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Reign of Terror

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"Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country."

Finally, the revolution has occurred, La Résistance has won, and the tyrannous Evil Overlord has been deposed. This should be the end of The Empire, the establishment of a new era of freedom, peace, prosperity, and equality.

Well, as soon as Les Collaborateurs have been judged, condemned, and executed, of course. And we need to take care of all the enemies and reactionaries within us who still wish to undermine the new regime. And I'm afraid quite a few of those people who fought for the revolution along with me have just been revealed to be traitors as well! I have no choice but to seize more powers to deal with all the dangers which threaten our ideals, create a special force charged to investigate those who would betray the revolution, and an extraordinary jury to condemn them quickly.

It's all for the sake of our freedom so direly gained, of course.

This trope is for the aftermath of a revolution or rebellion, when the former leaders of the uprising find themselves in power and may become tyrants themselves, while the ideals that led to the revolution are forgotten by the populace and buried under bloody infighting between former allies.

This is often a consequence of The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized and having an army of Knights Templar in your ranks.

A subtrope of The Purge. Compare and contrast with Full-Circle Revolution, which has virtually no change in the way things are governed after the revolution. These revolutions are compatible in that a revolution can produce no real change even after ruthlessly slaughtering large chunks of the population, and indeed, after all this slaughter, people may be quite content to merely get back to the old ways. The Imperial variant is Crushing the Populace, where you make sure no one will oppose you again through sheer brutality.

The Trope Namer is the events of 1793-1794 during The French Revolution, which saw a series of massacres and thousands of people being sent to the guillotine.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • One country that Kino visits in Kino's Journey replaced a tyrant king with the rule of majority. First the people voted to kill the king and his family, then his supporters and their family. Then anyone who disagreed with the majority. The country is left with one man after he and his wife voted to kill the third man, and then the wife died of an unrelated illness. (Having a doctor would have helped.)
  • Gundam has used something like that, except it did not really occur after a revolution but after a war/reshaping of the world order. In the UC timeline, the special forces Titans were established (who have become a prime example of an oppressive military in anime), and later in the A.D. timeline, an even straighter example were the A-Laws, which pretty much ruled the earth with an iron fist behind the scenes (and behind them, the innovators).
  • Happens in Apocalypse no Toride when the inmates revolt against and kill the guards and staff and the most vile of the delinquents take over. And they have no problem with throwing anyone who disagrees into the mass of zombies outside the prison walls.

  • In the Woody Allen film, Bananas, the rebels overthrow the evil Central American dictatorship. Then the new leader goes batshit insane and starts his Reign Of Terror. So the rebels get Woody to be leader instead. Hilarity Ensues.
  • In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane and his mercenaries isolate Gotham City from the rest of the world through a series of explosions and hold the city hostage with a nuclear bomb. The next day, he assembles his army outside Blackgate, releases the prisoners, and starts a faux revolution. What follows is a 6-month Reign Of Terror where the entire city is thrown into chaos, with the main intent to target the wealthy and privileged for kangaroo courts where they're given a choice of death or exile. It doesn't matter what they pick.

  • Animal Farm, based upon the Russian Revolution and the rise of Communism, is the epitome of this trope.
  • Honor Harrington has the Committee of Public Safety taking over the People's Republic of Haven, which is modeled exactly on the historical French government, although it has parallels to Soviet Russia as well. It comes to a rather decisive and pointed end when the last surviving leader of the Committee is shot in the head by Admiral Thomas Theisman. He and a handful of others then restore the true Republic, under a Constitution that hadn't seen the light of day in two centuries.
  • The rule of The Citizen in The Hero of Ages has become this, leading some of our heroes to attempt a Full-Circle Revolution. What they don't realize is that both sides are being influenced by the Big Bad.
  • The Egyptian novel The Thief and the Dogs has this as the setting's backstory. Said Mahran (the main character) was a Just Like Robin Hood thief fighting against the colonialist European government during the revolutions of the 1950's. Unfortunately for him, his closest allies in the movement, Ilish Sidra and Rauf Ilwan, basically seize power for themselves. The result? Egypt is no better off than it was before (really the only difference is the totalitarian leaders are Egyptian instead of European) and Said is out for revenge as the book starts.
  • Katniss' killing of President Coin in The Hunger Games (at the end of the third book Mockingjay) is intended to avert this, due to her being privy to some disturbing discussions on the eve of the execution of President Snow, up to and including the idea of the "Revenge Games", which are basically the Hunger Games all over again in all but name.
  • In Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here, Windrip's regime quickly and brutally suppresses dissent once he takes power. After Windrip goes into exile and Saranson is assassinated, Haik's regime is even worse.
  • The world during the latter half of the Tribulation in the Left Behind series became this after Nicolae Carpathia was "resurrected" and declared himself god over all the earth. Citizens were required to bear the Mark of the Beast and to bow down before Carpathia's image three times a day or face punishment, which includes death. Sometimes citizens who do end up getting the mark are executed anyway. All religions except for Carpathianism were illegal to practice, and rebels that didn't align themselves with either God or Carpathia were also killed. Dissenters and critics against Carpathia's authority, even with the slightest infractions such as staring nervously at him and not addressing him by his proper title, were dealt very harshly.
  • The rule of the Vordanai Deputies-General in The Shadow Campaigns is this, complete with political police, kangaroo trials, and thousands of citizens sent to "the spike" (a very guillotine-esque piece of equipment that fires a spring-loaded spike through a table into the condemned's chest) for various imagined crimes against the state.
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky saw this as the inevitable outcome of radical movements, as he illustrates in Demons.
  • A Tale of Two Cities builds up to a depiction of the Trope Namer during The French Revolution;note  it's not enough to execute the aristocracy who were living lives of luxury while the vast majority of the population starved. Their extended families must also be rounded up and beheaded, and then anyone else who might be plotting against the new French Republic (such as the seamstress who is executed just before Sydney Carton, who dies never understanding the charges against her but hoping that her death will ensure the Republic's prosperity)... and, according to Carton's (hypothetical) final speech, many of the executioners will eventually find themselves on the other side of the guillotine's blade before the bloodshed exhausts itself and France finally lives up to the Revolution's ideals.
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel is set around the point where The French Revolution was beginning to turn into the Reign of Terror, and the hero famously goes around rescuing condemned innocents from their fate at the blade of Madame La Guillotine (though the author does get some of the specific dates wrong and tends to exaggerate precisely how busy the guillotine was; the fact that she was a baroness may have had a little to do with it).

    Live Action TV 
  • Doctor Who actually had a serial titled The Reign Of Terror. Set during the Reign of Terror.
  • As did The Time Tunnel.
  • The third Blackadder takes place during the French Reign of Terror (with the Scarlet Pimpernel being treated as a historical figure). Blackadder decides to fake rescuing a French refugee to win a bet, but it turns out that the French embassy in London has been taken over by an agent of Robespierre and he nearly gets executed anyway.
  • Good Omens (2019): A flashback takes place during the actual Reign of Terror. Aziraphale has been caught by the French revolutionaries and mistaken for an aristocrat because he refused to wear anything besides his upper-class British clothes. Oh, and the reason he was in France at all is because he really wanted some crepes. Crowley shows up to rescue him, at which point it is revealed that Aziraphale could have escaped at any time (no surprise there, since he's an angel); he uses a miracle to switch clothes with the executioner, the executioner is dragged off to be executed, and Aziraphale and Crowley leave to find some crepes.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Given that it was blatantly based on The French Revolution, it's not surprising that this ends up happening to the country of Montaigne in 7th Sea's metaplot.
  • Arguably began in Warhammer 40,000 when the God-Emperor unified Terra, but has since become a permanent state of affairs.
    • Better than anyone else's reign of terror at the moment, save the Tau whose ignorance of psykers would spell doom for any psychically active species (like humans) run by them.
    • Technically the actual Reign Of Terror only began with the Horus Heresy. Before that, the government, while brutal and authoritarian, tended to avoid the excesses and extremes that are the norm afterwards.
    • Even by the extreme standards of the imperium, there are periods and places which stand out. The most spectacular and wide-reaching of these was High Lord Goge Vandire's Reign of Blood (particularly notable for being an exercise in human ambition, megalomania, and paranoia with no otherworldly involvement).
  • Pathfinder has the nation of Galt, which broke away from Cheliax in a bloody revolution that hasn't let up in forty years. This is not helped by the Grey Gardeners and their Final Blades: guillotines that trap the souls of their victims. It's eventually revealed the country is inhabited by a Conqueror Worm, a malevolent being with near-godlike psychic powers that has been mind-controlling key figures to artificially prolong the revolution for its entertainment.

"Upon hearing the news of the king's death, Uutut's political adversaries cheered Wysterwort as a hero. They were soon disabused."
Frivolous Lives, Vol. I
  • Frostpunk features the opportunity to enact this trope in all it's chilling brutality in it's The Last Autumn scenario, where, facing strikes instigated by the workers you rescued early on, you can either promote practical safety and efficiency in the face of the impending End of the World as We Know It or give in and appease them with bribes and power, culminating in the Terror law, the only one with a one-word name. As expected, regular executions become the norm.

    Web Original 
  • Look to the West has a close analogue in its own version of The French Revolution, led by Jean-Baptiste Robespierre. He proclaims the "doctrine of continuous warfare," by which the Republic must be in a continuous state of war in order to terrify its people into submission. When eventually overthrown by Jean de Lisieux, he is replaced by a regime which specifically rejects terror tactics and even the death penalty, but instead embraces 2 + Torture = 5.
  • Mahu: In "Crownless Eagle", as the revolution turns the Commonwealth into a Republic, a short reign of terror ensues. Though not nearly as bloody as the real French revolution, hundreds, if not thousands of royalists are forced into exile or executed.


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To the Guillotine!

Robespierre has just the punishment for enemies of the Revolution.

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