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…

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