The execution of Danton (1794)

The Parisian leader Georges Danton was executed on April 6th 1794. This account of Danton’s execution was recorded by Ruault, in a letter to his brother:

“Danton was the first to climb into the first of three carts which were to take the group to the Place de la Revolution. He had to wait until all three carts were loaded so that they could go to execution together. The loading took over an hour because Camille Desmoulins struggled a long time with the executioner, and knocked him down twice. He refused to have his hands tied or his hair cut, and they say the gendarmes had to help the executioner overcome Camille’s resistance.

During this time Danton was laughing in the cart and nodding to the other condemned men, who were by now bound and placed in their carts, to show that he was being kept waiting too long. He chatted to Lacroix and Herault, who were next to him, saying within the hearing of the people beside the carriages near the palace courtyard rails: ‘What annoys me most is that I am going to die six weeks before Robespierre’. Eventually, Camille appeared in the cart. His shirt was in ribbons, he was out of breath, frenzied, loudly cursing Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety and the infamous Tribunal which served these monsters.

The condemned went to their deaths in the midst of a huge crowd of republicans, who were there to watch the original founders of their Republic lose their heads. Seeing the procession pass, a woman in the Rue St-Honore looked at Danton and exclaimed: ‘How ugly he is!’ He smiled at her and said: ‘There’s no point in telling me that now, I shan’t be ugly much longer’. His face did in fact look like the head of a lion, while Robespierre’s is like that of a cat or a tiger.

When they reached the place of execution, they were made to get out of the carts at the foot of the scaffold. They climbed up one by one to be executed and watched as the others died under the blade. Danton was the last. When he saw the executioner coming for him at the foot of the scaffold, he cried out in a strong voice, ‘My turn now!’ and quickly climbed the fatal ladder. As they were tying him to the block, he looked calmly at the blade dripping with his friends’ blood, and bent his head saying: ‘It’s only a sabre cut’ (a phrase Desmoulins had once used to describe the new method of execution).

Danton is dead, Robespierre triumphant. The tiger has beaten the lion. But the triumph will not last, if we can believe Danton’s prediction on his way to the scaffold – and he was a man who understood revolutions.”