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At the Heart of the Terror

A black cloud has always hovered over the name of the French Revolutionary politician Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794). The city of Paris has no grand memorial to him. The rues Saint-Just and Robert-Lindet and the boulevard Carnot commemorate other of his colleagues from the Committee of Public Safety, which ruled France during the Reign of Terror (1793– 1794)—but no Robespierre street-name exists in the capital. Since the time of the Popular Front in 1936 there has been a Métro stop—though Métro Robespierre is located beyond the boulevard périphérique in the workers’ suburb of Montreuil. It is as if Paris—a city replete with sites of memory—suffers from Robespierre amnesia. Even in his native Arras, moreover, as Ruth Scurr notes in her new account of Robespierre’s life, memorabilia are notable by their absence, there is little to be seen in the Maison Robespierre, and the visitor is given the sense that “Robespierre is someone to be ashamed of.”

Robespierre still has some fans. Many of the historians among them belong to the Société des Études Robespierristes (Society for Robespierrist Studies), a learned society in Paris founded in 1907, which meets sedately to listen to papers, run a journal, plan colloquia, and subsidize scholarly publications. At the society’s meeting in 1988, Michel Vovelle, then holder of the prestigious Chair in the History of the French Revolution at the Sorbonne, delivered a paper entitled “Pourquoi nous sommes encore robespierristes?” (“Why Are We Still Robespierrists?”). The title deliberately echoed a talk delivered in 1920 by a former holder of the same chair, Albert Mathiez. In it, Mathiez drew parallels between 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917.1

Vovelle’s reasons for being “Robespierrist” were less Bolshevik. Robespierre’s life was worth celebrating because he had consistently befriended the poor, defended the oppressed, championed social democracy, and fought for a fairer society. He had done so with an unswerving integrity which, early in the Revolution, had won him the nickname “the Incorruptible.” Even if we resist the tendency to deck out Robespierre as a founding father of the French “social model,” much of the program that Vovelle represents him as espousing can be placed well within the horizon of contemporary political acceptability. In that sense, it might even be said that we are “all Robespierrists now” (or at least mostly).

Yet to speak of Robespierre is to speak of the Terror. As a prominent member of France’s Revolutionary Government in 1793–1794, Robespierre justified and in many cases instigated terroristic policies which aimed to scare the French nation into political conformity and to drive the armies of France’s European enemies beyond its frontiers. The infamous Revolutionary Tribunal was not his invention, but it was certainly his instrument. He witnessed attacks on Catholicism, and sought to institute a civic religion, the Cult of the Supreme Being. He was overthrown in a coup d’état on July 27, 1794—9 Thermidor Year II in the newly created Revolutionary calendar—and guillotined the next day.

Robespierre still has supporters partly because the Reign of Terror still does. While some might be tempted to equate Robespierre’s Terror with what passes under the same name in the twenty-first century, his partisans see the excessive and even horrific policies of 1793–1794 as an understandable response to the pressing circumstances in which the Revolution found itself at the time. Newly republican France was undermined by counterrevolutionary forces—the west of the country was in the grip of peasant royalists, and many other regions were mutinously suspicious of Paris. On (and often inside) the frontiers, the Republic was confronting the armed forces of the crowned heads of Europe, breathing revenge for the execution of the hapless Louis XVI. Vovelle and his colleagues rest their admiration for Robespierre not only on his social conscience but on his patriotism and republican fidelity. In these extreme circumstances, paragon of humane virtue that he was, Robespierre could be forgiven for putting liberal freedoms temporarily on hold so as to protect the very existence of the Revolution.

Terror divides, now as then. Among historians, the “thesis of circumstance,” as it is called—that is, the tendency to view the Terror as springing from a nationalistic response to external aggression and internal sedition—has long had its critics. The most influential recent revisionist attack on it was led by the late François Furet. The Revolution, Furet argued, had an inbuilt tendency toward popular violence from its earliest days. This set up the preconditions for terror long before there were threats, external or internal. The Terror was thus not a temporary, chance aberration from the principles of 1789, it was their fulfillment. Terror was in the Revolution’s DNA from the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, onward. Indeed, as fellow revisionist historian Simon Schama memorably phrased it, 1794 “was merely 1789, with a higher body-count.”2 Furet’s analysis placed particular emphasis on the role of political discourses emergent in 1789 in determining later political choices. He also highlighted the role of Robespierre in generating and diffusing what became the dominant language of violence. For Furet, the Incorruptible was the purest and most distilled rhetorical form assumed by the radical, eventually terroristic discourse of Revolution.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Charles Dickens famously declared of the French Revolutionary Terror at the outset of his stirring novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859). The Great Robespierre Conundrum is that in this one person we seem to have both the best and the worst of men. Just as the Terror is for some eminently justifiable and for others shockingly unjustifiable, so Robespierre may be, as Scurr puts it, on one hand “the cold-eyed, self-justifying apostle of terrorism and totalitarianism,” “the first of the modern dictators,” and “the inventor and perpetrator of the Terror who sent thousands to their deaths”—yet on the other a super-patriot and a paragon of social democratic virtue.

Historians who are brave enough to undertake a biographical study of Robespierre are thus entering a broken field, a site of major and unresolved historiographical dispute, and a political hornet’s nest. If all that was not daunting enough, they also have to negotiate some extremely knotty problems of evidence. Hardly was Robespierre’s blood dry than his infamy soared. The motley group of conspirators who had planned the Thermidor coup stressed the enormity of his villainy, thus both legitimating and glorifying their action in overthrowing him. Many of these competitors had been Robespierre’s associates during the Reign of Terror. Overplaying his tyranny was thus partially a way of self-exculpation—a familiar tactic, of course, in “post-ish” times. In order to understand the nature and full extent of the role of Robespierre and his associates in the Terror, historians have to accept that much evidence has been lost or destroyed and that much of what remains is irredeemably post-Thermidorian.

It is still nonetheless remarkable how many even very basic facts about both Robespierre and the Terror remain obscure and uncertain, especially considering how much Robespierrist and anti-Robespierrist ink has been spilled over the course of two centuries. The prior use and meanings of the very term “terror” itself, for example, are still clouded in mystery. Similarly, for estimates of the total number of Terror victims, we still rely on computations made by Donald Greer in 1935. Greer set the figure at 30,000 to 40,000 persons (2,600 of whom were sentenced by Paris’s Revolutionary Tribunal). In fact, this number should certainly be well over 100,000 once proper account is taken of deaths in civil war conditions in western France in 1793–1794.3

Similarly, Robespierre’s role within the organs of Revolutionary government is still anything but crystal-clear. As Robert R. Palmer noted as long ago as 1941, Robespierre signed very few of the Committee of Public Safety’s decrees—and indeed he was absent from its sessions for lengthy periods, probably for health reasons.4 For how much of the Terror was Robespierre personally responsible? Similarly, although we know who were accounted Robespierre’s allies in the National Convention, we have little insight into these relationships and we are even more ignorant about how Robespierre’s power worked within the city of Paris and the government bureaucracy. A few years ago, John Hardman’s biography of Robespierre sought to portray him as a kind of party boss and to sketch out a Robespierrist “party machine” within city and national governments.5 This promising idea has not been taken up.

Furthermore, Robespierre himself has also contributed to the Great Robespierre Conundrum. We have an excellent ten-volume set of his complete works, notably his writings, but most classically his speeches in the National Assembly and the Jacobin Club.6 It is extremely hard to say exactly what they mean. Robespierre spoke and wrote in a difficult, oracular manner which mingled the intensely personal with the highly abstract, the tactical-pragmatic with the mystico-ideological. Simon Schama has called this an “oratory of the ego,” whereby issues of world-historical significance were filtered characteristically and self-servingly through his own putatively virtuous life and experiences.7

I am the people myself,” Robespierre noted on one characteristic occasion, for example.8 The formulation of this grandiloquent claim offers both a democratic updating of Louis XIV’s apocryphal phrase “l’état, c’est moi” and a firm nod in the direction of the popular sovereignty that Robespierre championed. Robespierre’s followers lapped this kind of thing up, but most political contemporaries found it difficult fully to comprehend what he actually meant, so that his major speeches could provoke widespread bafflement and even exasperation. He never gave the Parisian street radicals marching orders nor did he select targets for popular violence. If people sometimes died because of his words (as they did), he could always take refuge in the studied ambivalence of his pronouncements. What he said and what people interpreted him as saying were two—and usually more than two—different things. Furet’s efforts to distill a terrorist ideology from Robespierre’s words miss the point in this respect: Robespierre could be a canny political operator and use the delphic ambivalence of his words as a tool of power.

Ruth Scurr’s interpretation of Robespierre differs from Furet’s in many respects. Though like Furet she draws essentially on Robespierre’s published works, her book is anything but an exercise in discourse analysis; it presents the most unideological study of Robespierre we have had for some time. But like Furet, she places Robespierre at the heart of her analysis of the Revolution’s pathway to Terror. He was, she avers, the “living embodiment of the Revolution at its most feral.” With the exception of the qualifying “feral,” this was very much Robespierre’s own view. Yet it was a view that he shared with very few indeed of his contemporaries.

Fatal Purity is an exercise in comprehending Robespierre, and seeks to seize the whole man, his defects included. Scurr is certainly well aware of the horrors with which her subject was associated. But she also recognizes the deformation of his character implicit in most anti-Robespierrist accounts. Her aim, she writes, is to provide “a portrait” of this single, extraordinary person rather than a biography in the conventional sense. Rather than condemning him out of hand, she seeks “to be [Robespierre]’s friend and to see things from his point of view.” She wants to peer into the character of the Incorruptible and make psychological sense of him.

  1. 1

    Michel Vovelle, “Pourquoi nous sommes encore robespierristes?,” in Combats pour la Révolution Française (Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 1993), first published in Annales historiques de la Révolution française (1988); Albert Mathiez, “Pourquoi nous sommes robespierristes?,” in Robespierre terroriste (Paris: La Renaissance du livre, 1921).

  2. 2

    Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (Knopf, 1989), p. 447. Furet’s argument is summarized in his Interpreting the French Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 1981).

  3. 3

    Donald Greer, The Incidence of the Terror in the French Revolution: A Statistical Interpretation (Harvard University Press, 1935). One gets the uncomfortable feeling that part of the failure to update the Terror’s death count lies in the fact that the revised figures might be too high for the Robespierrist historians but too low for the anti-Robespierrists.

  4. 4

    R.R. Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution (Princeton University Press, 1941). Palmer’s breakdown showed Robespierre signing only fourteen of some 608 decrees between May 20 and June 18, 1794.

  5. 5

    John Hardman, Robespierre (Longman, 1999). Hardman was in fact drawing heavily on the early-nineteenth-century studies of John Wilson Croker.

  6. 6

    Maximilien Robespierre, Oeuvres complètes, edited by E. Hamel et al., ten volumes (Paris: Société des Études robespierristes, 1910–1967).

  7. 7

    Schama, Citizens, p. 379.

  8. 8

    Robespierre, Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 8, p. 311.

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