“White terror” has always been the twin brother of “revolutionary” or “red terror.” Modern history since the French Revolution has witnessed an effervescent parade of rebellions, insurrections, insurgencies, and proper coups – but they almost always came in pairs, as, for example, with revolutionary terror (against sitting feudal, authoritarian regimes) and white terror, counter-revolutionary violence, directed against the alleged revolutionary (or socialist, after 1917) activists and dissidents. Applying this dichotomy of terror to the current wave of insurrection (in the United States and elsewhere) helps us to put its dynamics in a broader historical context.
With the “red scare” having ingrained itself in the American collective and national memory, it is easy to forget that for Europeans, “white terror” as a politics of vengeance was always the natural partner to occurrences of “red revolutions.” What connects the two faces of terror is historically evident as well from the perspective of European history: “la Grande Peur”, the great fear, and the accompanying dynamic of autosuggestion, or the near-subconscious adoption of an idea derived from one’s own conscious. In his famous, and still highly relevant account of the French Revolution, La grande peur de 1789 (1932), French historian Georges Lefebvre introduced the notion of the general panic, the “great fear” that urged peasants and local communities nationwide to launch an assault on the feudal system in 1789.
Fueled by “fausses nouvelles” (fake news) and rumors, they believed that a foreign force would burn their crops; robbers were on their way to burn their houses and this was all part of a “famine plot” hatched by aristocrats to starve the population and force them back into obedience and acquiescence. Peasants, townspeople, but also artisans and members of the bourgeoisie attacked the estates of the feudal nobility and tried to find and destroy documents recording feudal privileges. This panic-inspired revolt then triggered the National Assembly in Paris to do away with the feudal regime, thereby kickstarting the proper French Revolution that same year. The ensuing waves of insurrection, the overthrow of the monarchy, the upending of the estates system, and the abolishment of feudal privileges and expropriations came to be known as a “regime of terror”—a terror, anchored forever in history by Robespierre’s mechanization of the noose: the guillotine.
Yet, with their executions and arrests, the revolutionary committees immediately prompted a counter-revolutionary wave of white terror to wash over the country in 1795. This wave was not directed from above. It included mob lynchings, uncoordinated attacks, and protests staged by victims’ relatives and other people opposing the Jacobins. However, in Southern France, the counter-revolutionary violence was organized and carried out by underground associations of royalists, who had been preparing to hunt down Jacobins participating in the Reign of Terror. The epitaph “white” derived from the fact that they were said to adorn their caps with white cockades, the color of the Bourbon monarchy.
For Lefebvre, the pivots to understanding this outburst of violence were the concepts of social fear and autosuggestion, which worked for both types of violence. Obviously, there were deeper causes and transitions that had ripened the climate for rebellion, but the trigger for the insurrections were the self-generated beliefs allowing historical actors to believe that their worst fears were already coming true before they in fact were. As Lefebvre noted, “Now when an assembly, an army or an entire population sits waiting for the arrival of some enemy, it would be very unusual if this enemy were not actually sighted at some time or other.” As an unprecedented and tectonic rupture in the political, economic, cultural, and even historical fabric of society, the French Revolution came to be the blueprint of every social panic since 1789. The Paris Commune and the Red Terror of 1917 only further carved out this primordial trope in history; the Cold War translated the Red Scare into a veritable literary and cultural industry, with radio plays and movies invoking all kinds of looming conspiracies – apocalyptical days of reckoning included.
The Cold War deepened and hardened Lefebvre’s notion of the “grande peur” in the heart of all-centrist, conservative parties in the liberal democracies of the West. Lefebvre was spot on with his focus on “history of below” and the notion of autosuggestion as the motor for revolutions (as opposed to the idea of central coordination from above). However, he could have highlighted its effect on the proponents of the “white terror” with far more emphasis, because that is where the autosuggestion and primordial fears for revolution have been mostly at home: with the perpetrators of “white terror” and their conspiracy-driven politics of vengeance.
From 1795 onwards, the trope of counter-revolutionary violence against alleged traitors, enemies of the public, communists, or fifth columns has proliferated. This thread connects the wave of white terror in 1815 to the spells of white terror in Russia, Bulgaria, Finland, and later, in Greece and even Taiwan in the twentieth century. Terror, too, has been a feature of counter-revolutionary violence, since the late-eighteenth century as it evolved into “terrorism” as a discourse.
We could even argue that following the theory of political scientist David Rapoport on the “four waves” of terrorism in modern history (anarchism, anti-colonial terrorism, leftwing terrorism, and holy terrorisms), each wave of terrorism was always accompanied by its shadow wave of parasitic, reactionary, and counter-revolutionary terrorism trying to push back against, undo, and delegitimize the changes and transformations wrought by emancipatory movements.
In 1815, with the return of the Bourbon monarchy, the spectre of a looming return of Napoleon (even after St. Helena) was met with a frenzy of ultraroyalist bloodletting in the Midi. Under the pretext of rooting out a wide, anti-monarchical conspiracy, the underground associations and vindictive royalists returned from exile, organized raids in the department of the Gard, and killed thousands of alleged revolutionaries and bonapartists. Terrified protestants (who were singled out on many occasions) wrote in despair to the allied minister of police in Paris, complaining about a “seconde Barthelemy.” But the security forces and government in Paris sat still and waited for the counter-revolutionary terror to wash over. That suited them better, in their quest for consolidating their power.
The autosuggestion of the anti-feudal revolution in the nineteenth century translated into a fear of colonial uprisings and insurgencies in the twentieth century, with the OAS-terrorists enacting their “white terror” attacks in France in the 1960s, for example. During the Cold War rightwing terrorist organizations such as Ordine Nuovo in Italy even went as far as staging alleged left wing terrorist bombings as part of their “strategy of tension,” the prequel for today’s strategy of “acceleration” in the 1970s. Alleged communist take-overs and expropriations were always high on the agenda of anticommunist witch hunters, who in countries as dispersed as Spain, FRG, the US, and Chile resorted to counter-coups and political killings in the 1970s and 1980s.
Even more pertinent for today, in the US and elsewhere, the trope of reactionary “white terror” translates into the especially deep-seated fear for supposedly anti-white and allegedly socialist agendas. Here, the epitaph “white” mutated from indicating a political, cultural or social denominator for a specific type of reactionary protest and violence into its most racial outgrowth: “white terror” has come to be equated with “anti-Black” terror. On January 6, 2021, it exposed itself in this form with an attempted coup against the democratic process itself, i.e. as a form of white supremacist terror directed against an alleged leftwing, socialist elite take-over of the country, and, crucially, against Black people and people of color in general as well – now with zip-tie cuffs, a noose, and a make-shift gallows instead of a guillotine.
The autosuggestion of Lefebvre regarding the mobs and masses turning wild against an enemy that they themselves propped up, and inspired by an apocalyptical panic that they themselves generated through their media outlets, was always more appropriate for “white terror.” With its reactionary, backward-looking direction, it was and is worlds apart from the thrust of the original peasant and citizens revolts that were driven by emancipatory ideals against an unjust system.
Beatrice de Graaf is distinguished professor at Utrecht University and holds the chair of History of International Relations. Her monograph, Fighting Terror after Napoleon: How Europe became secure after 1815, was published with Cambridge University Press in 2020.
Stephen Clay, “The White Terror: Factions, Reactions, and the Politics of Vengeance” in Peter McPhee (Ed.), A Companion to the French Revolution (Chichester, 2015), 359-377.
Beatrice de Graaf, Fighting Terror after Napoleon: How Europe became secure after 1815 (Cambridge, 2020).
Georges Lefebvre, The Great Fear of 1789: Rural Panic in Revolutionary France, translated by Joan White (London, 1973).
David Rapoport, “The four waves of modern terrorism,” in Audrey Kurth Cronin and James M. Ludes (red.), Attacking Terrorism. Elements of a Grand Strategy (Washington, DC 2004), 46-73.
 Georges Lefebvre, The Great Fear of 1789. Rural Panic in Revolutionary France, translated by Joan White (London 1973), 50.