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  You are in: Home > History > The French Revolution  

The French Revolution
A Tale of Terror and Hope for Our Times

Harold Behr

Harold Behr
is a psychiatrist, co-author of Group Analytic Psychotherapy: A Meeting of Minds (Wiley/Blackwell) and former editor of Group Analysis: The International Journal of Group Analytic Psychotherapy. In this book he applies his knowledge of group dynamics and psychology to his long-standing interest in the history and politics of revolution.


This is the story of the French Revolution told from a psychological and group dynamic perspective. The aim is to throw light on the workings of the revolutionary mind and the emotions at work in society which pave the way towards revolution and war. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette are presented as a couple trapped by the symbolism invested in them, a circumstance that turned them into scapegoats. The contrasting personalities of the two most controversial leaders of the Revolution – Robespierre and Danton – provide psychologically informed explanations of their success and failure as leaders. The group perspective – the nature of crowd behaviour and mob violence – links to the complex relationship between leaders and groups. In the Parisian case of 1789 group emotions – fear, rage, euphoria and fervour – influenced the course of the Revolution. The assassination of Marat and the struggle to the death between the extremists of the Left and the Moderates is a classic study in group paranoia culminating in a Reign of Terror destined to end in self-destructive violence. The conflict between the Revolution and the Church as an expression of belief in an ideal society led to a battle for the minds of a people facing two incompatible ideologies.

The French Revolution was an important milestone in western social and political development. It carried within itself the seeds of a humane society, but turned into murder and execution. The dichotomies arising echo down the generations. The same split in our thinking applies to how we view today’s social upheavals and conflicts – conflicts of opposing mythologies with their psychological overtones interpreted as political doctrines – as evinced currently in Russia’s territorial claims to Eastern Ukraine, Islamic fundamentalist wars, and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Hope lies in the application of therapeutic principles garnered from the field of group dynamics.

A Personal Note
Chronology of the French Revolution

Theoretical Preamble
Chapter 1 Louis XVI: The Scapegoat King
Chapter 2 Robespierre: The Mind of a Fanatic
Chapter 3 Danton: The Passionate Opportunist
Chapter 4 Violence and Enlightenment: The Paradox of the French Revolution
Chapter 5 The Revolutionary Crowd: Bloodthirsty Mob or Will of the People?
Chapter 6 Revolution versus Religion: God, Reason and the God of Reason
Chapter 7 Heroes, Tyrants and Martyrs: The Assassination of Marat and
the Murder of the Girondins
Chapter 8 The Reign of Terror: A Study in Group Paranoia
Chapter 9 The Power of the Group to Destroy its Leader: The Fall of
Chapter 10 How History and Mythology Intertwine

Books Which I Hope Will Interest the Reader

“This is a great book, the result of many years of concentrated research on the psychodynamics of the French Revolution … Behr writes about the paranoid group dynamic as one in which those inside the group battle to protect themselves from those outside who were perceived as enemies. Such groups are endemic in human relationships. They impinge on our lives, the diversity which ranges from family jealousies, to petty business rivalries, to large-scale social conflict and global warfare. The paranoid dynamic reflects a state of mind in which there is a clear belief that ‘good’ is located within the group self and ‘bad’ within the other group. A notable phrase, taken from page 125, is: ‘One man’s martyr is another man’s demon.’ … This book is a major achievement and conveys to us the deep advances in our understanding of socio-political convulsions … This remarkably timely and well-crafted book is essential reading for us to understand the convulsions of the French Revolution which eventually underlay the constitution of European societies as laid down by Bonaparte whose bicentenary we are now celebrating …” Malcolm Pines, Group Analysis: The International Journal of Group-Analytic Psychotherapy, September 2015

Regarding these carefully chiselled portraits [of Louis XVI, Danton and Robespierre] one is reminded that psychiatry as a descriptive science has become a kind of lost art which Behr brings to life again … If it were only for these few lines of elegant prose, and even if one would set aside all of its (weighty) arguments, Harold Behr’s book on the French Revolution would be a pleasure to read … It is to be hoped that Behr’s book on the French Revolution is met with the same enthusiasm anong group analysts that Kant observed among his contemporaries with regard to this great historical event.” Dieter Nitzgen, Group Analysis: The International Journal of Group-Analytic Psychotherapy, September 2015

Harold Behr has provided us with a fascinating account that is ‘out of left field’, as he uses what psychiatry has given him to bring fresh insights to this event. It is also a primer for further investigations into historic events and epoch making moments which can be enlightened by the application of group-analytic ideas… In clear prose that is easily comprehended Behr moves easily from discussing in a Theoretical preamble his methods and approach to looking closely at what is known of the main protagonists…..He tells a fast-paced story of events as forces gathered for the Reign of Terror and the culmination of group paranoia. This is the kind of approach to the understanding of history that has been largely absent, in my experience. No longer ‘Just one damn thing after another’; instead an approach that ranges across the individual personalities acting as dynamic interactive entities and the world they inhabit and act in… Using group-dynamic and group-analytic ideas, he makes fulsome examination of the revolutionary crowd, explaining it and its contradictory moods and actions to offer some understanding of how this first successful People’s uprising did what it did. This is a great book for group analysts. Read and refresh yourself.Kevin Power, Group-analytic Contexts, September 2015

“Victor Hugo meets Sigmund Freud (or rather, S.H. Foulkes) in this engaging group analytic account of the French Revolution. Psychiatrist Harold Behr describes a lifelong interest in this period of history, beginning in his South African childhood and developed by devouring biographies of Maximilien Robespierre, ‘the idealist turned monster’. He experienced a growing awareness of controversies and contradictions at the heart of the history and ‘decided that the only way to unmuddle myself was to pull a few clinical tricks out of the psychiatrist’s bag and examine some of the dramatis personae of the Revolution as if they were patients. This would force me into empathic mode by investigating their backgrounds, rooting around in their childhoods and doing my level best to see the Revolution as they might have seen it.’

This interesting book has stimulated me to think more about groups and leaders, which can only be a good thing – but who knows if we will ever fully understand the significance of the times in which we live?” Tom C. Russ in The British Journal of Psychiatry (November 2015)



Publication Details

Paperback ISBN:
Page Extent / Format:
180 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Release Date:
February 2015
  Illustrated:   Yes
Paperback Price:
£19.95 / $29.95

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