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In early 1794 – at the height of the Reign of Terror – French soldiers marched to the Atlantic Vendée, where peasants had risen up against the Revolutionary government in Paris.
Twelve "infernal columns" commanded by General Louis-Marie Turreau were ordered to kill everyone and everything they saw. Thousands of people – including women and children – were massacred in cold blood, and farms and villages torched.
Historians believe that around 170,000 Vendéeans were killed in the peasant war and the subsequent massacres – and around 5,000 in the noyades.
According to the historian Alain Gérard, of the Vendéean Centre for Historical Research, "In other parts of France the revolutionaries killed the nobles or the rich bourgeoisie. But in Vendée they killed the people.
"It was the Revolution turning against the very people from whom it claimed legitimacy. It proved the faithlessness of the Revolution to its own principles. That's why it was wiped out of the historical memory," he said.
The bloody events of the Vendée were long absent from French history books, because of the evil light they shed on the Revolutionaries. However, they were well known in the Soviet bloc. Lenin himself had studied the war there and drew inspiration for his policies towards the peasantry.
The use of the word genocide is wholly inaccurate and inappropriate," said Timothy Tackett of the University of California.