of the Crusade for Liberty were rarely so enterprising: they were well paid, and any profits they made were incidental. The Crusade was expensive: in total as many as 62,000 soldiers took part.

For all the Crusaders’ systematic efficiency there were numerous unforeseen logistical difficulties with their work. Eventually they had to see about burying the bodies of the brigands who had not been drowned. The sheer mass and quantity of corpses posed a potential health risk to General Turreau’s men. Yet many brigands had survived. As the Revolutionary bureaucrat Marie-Pierre-Adrien Francastel later complained: “There are still 20,000 unslit throats in this miserable province.”

Eventually the killing ended. On February 17 1795, what was left of the brigands’ leadership signed a peace treaty with the Revolutionary government, which generously allowed Vendéens who had been rendered destitute by the destruction of their property and livelihoods to join the Revolutionary army; though their numbers would be strictly limited and they would be kept under strict watch in case they had any ideas. The brigands’ rebellion never really ended; Revolutionaries were occasionally compelled to take further action, as at Chanzeaux on April 9 1795, when besieged rebels were burned alive in their church. At least their freedom of religion had been officially restored (January 21 1795).

Provisional Conclusions

Reynald Secher estimates that just over 117,000 Vendéens disappeared as a result of the brigands’ rebellion, out of a population of just over 815,000. This amounts to roughly one in seven Vendéens fatally affected by military actions and the Crusade for Liberty. Though some areas lost half their population or more, with notably heavy losses at Cholet, which lost three fifths of its houses as well as the same proportion of its people. Colleges, libraries and schools were destroyed as well as churches, private houses, farms, workshops and places of business. The Vendée lost 18 percent of its private houses; a quarter of the communes in Deux-Sèvres saw the destruction of 50 percent or more of all habitable buildings. Other consequences of the Crusade for Liberty included a widespread epidemic of venereal disease.

Latterly, historians have tried to characterize the extermination of the brigands as a genocide. The jurist Jacques Villemain argues that the Revolutionary government may fairly be charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of genocide. Though this would be anachronistic: the correct term is “populicide,” which was first used by the Revolutionary intellectual François-Noël “Gracchus” Babeuf in his ground-breaking 1794 study On The System of Depopulation, a text that also provides the first detailed account of Jean-Baptiste Carrier’s executions by drowning at Nantes.

A Lasting Legacy

General Turreau’s career demonstrates how easily a thirst for blood can be harnessed to the pursuit of noble ideals. Despite criticism, and a short prison term, he was eventually rewarded for his leadership during the Crusade for Liberty, and spent eight years as Napoleon’s ambassador to the United States (1803–11). His name is inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, at the top of the 15th column, along with those of other heroes who fought for the principles enshrined in the French Revolution’s original motto: “LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY—OR DEATH”.


1 Reynald Secher, Vendée: du genocide au mémoricide: mécanique d’un crime legal contre l’humanité (preface by Gilles-William Goldnadel; afterwords by Hélène Piralian and Stéphane Courtois, Éditions du Cerf 2011) p. 78. 

2 An English translation is available: see Reynald Secher, A French Genocide: the Vendée (translated by George Holoch), University of Notre Dame Press 2003. Much of this essay relies on the second French edition of this text (2006).

3 See Secher’s 20,000-word memoir on the subject: La désinformation autour des guerres de Vendée et du genocide vendéen, Atelier Fol’fer (Collection l’Étoile du berger) 2009.

4 See Furet’s Penser la Révolution française, Gallimard 1978 (translated into English by Elborg Forster as Interpreting the French Revolution, Cambridge University Press 1981), as well as his more general essays on historiography in L’Atelier de l’histoire, Flammarion 1982 (English version: In The Workshop of History, translated by Jonathan Mandel, University of Chicago Press 1984).

Principal sources for this essay:

Jean-Joël Brégeon and Gérard Guicheteau. Nouvelle histoire des guerres de Vendée. Paris: Éditions Perrin 2017. 380 pp.

Patrick Buisson. La grande histoire des guerres de Vendée. Preface by Philippe de Villiers. Paris: Éditions Perrin 2017. 300 pp.

Reynald Secher. La Vendée vengé: le genocide franco-français (new edition). Paris: Éditions Perrin 2006. 351 pp.

Jacques Villemain. Vendée 1793-1794: Crime de guerre? Crime contre l’humanité? Génocide? Une étude juridique. Paris: Éditions du Cerf 2017. 305 pp.

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