As the mass executions during the Jacobin Terror of the French Revolution spiraled toward their bloody peak between 1792 and 1794, at the same time, ever more elaborate “Festivals of Virtue” were being staged. These pageants were a curious attempt to create a secular political religion with ancient Greek and Roman overtones, the beginning of the operatic spectacles we associate with subsequent totalitarian movements and regimes from the Bolsheviks’ May Day parades and the Nazis’ Nuremberg Rallies to the massing of hundreds of thousands of human puppets in the North Korean stage-set “capital” of Pyongyang.
The French Revolution's festivals emphasized a purity and innocence that played in bizarre counterpoint to the daily scenes of unbelievable savagery and sadism unfolding alongside them, and featuring the same players. Alternating with these sentimental and bucolic idylls were intervals of organized horror that even today cannot be read about without amazement. Christopher Hibbert writes about the executions in Paris: “As the heaps of corpses mounted, carts drawn by horses ... were obtained to take them away to the Montrouge quarries. Women helped to load them, breaking off occasionally to dance the Carmagnole, then stood laughing on the slippery flesh ... some with ears pinned to their dresses.” He quotes an eyewitness account: “The carts were full of men and women who had just been slaughtered and whose limbs were still flexible because they had not had time to grow cold, so that legs and arms and heads nodded and dangled on either side.” Hibbert goes on: “Men were reported by reliable witnesses to have been seen drinking, eating and smoking amidst the carnage, using for tables and chairs the naked bodies of their victims whose clothes had been removed ... ” A special public spectacle was designed for the Princesse de Lamballe, Queen Marie Antoinette's closest friend – she “had been stripped and raped; her breasts had been cut off; the rest of her body mutilated” and exposed to the public's jeering. “A man was later accused of having cut off her genitals which he impaled upon a pike and of having ripped out her heart which he ate ‘after having roasted it on a cooking-stove.’”