Why are we so fascinated by Danton? Perhaps because we know so little about him. We know he was a powerful orator, and popular on the streets of revolutionary Paris. We know that, with the enemy at the gates, he made stirring speeches urging the French to save their revolution by being tirelessly bold. We know, above all, that in the spring of 1794 he questioned whether a policy of Terror was doing more harm than good, and paid the price by being guillotined himself. He thus died a martyr to humanity, struck down by his polar opposite, the frigid and inflexible Robespierre.
These are the elements of a legend that began in the 1830s with Georg Büchner’s play Danton’s Death, and was taken up by historians, particularly those writing in English, from Thomas Carlyle onwards. If only he had prevailed, the bloody climax of the Terror might have been avoided!